For most of us, it began properly late yesterday afternoon. Rumours and first pictures of riots on the streets of Hackney suggested that a situation which had previously been contained to the northerly borough of Tottenham had suddenly spread much closer to home. Colleagues in the office decided to leave earlier than planned as phone calls of closed roads started to come in, and the BBC launched a live feed as the first suggestions of a serious situation hung jaggedly in the air.
By the time I got home, the situation had escalated beyond belief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the apparently literally burning screen as the minutes ticked by, only succumbing to the thought of my 6:45am alarm clock at a still-riotous 2am. A straw poll of colleagues suggests I wasn’t the only one gripped to the news as fresh pockets of violence erupted all over the capital, including a truly horrifying blaze in Croydon. Hurried texts and Facebook posts to friends and family to check if all was OK as reports from breathless and scared journalists flooded in from borough after borough (and eventually, other parts of the country as well) revealed to me just how much my life has seeped into the fabric of the city. Except for Tottenham, I know someone who has lived, or is currently living or working, in pretty much every area affected. To be connected, however tenuously, to some semblance of ‘community’ in the local area in which I am currently living, is a very rare sensation for me.
I often balk at the catch-all word ‘community’, with its faux-political overtones and suggestions of peeling-paint town halls, and as a one-time ex-pat who has moved schools, homes and neighbourhoods more times than I care to count at the moment, have as such cultivated a benign but resolutely unattached stance to most places I live in. I like them yes, I travel through them yes, but I don’t belong. Where I am at any given moment usually feels temporary, even if I’ve been there a while. I’m aware that living arrangements can change quickly, and know that to get too attached to a place (or indeed, a person) for too long leaves you wide open to pain and the unquenchable sensation of loss when, as seems inevitable, you need to leave. Usually, I quite like it this way, because to me, belonging isn’t physical, it’s mental; emotional. But, watching the devastation across several hours last night, I began to understand what ‘community’ might mean to so many, but to so many of the looters, seems to mean tragically nothing. I was suddenly struck by a tender sense of belonging. It may not have been my street, or a friend’s street, that was burning, but it could have been – and in many cases rioting and looting was taking place mere minutes down the road (my house included). The pictures, so like scenes from a tragic film, were now suddenly real.
Reasons have been given by some to try and explain (but not justify) the behaviour of the rioters, some of which were as young as 12 or 13. The divisive Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee has tweeted (to a chorus of dissent, as expected) that ‘cut[ting] EMA, benefit, youth service, holiday schemes, police, estate maintenance, speed inequality’ is a recipe for disaster (being clear not to justify the riots), while former London Mayor and hopeful Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone appeared somewhat controversially, and some say cynically, on the BBC News channel criticising the Government’s policing strategy. He went on to connect the violence with ‘anger and disaffection’, saying that young men (and, one sorely hopes, he means young women as well) ‘have no prospect of a job’ and ‘feel that no-one at the top of society cares about them or speaks for them’. Because belonging isn’t just about staying in one place for long enough – it’s much, much more. Perhaps only people who, for whatever reason, feel they have absolutely nothing to lose risk injury and punishment for a new pair of trainers?
Basically, though, as both Toynbee and Livingstone admitted, much of the violence seems to stem from boredom, lack of respect, lack of connection with the local community, a deeply worrying sense of entitlement, and above all, a staggeringly wanton, reckless disregard for the law – or as Livingstone admitted, ‘out and out theft’. Possibly one of the most devastating pictures of the violence was the YouTube video showing youths helping a young, dazed and injured man to his feet, before another looter steps into the frame and simply helps himself to the contents of the still-stunned victim’s rucksack. Beyond the searing orange fire balls punctuating the night air amid bottles thrown at riot police, it is scenes like this that are so shocking – such callous treatment of defenceless people on perfectly normal streets seems to speak of an ugly, extremely frightening vein of criminality running deep in the psyche of those rampaging through the capital. I would not even begin to suggest that I know the reasons behind it or solutions to solve it, but evidence of a serious problem is clear.
However, coincidentally, and seemingly unconnectedly, yesterday I also spent a good half hour looking over the ‘Acts of Kindness’ website. This, an art project by the London Underground, features a series of artworks and testimonials from travellers who, when travelling via London’s most central network, have been struck by unexpected outreaches of help from the usually impassive, busy commuters. Tears gathered in my eyes as I read stories of random commuters looking after the embarrassed, lost, ill, drunk, clumsy, vulnerable and frightened Tube travellers, with no expectation of recognition or thanks. But for the grace of whatever you believe in, the stories remind you, it could be you in these situations ‒ and you benefitting from the kindness of strangers. It might not shout so loudly, it might not force police helicopters out over sleeping streets (thank God), it may not burn businesses to the ground, but kindness is out there, and while meek and apparently rare, the effects are much longer lasting than the physical devastation ever will be.
The general response, over Twitter and Facebook, and among people I know, is of sheer disbelief, horror, condemnation of the violence, and mobilisation for good. Already volunteers are being amassed to help clear up the mess, while donations for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods were already being sought late last night. The video of the Hackney woman shouting decisively and eruditely at the criminals destroying her streets has already gone viral as people seek to share her point of view across social networks. As usual, when something widely devastating occurs in this capital, the people band together. It may not be anything as horrific as the London terrorist attacks of 2005 (four years before I moved here), it may be simply a case of out-of-control youths ransacking anywhere they can get away with without rhyme, reason or cause, and it may only (as unpopular, perhaps, as this is to admit) as yet be affecting small pockets of certain areas, but it’s still shocking when places you know, and in which friends live, suddenly erupt in flames on your television screen.
But as Londoners rally round, and the rest of the country reacts with fear, shock and disgust, a show of strength is emerging. Prime Minister David Cameron, fresh from a week and a bit in sunny Tuscany, may have done the right thing in coming home from holiday ‒ albeit a worrying belated response matched only by Boris Johnson’s own lackadaisical approach, although he is home now nonetheless ‒ but despite his much-needed appearance, said nothing that Londoners themselves had not already asserted hours before. It’s not clear exactly what the fallout from the riots will be, what effect it will have on the organisation of the police, or, even, the less-pressing concern of the damage done to the international image of the capital, as newsreaders keep irrelevantly reminding us, one year before the still-unpopular Olympics come to the city.
But while groups of fatally misled, criminal youths might have robbed small businesses and set the city alight, they certainly do not speak for London. London, this great, antique, crumbling, majestic, dynamic, grubby, multi-coloured, crowded, evolving and beautiful city, now more connected via social media like never before, will speak and is speaking ‒ as ever, for itself.