Woolwich has been my home for six years. It has always felt safe. Even during the riots, I wandered down the high street past smashed windows, past looters in hoodies. Yes, it was unsettling, there was a sense of anger and frustration, but it was directed at property, and sometimes at the police, it wasn’t divided along racial or religious lines. Most of all, it didn’t make a dent in the community.
Soon, the clean-up mission began, people were talking on street corners about the minority who’d caused destruction in the place we all live. People were bonded by it. Fellow commuters chatted on the tube, shopkeepers shared commiserations and life went on; the impact was minimal, the town was quickly healed.
Last night was different. After the ripples from the daytime atrocities filtered through to the night, the streets were thick with tension. At around 11.30pm, the usual late night shops were shut and I chose to take the most open, well-lit road home, it’s usually populated by small happy crowds, sharing a beer or laughing inside the late-night hairdressers and barbers shops, or gathering round the central square. Last night people were in tiny groups, hunched, tense and hardly talking. Police, on foot and in cars were patrolling near the station.
I’ve written before about how the geography of Woolwich divides the town – the rich on one side, the poor on the other, but it has never felt racially divided, until last night.
When I reached home, the EDL were outside my house. Most of them had been dispersed by the police but occasionally someone would appear, shouting abuse, some men with their hoods up ran down the street. Inside, my housemate told me around 30 EDL members had gathered outside, chanting “EDL, EDL” and shouting racist slurs. He showed me a series of videos on his phone. It was disturbing to see our house, our neighbours’ houses, the little trees that grow nearby; everything was so familiar and yet it had been invaded by an alien presence, one based on fear and anger and confusion. I don’t know what tonight will be like, but I hope that those who make Woolwich a great place to live will stand up to the fear and lies that spread yesterday and unite a town that feels perilously close to being broken in two.