The term “recreational rioting” had been thrown around a lot, both before Belfast and since I arrived. As I understood, it was a form of intense anti-social behaviour where groups of young men from both sides of the community gathered to throw rocks, petrol-bombs, and, at times, shoot guns at one another, often resulting in serious injury or death. The police had little to no control when these riots occurred except, as I learned in the first few days of arriving in Belfast, to close the gates and hope for the best. But as mid-June approached, I began to think this recreational rioting was a myth. There had been nothing on the news or whispers on the bus or the train about any rioting, recreational or otherwise. While the lack of rioting was a sign that tensions were low and that the peace process was working, I was a little disappointed that I did not get to experience a part of the Belfast culture, albeit dangerous, that had been so heavily emphasized.
On June 20th, recreational rioting became a very real aspect of my time in Belfast. As I work late on Mondays at the youth club in Lisburn, I arrived back in city centre at 8:30 p.m. only to have to wait another hour to catch the bus back to Farset. It was a pretty nice day and still light out, as the sun doesn’t set until around 11:00 p.m. here, so I decided to walk back. When I was almost back to Farset and approaching one of the gates, I saw that there were more people on the streets than usual. I did not think anything of it as it was one of the nicer nights that we had had thus far.
All of a sudden, I saw a swarm of boys cross the Springfield Road across oncoming traffic and start throwing rocks at the boys on the other side of the opened gate. The boys were young, between the ages of 8 and 14, and were smiling as they hurled rocks at each other. Suddenly, one of the boys yelled, “Cops!”. The boys on both sides of the gate stopped throwing and took off sprinting in all directions as a police car came speeding down. I even caught the sight of one boy scaling a 10-foot fence and jumping down on the other side. I could not help but laugh to myself. So this was what they term “recreational rioting”. It was simply a group of young boys having fun. In high school, my friends and I used to steal cones off the side of the road, block off streets, and hide and watch as the cars drove up to the street we had blocked off and had to turn around. This recreational rioting is not much unlike the “antisocial behavior” my friends and I engaged in. Recreational rioting is the kids’ means of having fun when there isn’t much else to do. Although there is underlying sectarian tension between the two groups rioting, there is also an aspect of simple juvenile behavior and fun.
A few hours later, the BBC came out with news of more recreational rioting in East Belfast. At around midnight, between 100 and 200 masked men stormed a Catholic enclave in East Belfast and started raiding houses, throwing petrol-bombs, and shooting guns. We watched footage as these men climbed on top of the police cars and started beating them with sledge hammers. They were relentless in their hours of rioting. The news called this rioting not too dangerous for Belfast and even coined it “recreational”. As I watched the footage and compared it to the riot I had witnessed only a few hours later, I couldn’t help but think that the news people were wrong. These were masked men throwing large bombs and carrying dangerous weapons, not children laughing with each other as they threw small rocks. This rioting was far from recreational.
BBC coverage on the rioting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-13851316