Sunday, 7 August 2011

Wood Green Looting

Coming home to Wood Green in the early hours of the morning is rarely dull. There's always a flurry of activity on the main road: kebab shops serving food 'til all are fed, Mr Bagels providing bagels 24 hours a day, the random club on the high street that people still seem to be queuing for at 4am... One might think the constant bustle would be intimidating, but I've rarely felt safer wondering the streets of London at night as I have done during the last 12 months, where I've lived on a road just off Wood Green High Street. Far from finding other people's presence alarming, I tend to think I'm far less likely to be unpleasantly accosted while there's still life on the streets. 

Yesterday afternoon, perhaps 10 hours before all the reported (and unreported?) looting had taken place, I walked out of the back of the Morrisons store to the sound of the Banjo Busker Man - a somewhat regular feature during weekend shopping trips - playing Pretty Woman, his banjo bag a collection of tips, his demeanour clearly reflecting his desire to offer nothing more than some simple musical pleasures to passers-by. I found myself feeling an almost anticipatory sense of nostalgia at the thought of my impending move away from Wood Green, and away from all the weird and wonderful people that shape this community - from the Banjo Busker Man, to the man who stands outside Morrisons talking to everyone as they pass by, and the guy with the crazy eyes who always asks me if I "have any spare change, brother?", the whole hordes of unrelenting charity volunteers with their collection buckets [some of which I'm not quite convinced are actually working on behalf of a registered charity!] and, of course, the countless mothers and their children who try to convince me every week with brightly -coloured leaflets that the God-shaped hole in my life - which apparently I've been trying to fill with sex, drugs & money - can only be filled by God and his love.

Tonight, as I reflect on the last 24 hours and listen to the screaming sirens of what I assume to be the police on their way to Enfield, I mourn for this community and for the damage that last night’s looting of the High Street has done. The smashed shop windows will be fixed, and new stock will again sit on the shelves of Argos and JD Sports, but people in Wood Green are largely shocked and hurt that this has happened on their doorstep. The lootings of retailers like HMV may be understandable in terms of the high price of items on sale, but mindless smashing of places like Brook Street recruitment agency and Vision Express is something altogether different. Amongst the various independent shops that were hit, the worst-off ones were those selling suitcases - since looters were more than happy to use these cases to cart their stuff to and from their parked cars. The road that I live on was basically a car park for looters all through the night, and even into the morning. I spoke to the neighbours at 6am, whilst two helicopters circled overhead, and a guy in his 20s walked past looking right at us, carrying two skateboards under each arm. Some looters had obviously made multiple trips to and from the shops, and then subsequently to and from wherever they were dropping off their goods.

There is widespread condemnation of Saturday night’s looting and rioting - and rightly so. But I can’t help but wonder how many steps away I or one of my friends could be from indulging in that behaviour. If I didn’t have a job, and if I hadn’t gone to university or a decent school, if I wasn’t brought up with a set of boundaries and a level of respect for others around me, perhaps it would be a different story and perhaps I wouldn’t think it such a big deal to wander off the street into a newly-broken shop window and walk out with an Xbox. It’s easy to sit here and think to myself that I don’t have the capacity for such destruction, and it’s easy to paint the looters and rioters in a demonic light, but I really struggle to believe that everyone who walked away with a pair of trainers from JD Sports is an evil person. Many people believe that the actions of the rioters and looters are not representative of the hard-working individuals and businesses that form the fabric of our communities. And whilst that is invariably true, it is equally true to say that the troublemakers themselves are also part of our communities and wander down the same streets that we do.

Far from wishing to sound empathetic, I’m only trying to make the point that there are obviously some very disenfranchised people in our communities. I recognise that the looting and rioting of this weekend is in no way some significant response to actual political issues, but surely rather than calling for the ‘scum of the earth to be shot’ (or some other similar phraseology that some Tweeters are employing), we should be focusing on rebuilding our communities and working out how to better integrate those who feel themselves standing on the edges. If it’s true that some of the looters were as young as seven [apologies to a link from The Sun, but scroll down half a page to just above the picture of Comet], then maybe we really do have some deeper issue on our hands.

As a closing note, I’d just like to add that I’m finding politicians’ reactions to this weekend particularly irksome. Kit Malthouse (London’s deputy mayor) seriously thinking that Boris’ coming back from holiday would somehow legitimise the disturbances and be “kind of rewarding” to the criminals says more about how out of touch he (and Boris) is(/are) with Londoners than anything else.

The Guardian has a great live feed about current goings-on here.