Friday, 26 August 2011


Just before 7pm on Tuesday I got the email that everyone dreams of getting from their spouse who's abroad.

Think there was just an earthquake here.

What? First of all, when you're advising your wife of a life threatening situation in which you currently find yourself it is customary to end said advisory with "I love you." Or really anything in that vein. Not my fella. He's more the facts guy.

I, naturally, immediately conjure up images of the sky scraper he's in swaying violently and the reclaimed land of Boston's financial district liquifying and the building sinking into the Atlantic. Then I read the message one more time and catch the all important word: think. Right, well, if he only thinks it's an earthquake and has the email access to notify me, it's unlikely he's currently swimming for the newly defined Massachusetts shoreline.

It reminded me of my first earthquake. I was living in Peru at the time with a lovely family and was upstairs talking to my then boyfriend (now husband) on the phone. Suddenly, there was a low roaring sound, unlike any sound I've heard. It explains stories of angry gods or beasts under the ground causing them. The rumbling roar rises from the ground until it is all encompassing and penetrates to the very fiber of your body. Meanwhile, all around me everything was shaking, the two story house was swaying and my Peruvian 'grandmother' was shouting up to me in a panicked screech, "Terremoto! Terremoto! Terremoto!!!" Yep, got it, earthquake. My poor fella on the phone, though, got a bit of a shock when I told him why there was shouting on my end. Think he would have learned his lesson. Maybe the email was just his version of payback.

Back in Boston, it all came out that there was in fact an earthquake. The epicenter of the 5.8 on the Richter Scale quake was down in Virginia, just over 500 miles away. Fortunately, there don't seem to be any injuries or major damage (even to the nuclear power plants in the area).

Very fortunate as they're all now battening down the hatchets in preparation for Hurricane Irene who is barreling up the east coast of the US, having already wreaked havoc down in the Caribbean. Quite the week if you happen to live in that corner of the world.

Meanwhile some Londoners in Notting Hill are battening down the hatches from something else that comes from the Caribbean: Carnival! Some people are very concerned that this weekend's two day party and celebration of Caribbean culture will provide an opportunity for more rioting. The Met is putting 10,000 officers on the streets where the party will be and an additional 4,000 throughout the rest of the city. I say, enjoy the jerk chicken and take it as it comes!

On the plus side, you can all now understand "earthquake" in another language.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Blog, Tweet and Facebook Status Update for Your Rights

Today the British government is considering the possibility of shutting down social networking sites during times of "violence, disorder and criminality." Should the BBC also stay home? Maybe we should all close our blinds and not look outside. Definitely, we should all have to turn off our cameras and, naturally, mobile phones are off limits. I'm sure there are some autocratic regimes out there who could suggest some other ways of controlling the population.

Anyone who has read this blog before, knows that I am staunchly against this so called political protests that seemed focused on stealing designer duds and expensive electronics. However, I am also a rabid defender of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Of course, it is wrong to incite violence, but there's a grey area between political protest and incitement. Who do we want making that distinction? I am confident I don't want police and politicians making that call in the height of panic and imposing a blanket silence order on the internet. Would this little blog be banned given my first hand accounts of living in London during the riots? I hardly think it's incendiary, but it's also not a glowing endorsement of British government, policing and the establishment in general. I bet Colonel Ghaddafi would be behind the proposal.

Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin of the Metropolitan Police said last week that "the legality of that [shutting down social networking sites] is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset."

David Cameron said in parliament today that he's looking into it to see if it would be "right" to shut down social media websites when they're being used to incite "violence, disorder and criminality."

This afternoon Nick Clegg told the BBC, "We're not going to become like Iran or China. We're not going to start suddenly cutting people off. As it happened thos social media sites were also quite useful for the police to communicate with people and they're also quite useful for people to communicate with each other to avoid trouble. So there's another side to the story. And we will proceed with this with great, great deal of care. We won't do anything sort of preemptive."

Spokeswoman for civil rights group Liberty even concurred saying that there's nothing to show that social networking caused the trouble, but we can see the benefits in policing & prosecuting.

What's clearly being missed by all of these people is that it's not the positive side of social media that should save it, it's the belief in freedom of speech and freedom of communication and should save it. Even if kids are out there doing damage to private property, I still have a right to write. I have a right to provide my account and you have a right to read it. We need to fight for our rights because they are our rights, not because on the whole they do more positive than negative primarily because often the true valuation of actions can only be made in hindsight. Buildings can be rebuilt, shops can be restocked, but if we forfeit our basic rights they won't be as easy to recover.

Also, I encourage everyone to listen very carefully to the politicians and decision makers. It is easy to be swept away by fear, but we must keep level heads. David Cameron is considering whether to shut down websites when they are being used to incite "violence, disorder and criminality."
Violence - OK, I'm against violence.
Criminality - Well, I want a definition of this. Does this mean if someone scrawls anti-government graffiti that David can impose a blanket ban of facebook links to a photo of it? It's criminal, but it's hardly the same as encouraging people to set a building on fire in Clapham Junction.
Disorder - I'm down with disorder. Protests are essential to a healthy democracy. I want to be able to protests decisions with which I disagree and I want to be able to post on this social media site that I strongly object to David Cameron's use of language that clearly endangers the right of the people of the United Kingdom to protest. I don't burn buildings, I don't attack people on the street, but if I march in a rally, it could probably be classed as "disorder."

So listen up. Britain has the opportunity here to be a leader and to show that it is a progressive country, but it's the responsibility of all who live here to listen to the policy makers and to make sure that they're listening to us and representing us. Don't let them spin this into something that diminishes our rights.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police say: Please go to our website & check our flicker account!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Denoument

I apologize for the extreme delay in posting. If I'm honest, it's because this piece is one of the hardest I've written. Sitting in London, watching the news, reading the papers, it's difficult to balance the reality of what happened last week with rational thought and compassion. The civil rights of many were violated, but that's nothing new so who's right and who's wrong? And, more importantly, where do we go from here?

After some very hectic and tense days across the country, England seems to be breathing again. People aren't  waiting to find hooligans knocking down their garden walls in search of bricks to use as weapons. Shops are keeping their regular hours and people in restaurants and pubs aren't wondering if they'll be robbed before they can order another g&t.

Unfortunately, we also seem to have returned to the social status quo. Gangs are being blamed for the rioting, entire swaths of society have been called "sick" by the prime minister and the government is calling on the Los Angeles police department for assistance in handling gang violence. Interesting. Do they know that LA has terrible race tensions and gang wars? I'm not convinced that they're the shining example of diversity and peaceful living.

Meanwhile, middle class England has returned to their jobs, their weekend city breaks and their glasses of Pimm's. They scurry past council estates, not noticing the kids sitting around with nothing to do and no where to go on their six weeks summer holidays. These are the kids we should be training to be future leaders of their own communities. These are the kids that will make positive change, but we have to enable them to develop skills to help themselves. Anyone who has ever worked in community development will tell you that the change has to come from empowerment within communities, not from politicians or other outsiders.

No doubt, these empty conversations will continue for some time, with little social or political action. However sentences are being handed out to some perpetrators. The courts seem to intent on handing down tough sentences. So tough, that human rights groups are up in arms. Low income families being threatened with eviction from government housing because their teen was an idiot one night last night. Jail sentences for dumb kids who posted stupid messages on facebook inciting riots that never happened. Now, I don't know the full story - most people commenting on it don't - so I feel unqualified to pass final judgement on these situations, but I do feel that the solution can't possibly be kicking people when they're down. Surely each of these cases ought to be judged on its own merits and placed in its own context. A blanket judgment that all families with any member who had anything to do with rioting will be made homeless. Does that really solve a problem?

What about the family of five whose eldest child at fourteen was swept away by mob mentality? This child is doing well at school, has never been in trouble before, has no gang ties and has an involved, albeit single, mom (maybe she's a widow, maybe there isn't a deadbeat dad). Maybe this boy received a flurry of messages one night last week and sneaked out the house when mom was putting the younger kids to bed. He didn't go out intending to burn down a building and make other families homeless. He didn't even consider consequences like that because he's a fourteen-year-old boy and they don't consider consequences. None of them, not even the wealthy ones. Mom can't go out after him because she's got four younger kids at home to take care of so she calls and texts him all night long telling him to come home and not to do anything stupid.

Maybe he robs an i-phone 4, because who doesn't want one? Mom can't afford it, but there it is, right there, in his buddy's hand and all he has to do is take it. There's no police so he does. Woops, he forgot about CCTV cameras. Busted. Now, because they live in a council house they're being evicted. He's missing school because he has to serve a sentence so he'll be behind next year and lose interest, even if he doesn't drop out he still has a criminal record so he can't get a job. For the rest of his life he has to tell every employer that he was really dumb, one night when he was a kid. Long after the i-phone has gone the way of the A-track. Meanwhile, Mom gets evicted because her son was involved in the looting. What chance do we give her other four kids now that they're homeless. Do we really reckon they're going to get A*s in their A levels and go to Oxford?

None of this is to say that the looters, regardless of age, shouldn't be punished. Of course, they should, but we need to think carefully about how we proceed from here. Just because the public is crying out for something doesn't mean it's right or that we should do it. Knee jerk reactions don't help. Didn't we learn that last week?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Silence In the Morning

I think it's a good sign if the police are back giving directions to tourists!
We all woke up this morning, took our showers and life goes on. Rumour has it that five pubs were under attack with both the tills and the patrons robbed and that a Tesco's was also hit. The neighbour who told me this didn't know which pubs had the trouble and I had a cycle by the Tesco's  today, which was open for business and didn't look any worse the wear. Another rumour states that there was rioting at Victoria Shopping Centre and the sirens were going constantly for most of the night, but it seems like the police had a pretty good handle on it all. Who really knows, it all seems like mash of rumors and guess work. There's still a heavier than normal police presence, but it's nothing like last night. Fewer than a dozen officers in Victoria Station at lunch time , but still out and about. Hopefully, they got a bit of a rest during the day, today, before getting called back in for the night shift.

Police van in central London
Meanwhile, thugs reigned in Manchester. The rumours are that professional criminals were organizing the kids who were looting and generally leading police on what looked like a wild goose chase. There have been claims that the rioters had scouts on BMX bikes riding around to find locations without police to which to lead the rioters who were on foot. They would allegedly start looting one shot, then move on when the police showed up, only to circle back through side streets.

Sadly, three men died this morning in Birmingham when they were run over by a car. They died on the street in full view of neighbors and rioters. They were three young men in their early twenties who were, according to their families, trying to protect their property from looters.

The news today is picking up on the "real message" behind the riots. Now, while I think it's probably premature to make sweeping generalizations about the cause of this behaviour, it's certainly something that needs to be addressed. This blog entry worries me, though. To validate what has been happening here as genuine political protest is dangerous and counter productive. While it is, of course, regrettable that their 2,000 person march to Scotland Yard didn't garner the media attention they wanted and may well have deserved, the next step is not stealing televisions and setting buildings on fire.

I'm a supporter of demonstrations and even of civil disobedience, but I am not a supporter of burning down people's homes and stealing people's livelihoods. This isn't even on the level of the ANC in South Africa who attacked government installations to protest apartheid. They made efforts not to do violence. I just can't see that stealing high priced goods and burning buildings that contain both shops and flats is effective, appropriate and/or genuine political protest.

None of this is to say that there shouldn't be more opportunities, support and services for youths of all economic backgrounds. Of course we need to not only have these discussions but also improve our investments in all parts of our society, however, this is not the way to achieve those goals. They are giving a bad name to the youth of the UK and perpetuating what seems to be a terrible class war that is being waged.

There will be a lot more on all of this from all sorts of people over the coming days, weeks and, if we are lucky, months and years. So, I shall leave it at that for now and wait for more information before making any further judgements.

The 5pm update: Most shops and restaurants were still open, but there were markedly more people actually in the restaurants. Pubs, seemed as popular as ever. Sainsbury's manager told me that they would be "playing it by ear" tonight, but that they would definitely be closed by 10pm, instead of their usual 11pm closing time. People still seem cautious, but in much better form tonight. I think we're all hoping that last night's crackdown will have taken the wind out of the trouble makers' sails.

The police force, however, had been beefed up again as the evening rush hour set in. There were vans of police everywhere and at least a dozen officers just in the main area of Victoria Station.

Here's to another night on the edge.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London is burning and all the world's aTwitter

Beginning late Saturday night, London has been ravaged by rioting and violence. It appears to have stemmed from the shooting of a man named Mark Duggan by police. The main problem being reported is that's all the credible information that has been disseminated. There are rumors that he was a drug dealer and the founder of a gang, and rumors that he was a dedicated family man. There are rumors that he instigated a shoot out with police and rumors that he only had a replica gun and police just gunned him down. Meanwhile, it's August, people are on holidays and we've even had a couple of very hot days and nights. Saturday night wasn't one of them, unless yours was one of the flats, businesses or vehicles set ablaze.

Shockingly, it seems that the majority of the trouble makers are children. Many young teenagers (15 and under), but also people are reporting kids as young as 10. They are looting shops and now, setting fire to buildings. People are being made homeless and one 26-year-old man has died of gunshot wounds, while an elderly man has been hospitalized after he was knocked down during a riot.

I had my first dentist appointment today and he said he lives close to Croyden where he said there was trouble just at the end of his road. A friend of his had just gone into his house last night when he looked out his window to see a group of kids surround a moving BMW. They brought it to a halt, dragged the driver out of the car and drove away.

Sainsbury's closed at 5pm tonight

Police presence at Victoria Station 5pm

Police vans instead of taxis at Victoria
The Metropolitan Police say they have 16,000 police on the streets tonight and some of them are walking beats all around Victoria, which is under threat of attack tonight. They are talking to people and shop owners and generally just making themselves seen. As of 5pm pretty much every shop was closing, the bank was closing and even some of the restaurants and cafes. Even the Marks & Spencers in Victoria Station had locked its doors to the street and was only allowing customers in from the station, which had at least a dozen officers walking around inside. Outside the station were police vans replacing the usual taxis and at least 7 or 8 groups of officers standing around. It was a strange atmosphere of rush hour in a ghost town. Thousands of people leaving work, but no shops open. A mix of anger, nervousness and just getting on with life. Naturally, the pubs that were still open were filled with people who had been let out of work early. Nothing messes with the English desire for a good gin and tonic or pint, I guess.

One of the major organizing tools that the youths are using are social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. There are also claims that virtual invitations have been going out via text message and the Black Berry Messaging system. Come on down to your local riot. Free stuff and general mayhem. Not an exact quotation, naturally, as I have not been privy to such an invitation, but that's my understanding of what's going around. In an attempt to take back the city other residents have been using the same methods to call for cleanups. Today in Clapham Junction there was a major cleanup that has apparently gone viral on YouTube.
Commuters and dozens of police at Victoria Station

See photos of the riots here.

It's despicable behaviour and one has to wonder what the parents of these children are thinking and doing. No doubt some of these kids were in trouble and uncontrollable before now, but according to the BBC several of them made court appearances today and were upstanding citizens before the last couple of days. One would hope that parents would keep their kids indoors, if for no other reason than their own safety.

The riots are now spreading with violence and crime last night in Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. Oh, and breaking news: Riots in Manchester city centre. Clearly not a political protest. This is just people rioting for rioting's sake.

Interestingly, there are people complaining about the mayor's plan to flood the streets with five times the usual amount of police officers. They reckon that the issues are bigger than rioting and that because we can't possibly sustain a level of 16,000 officers on the streets at all time, we should be addressing the larger issues instead. Really? I'm not sure that we can solve the alienated youth problem today, so perhaps we should stop the rioting while addressing the big problems. Seems like this is a situation where we ought to be prioritizing, not waxing philosophical.

In the meantime, though, we batten down the hatches and thank the 16,000 police who are at work tonight.

Here we go for another night in The Lord of the Flies.