We are living through the London riots. At a distance.
As most of you know from the headlines being shown around the world, there was chaos in London from early yesterday evening through the night as crowds of angry and agitated citizens — most of them youths in their teens and 20s — concentrated in neighborhoods throughout the city and became destructive, confrontational mobs. They destroyed property, including homes, shops (a majority of them independent), and at least one treasured historic building. Civilians and police have sustained injuries, and one fatal shooting of a young man has been reported as connected to the rioting.
A well-written account by journalist Michael Goldfarb, who lives with his family somewhere very near us, appears on NPR. Click here to read it. As Goldfarb writes, the unrest originated with protests following the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by police last Thursday. However, he continues:
On Sunday night, low-level looting spread to other parts of north London not far from Tottenham. The violence’s tenuous relationship to the Duggan incident disappeared. The rioters were a heterodox mix of black and white youths who did not come out on the street to demonstrate against the police. They hit the streets to take what they could: electronic goods and sneakers, and then trash the shops they had just looted.
Goldfarb instead links the violence, as many have, to deeper causes of widespread unhappiness and discomfort among England’s young people– poverty, unemployment, marginalization and uncertainty about the future. The situation is deeply sad from all angles.
I’m writing this post mainly to share my own experience with many friends and family who have been kind enough to check in and see how we are doing here, and for anyone else who is curious. The images on TV and computer screens showing urban blocks consumed in flame are as scary to me as they are to you. But as of now, I have yet to see a single broken window, and I haven’t felt threatened or unsafe in any way.
As far as I know, the nearest incidents have happened about a mile from us. On Monday night we stayed indoors as sirens wailed for hours outside our windows, en route — I assumed — to the areas of East London where rioting and looting were overwhelming police. The map below is said to show the location of initial riots throughout London (thank you to Michael in Paris for sharing it). I’ve marked where we live with a blue arrow.
We are close to where the trouble is, but we have not crossed its path.
What I have experienced firsthand, however, are the ripple effects of stress, confusion, uncertainty and fear spreading throughout London as a result of the riots, the reports in the media, and virulent rumor. It’s been enough to throw a hush over the city, and institute a quasi-lockdown throughout many normally vibrant neighborhoods.
Yesterday afternoon, for example, Mike received an emergency message at work ordering all non-essential employees to leave the hospital immediately. A few hours later, when I showed up to teach my yoga class at the Urban Physic Garden, I was instead drafted to help clean and close up the space early, because neighbors had been warning of riots and looting in Southwark. As I walked back toward the London Bridge tube station I overheard snips of numerous hushed conversations between commuters and on cell phones, and all of the shops I passed — many of them cafes that spill life onto the sidewalks during a normal summer afternoon — were indeed shuttered.
Similar evacuations took place in areas throughout the city. I learned this morning that our local library, about eight blocks from our flat, had sent all its employees home early on police orders.
Although the destruction has been very real, the climate of confusion and concern has made it difficult to separate fact from rumor. When Mike left work yesterday evening, he was told that the tube station he normally takes had been closed due to trouble in the area, so he walked an extra couple of miles in the opposite direction to take the National Rail. We found out today that the news about his tube station had been false; nothing out of the ordinary had happened in the neighborhood.
Last night after we cooked dinner in and logged some more time watching the news, the silence at home and outdoors was beginning to get to me. We walked to the corner store and bought a bottle of our favorite beer, then sat and talked and sipped in Hoxton Square alongside a few other groups of late picnickers. Every last one of the restaurants that ring the square — normally packed to the edges of their outermost wrought-iron gates with a tipsy and well-fed local crowd — sat dark and empty. With no one to watch and barely any light to see by, the square was eerily calm and unwelcoming. We finished our beer and went home.
This morning The Guardian reports that, following the emergency deployment of 16,000 police throughout the city last night and hundreds of arrests, London has reached a state of “relative calm.” Elsewhere in England, the violence continued to spread last night, and there were disheartening accounts of injury and destruction.
I’ve heard accounts from several parts of the city telling how neighborhood residents have taken a stand for themselves when police control was ineffective. My friend Nicole shared this link to a video of independent shop owners in Dalston who chased off rioters during the worst of it on Monday night.
A video of an angry Hackney woman telling off the rioters has made the rounds among more than 1.5 million viewers already (click here to watch it). Her words have resonated so strongly with viewers around the world that a Facebook group has formed supporting a bid to have this woman participate in carrying the Olympic Torch when the games begin next summer.
While it often feels safer to shut the window and ignore what you can’t see until it goes away, there is also hope in the idea that communities gathering for positive reasons can achieve the same strength in numbers as loosely bonded mobs of angry and confused individuals. Tonight our friends at Songs From a Room will host a special gathering to underline the power of music and community, dispel fear and raise morale in the face of the last few days’ events. If you’d like to participate — no matter where you are — you can stream the video live here.
Update: I was just told that the Songs From a Room gathering has unfortunately been canceled out of concern for safety and ability for guests and artists to attend. I would love to know about other opportunities to share positive experiences in the midst of this unrest. If you have any leads, let me know.
Second update: Songs From a Room will not be hosting a full concert, but they will be live-streaming performances by two local artists … from our flat here in Shoreditch! Listen to it beginning around 9pm UK time on this website.