It’s been more than a week since the riots, and in many respects London has begun to move on. People are back on the streets and the frequent sound of sirens again is just a part of the city’s soundtrack. This is one of the world’s great cities, and there’s not much that could make it stand still for long.
But there are still many ways in which the spectre of the riots will hang over London for a long time to come. Along Bethnal Green Road in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets, where rioting briefly broke out last Monday evening, many of the businesses still have their windows boarded up, and the police remain a visible presence, though now they are walking the beat, taking the time to speak with business owners and residents, rather than simply cruising around the council estates in their patrol cars.
On the national level the conversation has divided into two distinct sides. There are those who view the riots as a reflection of a sick society, something to be remedied through punitive action and surgical, carrot-and-stick interventions. And there are those who see them more as a symptom of this society’s ills, something that can only be solved by addressing the vast social and economic inequalities that these events brought into such sharp relief.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, appeared to be attempting to gain some of the middle ground earlier this week with a speech at a youth centre in his constituency where he identified 125,000 “troubled families” whose problems he would seek to fix through the kind of targeted interventions that were introduced by the former Labor government. Meanwhile, Opposition leader Ed Miliband has been talking about starting a “national conversation” to get to the root causes of the problems that led to the riots, and avoiding “knee-jerk gimmicks”. Though of course it is always much easier to talk about those kinds of holistic approaches in opposition when you are not waking every day to the baying of an insatiable tabloid press that feeds on stories of blame and retribution.
But across the city, residents wonder whether last week’s outbreak of lawlessness can just be confined to those three chaotic days, or if the resentment and tension that erupted so spectacularly last week has just been momentarily suppressed, ready to rise to the surface again at the first opportune moment.
That is what concerned a group of Tower Hamlets residents at a public meeting on Tuesday evening, which was held ostensibly to discuss reactions to the riots. The majority of the meeting, which was organised by the anti-cuts group “Hands off our public services”, was spent discussing how residents should respond to a planned demonstration by the fascist, anti-Muslim English Defence League in the borough next month, and how the residual tensions from last week could make an already fraught situation palpably dangerous.
This is not the first time the EDL has sought to demonstrate in Tower Hamlets, which is in the heart of London’s East End and home to one of the city’s largest Muslim communities. Last year more than 5000 residents turned out to March against racism when the EDL threatened to disrupt an Islamic conference being held in the borough. This time around the council has joined concerned residents in calling on the national government for a ban, with the mayor publishing an open letter this week appealing to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to do just that.
An organiser of the anti-EDL demonstration, Glyn Robbins, who represents the anti-fascist group United East End, expressed concern that the events of last week will significantly raise the potential for trouble should the EDL March go ahead. But he is equally concerned that the riots could be used as a reason to also ban the anti-EDL march.
This is not the only public event that is at risk because of the riots. Two weeks from now West London is set to host one of Europe’s largest and most celebrated street festivals, the Notting Hill Carnival. Started in the mid-’60s by London’s expat Trinidad and Tobagonian community, the annual event remains at its heart a celebration of the Caribbean Carnival tradition, but has over the decades evolved to encompass much of London’s diverse character, hosting 40 stages scattered around the suburb and attracting more than one million revellers each year. But the carnival also attracts its fair share of trouble, with numerous flare-ups of small-scale violence and hundreds of arrests and thefts reported each year.
While its fans argue that instances of crime are inevitable at any event on such a large scale, there are many people — particularly residents of the wealthy Kensington and Chelsea borough that is the event’s home — who argue that this year the risk of wide-scale violence is too high, and that the event should be banned. Any such ban would be a keenly felt blow for London’s huge Caribbean community, for which the carnival is as big a fixture on the annual calendar as Christmas. As a compromise the council is talking about bringing the carnival to a close earlier than usual and placing restrictions on the type of music that can be played — with a ban on “potentially provocative” songs.
In one sense, East London needs events such as the anti-EDL demonstration as a means to reassert its identity as a harmonious example of multicultural England. And London needs the Notting Hill Carnival to show the world, and itself, that it can not be defined by riots and social division alone — that it still knows how to party as well as any of the world’s great cities. But if strife were to break out at either of these events, the feeling is that the results could be disastrous, and quickly multiply the destructive effects of last week’s unrest both on the city itself and on its reputation abroad.