London riots - AFP - August 2011
Riot police in front of a burning building in Croydon, South London on Monday. Photo by AFP
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A London policeman going by the handle Inspector Winter tweeted Tuesday morning: "Still no tea, danish pastry eaten though. Being stood down for now. Think I'll sleep at the office. Is a sad day when I have to use my baton."

It is unclear to whom he was apologizing - to the rioters he had to strike or to his fellow policemen. Or perhaps to the entire British public, who is forced to watch the police using force.

One could see that the police, as well as the demonstrators in London's streets, were finding it difficult to decide when to use violence and when to be polite. The police, even when they were wearing body armor and helmets and wielding batons and plexiglas shields, were trying to speak politely when they asked people to clear the main streets.

But when someone insisted on moving forward anyway, there was no mistaking the officers' determination.

The groups of young men who clustered in front of the police also maintained their polite tone until they began throwing things and breaking windows. "Excuse me," a tall young man said, bumping into a journalist. "I didn't see you, are you alright?" he asked. His face was covered by his hat, but he smiled as he apologized that he could not give his name or where he was from.

The politeness persisted throughout the tense day Tuesday, during which London licked its wounds and prepared for another night of rioting.

In Tottenham, where the violence started on Saturday, a tall, young black man was trying to argue with a policeman who was blocking the main street, along which dozens of shops had been torched.

Why didn't the fire department go into the building that went up in flames at night, to see if there were people trapped inside? The exhausted policeman barely managed to keep his cool as he explained to the young man, who had clearly been in the heart of the violence, that the firefighters could not risk their lives while rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails at patrol cars and fire engines.

Academic experts and retired senior police officials were arguing Tuesday on television and radio stations about whether the police should be in crime prevention mode or public order mode.

In the streets one could see that the police themselves were very confused: At the start of the night between Monday and Tuesday they manned roadblocks wearing white shirts, but as the night wore on, they changed clothes, putting on more and more layers of protective gear.

"Sorry, I don't know quite where I am," a policewoman said with a somewhat frightened smile, when people asked her for directions to the nearest open underground station. She had been brought north from very the southern end of the city, where things were still quiet.

But the groups of young people getting constant messages on their Blackberry to gather at various points in the city certainly knew where they were. It is not clear who was sending the messages and Tuesday a new argument was underway in Britain as to whether the police should be allowed to check private messenger accounts to discover the identity of the organizers.

It's hard to get over the fact that the social networks, Twitter and Facebook, and smartphones, which helped protesters in Egypt and Tunisia to organize the demonstrations that brought down the regimes, are also leveraging the rioting in London.

One good thing at least came out of them Tuesday morning, when hundreds of people in London, called on by Twitter, came out with brooms to help clean the streets.

And if one is already comparing the violence in London to the demonstrations and protests in the Middle East, what is the agenda of London's young people? No one can say. These are not race riots; the rioters were both black and white and there were mixed groups. There was also no protest here against poverty or social discrimination.

"The only ideology here is the right to possess a wide-screen TV," a long-time teacher said, looking at a looted electronics store. "That, and boredom."