London is burning: A dispatch from inside the riots, looting and arson

Improbably, London is burning.

I returned from a long celebratory weekend in Antwerp on Monday afternoon. It was a grand weekend, full of very good meals, great conversation, and retail discoveries. While away, I’d read about rioting in Tottenham on Saturday night in response to the shooting death of a man named Mark Duggan at the hands of a policeman on August 4. I’d sensed from some news reports and Twitter that things had escalated, though to be completely frank I hadn’t paid much attention.

Transferring from the Eurostar to the Tube at St. Pancras this afternoon, I encountered a sign that things were off-kilter in the form of an announcement that there were no trains to Brixton. Hmmm. Then, transferring from the Tube to a bus at Old Street, it became clear that the city had temporarily morphed into a different place. The air was charged. Pedestrians crossed streets carelessly. Sirens were ongoing. I overheard snippets of conversation about Tube closures and bus detours. Three police vans screeched past our bus towards Hackney. My phone started to pulse.

I received eight text messages in a row from my partner. There was rioting on Mare Street, just ten minutes from our flat, and he asked if I would quickly do some grocery shopping before the shops in the area boarded up. He biked home from work early.

The Turkish proprietors at the grocery store downstairs seemed shell-shocked. They’d pulled their metal gate part-way down so that they’d be able to shut quickly if needs demanded. Three helicopters hovered overhead. Two middle-aged women came into the store. “Peckham,” one said, looking fatigued. “It’s really bad in Peckham.” My sister and I snapped up groceries and sat inside, keeping one eye on the street. Sirens waxed and waned. The news channels proved to be a chaotic and depressing distraction, so we turned the television off and refreshed various news sites online at an obsessive pitch.

So to Twitter, where the breadth of the rioting–mostly, it appeared, looting, with liberal lashings of arson and violent clashes with police–became evident. The looting is widespread. Buildings and cars have been set on fire. The stories of carjackings and bicyclejackings came fast and furious. Thankfully, in the midst of this frenzy, nobody has been killed.Since Saturday night, there have been rioting or looting incidents in Hackney Central, Bethnal Green, Enfield, East Dulwich, Ponder’s End, Deptford, Brixton, Croydon, Peckham, Woolwich, Balham, Elephant & Castle, and Clapham Junction, among other places. Most upsetting of all was the news that rioting spread tonight to other cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool.

And as Monday night wore on there were reports of riots in ever more unlikely London neighborhoods: Chalk Farm, Angel, and Notting Hill–yes, the cuter-than-cute Notting Hill of the 1999 Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant movie. The Telegraph put together a frequently updated and very handy interactive map of the London riots thus far.

Meanwhile, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, both on summer holidays, were missing in action during the most dramatic hours of the day; as the pitch of the day got more and more fevered, however, both men announced that they would be returning to London ahead of schedule. (Early this evening a spokesperson for the Prime Minister made it clear that he would be monitoring events from his holiday perch in Tuscany, but just after 9 pm he reversed course and announced that he would return to London on Tuesday morning; the Mayor made it clear several hours earlier that he would be cutting his Canadian vacation short.)

Why have these riots exploded now, and with such copycat force? Honestly, I have no idea. Everyone I’ve talked to today has been surprised by the events of the last 72 hours. Nina Power suggested in the Guardian today that heavy cuts in public spending, high levels of unemployment, and deep inequality have all played a hand. I have no doubt that she is right. But the force and the speed of the riots can’t be completely explained by Power’s argument.

Londoners have been taken aback. We’ll wake up on Tuesday with shot nerves, hoping for calm.

[Image: Flickr | StuartBannocks]