Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London Riots: civil unrest for three days (and counting)

Image from Flickr courtesy of Erik Hartberg

Today is cold and bright, with gorgeous sunshine, and a growing sense of unease. The world is now aware of what is going on in London: thousands of thugs are running the streets, crashing through shops, looting, stealing, committing random acts of violence and arson. It's been going on since Saturday, and it doesn't seem like it will stop any time soon.

It all started as a peaceful demonstration in Tottenham on Saturday to protest the death of a young man who was killed by the London police. It was a peaceful demonstration until a criminal element used it as an excuse to start throwing bottles and petrol bombs at police and ultimately smashing into stores, looting them, and then setting them on fire. It continued Sunday evening, then yesterday evening, spreading from North London throughout the capital and now across the country. Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham are all experiencing gangs rioting in the streets (if you're interested in seeing just where the violence has occurred, here's a helpful/grim map).

Each night I've gone to bed with the sounds sirens racing down the street and helicopters circling overhead. Though the violence is largely far from me, tucked up in safe, bourgeois Islington, I keep expecting to hear glass shattering, shouts, and aggression. Last night we had our first incident, a bike shop that The Irishman and I know and love was broken into and looted. I've never been so happy to live above the ground floor, and I've never been so quite afraid to leave my house. I spoke to some colleagues this morning who cycle to work and we all agreed that the ride home last night felt dangerous – there was something in the air that just wasn't right. The atmosphere was threatening.

What struck me last night while I watched hours of coverage of the flames and fear was that nearly all of the places targeted were places The Irishman and I considered moving to just a few weeks ago: Hackney, Peckham, Brixton, even Clapham suffered at the hands of merciless people out to get revenge for something. Many are saying its due to frustration at a lack of economic opportunity; many others are saying it's race; many others are saying it was simply a criminal mindset taking over. Despite the causes of all the violence, what made me well up with tears was the realization that the people who are and will continue to suffer are the hardworking innocent people trying to build a life in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Watching people jump out of burning buildings, watching fires spread from shops to homes, watching grown men and women in anguish over their lives in ruin made me shake with anger. The lack of respect these rioters have not only for the police but for the people in their communities is so appalling that it defies logic.

I do also feel for the police. They haven't had a good time of it over the last couple of years, between the G20 protests when a man was hit by a riot policeman and died from his injuries to the student protests earlier this year during which Prince Charles's motorcade was attacked. But they are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. At the moment, citizens are outraged that the police aren't doing more to protect them; however if the police were to go in heavy-handed, there would be hell to pay for their brutality. The fact is that they are underresourced, budget cuts are looming, and I don't envy them having to stand up to kids with knives. According to the BBC, there were 5,000 police on the streets last night; tonight there will be 16,000. But the increase in security doesn't replace the millions of pounds worth of stolen goods, repair the damage to property, or restore the confidence of the public.

There is some hope, though. A North London artist quickly organized Riot Cleanup last night for people to take back control of the high streets across the capital. Currently trending on Twitter is #riotcleanup, #PrayforLondon as residents of the city stand up for their neighborhoods and their city. But it's easy to be brave and confident in the daylight; what happens when dusk falls again tonight will bely the truth of the situation. Hopefully, Boris, Dave, Theresa, and Ed returning from their summer holidays will help get a handle on this situation, and we can all start rebuilding the London we know and love.

Thanks to everyone who has expressed their concern for me and The Irishman on Facebook, Twitter, and email. We're okay, and we'll let you know ASAP if that changes.


  1. One of the most surprising bits (I forget the source, but it was a major media outlet like NY Times or BBC) I've seen was that the Met won't use "draconian" measures like a curfew. To me, that sounds like a perfect solution! It was compared to rubber bullets, which is a very different thing altogether.

  2. Yes, I know. Something about "ruling by consent" which means that the way the government and policing is by public consent - so the theory is that if the police go in forcefully, the public will revolt even more strongly. I found this, see if it helps: http://www.democracyweb.org/consent/history.php