Chronicle of A Riot Foretold

After the deaths of two young men in a road traffic incident, a riot broke out in Ely, Cardiff, highlighting the deep-seated problems in the community. This article, by Geoff Ryan, goes on to detail the poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity that have plagued Ely for decades. It also discusses the role of the police in the community, and the mistrust that many residents feel towards them. Geoff concludes by warning that without significant investment in Ely, future riots are not out of the question.

 

I Predict A Riot sang the Kaiser Chiefs. But they are not the only voices writes Geoff Ryan. 2 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of riots in the Cardiff area of Ely, Jason Mohammad, BBC sports journalist made a TV programme for S4C in which he warned of the lack of progress in meeting the needs of the people of Ely[i]. Mohammad grew up in Ely and knows all too well the poverty, unemployment, health and education problems which make Ely one of the most deprived areas in Cymru/Wales.

Ely has more children eligible for free school meals – 59.1% – than any other community in Cymru. Around 10% of those of working age and seeking employment are unemployed, twice the Cardiff average. The Labour Council closed down the Archer Road community centre following the pandemic while the local Labour councillors have voted for cuts and closures that have seen the area asset stripped.

Ely also suffers from prejudice. It is not unusual for people, particularly women, when applying for jobs to change their addresses to Wenvoe or Caerau, suburbs that don’t have the same reputations for laziness and untrustworthiness.

Speaking to the Guardian about his TV programme Mohammad said:

‘I feel angry that the Westminster government and the Senedd government haven’t address the needs of these people. They’ve cried out for help for years. Sometimes I think no-one has listened’.[ii]

One resident shown on the programme warned that ‘we could be one night away from that [riot] happening’. Very prescient.

Two years after Mohammad’s S4C programme and his Guardian article still no-one was listening. Which is why, on the evening of Monday May 22, a large crowd of mainly young people confronted the police following the deaths of 15-year-old Harvey Evans and Kyrees Sullivan, aged 16.

The exact details of what led to the deaths of the two young men are still unclear. What is known is that Harvey and Kyrees died as a result of a road traffic incident while riding an electric bike. Posts began to appear on social media saying the boys were being followed by a police van at the time of the crash and this is what mobilised the young people to protest the deaths.  

South Wales Police initially denied following the boys but later were forced to admit they had in fact been doing so after CCTV videos emerged showing a police vehicle in pursuit of the electric bike. Whether the police deliberately lied or had failed to get sufficient information is not the issue. Certainly, people in Ely believed they lied, unlike the former Labour Minister Alun Michael, the local Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) who supported the police version of events on both Tuesday and Wednesday, even though CCTV showing the bike being followed by a police van had emerged by Tuesday evening.

Michael was failing to carry out his role as PCC which is to hold the police to account, not to act as a cheerleader for them as Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru Member of Senedd for South Wales Central pointed out. Speaking in the Senedd she claimed there had been absolutely no communication with herself, despite being one of the 5 MSs representing the area and suggested there had been a breakdown in community police relations.

Kevin Brennan, Labour MP for Cardiff West was also critical of Michael suggesting the PCC should not be speaking on behalf of the police. But given Michael’s past as a Tony Blair loyalist, whether as Secretary of State for Wales, Minister of State for Home Affairs and other posts before becoming the first leader of the Senedd none of this is surprising.

Sadly, the current First Minister Mark Drakeford, whose Senedd seat covers Ely, failed to speak out challenging Alun Michael’s claims, suggesting that Michael was ‘entitled’ to rely on information supplied to him by South Wales Police. Drakeford did chair a meeting in Ely on Friday involving Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt, local politicians and community groups. Earlier in the week Hutt had told the Senedd she was being briefed by Alun Michael and called on people to support the police, so it is far from clear she was the most useful person to engage with representatives of a community in which trust in the police, particularly among the young, is at a very low level.

Since then, Drakeford has issued a statement blaming 13 years of Tory austerity for the events of Monday night. This is certainly true as far as it goes – and something completely absent from Rishi Sunak’s condemnation of those who protested against the conditions austerity has imposed upon them, including police harassment – but fails to challenge the austerity measures implements by Labour councillors.

Although there were claims that many of those involved in Monday night’s riot were not from the area – claims that some had come from Bristol – this is not borne out by the 9 arrests made. All those arrested are from Cardiff, 6 of them from Ely. 8 of the 9 are aged between 15 and 18, all are male apart from one 15-year-old young woman.

The deaths of Harvey and Kyrees happened in the same month as 15-year-old Keely Morgan was killed by a speeding car in west Cardiff. They also happened a few months after a car crash that killed 3 local young people was not found for 2 days by South Wales Police. Relatives of the victims felt their pleas to search for them was ignored. Nor was the reputation of the police enhanced by a misconduct hearing the day after the Ely riots of Joseph Cook, a former police officer, who was accused of an unprovoked attack on a man he saw leaving a Cardiff night club with his (Cook’s) former partner. Cook escaped being sacked by the usual police method of avoiding punishments – resignation.

Following the events of Monday, the Welsh/Cymraeg ecosocialist organisation Undod republished an article calling for the abolition of the police.[iii] This received a response from former Plaid Cymru MS and now leader of Propel, a largely vanity project for McEvoy. On Twitter he wrote ‘ClownsI Abolish the police? Who do they call when their @undod middle class residencies are burgled? In Cardiff obviously @SWPCardiff: properly resource the police and help them by providing social resources like youth clubs etc’ (SWP in this case is South Wales Police, not Socialist Workers Party). This completely misses the point of the Undod article.

South Wales Police have now referred themselves to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), though since this is mandatory, they had no choice. Past experience suggests that the IOPC is rarely ‘independent’ from the police, so a cover-up is all too likely. Tensions remain high though a vigil involving over 1500 people on Friday evening passed off without incident. Large numbers of balloons were released while music played and food was available and people from Ely have been cleaning up the area after the damage of Monday night.

But without any significant measures to massively improve the lives of the people of Ely – which a Starmer government is very unlikely to deliver – then future riots cannot be ruled out.


Footnotes

[i] Trelai, Y Terfsyg a Fi (Ely, the Riots and Me)

[ii] https://amp.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/24/jason-mohammad-angry-at-lack-of-help-for-cardiff-estate-30-years-on-from-riots

[iii] https://undod.cymru/en/2021/01/18/diddymu-a-disodli-heddlu-de-cymru-a-phob-heddlu-arall/


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Geoff Ryan is a member of Undod, YesCymru, Labour For An Independent Wales, and Carmarthen East & Dynefwr Labour Party.


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