Recent London riots insult the memory of Katrina's greater toll

Lens reporter Matt Davis tours the site of the former Reeves Furniture Store in suburban Croydon, seen burning on the front page of The Times-Picayune during the recent London riots. Photo by Nish.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

After plenty of research, reporting and countless conversations on the riots in England, it is my considered opinion as a native Englishman with dual U.S. citizenship, that sometimes, weird things just happen, and that the riots in England were just that: weird.

I arrived back in Blighty on August 20 for a long-planned vacation, burdened with a question many Americans had asked me: What was with those riots, anyway? Somehow, the more people I asked, the more the question came to feel basically unanswerable.

That’s not to say there is no merit in the many theories being put forward. Some of them, anyway.

Case in point. On August 10, the British newspaper, The Independent, ran an editorial under the headline: “Britain has experienced its Katrina moment.” On the same day, a photograph of my hometown ran on page one of The Times-Picayune with the caption: “A building burns Tuesday in Croydon, South London.”

Neither paper made me feel particularly proud.

I considered calling The Independent to ask why its editorial writers had chosen to diminish the experience of disaster victims in my adopted city with such a glib and ridiculous reference to Katrina. Yes, British Prime Minister David Cameron was lost in a Bush-like moment of political disengagement when the disaster struck. But what’s next? Describing a leaky dishwasher as a Katrina moment? Or, perhaps, likening a tire blowout on the Causeway to the Danziger Bridge killings?  The comparison by The Independent was, I think, ill-considered and in terrible taste: The riots in England did not result in anybody getting nine feet of water in her house, and while a dubious shooting by police officers may, at least in Tottenham, have precipitated the early rioting, what happened on this side of the pond was a rugby scrum compared to the mayhem associated with Katrina.

That said, I never expected to see my actual hometown on the front page of the paper of record in New Orleans. Suburban Croydon may have produced Kate Moss. (Its neighbor, Bromley, gave birth to David Bowie.) But these are places that such people left for a reason. Boredom.

Having already smiled aggressively through countless newsroom quips about employing News Of The World methods to enhance my stories during the phone-hacking scandal, I was also embarrassed to see that my country had generated a fresh round of unflattering headlines. To my surprise, I even found myself experiencing a brief, regrettable longing for another Royal Wedding to ease the gloom.

But the question stuck with me: What the hell happened? And it grew stronger as I walked around Croydon with my high school buddy Nish, who had graciously offered to check on my parents on the night of the worst rioting. We looked at shops with boards nailed over their windows and ate kebabs in a shop next to a burned-out block of apartments. The music store where I’d bought a guitar as a teenager had been looted and was locked. Bulldozers were scraping two entire city blocks that had been burned to the ground – like something out of the Blitz.

Nish said he had been glad to go and check on my parents, because, when he got my Facebook message, there was a group of people in one of the local pubs talking about arming themselves as vigilantes.

It was weird, he said.

Yeah. Weird. Because even some of my most liberal college friends had been on Facebook that night, wishing the police in England were armed, and saying, in effect, that it might have been a lot easier to just shoot the bastards.

Nish and I looked at what was left of Reeves Furniture, the store that had been featured, burning, on the front page of The Times-Picayune. Bulldozers flattened the ground as a man in a suit – a dead ringer for Sting of rock band fame — looked on.

“I think we’ve created an underclass,” the man said, when I asked him what he thought had happened. “There’s too many people without fathers, and there’s no structure. What bothers me is we have to spend taxpayer money to babysit these people to give them places to play, otherwise they do this.”

He was affable, perhaps a little conservative by English standards, but then his tone changed, and so did the look in his eyes.

“What we really need is a good war,” he said. “Send ’em all to the front and they’ll all get shot. The Nazis had the right idea.”

Nish told the man that perhaps one of the problems with his reasoning was that he was categorizing “these people,” the rioters, as “one group of people with one set of problems.”

I’m afraid I found myself responding rather more negatively to our Tory theoretician.

Over a cup of tea in a café with a view of the site, Nish reflected further. A Brit born of Mauritian parents, Nish has dark skin and has personally felt more scrutinized since the July 2005 terrorist attacks that killed many Londoners on buses and on the underground. Under new laws allowing British police offers to stop and search anybody at random — who needs a constitution, anyway? — Nish has been detained countless times. He calls it racial profiling. Still, he does not think the riots were racial in nature.

“I think back to what Kanye West said after Katrina about George Bush not caring about black people,” he said. “Here, it’s not about David Cameron not caring about black people. It’s not racial. Perhaps David Cameron doesn’t care about poor people.”

But even that doesn’t explain things, Nish said. Not entirely.


Maybe class has more to do with it. Nish and I met at a private high school where my striving middle-class parents had sent me, perhaps fearing the negative influence of the working class kids at the local “comprehensive,” a British term for public schools. I didn’t have any black friends growing up, but two of my good friends were Indian and Sri Lankan, born themselves of middle-class strivers. My parents say they wanted the best for me, and I see no hidden malignancy – racist or otherwise – behind their choice of schools.

On the other hand I was reminded by a former colleague, Nicola, that my nickname at the first newspaper where we both worked had been “Masbo,” combining the first letter of my Christian name with the abbreviation for “Anti-Social Behavior Order” — a citation, typically for loitering or delinquency, that British cops hand out to disenfranchised working-class kids. The moniker reflected my strong South London accent more than any criminal tendencies known to my colleagues. Nicola’s nickname, meanwhile, had been “Duchess,” because she pronounced her vowels very properly. Moving to the United States was probably the only way I was going to escape the class prejudice and blighted career that traditionally come to an Englishman with a South London accent. (Or at least it would provide escape from my own chip-on-the-shoulder insecurities about not talking like Nicola.)

Class, more than race, is still a factor in every interaction in modern British life, and it is something that, while accepted as a reality, continues to engender almost universal defensiveness, shame, and anxiety when probed too deeply. When, on New Orleans television, I compared the Royal Wedding to an Uptown boy marrying a girl from St. Bernard Parish, I was surprised to have offended anyone, because in Britain, such a comparison would be a simple statement of fact. In America, where most any British accent is mistaken for a badge of upper-crust breeding, it has proved difficult to explain that I was born to a pair of strivers in London’s equivalent of Hoboken, or, here in New Orleans, Chalmette.

Some of my newsroom colleagues have even begun calling me the “Duke of Chalmette,” since I made those remarks about William and Kate, and the irony is not lost on me.

As is true in New Orleans, race has a way of confusing any analysis of class differences – or similarities. A few days after the riots, Nish was at the wedding of some middle-class black friends.

“We were all sitting there having very intelligent conversations and listening to great music,” he recalled. Meanwhile, the press was obsessing about black rioters in hooded sweatshirts. “Nobody sees this,” he remembers thinking as his well-dressed friends danced and dined.

As a reporter I feel compelled to find reasons for things, but as a sometime columnist I am under pressure to have opinions while still trying to make up my mind. It has seemed easier, certainly, for the British media to trot out a few clichés and move on than to seriously explore the causes of the riots, or to encourage anybody to do much thinking or self-reflection at all. Plus ca change, I suppose. But this does all feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.

To see some pictures I took in Croydon on my walkabout with Nish, click here.


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  • Kevin

    A very interesting reflection from across the pond – obviously the scale of damage wasn’t Katrina/leveelike, but if it’s your hometown, of course it’s going to loom large.

    Like a lot of civil unrest, it seemed to have started with a flashpoint igniting years of righteous resentments… then quickly devolved into a consumerist destructive follow-the-leader sort of thing.

  • Zoe Sullivan

    Nice writing as usual, Matt. And I think you’ve pegged one essential aspect of American society: the dream is that everyone can “make it.” So discussions of class have been squelched or conflated with issues of race. There’d be more to say, but I’ll leave it for another time.

  • There was racial prejudice too in the mix. I remember in the 80s when I was living in London a red faced middle class strives complaining loudly about a beautiful Indian woman with a pram getting on a bus. I was mortified. But I think class lines, indeed, are the first to be drawn, for those who are White English. I always muse about the future when the entire country is, as we say, “Cafe au Lait”. I await your unraveling of this knot.

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