Thick black choking smoke blew down Market Street, one of the main shopping thoroughfares in Manchester last night, as the city caught the contagion of rioting that is sweeping through Britain. The Miss Selfridge shop had been set alight, only one of around 100 shops smashed and burned as upwards of 2,000 rioters rampaged through the city centre streets.
Thugs wearing ski masks and hoods, armed with sticks and metal poles moved in six or seven groups, each several hundred strong. They ran from hundreds of riot police in full gear, occasionally stopping to confront them, but mainly dodging down side-streets and alleyways, wreaking havoc as they went. Windows were smashed at Marks & Spencer, Diesel clothing shop and a Bang & Olufsen store. Shop mannequins, which had been torn from the shattered windows, lay on the streets like bodies.
At one point 1,000 rioters confronted the police in the central Piccadilly Gardens, throwing stones, bricks and rocks they appeared to have brought with them. The rioters laughed and cheered as they went about their destruction. Police, on horses and in white tactical aid unit vans with protective black grids over the windscreen, pushed the rioters down Market Street but the thugs broke into smaller groups and slipped away to reform elsewhere.
There was evidence everywhere that the riot had been organised and was being directed. Earlier in the day police had arrested a man in Wigan who had been inciting violence on Facebook. Later seven others were arrested by Cheshire Police on similar charges.This isn't a new phenomenon in the UK. Bill Buford's masterful book about the English Soccer Hooligan culture Among the Thugs described similar organization among the hard old men leading thoughtless young thugs in battles with supporters of other teams and the police. The ones smashing windows may just be alienated youths with no stake in the UK's severely stratified society or the communities they are burning down, but the organizers display an unambiguous experience and skill in the ancient profession of riot for profit.
But eyewitnesses on the street reported group leaders among the rioters issuing orders. Boys on fast BMX bikes were acting as spotters to report to the leaders where the police were moving. They appeared to be carrying messages between different groups.
One Arndale worker, Rayhan Rezi, 27, told a reporter from the Manchester Evening News: "A small minority would go in one direction to divert police officers and the remaining ones were smashing windows. It was a small minority who were hooded up wearing hats and sunglasses and doing the damage; most were just watching and had come for the loot." Large numbers of curious bystanders remained in the city all evening. Some just gawped; others teetered on the brink of joining in. "Everyone into Oldham Street," one riot leader shouted at one point – and the mob turned and acted on the instruction.
As Mick Jagger said, It's just a shot away, and its cold-eyed old men in the back of the crowds firing the starter pistols.