Leaving Salford for Manchester city centre at around 7:30pm, the atmosphere in the city centre was electric. Some windows had already been smashed and Miss Selfridge set on fire. Various groups of people were marching through the streets, fairly randomly smashing windows as they went - sometimes in order to loot, sometimes just to smash things. Most people seemed good natured, and we (one of us a woman on her own for quite some time) had no fear for our own safety. Most people involved seemed happy to chat. People were passing round looted boxes of chocolate, or swapping clothes, bantering with one another. There must have been around a thousand people on the streets – not all directly involved, but at least willing to spectate or to be part of the crowd.
Most other passers-by seemed fairly relaxed with what was going on around them, though many people who felt afraid would probably have left town by now. The general sense from spectators, was that this was crazy, and a bit of a laugh. It seemed something like a festival – where the normal conventions of behaviour had been shed for the evening and people were doing things they wouldn't usually do.
There was a distinction between those actually smashing (mainly blokes), those looting (some women also) and those just there for the craic. Rioters and spectators were quite a mixed bunch. The majority were young, but certainly not exclusively so, and a mix of white and black.
There were also many of Manchester's 'day-to-day criminals' there - so the little shits who mug you, the bigger gangs, etc, were all out in force, doing the things they usually do, but with more opportunity to get away with it. As night fell the atmosphere got darker also – maybe because of all the looted booze that had been drunk. We had a few encounters with racists. We shouted over at 2 blokes who seemed to be about to fight each other, that they shouldn't forget who the real enemy was, to which came the response “yeah, foreigners!” from a group of white lads who happened to be passing. Later, we helped a young black lad who'd been bottled by two white lads who'd called him a black twat.
Unlike in many other cities, there seemed very little anger directed at the police. We didn't see police or their vehicles attacked, and as soon as the police arrived, everyone ran away – there seemed no appetite for standing and fighting police. Also, the policing we saw was mostly very hands off – the police seeming to prefer to let shops be the target and not themselves.
The situation seemed quite different a few miles away in Salford, where lots of large scale looting happened too, but also lots of anger and stuff thrown at the police. For an interesting account of Salford riots from a a local vicar see http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/salford-riots-greed-disenfranchised
The Manchester rioting was mostly about looting – a riot of “excluded consumers” . However, there seemed to also be a significant proportion of people who weren't interested in looting but in something bigger, perhaps in fighting back. In conversation, several people mentioned the cuts, the bleak economic situation or the shooting of Mark Duggan as reasons why they'd come into town. What was interesting was the buzz around, the shared astonishment at the lack of police intervention, at the realisation that they'd lost control. Unfortunately, these weren't social revolutionaries. There was a great deal of misguided criminal damage, looting of small shops and mugging of people. The main sense was that people were motiviated by indiviudal consumption and certainly not collective struggle.