Keep Calm: An American Student’s Experience of the London Riots

The maxim of the British people is “Business as usual.”
[Winston Churchill]

Over the centuries, the British have managed to cultivate a strong image to the rest of the world. If you were to ask me to describe the British in one word, I would say, “civilized.” They drink tea, speak the Queen’s English, produced Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Dame Judi Dench. In my mind, England is “mummy,” and the rest of the English-speaking world looks to her for guidance and acceptance.

And that’s a lot to live up to.

It’s an unfair and illogical assessment: the Queen doesn’t even speak the Queen’s English anymore – although she doesn’t sound like a chav, either; Shakespeare was no prim and proper poet – read between all of those “thees” and “thous” and you’ll find a very naughty and vulgar man; and yes, there is Judi Dench, but they also produced Ozzy Osbourne.

In short, the British might have set a high standard for themselves, and the world might hold them to it, but at the end of the day, they’re just people.

And if there is one thing I’ve learned in the past twenty-five years, it’s that people can and will disappoint you. Hurt you, even.

People generally suck.

By now I’m sure you’ve all heard about the riots that have happened in London (and elsewhere in England) this week. (If you haven’t, where have you been? Under a rock?) I’m not going to talk about the politics involved and who shot whom or how the Met should have handled things, or anything like that. Frankly, I have no right to do so: I’m not British, I’m a guest in this country, and I refuse to be a typical American and stick my nose into something that doesn’t concern me.

What I want to do is tell you what I’ve observed.

I grew up in the safest stan country of Central Asia: Kazakhstan. Only a mountain range away from war and Taliban and devastation, yet I have never seen a protest or a riot or any sort of anarchist act before in my life. I had to leave Central Asia and come to England of all places to see for myself what happens when people stop caring about what’s right and what’s wrong.

It’s a terrifying thought.

When the first riots happened in Tottenham, I was tucked safely away in bed in my friend Rebecca’s guest room in a completely different city. I heard rumors the next day, but I didn’t realize how bad the situation was until Sunday night as I went to bed and my sister posted a news article to my Facebook and asked if I was okay.

That Monday morning, I was more concerned with the lesson I had to teach than to realize that anything else was happening in the world. I heard more of it mentioned at lunch, but it wasn’t until I was going home on the tube that I realized the seriousness of the situation.

I stood on the escalators and read in The Evening Standard that the police were warning people to stay away from Oxford Circus as that was the newest target discussed by rioters on Twitter.

I read this as I climbed on a train that would take me to Oxford Circus where I had to switch lines.

Reason told me that this article had been written some time ago, and that it was quite possible the rioters were not heading to Oxford Circle – I seriously doubt rioters stick to a schedule (“What’s next on the agenda?” “Oh, looting in Islington, and then a fire in Clapham Junction.” “Right, well, best get a move on – don’t want to be late. How embarrassing would that be?”). Naivety told me that everything was under control.

I breezed through Oxford Circus, jumped on the Victoria line and made it home with not a hint of trouble.

Tuesday was different.

By Tuesday – four days after the initial night of rioting – the people of London were scared. They didn’t say they were, they didn’t break down into hysterics, but it was obvious that everyone was walking on eggshells. Conversations about the rioters always came with the not-so-subtle context of “Should we be afraid?” and “How long is this going to continue?”

During our last session of the day, a member of the administration came into our classroom and gave us a spiel about being safe and learning more than one route to get to school (a couple of tube stations had been closed for the last two days) and that if we were in housing and we felt our neighborhoods were unsafe, then we would be moved.

Again, I was left with a feeling of fear – not that I was going to be hurt by a gang member, but simply that I couldn’t understand what was going on. I saw the news, I heard the reports, but the reality of it all could not be processed by my mind.

We left school early that day – all of us; no one wanted to stay later than necessary, not even to work ahead. I wanted to go to the Sainsbury’s next door, but as I approached the doors, a salesclerk was chaining them closed and the lights were being switched off – at 5:30 p.m.! The coffee shops were dark, the cafes locked, and everyone was quiet as we made our way into the Underground. The British are always quiet in the underground, but on Tuesday it was as if they didn’t want to breathe too loudly.

I came home and thankfully the Tesco’s was open and busy. As I entered the house where I’m staying, I was greeted with, “Are you okay?” and “Did you see the rioters?” and “They’re saying on Facebook that Bloomsbury’s been hit!”

Bloomsbury is where I have my classes.

That night we watched the fires on the news and I kept an eye on Twitter and tumblr, and went to bed with mixed feelings. Whether or not Bloomsbury and Holborn and the like had been hit was debatable as most talk about that was just internet rumor (mostly thriving on tumblr because Mark Gatiss and Paul McGuigan of the cast and crew from BBC’s Sherlock had tweeted that shooting on Gower Street – which is one tube stop from my school – had been shut down early when real police officers showed up on set and told them to leave because rioters were coming), but the city was still being hurt.

I fell asleep that night praying for this beautiful city.

The next morning, I was relieved to hear that “it was quiet last night in London.” The trains on the central line were emptier than I have ever seen. Police officers were more visible. By the end of the day, the city had finally stopped holding her breath.

And the closest I ever came to the riots was the aftermath of broken glass and rumors.

By Thursday night I had lost myself in my studies once more.

And while I said before that people can suck, the truth is that when they do, there’s always someone who will stand up and do something to stop it.

Hence the cleanup projects across England.

I would like to end on this note: the British have strength and determination. They have a desire to do what’s right. They care about each other.

In the end, it’s always business as usual.


9 thoughts on “Keep Calm: An American Student’s Experience of the London Riots

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a TEFL Trainee: A Study in Faith « WanderLust

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