Letter from London by Bee Lavender

"This is a war between the people and the government."
--kid on the street, London August 7 2011.
 
Four nights ago London erupted in spontaneous violence, rippling out from a council estate north of my home to gradually encompass every borough. Riots and looting were widespread. Cars, buses, and buildings have been torched.
 
I'm writing this from from the relative safety of a third floor flat in Hackney, east London. Over the last few days I've listened to nonstop sirens, watched armoured vehicles rumble past, helicopters hover overhead, as cops partitioned part of the neighbourhood. I have watched from the window as kids streamed down the alley toward or away from danger, watched on the news as riot police charged and bashed their way through crowds of angry, frightened teenagers armed with bricks.
 
***
 
Various commentators have urged parents to locate their children, and force them to go home. Part of me agreed. Another, larger part thought "parents, teach your children to wear masks."
 
Here is something that has been lost in the surging horror: the people who have taken control of our streets are protesting. Yes, there have been instances of frightening violence and disgusting thuggery. Hardened criminals have acted for personal gain, and there has been opportunistic crime at all levels.
 
But ignore the pundits and journalists and listen to the people on the street. This is a demonstration: an enormous number of kids are out there fuelled by massively destructive, inarticulate but defiantly ideological rage.
 
These are not middle class university students with press officers and the money to hire attorneys. The kids on the streets of London, Manchester, and Birmingham are not carrying signs with carefully constructed slogans, and that makes it far too easy to ignore or deride the background and political agenda of the crowd. But many do have a defined perspective. This week England is erupting with insane, virulent, and spontaneous class warfare.
 
The really frightening part is not the destruction of property, but the fact that the insurrection is so unformed, pointless, reckless. The kids involved (and they are often children; from all accounts mainly teenagers) don't seem to care, or have anything to lose.
 
Who are these kids? My daughter attends university in south London, in an area hit hard by looting, and she doesn't know anyone rioting. My son goes to secondary school in Hackney, where most of the kids are poor and immigrants - but his friends are all at home, terrified.
 
Many of the people out on the streets this week are usually invisible. They are part of an underclass, an underworld, where the rules are different and you have to take what you can to get through the day. Given the chance, many would in fact make something better out of their lives - but they don't get the chance. What little equilibrium existed even a year ago has now vanished, and they are raging. Because they have no hope, no future, nowhere to go and nothing to do.
 
I'm a working class woman living a middle class life and there is no way to reconcile the past with the present. I have everything I need but I know too much. Because I was raised in poverty my instincts are feral, grasping, and violent. I had to fight to survive, and I still walk through the world with my fists clenched.
 
On a visceral level I understand the shattering rage that is boiling through my adopted city. But while my heart is out there with the rioters, my head and hands are here writing an essay. Civil unrest has broken out near my home, and I'm being interviewed by the press about youth activism. This is painful, and confusing.
 
***
 
In a time of economic instability and high unemployment children have lost on every level, specifically around education. University is a complicated, fraught goal for kids who grow up in poverty, but at least it was a goal until a few months ago. Now they can't afford the fees, and they know it.
 
Throwing vast sums of money at preparations for the Olympics when nobody in the neighbourhood will be able to attend is at best problematic. Shutting down the youth centres was, in a word, stupid. Lecturing about personal responsibility while reducing direct aid is incendiary.
 
The boy photographed smashing the police car yesterday afternoon might be a stereotypical thug, as characterised by the tabloids, or maybe not. Either way I bet that he has a sister, brother, or cousin who is trying really hard to be good, who wants to be a doctor or lawyer or business owner. And the coalition government elected a little over a year ago has rapidly eroded their hopes for the future.
 
I managed to hustle and scheme my way out of poverty. My upward mobility was a struggle, but it was possible because I took advantage of government sponsored programs like free state schools, subsidised child care, and student grants. If the funding available to me as a youngster had been reduced by even five dollars a month, I would not have been able to stay in school. People who grow up with money and expectations do not understand this critical point; they have never wondered how they will pay for food, utilities, transportation, housing - and they never will.
 
It is offensive to tell poor people to take more responsibility for their lives, while cutting the grants that support their studies. What seems like pocket change to someone educated at Eton is the difference between life and death to a poor teenager.
 
I worked hard, but I was also lucky. I am not smarter or better than any of my relatives who were denied the same opportunities. What happens to intelligent people who are trapped by circumstance? The leading cause of death in my family is suicide, followed closely by murder. I know what real despair looks like. I know how the kid smashing the police car feels - even if I disagree with his actions.
 
Government systems were formed over the centuries to act as a neutral arbiter and enforcer of the common good. We have courts, politicians, and armies to act out the will of the people, schools and hospitals to serve the people. Not to act against the people. If you take away funding, cut the entire system to the core, you will get vigilante justice - and we are seeing that now. People are scared, and they are choosing sides.
 
Elderly people should not be out on the street trying to chasten a mob. Religious people should not be forced to defend their churches with cricket bats. Here in the United Kingdom in 2011, nobody should find themselves in a situation where that kind of courage is required. We pay taxes so we do not need to perform those tasks. But this message is somehow lost in the muddle and hysteria of the moment. People are reacting, not thinking. Or they are so cosseted by wealth and privilege they don't understand.
 
***
 
After the first night of widespread wanton violence the city reacted as best it could: banding together for protection, standing shoulder to shoulder, cleaning up every morning. That is how we will proceed. No matter where we were born, we are here, and we will figure out a way forward.
 
The fundamental truth is that while the riots were senseless, they were not insensible. Pushed to the very edge of sanity, people act insane. History and common sense could teach us some lessons; nothing that happened this week is unprecedented. The question is whether we are willing to listen, think, and try.
 
My neighbourhood is a place where misfits, bohemians, outsiders, and criminals have consorted for several hundred years. Shakespeare lived and worked down the road. William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and John Bunyan are buried here in a cemetery for Nonconformists. My building stands on the site of a city defense from the English Civil War. Nearby in 1936, the Battle of Cable Street saw activists rise up and refuse to let Fascists march. Several of the parks near my home are bomb sites reclaimed after the Blitz.
 
I live in the midst of history, between two famous mosques and two traditional synagogues, in a neighbourhood that has hosted generations of immigrants from all over the world. When you walk outside you can hear dozens of languages spoken; my son attends a school that is predominantly Turkish. He is the rarity, the only American.
 
This is a vibrant, strange, enthralling city and I moved here on purpose. The riots have been sickening, heartbreaking. But we can't ignore the violence, and we can't lie about the underlying problems.
 
The question is: what can we learn? How can we grow? We are all neighbours, whether we are criminals or saints or something in between. We are immigrants, expatriates, British, hyphenated and undefined, but we live here together. This place is our home. I stand in solidarity with the shopkeepers defending their stores, with the activists sweeping the streets, but also with the poor kids howling in rage.
 
Bee Lavender was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest but emigrated to Europe in 2004, where she lives in London with her family. Her books include a memoir about danger titled Lessons in Taxidermy. Other work appears in magazines, newspapers, anthologies, and radio programs in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Bee is the publisher of Hipmama.com and the founder of Girl-Mom, an advocacy project for teen parents.