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Cardiff riot: how tension over fatal crash spiralled into violence

May 30, 2023

Impact of unrest following death of two teenagers will be long-lasting as police face questions on handling of incident

It began with a tragedy: the death of two friends out riding an e-bike through the streets of a Cardiff estate on a warm spring evening.

The night ended in an outburst of extraordinary violence as up to 150 rioters attacked cars and the lines of police that arrived to restore order.

Though the riot was over within a few hours, the impact will be long-lasting. Even before the burned-out cars and debris were removed, the recriminations had begun and questions about the police handling of the incident were being asked.

Friends of the boys who died immediately claimed they had been killed because of a police chase, saying this is why the violence began – and there was video footage to prove it.

South Wales police initially said they only arrived to help after the two were killed and the police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, said false rumours about the crash had led to the disturbance.

But footage later emerged appearing to show a police vehicle following an electric bike about four minutes before the fatal crash, and half a mile away.

The boys, named locally as Kyrees Sullivan, 16, and Harvey Evans, 15, had set off early on Monday evening for a ride around the Ely area of Cardiff, west of the city centre.

Harvey's godmother, Bridy Bool, said the pair were best friends. "They loved football and bikes. They did everything together," she said. Harvey had just had his hair cut and eaten his tea before the pair set off on a Sur-Ron electric bike together.

Shortly after 6pm, the boys were involved in a fatal crash on Snowden Road. "I heard a thud, a smash," said a man who lives a few metres from the site and was in his back garden at the time. "I came running around and they were lying there in the street."

Relatives got to the scene but were kept away from the bodies by police officers. Rumours quickly circulated that the bike was being chased by the police at the time.

The estate is close-knit. Even without WhatsApp and Snapchat, the whisper would have got around quickly. Thanks to the swiftness of technology, it was all over the estate within minutes.

Tension built throughout the evening. South Wales police drafted in extra officers from neighbouring forces, anticipating trouble.

By 9pm the force was asking people to avoid the area – and avoid speculation. At 11.13pm it tried to address the chase rumours, which by now had spread far and wide via Twitter and Facebook. On its social media pages it wrote: "Police responded to this collision, which had already occurred when officers arrived."

It did not work. On Snowden Road, cars and wheelie bins were set on fire. There were running battles between police and rioters. Fireworks, bricks, broken pieces of pavement and planks of wood were hurled at police lines.

Fifteen officers were injured, 11 needing hospital treatment. The violence was live-streamed, which encouraged people to come from further afield. One man frantically used a hosepipe to try to douse the flames engulfing a relative's car.

Kyrees's mother, Belinda Sullivan, posted on her Facebook page: "My son is still laying on the floor due to this riot I’m sat at home heart broken there are two families broken right now.

"I just want to see my son and I can't because of this riot that have happened pls I beg you all to stop and let my son be moved to hospital so I can see him we need to see our sons."

The rioting spread to other streets and a line of police horses guarded Ely station against attack. The streets were finally cleared at about 3am.

People were shocked at what they saw when day broke. "It's like a war zone, Iraq or something," said one, Hannah, who spent the early hours consoling her daughters, aged five and seven.

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Some children picked their way through the rubble to school; many others stayed at home or roamed around in pyjamas and dressing gowns.

Ahmad, whose taxi was attacked, said rioters had jumped all over his car and thrown missiles at it. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said. "I heard one of them saying they wanted to kill a police officer."

Council workers swept up the debris, and householders came out with watering cans and brushes to clean off the site of the accident, where throughout the day hundreds of people arrived to lay flowers.

Some neighbours claimed those involved in the disturbance may have been inspired by the notorious Ely bread riots of 1991, unrest said to have started with a dispute between two shopkeepers.

The rumours continued to swirl about the cause of the crash and by mid afternoon residents shared a video clip with members of the press. It shows a police vehicle apparently following an electric bike on Frank Road in Ely at 5.59pm, minutes before the fatal crash on nearby Snowden Road.

At 5pm on Tuesday – 23 hours after the crash – a press conference took place behind Cardiff Bay police station. Ch Supt Martyn Stone said there were no police vehicles on Snowden Road when the boys were killed.

He said the force got the call to the fatal incident at 6.03pm and did not believe "at this stage" that any other vehicle was involved. A police vehicle on nearby Grand Avenue had responded to reports of the collision and officers performed CPR.

But Stone also said they were aware of the clip showing a police vehicle following a bike at just before 6pm and it would form part of their investigation. The force has referred itself to the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Ely is one of the most deprived areas in Wales. Canon Jan Gould, priest of the Church of the Resurrection in the district, said the country needed to think about the factors that led to the riot.

"Years ago there were lots of hard, manual jobs in this area – a brewery, a paper mill, biscuit factory. Those jobs have mostly gone. There's not that much here for young people."

Two years ago, the BBC sport presenter Jason Mohammad, who is from Ely, voiced anger at a lack of government help for the area since the bread riots, telling the Guardian: "I feel angry that the Westminster government and the Senedd government haven't addressed the needs of these people."

One resident, Liam Mackay, said at the time: "It seems cool now to ride a bike around Ely and smash a window. People are filming it on social media and people are becoming famous on LADbible and some of these platforms … We could be one night away from that happening again."

He turned out to be right and the worry is there could be more violence to come.

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