Advice for Visitors

Visitors to the UK will be understandably nervous right now. There have been riots and looting in many parts of London during the past week, sparked by the shooting of a suspected criminal by police in Tottenham, North London, last Thursday evening. Over the next few nights, trouble didn't so much spread through London as leap around it. More than a dozen areas, including Brixton, Croydon (my home town), Clapham, Hackney, Ealing, and Enfield were affected, most far from the original flashpoint. Many had never experienced events of this nature before. An increased police presence seemed to have brought order to the capital by Tuesday night. But, like a particularly virulent disease, rioting then broke out in other UK cities, as looters targeted Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, and others.

TV pictures of burning streets may make London look like a war zone, but there's no need for visitors to worry unduly. The advice from the London Metropolitan Police has been for the population to continue about its daily business, albeit with a greater degree of caution than before. People should avoid making unnecessary trips, avoid traveling to affected areas, particularly after dark when most of the lawless activity has taken place, and, should they find themselves in an area where rioting is occurring, leave straight away.

Aside from some incidents on Oxford Street, most of the rioting has taken place in deprived areas away from the tourist centre of town. The transport system has continued to operate, save for occasional closures and delays to bus, tube and train routes though those areas most affected. London certainly hasn't ground to a halt. Check the TFL website ( for the latest travel information.

You shouldn't expect to find a city awash with law-breakers. Despite the extreme damage caused, it's important to remember that this has been the actions of a minority. The vast majority of Londoners are sickened by what has taken place, hence the formation of numerous Â?broom armies' who have gone out to reclaim, and sweep, the streets in the aftermath of the problems.

Of course, we can't offer complete reassurance. This whole episode has been so unusual, so unprecedented that it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen or how long the rioting will last (at the time of writing, on the evening of Wednesday 10th, the worst seems to be over with little criminal activity reported in any of the cities affected so far). The best advice is to listen to the advice. London's Metropolitan Police, through news services such as the BBC (, are providing continual information about the situation and what they expect of the population. Foreign nationals should also consult their own embassies and government agencies for the latest advice. An interactive map of the riots, showing every recorded incident throughout the UK can be found at

A New Type of Riot

Providing advice on how to avoid the rioting is one thing, explaining exactly what has taken place, and why, is a much harder task. The capital has known riots in the past, but never like this. Last Thursday a man was shot dead by police. His grieving relatives wanted answers. A crowd began to grow. There was a flashpoint, followed soon after by fighting on the street, violent anti-police protests and looting.

So far, though tragic, the events seemed fairly familiar, conforming to a pattern established by previous riots. What happened next, however, was something entirely new. From protesting a man's death in the immediate vicinity of the incident, things quickly went viral. Copycat riots sprang up all over the capital and beyond in the days that followed, with rioters organizing themselves through social networking media including Facebook, Twitter and, above all, the currently untraceable Blackberry Messenger.

It was like a giant game of Whac-a-Mole. Whenever police managed to quell one group, another would pop up somewhere else. Except these groups seemed to be copying only one aspect of the protests -- the looting. Where riots in decades past seemed like genuine expressions of anger over deprivation and social exclusion, this was perhaps the first consumerist riot, characterized by groups of young people (mainly male), breaking into shops and stealing things (and where they couldn't find anything to steal, setting fires).

Of course, there must be some underlying causes to the devastation. Events of this magnitude don't just happen without reason. There's clearly something wrong with a society where the youths feel so little part of it that they're willing to attack their own communities, and feel no moral quandaries about wrecking homes, stealing property and putting people's lives in danger. But, aside from the original rioters in Tottenham, these people have espoused no political cause or sought to redress specific grievances. This has not been a protest about government cuts, it's been about acquisition. You get the sense the rioters are doing it, not because they're angry, but because it looks like fun, giving them the chance to take part in a real life Grand Theft Auto style video game, ransacking the city safe in the knowledge that -- for the first few nights at least when the police were completely overwhelmed -- there would be no consequences.

Commentators have put forward various theories for the rioters' motives: that they feel they have no stake in society and thus nothing to lose; that they feel so far behind in the economic race there's no point in competing; or that policing and court sentences are now so lenient they have nothing to fear. Whatever the reasons, perhaps the most startling aspect of the whole experience has been the extreme youth of the rioters. In the main this has been the work of teenagers -- and sometimes even younger children. You get the feeling that perhaps, had this been term time, rather than the school holidays, and had the weather been rainy, rather than warm and fine, none of this would have happened.

Joe Fullman is a freelance travel writer based in London (Croydon). He is the author of Frommer's London Day by Day, Frommer's London Free and Dirt Cheap, and the co-author of Frommer's London 2012.