Living in Bethnal Green, in the heart of London’s East End, you get used to the sound of sirens and car alarms. But over the past couple of days, as the riots that began in Tottenham spread to this side of the city, those sounds have taken on a far more immediate and ominous meaning.
It’s funny how distant an event can feel, even if it’s occurring in a different part of the same city — until it lands on your doorstep. That’s what happened on Monday evening when the rioting that began on the busy high street of neighbouring Hackney earlier that afternoon spread south into Bethnal Green.
Twitter, Facebook and the BBC had all told kept me informed about the goings on in Hackney — the looting, the violence and the sense of public bewilderment that seemed to be the overriding response to it all. We weren’t too surprised when we made our way out on to Bethnal Green Road at about 6.45pm to find the footpaths clogged with people — mostly curious residents and business owners — milling out on the street. This is a normally bustling high street, so crowds are no surprise, but this was different. There were a lot of police cars and vans among the unusually heavy traffic, and those shop owners who weren’t pulling down their shutters were milling in their doorways, nervously trying to assess the situation.
We got about three minutes down the road in the direction of Brick Lane and the uber-trendy suburb Shoreditch when we saw the first group of guys with hoods pulled over their heads and scarves covering their faces — some even wearing gloves of various types, the opaque purpose of which strangely made the whole scene just that much more unsettling — walking the opposite way along the other side of the road.
Not wanting to let the moment slip by unrecorded, I took out my phone and tried to get a picture (it didn’t work out), at which point I was warned in very definite terms by a middle-aged East Ender that that was not a very smart idea. I pocketed my phone and we carried on, now a little more wary of the scene around us.
Doubts about the wisdom of leaving the safety of our home in this kind of atmosphere prompted us to slow down, and eventually chat with the owner of a Chinese take-away who assured us that if he didn’t have his business to protect, he would definitely not be out in this. The sight of two more groups of young men similarly dressed to the first convinced us he was right.
We live above a shop on the high street, but enter our house from a small laneway at the back. Just behind our laneway is Weaver’s Fields, a medium-sized park that backs on to the Whitechapel area. As we approached home it became apparent that something was happening around the park, and as we reached our gate, we saw a police car at the end of our street being pelted and chased away from Weaver’s Fields by a group of kids.
Over the next half an hour, we watched out of the lounge room window of our third floor apartment as groups of kids and young men — yes, they were all male as far as I could see — converged in the back streets behind Bethnal Green Road and then made sorties down the side street and on to the main road, at which point riot police would appear and small, almost half-hearted pitched battles would occur.
Kids threw vegetables and fruit scavenged from boxes abandoned by the owners of the market stalls that usually populate the footpaths on that section of the street. The occassional can was lobbed, but while the atmosphere was charged, it did not feel so ominous. There was even a bit of cheekiness about it. There were more onlookers on the street than rioters or police, and while there was a lot of head shaking at the troublemakers, there was also a strong sense of disapproval of the authorities.
This is a very mixed area — huge Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, and a smaller black population, mostly of Caribbean descent, all living side by side with cockneys quite peacefully. Sure, there are housing estates all over the place, and as I said earlier the sound of sirens is ubiquitous, but overall it feels quite harmonious, and certainly there was very little tension between people on the street, or even directed towards the rioters. It all seemed rather laconic at first.
But then suddenly the numbers on both sides swelled considerably, and that was when I took this footage. Apologies for the terrible camerawork and the inane commentary, but it does pretty much capture the height of the troubles in Bethnal Green.
After that event, the tension subsided considerably, and it was not long before the police moved on to other areas where the need was obviously more pressing, leaving behind a small contingent to guard the Halifax bank on the corner which had had its front kicked in. It was the only business along the street to sustain any real damage, and also one of the recipients of government bailouts in the 2008 global financial crisis, though it’s hard to say whether that was ever a consideration in the attack.
The sirens and alarms continued throughout the night, all imbued with far greater meaning than those which, just two days ago, had seemed such a natural part of our environment. At about 11pm two riot vans came screaming down the road and police with full-length riot shields formed a cordon across the street for about 10 minutes, but there was no sign of the rioters. Perhaps they were in the back streets, perhaps it was a false alarm, either way the police moved on and the trouble did not return.
The morning after at my gym, a 40-something cabbie from Brixton named Johnny who has an opinion on everything and is no fan of the State, was in no doubt about the root cause of the events of the past few days. "There’s something very wrong with this country," he told me. "I’ve been driving my cab for 15 years — doing 14 hour days — but I’m worse off now than I’ve ever been. How’s that fair? And then you see those bankers on the telly making off with all our money and these kids haven’t got a hope. There’s no wonder this is happening."
On Tuesday there was a weird vibe across the city. It was very quiet, and the tension was high. Businesses started boarding up their windows early in the afternoon, and rumours swirled around all day about where the trouble was going to hit next, and how it would be more severe than the previous nights. Luckily the majority of those rumours have proven not to be true. Of course the trouble spread to other cities, and there were some smaller outbreaks of violence, but people are breathing a little easier now, with many daring to hope that the trouble has now passed, though many shops remain shuttered and boarded up just in case.
I work in Kings Cross, and my office closed early on Tuesday. The supermarket below my office was filled with people getting last minute supplies and many of the shelves were bare. Back in Bethnal Green, the usually bustling high street was eerily quiet. Everyone on the street was stepping warily, the vast majority of shops were closed — those without shutters had boarded up their windows — and a few groups of police, six-strong, patrolled the street on foot, stopping to speak with residents and making a point of keeping a non-confrontational profile.
Mark Sullivan, a Bethnal Green resident born and bred whose family have run a laundromat on the high street for 25 years, expressed disappointment and disbelief at the events of the past few days.
"This shouldn’t be happening," he said. "This is just the youth trying to outdo the police, but it’s costing taxpayers a fortune, and it’s causing havoc for local businesses."
But he was also quick to point out that there are problems in this country that have him worried.
"The way the government’s making these cutbacks, they’re hurting everyone," he said, telling me about his 21-year-old daughter and their fear that the recent changes to university fees could keep her from realising her ambition of becoming a high school teacher.
Over the past few days, the prevailing sense I have detected has been one of bewilderment — where has this come from, why is it happening? Many have responded with indignant anger at the apparent meaninglessness and opportunism of it all. But where some see a lack of obvious meaning, it seems to me there is a deeper malaise — something that is driving such a profound disconnect between a whole section of society and their country, that an isolated instance of apparent injustice in one part of a city can spark such an outbreak of disorder and destruction right across the nation.
Since living in London I have become conscious of a dominant characteristic among under-30s — one of defiant, almost aggressive individualism, underscored by a rampant commercialism and a full immersion in trash/bling culture. It is hard to say what came first, but I get a feeling that the commercialism is driving a lot of this.
I don’t know what illustrates this commercialism best. Is it the Primark shopping barns where people load up on tracksuits and trainers starting at £3 an item, all-you-can eat-style, to be worn twice and then thrown away. Or is it the shinier side of the coin in the Mayfair clubs where football players and the children of millionaires and billionaires regularly run up bar tabs in a few hours that eclipse what the average punter could hope to earn from a year’s work — all of which is regularly and gratuitously covered in the nation’s tabloid press. I’ve been to these clubs, sipping slowly on a £14 cocktail while those around me threw cash over the bar as though it had no meaning to them — it was just a token to be exchanged to get what they wanted, and there was plenty more where that came from. These people live in a parallel world, one that is shut off forever to the masses, honest or otherwise, who were unlucky enough to be born anything other than stupidly rich or upper class. (Apparently there’s a difference, but don’t expect me to explain it — I’m just a colonial.)
While the actions of the rioters are evidently not an eloquent expression of dissatisfaction with the direction this society is heading in, it is this society that bred these individuals. It is this society that, as a whole, must now examine itself to discover how it has given rise to a situation where so many of its own people are prepared to lash out at it with this kind of inarticulate rage.
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