Home thoughts from abroad

London in flames – in run-down streets of betting shops and ‘designer’ sports-clothing stores and mobile phone stores and other primary-colored, low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit businesses that are our strip malls, the glass-fronted boxes on the ground floor, sometimes, of elegant Victorian buildings or more often, of short-sighted postwar developments which tore out city centres in favor of these decentralized and depressing little corners. London is an atomized city and always has been; it’s a conglomeration of mini-towns and high streets and it sprawls until it touches and merges with a bigger nexus on the outskirts, a Croydon or a Bromley, and peters out. Those outskirts – the Medway towns in Kent, Essex – those are places you never hear about, although one possible origin of the murky slur ‘chav’ is the town of Chatham, in Kent. And this is the most exciting thing that may have happened, ever. Come on, who doesn’t love a good fire?
People are a little nervous today, but defiant – an attitude that tends to define Londoners, especially those who live in the affordable corners of the city that tourists don’t visit – Streatham, Peckham, Wood Green, Lewisham, Lee, Woolwich, Hackney, Dalston, Bethnal Green – which is to say, most university students, most artists, most teachers, most nurses, most ordinary working people without banking jobs or trust funds. Gentrified Brixton, once a place synonymous, to non-Londoners, with rioting and violence, was an afterthought, not an epicenter. Our London Too and Riot Clean-Up are the hashtags of the day.
Towards the rioters/looters, disgust and frustration seem to be the prevailing emotions, and a kind of despair. Sympathy for the family of Mark Duggan and the members of ‘his community’ – the preferred term of well-meaning politicians and police who don’t seem to realize just how alienating it is to imply, over and over again, that ‘his’ community is not simply THE community – sympathy for the 16-year-old girl allegedly beaten by police in Tottenham, sympathy for the men in Hackney venting rage at years of racist policing – sympathy has evaporated in the smoke of burning buses and burning buildings.
As night follows day, rioting follows the election of a Tory government, said one Twitter-wit late last night. But it’s clear that on the whole, these looters are perfect little Tories. They’re not resisiting a system that excludes them but capitulating wholly to its values – you’re out for yourself, you’ve got to take what’s there, your status and your worth are measured in the stuff you own. Carrying out a pair of boxfresh trainers or a flatscreen TV over the shattered glass underfoot, you’ve won.
Of course (sympathy stirs again) it’s not like they have any other option – Tottenham, where all this kicked off, has the highest unemployment rate in London. And the inchoate anger against what these kids, raised on procedural dramas from a foreign country, weirdly call the ‘Feds,’ is perhaps less violent than that against ‘rich people’ – another enemy offered up by one looter explaining himself on camera.
I think for most ‘rich people’ – which really means, I’d guess, stable people with jobs or education or secure families or all three, who aren’t treated as nascent criminals wherever they go – the reflexive horror is the violation of a basic survival instinct. Don’t shit on your own doorstep. You’re the ones who are going to pay for this, whether in prison time or probation or the vitriol of your neighbors or the sinking of your heart at the sight of your own environment trashed. And the shrinking of opportunities, and the redirection of resources away from you, and the hardening of the nation’s attitudes toward you, so that they will applaud more government money going to ‘law and order’ and less to ‘community outreach,’ never mind that it’s more expensive in the long run to keep arresting you than it would be to give you somewhere to go and something to do.

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