The sound of an emergency services siren is the audible calling-card of any major modern city. In North London it is merely the usual soundtrack to real life; a traffic accident, a burst appendix, a rambunctious disagreement between football fans. But at the moment in London this familiar noise is signalling far more sinister events. Like most of the city I awoke on Sunday morning to reports and startling images of public rioting in the north London area of Tottenham. Buildings had been burnt, cars had been smashed up, police officers had been hurt and looters arrested. A peaceful protest begun earlier on Saturday night, in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan, a suspected local criminal, by police had been hijacked by, well...what to call them? Thugs, criminals, looters, opportunists? Mostly young people, many with covered faces, under cover of protest had perpetrated horrendous crimes which have caused millions of pounds of damage already.
A masked looter strolls in front of blazing cars - (taken from the cover of today's Guardian newspaper)
Seeing these scenes in Tottenham brought back unpleasant memories for London. The clashes with police were scarily reminiscent of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots that left a policeman dead, hacked brutally to death by an angry mob. Was history repeating itself? As the same footage was replayed again and again, and a second and third night of looting, arson attacks and fear followed, London became a city on edge. Travelling home has become an expedition, checking routes, ensuring stations are still open and hoping that you won't encounter marauders as trouble flares up in random areas across the city. From Croydon to Hackney, and Clapham to Ealing, it seems as if no neighbourhood (however supposedly middle-class and safe) is immune to the invasion of these louts.
The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone was yesterday criticised for blaming the riots on social deprivation, and current mayor Boris Johnson (who swiftly reappeared from his holiday to reassure us all - thanks, Boris, we feel so much better now you and your silly hair are here!) has just declared we've heard quite enough about the socio-economic factors in play. But there are obviously some far greater social issues which need serious attention. There must be something driving these wanton acts of destruction and pillaging more than a lust for iPads. The use of the word 'senseless' in reference to recent events speaks more of our own shock and incredulity than of the motivations of the looters and rioters. Numerous issues have already been blamed for the events, from the economic crisis to a disgruntled and frustrated youth, from long-standing antagonistic relations between civil society and the police to poor and irresponsible parenting. I am sure each proposed cause hold grains of truth and that these riots are the product of a complex set of influencing factors we cannot begin to untangle yet.
The texts and phonecalls began last night, from concerned friends outside the city and within. Was I ok? Was my flat safe? What was happening where I work and live? Twitter has been abuzz with a mixture of helpful and terrifying rumours; inspiring fear and panic from misinformation and those seeing the opportunity to make a lot of deeply unfunny jokes about tigers loose from London Zoo. Strangers helped one another plan routes home, and urged each other to stay safe. And then today they united again, to deal with clearing up the mess. However many destructive thugs there were tearing apart areas of the city, there were more people this morning brandishing brooms and demanding to clean their streets. And say what you like about social exclusion and societal breakdown but I think that the staggering number of people who quickly organised themselves, and without expecting a thing in return, set about putting our city back together again says far more about British society today.