London like any other city, has its share of good and bad neighbourhoods. Where there are discontent youths in rougher neighbourhoods, there are also liberal, cosmopolitan communities in others. So when news broke on Saturday night of a riot in Tottenham, I didn’t bat an eyelid. Presumably, this was a small gang causing opportunistic trouble as the result of a protest that had gone wrong. On the same Saturday night, I returned home from a Birthday party in Islington and started the week as normal. Monday night, events took a turn for the worse. By the time I was asleep, the news was still an occurrence elsewhere, with very little to do with me. However, close to 1am I was woken with news of fires spreading across Ealing and Hounslow (neighbouring towns to mine, Southall). It seemed like danger was fast coming our way. But it was the precisely Southall’s reaction to these riots that made it memorable in the news this week.
London woke to news of riots all across the country; this was sickening stuff, largely because it wasn’t morally inspired, and mainly because it was anarchic behaviour. By lunch time of Tuesday I took to Twitter to see if I could get regional information about Southall. To my horror, I learnt of proposed trouble coming our way. I didn’t understand the logic, why Southall, but why at all? Naturally the role of social media was as much to blame for the escalation of the panic as much as its prevention. Rioters and looters using BBM were able to gather together and plan attacks. Southall, prosperous in business and with plenty of gold shops, could of course be a great venue for looters and Twitter continued to offer such suggestions. There were stories of employees being let off early to get home by 4pm. All shops had been closed and boarded up by 2pm. I dreaded to think what I may expect when I got home.
Usually when people asked me where I live, I reluctantly mentioned Southall – for it can be as annoying as it is fantastic. Tuesday, of course, was different. Tuesday everyone needed to know I came from Southall and that I needed to leave imminently. I boarded a slightly earlier train from Paddington and I could spot the nervous faces that sat around me. On arrival we were confronted by an ocean of calm. There was no sign of business, but just people making simple journeys. I likened this to what Sundays used to be like before trading laws changed.
Later that evening calls for a greater public presence continued to circulate, both through word of mouth, and again, through social media. By which point, the streets and the Gurudawaras in particular, were full of people. It seemed like most of Southall was out, ready to defend. It was these images that were most memorable and rapidly circulated online. At this point, it was clear that any one approaching Southall wouldn’t stand a chance at much looting.
As residents we’re all different, but under crisis we can all show solidarity without question. This is part of Southall’s DNA, part of the way it has grown in the last few decades. The people here, like the Turks in Enfield, have worked hard to forge their place in this country. They operate on an almost continuous level, where people know they can get whatever they want on any bank holiday, or indeed Christmas. Indians, as they say, never close.
Of course the ghosts of Southall’s past are always looming. This has naturally put the town on edge. I refer, most vividly to the National Front riots of 1979, which by their very nature drew out larger crowds and were a lot more violent. Their biggest legacy has been the memory of teacher and campaigner Clement Blair Peach - tragically killed during the riots of thirty two years ago. Several issues come into play here: the report into Blair-Peach’s death was released just last year, indicating that Police may have been to blame. Naturally, the role of the Police has always come into question, but we shouldn’t allow that to cloud their importance and the work that they do today. The police will always be in the middle, but the important thing to focus on is the issue at hand. In this case, Blair-Peach demonstrated not only the amount of tolerance that existed in this country, but mainly that people will come together to campaign for what is right. In a similar vein, we continue to come together to preserve what Southall is today and how strong it has grown since.
Riots by their very nature are passionately fuelled events, last week’s riots were different as there was an absence of any direct passion or moral campaign. Yet, they stirred enough emotion for Southall residents. Where the rest of London held up brooms to counteract the work of the hoodies, Southall held up hockey-sticks and swords. Where the latter is emblematic of our past, the former can be considered as vigilantism - which can open up another can of worms. Sikh’s definitely can’t deny that they are inherently a warrior culture - but of course we’ve come to adapt this to the society we live in today. Ultimately however, Tuesday was a remarkable presentation of defence rather than offense.
The butterfly effect, as they call it, is a series of larger events occurring as a result of a smaller one elsewhere. A butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet is notionally said to inspire tornadoes on the other. The same could have been said of the UK this week. No one could have foreseen a small riot in Tottenham (North London), leading to an entire community on-guard to protect its livelihood, or indeed the deaths of three young men in Birmingham (all triggered as part of the same chain of events). What we’ve come to learn however, is how quickly we can come together to protect what we’ve worked hard for ever since we’ve been here.