So many words have been used to describe the lootfest of the past few days. I can’t add to them here except to express my own outrage. As well as the horrific pictures of the burning Reeves store in nearby Croydon, we have seen examples of all sorts of thuggish behaviour and looting. The injured Malaysian student being helped to his feet then robbed; the looters gleefully carrying away flat screen TVs; the prosecution of a 31 year old teaching support person. There were smaller pockets of unrest, bins set ablaze, shop windows smashed in Bromley and our own Beckenham. I’m not an educationalist, psychologist or sociologist and therefore shall not propound any theories about why people went on the rampage in cities further away in the UK as well as some parts of London. I am sure there are so many contributory factors including poverty, Government cuts; poor education and low aspirations; inequalities; the school summer holidays; not to mention the incident which triggered it all in Tottenham where, as I understand it, a man was shot in a cab by police. Some of my Twitter Timeline have surmised that the riots were due to a politicised protest against consumerism and the Market economy, even if the rioters were not aware of their subconscious telling them so. That’s as may be. In my view, yes, some of those people engaged in violent street activity these last nights must have been demonstrating for a reason, but I think that this was far from the minds of the vast majority, who saw it as an opportunity to smash and grab whatever they could. That they trashed the lives and livelihoods of ordinary working people in their own communities and sullied the reputation of their town for many years to come obviously did not enter their heads. That they were spitting on their own prospects seemed far from their thoughts.
I had wanted to join the riot cleanup movement but had to drive the Boywonder to a pre-arranged appointment on the opposite side of the M25. Checking Twitter that morning, however, I saw that @indiaknight and @pixielation had had similar ideas almost simultaneously: that decent, civilised, responsible adults should go out and reclaim the streets from (largely youth) mob rule. Emphatically not in a vigilante way, more in a way that showed that our society values quiet decency. I thought about this all day and decided that I might be able to make a difference, albeit in my own tiny way. I have always believed that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Driving, I decided on my slogan. I feel that so many problems are exacerbated by people’s lack of thought for the consequences of their actions on others around them. This is not just the case for teenagers, many of whom do not know any better and are ill-equipped to make wholesome choices, but also for adults, politicians, role models such as footballers and celebrities. It’s as if other people have to abide by the rules but they do not. It is the death of Shame. I apologise: I sound reactionary and Victorian, and those who know me know that my approach to life is not authoritarian. But I do believe that we should consider those around us and I am tired of having to tidy up other people’s mess both literally and figuratively.
And what sort of message about London does this behaviour send to the world, especially as we are getting ready to host the Olympics next year? How can we stand in judgement in other countries if our own people behave like this?
I wondered if those youths or whoever they were would have thought twice about breaking windows and stealing trainers and TVs if their parents had been there watching them. Parenting teenagers is hard work and I personally don’t believe any of us can ever say “My child would never do that.” To my mind, it’s more a case of “I would be upset and ashamed if my child did that, but there, but for the Grace of God, go I.” Being a parent can be a lonely business and, instead of pointing the finger at other people’s children, we should offer support where it’s needed. It takes a village to raise a child. What sort of example are we setting to our next generation?
It’s not just about them, though. I have watched the descent of my local area from a fairly prosperous, well-kept place to one where people think nothing of littering; using constant foul language; engaging in road rage and drunken, loutish behaviour. It is so bad after about 9pm on Friday and Saturday evenings that families can’t go for a meal or to watch a film without running the gauntlet of drunks, swearing and shouting aggressively in the street. So we stay in, cocooned in our houses. And let us make no mistake, it is NOT poverty that motivates these people who seem to have plenty of money to spend in our bars and restaurants. And it’s not just hereabouts. This seems to have become the behavioural norm, acceptable conduct. I find this profoundly shocking.
This has all been said, and no doubt there will be inquiries and reports, action plans and initiatives to come and I sincerely hope that the situation will eventually change for the better. In the meantime, though, this was my response. Yes, it’s a bit jokey and tongue-in-cheek, but my point is deadly serious.:
A silent vigil in the centre of Beckenham on Tuesday night. I was fully aware that I would be thought of as eccentric or even crazy, but I wanted to make a point in a non-violent, direct way in the manner of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Not for a moment did I think that what I did would make the slightest bit of difference to the thought processes, such as they are, of anyone hell-bent on looting. It’s just that I had had enough, was appalled and, instead of pontificating about it endlessly on Twitter and Facebook, wanted to DO something to put across my point.
Now, most of the shops, pubs and restaurants, even the Odeon, closed early on Tuesday amid reports anticipating trouble and recommendations from the authorities to close, so the High Street was really quiet except for a couple of pub-goers and passers-by and a heavy, deterrent police presence, both on foot and in patrol cars.
I took up my place on the War Memorial. I had pondered where to stand for a long while. I did not want to appear like a Victorian temperance campaigner to patrons of the bars and restaurants at the top end of the High Street, and walking up and down would make me look like one of the merchants of doom at Oxford Street, or one of those people who holds a sign pointing to a Golf Sale. No. I positioned myself on the War Memorial because it seemed like the most appropriate spot, reminding us of the generations of young people who were killed fighting for their country or for freedom against the oppression of tyranny. It seemed apt. Earlier in the day I had listened, tears streaming down my face to a song by Yannick Noah (yes, that Yannick Noah) about the suffering of children across the world and their lack of hope for the future. It highlighted the triviality, in my mind, of the people rampaging through our High Streets.
My arrival at the War Memorial immediately attracted the police, who were satisfied at my explanation of why I was protesting. My husband, concerned for my safety, had tried to dissuade me from going by saying that I could be arrested for obstructing the police. “In that case,” said Darling Daughter, “I’ll pay for your bail, mummy, as long as it’s less than £300.” I did wonder why the police would arrest me, as I was not planning to do anything illegal or anti-social, but I was ready to be carted off to the police station if necessary, to make my point.
I was immediately offered a drink by people in the pub across the road. And I stood there for two hours with my placard, the traffic passing around me, sometimes slowing to read my placard. I had expected jeering, abuse, even violence. My husband tried all sorts of ways to dissuade me from going as he was worried for my safety. The Boywonder, an Army Cadet, saluted me as I left home and stayed up to make sure of my safe return. He’s a good boy, really.
In the end, however, several people came to talk to me, ask me why I was there and offered support. The location of my protest was not lost on one man who came to talk, a History teacher. I got applause and thumbs ups from people in passing cars and one car full of youths even called out “Respect: she’s a girl!” Regular readers of this blog will infer just how pleased I was by that statement. Anyway, no taunts, no jeers, no abuse. Simply support.
My friend, @pixielation came and joined me for the last half hour of the vigil, along with a couple of others and she took this picture of me. Then, at 11, when it seemed that nothing further would happen, we called it a night. I arrived home to lots of support on Twitter but really, people, I did nothing. Bravery would have been to stand there on Monday night in the midst of the looting. Yes, I was apprehensive before the protest, but really there was never going to be anything scary out there. Sadly, despite what people claimed, my demonstration did not prevent Carphone Warehouse’s windows being smashed that night so I did not make that person think. I was disappointed by this but it’s going to take time to change the world.
I was thinking of repeating the protest last night but felt that it might detract from Tuesday night’s vigil. Also, because normality had returned to Beckenham and, let’s be honest, the pull of a hot cup of tea and the Goldberg Variations was far stronger.
And what would MY mum say? I should find out today.
Picture credits: @ThickRob and @pixielation