The fear-and-terror circus comes to Forest Gate
The media are still looking for answers on Lansdown Road, but shouldn’t they be directing their enquiries elsewhere?
It’s a pretty miserable hour spent trawling up and down a suburban street, trying to glean clues from a set of white plastic doors. Nobody’s around, and when they are, they’re in no mood to chat. Some politely mutter that they don’t speak English; ‘I don’t know anything’ plead a few. A helicopter drones overhead. A schoolboy refuses to stop; a man carries on cleaning his car despite persistently fainter ‘excuse mes’; there’s a man sitting in a white van studying his road atlas.
The street is empty: little car flags flutter, a damp red towel documents what ‘England expects’ out of a neighbour’s window; it’s hot and humid, and occasionally little parties of mothers and children trot down the street, not wanting to be bothered as they navigate the cracked pavements. No one wants to talk about the abortive anti-terrorist raid at 46 Lansdown Road, where 250 police officers turned up to arrest two brothers on suspicion of terrorist activity, shot one of them, and found nothing – despite gutting the house and drilling holes in the shower.
The solitary road sweeper is one of few who’s sharing, but all he can reveal is that he hasn’t been allowed down this way in two weeks. The police had it barricaded. The bins have not been emptied and there’s rubbish up and down the street. It’s a long day’s work trying to sort out the mess the Met have made here. The blockade and the force of the police operation seem to have startled and upset many, and now the media glare is settling on the residents like an oppressive spell of weather. All the questions, a man untangling his World Cup flags informs me, have been asked ‘over and over again’.
There are only two residents who are happy to talk. The first, who lives directly opposite the house of Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abdul Koyair, described the raid. ‘It was 4am, I heard windows being smashed, and I presumed it was my car so I looked out the window, and there were policemen all dressed in black with gas masks armed with machine guns. My young daughter saw the bullet wound and the blood. She has nightmares. We weren’t informed about anything.… We still haven’t been contacted to see if we’re okay.’ He interprets racial undertones to what was going on. When the police blocked the street, every resident had to be escorted to their house by a police officer, and whereas he was ID’d, his wife was not. His wife is white. ‘I’m Indian, not Muslim. It’s all about colour at the end of the day.’
The second resident willing to speak, a Muslim, talks about a new climate of fear. He strongly believes that the raid could have been mounted on anyone in his community, anyone could be next, ‘it could be me’. He doesn’t blame the policemen themselves – ‘they are trying to protect people, everyone has a job to do’ – but he questions the necessity of having 250 officers for the task. ‘It’s the people above them who I worry about. It wasn’t a factory, it wasn’t a warehouse: it was a house at 4am…. Shooting innocents makes them the terrorists.’
There is an atmosphere of distrust now, he says. ‘Where did [the police] get their info? From someone on this road?’ When asked about the media coverage he says that he thinks the mainstream media ‘have something against Muslims’. A Sunday newspaper, he recalls, suggested ‘one of the boys shot the other – that is ridiculous’.
At 2pm sleek cars and beat-up vans start arriving on the street. A reporter from the Daily Mirror explains that they’ve all been at the press conference. Any good? ‘It was brilliant’, plenty of mileage for all the leaders, he says. By 3pm, BBC, CNN, ITN, LNN, GMTV and the Spanish channel TV3 have all taken it in turns to rest an elbow on the black gate, gaze and point meaningfully at the off-yellow house, zoom in on the metal cover where a window ought to be, and walk intimately towards the camera making prescription hand gestures and explaining who was shot and why the police commissioner is now in so much trouble. I ask the Beeb’s producer whether the story still has legs. ‘Oh’, he nods from under his baseball cap, ‘it’ll run and run’.
A few new characters emerge to bask in the media spotlight. An Indian boy, who pops out to watch the cameras, explains to each of us that he has only been in the country for two days. And no he’s not scared of the ‘terrorist threat’. The man who lives opposite number 46 is snapped up by GMTV for a vox pop. CNN do a lot of fiddling about in their van, and their huge satellite dish starts revolving. The Mirror man has driven off to chase another lead. The man who has been studying his road atlas suspiciously in his white van for three hours turns out to be the Mirror’s photographer and vacates the street with him.
And out of nowhere a retired police constable arrives for Channel 5. Like something straight out of a Martin Amis novel, he’s smoking and texting, dressed in a creased linen suit and talking nonchalantly yet with a powerful enthusiasm for his own phrasing, boasting his line. Out of thin air he has conjured up the first resident of Lansdown Road to be actively advertising himself for interview.
The line with this interview, explains Channel 5’s ex-officer, who was authorised to carry a gun for 20 years, is that we cannot ‘buy into the idea that if the police receive intelligence they don’t see that the need to corroborate and check can not be slaughtered on the altar of immediacy. You can’t rip up the rule book because we’re under testing times…’ Actually, the interviewee cuts him off. He’s not interested in the police, he says; this is about Saudi Arabia, this is about George Bush, it is about being a Muslim: ‘Tony Blair did not know how to eat with the blind man. We are the blind man. He has eyes. We have no reason to bomb Britain. It’s my country…but we will be blown even more. Oh we will. If you take petrol and put it in the fire, results will be extreme.’
I meet some Muslim teenagers and ask them what they think of the whole business. At first they look to the positive: ‘They’re going to sue the fuckers, innit.’ Do you know the brothers? ‘Yeah’, replies one ‘[Abdul Koyair]’s really friendly.’ Why do you think the police suspected them? ‘Because he’s got a beard’, they snigger. Have you been stopped and searched? ‘Yeah, course’, says the oldest. ‘A couple of times, just walking. But I don’t have a beard.’
Suddenly Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abdul Koyair arrive in a black car to look through the windows of their home. They greet a neighbour before climbing back into the car and being driven off quickly, cameras thrust towards their faces. ‘There you are’, cries the man in the front seat to the man from LLN. ‘Got you a scoop there, didn’t I?’
Ultimately, the interviews conducted on Lansdown Road have little to do with Lansdown Road itself. It’s a normal street, where, ultimately, nothing happened. It was an abortive operation, more a repeat Iraqi-kebab-shop-not-laced-with-ricin raid than preventative of another 7/7. The residents know no more about the mess on the street than anyone else with access to 24-hour news. They seem to know simply that their neighbours seemed like a ‘normal’ family. And they know that at 4am one Friday morning the police arrived ‘like a swarm of bees’, and that for as long as they stayed their rubbish was not collected and now it is beginning to stink.
The utter futility of asking the inhabitants of Lansdown Road for answers when the story no longer lies in ‘terror at Forest Gate’ but in ‘trigger-happy at police headquarters’ has not yet struck home with the major news networks. ‘Yes I am worried, yes I am scared. I don’t know what to think’, an Indian lady informs me, as she watches the newscasters strut up and down across the street. None of the residents knows any more than any other resident of any other suburban street anywhere in the UK, yet for the moment the media circus has claimed Lansdown Road for its marquee, two bearded men for its freak show, and the show’s not quite over yet.
Emily Hill is working as an intern at spiked.
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