11 Aug 2011

Police clash with vigilantes in Eltham

Chief Correspondent

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson reports from Eltham, one of the only areas to see continued trouble five nights after riots began. But there was confusion over who was fighting who.

It was, as the phrase goes, a major police presence on the streets. All we had heard were the usual Twitter messages about vigilantes coming out in Eltham in south east London “to protect their community“.

This is a phrase you hear rather a lot of in some parts of England just now.

So it was that in the central crossroads of Eltham they certainly had come out in force. Crowds of young men and (mostly male) teenagers and crowds of police. Scores of police transit vans. Many from Wales, judging by the badges.

In two pockets close to the central crossroads, two groups of men – not teenagers this time. White men, roughly from their twenties into their forties. You quickly heard them randomly abusing the several hundred police gathered here, along with chants of “E… E… EDL” (English Defence League).

You quickly heard them randomly abusing the several hundred police gathered here, along with chants of “E…E…EDL”.

The local pubs had been asked to close for the evening, and all the shops and food places bar a rather fine Chinese had agreed to do so.

So the stage was set, it seems, for a rather bizarre confrontation: these chanting men had come, we were told, to protect their streets. The police had come to protect their streets. And here were the two groups come to protect the streets by confronting each other.

Only a matter of time

Thus it was only a matter of time.

As it happens we were in precisely the “right” place for the first of a number of cans and bottle to come hurling in from the EDL chanters to the riot police.

That was the signal for them to act, steadily and gradually charging out from the central crossroads to retake an area several hundred yards down the roads reaching out from it. Gradually the crowd of perhaps a hundred or so men legged it at every police push.

The officers had dogs but did not use them. We saw one arrest, but basically the “vigilantes” never allowed the police to get near enough and the police themselves appeared pretty happy with things being that way.

In an hour or so it was all over and these men had melted away into the night.

Police clash with vigilantes in Eltham (Reuters)

So who were they? Were they an organised EDL outfit? Well, hard to know since whenever we were close to them they threw bottles and other objects at us and the police – or simply ran away as fast as they could.

Local people standing watching all this divided into two distinct groups. The first insisted these were local Eltham men come out to “defend our community” from would-be rioters, and on the whole these people seemed pretty angry at the vast police presence which seemed to have been mounted to prevent them doing the police’s job.

The other camp insisted these were not locals at all but outsiders – EDL – coming into the area to stir up racial tension and mix it with the police or anybody else.

“Lewisham,” they told us darkly. You quickly sense on the streets here there is little love lost between Lewisham and Eltham, for reasons I could not entirely fathom.

Channel 4 News FactCheck counts the costs of the riots

EDL, vigilantes, locals

Tony Begsley described himself as an EDL member from nearby Dartford and said these were not EDL people but people using the EDL name to stir up trouble.

“I’ve come up to video them because they’re using the EDL name and they are nothing to do with EDL – just using the name to jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

“They’re all locals but they just don’t want all these police down here. They want to manage their own streets.”

That, like much else in terms of who these people are and why they were here, and how they were protecting their community by attacking policemen who had come here to do the same thing, will be hotly contested in this areas.

Adrian, a local resident, said: “There’s just no reason for this. These are grown men. They’re just trying to get a reputation for themselves, for their gang or whatever. There’s just no need for it. They’re just putting themselves up as idiots.”

“They should send them out to Afghanistan,” said another.”That’s where the Englishmen are. They’re just coming into this area to cause trouble.”

Whatever they are about, it presents a new potential challenge for outside police forces – in this case from another country (Wales) in many cases – who do not know the area but who do now know that potentially, there is more to this disorder than simply bunches of kids looting because they think they can get away with it.