2011 riots: How one night changed my life

By Claire Bates
BBC News Magazine

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In August 2011, thousands of people rioted in London and other cities and towns in England. For some of those involved, their lives changed dramatically.

A man was smashing a jewellery shop window with a fire extinguisher. Youths ran past him carrying hand tools as the local Wimpy fast food restaurant was trashed and shops including Curry's, Carphone Warehouse and Blacks were looted.

"I saw loads of girls coming out of Debenhams with big suitcases and smiles on their faces. I saw people running around with hand tools. I saw streams of people going in and out of shops, back and forth. They had armfuls of stuff and they were dropping things because they couldn't carry it all."

Scott Bates stood watching the rioting in London's Clapham Junction from a street corner. He lived nearby and had come out because he was bored.

media captionFive years ago: Riots on the streets of England

"A guy had told me something was happening at [Clapham] Junction but for 10 minutes everything seemed normal. Then all of a sudden I saw about 150 guys rushing down Lavender Hill, maybe 200 boys coming up from the Winstanley estate and another crowd going along the main street.

"They were smashing shop windows and shouting: 'No flags, no flags', which means people from different gangs weren't going to hurt each other."

Two days earlier a protest against the police shooting of Mark Duggan had ended with rioting in Tottenham, north London. By Monday night there was widespread looting, arson and violence across the capital. It spread to six other towns and cities the following day, before order was finally restored.

  1. Scott's position about 21:00
  2. Crowds advance from Falcon Road in the north
  3. Crowds advance west from Lavender Hill
  4. Scott's position about 22:00
  5. Police retreat to corner of Battersea Rise and Northcote Road
  6. Party Superstore is set alight

"I watched it all happening for about 40 minutes. Some rioters had dragged people off their motorbikes, others were smashing cars."

Bates, then 18, walked down to the corner where Debenhams stood, where he saw girls wheeling out luggage through the broken windows.

"The police turned up and formed a line, but they were pushed back all the way up the street to Nando's."

image captionScott Bates by Debenhams in Clapham Junction, five years on from the riots

Find out more

  • Scott Bates features in BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra's two-part special, presented by Secunder Kermani, on The Riots, Five Years On. Episode one Then (2011) and episode two Now (2016)

About an hour later Scott realised the local fancy dress shop, Party Superstore, was on fire. It was the only building in the area to be set ablaze.

"I didn't understand what the point of setting it alight was. I knew people were angry but that point had been made. And why the party shop? Why would anyone have hate against them?"

image copyrightAlamy
image caption8 August 2011: A rioter in Clapham Junction smashes a shop window with a fire extinguisher

Duncan Mundell watched his business burn to the ground with the same sense of disbelief. He had received a call earlier that evening saying the windows of his party shop had been smashed and had rung his insurance broker to organise boarding them up.

"Half an hour later a friend rang me in tears, saying: 'Duncan your shop is on fire.' I called back the broker and told him to forget about the boards."

image copyrightAlamy
image copyrightGetty Images

Mundell and his wife went down to the store to help the fire brigade locate where the gas canisters were in the building. It was still alight.

"I remember my wife saying to me, 'Our lives are going to change completely.'"

The Party Superstore was gutted. No-one was hurt.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionPolice in Clapham retreated from the main shopping street during the evening

Bates's life would also change overnight - in his case because of an impulsive decision.

"I was walking along and my adrenaline was just going," he says.

"There was stuff lying on the street and I picked up a couple of watches, a jumper and some tracksuit bottoms. I wasn't thinking then if it was right or wrong. In all honesty I thought the watches looked expensive and that I could sell them and get a pot of money. It would give me a starting step which I really needed."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHooded youths walk past the looted Debenhams store in Clapham Junction

He headed home as he was worried that the gangs might turn on each other.

"When I got back I was sick straight away."

The riots had broken out at a low point in the teenager's life. Bates describes learning to take care of himself from a young age.

media captionHas anything changed in Tottenham five years on from Mark Duggan's death?

"Looking after my parents put a lot of strain on me, I remember burning myself trying to iron my school uniform when I was 12. I still have the scar."

His elder sister left at 15, leaving Scott aged 11 and his 10-year-old brother at home.

"[My parents] would send me out underage to try and buy them cigarettes. I knew it wasn't how it was supposed to be and I had a lot of anger. I found it hard to concentrate at school. I would just sit in my own little world."

Bates had been in trouble with the police twice before. When he was 14 he broke a window trying to prove himself to his older friends. A year later he robbed someone on his estate of their mobile phone.

image captionScott grew up in Wandsworth, south London

"I felt guilty at the time but I was young and thought this way I'd have a phone like everyone else. I had no-one and no hope."

That same year one of his teachers helped him move out to a hostel, but he struggled as it didn't feel like a home.

"There was a metal detector and they wouldn't let you in if you were a minute after 10pm," he says.

He passed some GCSEs but decided to go straight to work.

"It was a case of going to school or putting food on my table. I did garden maintenance and painting around my estate. I got new business through word of mouth as I did a good job."

Bates became involved with his local church youth group and stayed out of trouble with the police. He also moved to a more relaxed hostel. However, in the summer of 2011 he felt depressed.

"I was living on around £20 a week, which went on food and travel. I had just split up with my girlfriend and I had no place of my own."

Then the riots happened.

"When I took those things I knew I had done something bad and I did feel guilty. However, I thought to myself that plenty of other people there had done far worse."

The repercussions were swift. The next afternoon police raided the hostel Bates was living in and made multiple arrests. He was in the bath when the door was broken in.

"They let me put on some clothes and searched my room. They found the items I took in the wardrobe and asked me if I had taken them and I admitted it."

He was taken to a police station and held in a cell until about 10pm. He was interviewed and confessed to picking up the items. At 1am he was taken to court where he was given a solicitor.

"As soon as I went upstairs the judge just said: 'Remand.' She was saying it to everyone, she didn't want to hear the case."

image copyrightAFP
image captionHopeful and angry messages left on protective hoardings after the riots

Bates was taken straight to Feltham Prison where he spent six weeks in his cell for more than 23 hours a day.

"There was a single bed and a toilet at the end. I had a TV but the aerial was kind of gone so you'd have to bang it. There was nothing to do all day. You would get your breakfast with your dinner, but I would eat them both at once as I was still hungry.

"I had never been to prison before and I was worried as I'd heard bad stories. In our free half-hour we could have a shower, make a quick phone call and get some clean clothes. They put out three big bins, of green T-shirts, grey tracksuit bottoms and grey socks each day. There was always a rush to get some before they all went."

The half hour of "socialisation" was increased to an hour after six weeks. He was called to the Inner London Magistrates Court after three months on remand. His solicitor had told him he expected him to be released.

Instead he was sentenced to 12 months. With only three months served that meant returning to prison. He spent another three months inside.

The average custodial sentence given by magistrates increased from 2.5 months in 2010 to 6.6 months for rioters in 2011, according to government statistics. Some judges said they imposed harsher sentences to act as a deterrent to others. The riots had led to five deaths and inflicted £200m worth of damage.

"I remember the judge was disgusted with me because it was to do with the riots. He saw us as all the same. I know I had done something wrong but I was devastated as I was expecting to go home.

"I met one guy in there who got three months for taking a bottle of water. He was seriously depressed."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIt took two years to refurbish the Party Superstore

Back in Clapham Junction, Duncan Mundell faced an uphill struggle to save his business.

"I had to remortgage our house and cash in my pension," he says.

"The insurance covered the contents that we had lost and the shop as a shell. However, it didn't cover electrical wiring and flooring. Also we had built up the costume hire department over the years and it was too difficult to replace. I had losses of well over £200,000."

Mundell was most concerned that the losses would hit the charity he had founded in Burma, Street Kids Rescue.

"We were helping thousands of disadvantaged kids in Burma and used some of the profits from the business to help fund it."

However, he says he never felt anger about the riots and instead he was saddened by the whole situation.

"I know it wasn't personal to me. There were social problems. It's one of those things - you just live with it."

image copyrightAndy Thornley
image captionDuncan Mundell on the day his shop reopened in 2013

With the shop facing an uncertain future, Mundell was spurred into action. Two days after the riots he walked in to Debenhams and asked if he could borrow some retail space.

"The retail manager called me back that day and said his daughter had loved our party shop and that they would make it happen.

"Six weeks later we moved in. We had 2,000 sq ft, which was about half of our usual space. The publicity from the riots also led to an influx of help for the charity. We received £3,000 in immediate donations but we also got a number of long-term fundraisers."

While Mundell benefited from a groundswell of support following the riots, Bates was concerned about a backlash.

"There were people in prison who hated the rioters because they knew people whose shops had been targeted. I was wondering 'Am I one of those people in society who are going to get shunned?'"

In his final three months in prison Bates had taken courses in bricklaying and painting and decorating. But he struggled to find work after he was released.

"I had one interview at a removals company that was going really well. The manager was telling me the best bits of the job and the last question was 'do you have a criminal record?' I said I did and he said 'Sorry mate; we can't go any further.'"

image copyrightYFC
image captionScott receives a citizenship award in 2012 from the Mayor of Wandsworth

Bates set up a small DIY business with help from his local church and youth outreach programme YFC London.

"We got a grant to buy tools and did a training session with some local lads. I had six or seven guys working with me, aged 14 to 20. We did all sorts, from redecorating a woman's home to cooking for a group of older people.

"Some of our boys went to college or university. One guy got an apprenticeship at a big construction project and he still works there now."

However, Bates had to let them go for six months after the work dried up in 2013.

"People just weren't hiring for a while and there was barely enough work for just me. One of my boys ended up getting in trouble. He's in prison for life now."

That was the same year that the Party Superstore shop reopened in Clapham Junction. It was a third larger after Mundell took over the lease on the shop next door. He has since opened a further store in Croydon and says his charity, now called Heal Kids Foundation, is going from strength to strength.

"My motto in life has always been to 'make it happen'", he says.

image copyrightDuncan Mundell
image captionDuncan Mundell during a charity fundraiser at his party shop

Scott Bates now has three young people working with him and does a couple of DIY jobs a week.

"They all want to get construction apprenticeships. I keep them motivated and they do listen to me as they know I'm in the same situation as them. I'm trying to look for a better way than just selling drugs."

However, as this is real life, there isn't a clear-cut 'Hollywood ending.' Bates has been sleeping on friends' sofas for a few years after he was told he didn't have the right to stay in his last hostel.

"I don't know where I will be staying day-to-day. I have a son who is 14 months old who I see on weekends during the day but I can't if I have work. If I had a home I could pick him up after work and have him for the night."

Bates keeps on striving. He is looking into whether the youth charity YMCA can assist him with housing and is trying to secure funding for a van for the Handy Boys, with the help of YFC.

He plans to start training with the Street Pastors in September.

"They go out and help the homeless on the street. I see it as another opportunity. I'm always trying to work out the best way to move forward."

  • Scott Bates features in BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra's two-part special, presented by Secunder Kermani, on The Riots, Five Years On. Episode one Then (2011) and episode two Now (2016)

Follow Claire Bates on Twitter @batesybates

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Photographs of Scott Bates by Phil Coomes