Deborah Orr: The strength of my shattered community

Many of us in Stockwell are taken aback by the intensity of our sorrow over this killing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

But if anyone imagines that the local people in this scrap of inner-city London - where social exclusion is endemic, gun crime is rife, and the population is diverse enough to be atomised - are inured enough to be unbowed by this grotesque disaster, then they are quite, quite mistaken.

In Stockwell, many of us are, I think, taken aback by the strength of our sorrow and the depth of our regret. We know it should not, in the greater scheme of things, be of great consequence to us - the fact that this monstrously tragic narrative unfolded on our patch and not someone else's. But it did, and it is.

But this is not just about getting too close to the action, or discovering sadly but wryly that even in global conflict Nimbyism is a powerful motivating force. It's also about feeling the infection yourself. On the buses on Saturday and in the streets, after the bombings, the attempted bombings, the shooting, the local arrests, the sweatshirt abandoned nearby by a fleeing terror suspect, the endless sirens, the restless helicopters and so on, I had become a harbinger of fear myself.

I was lucky enough as this deluded caricature of getting-on-with-normal-life progressed to receive a round-robin e-mail from local Liberal Democrat councillor Anthony Bottrall. It announced that in the wake of the awful local events, the Stockwell Faith Forum - a group that promotes dialogue among religious groups in the community - was convening a public meeting in a community centre that aimed to let people share their feelings and express their emotions. The borough commander for Lambeth, Martin Bridger, would be attending as would the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick.

In the small packed hall, as in most large groups, people were slow at first to speak. Encouraged first to speak quietly with the person sitting next to us, we were then asked to share thoughts with the whole group. Women initially set the tone, not only Catriona Roberts, who had organised the event, but also a mother who spoke of her distress at seeing Stockwell on television, getting so much attention for this death, when the community needed help all the time in helping to save "young brothers" from gun death, in both Stockwell and Brazil.

Others spoke of their need to know what chain of events had led to the death of Mr de Menezes, while at the same time expressing sympathy with the position of the police. Gradually though, the voices of conciliation or empathy were replaced by more strident voices. A patrician-looking Asian man gave a long and perfectly modulated disquisition on the part the Iraq war had played in the death of Mr de Menezes, and received the first round of applause of the evening.

A middle-aged man introduced himself as a barrister, and began a speech worthy of any show trial which culminated in an accusation of "state killing". More applause, but bowed, despairing heads as well, including mine. The death of Mr de Menezes is political enough already. He should not now be used as a powerful point in a long-running argument.

Then an Irish mother, attending the meeting with her teenage son, stood up passionately to say how much she disliked the rash of political speeches that was coming to dominate the meeting and which "took us nowhere". This was a place for a different sort of reflection, and her intervention saved this group from being subsumed in the call-and-response routine of the many political meetings.

There were, however, formal speeches, with various local religious and community leaders sharing their reflections on the events of the past few days.

Toaha Qureshi, of the Stockwell Green mosque, spoke from his heart about the sadness he felt not just at the big things, the murder and mayhem abroad in the world in the name of his peaceful religion, but at the smaller things, like his own sudden comprehension that his white, embroidered robes were being looked at with suspicion.

Various Christian churchmen and women spoke. It was interesting to see how their more philosophical messages - meditations of the nature of anger, and of fear, reflections on the power of faith and trust - were underpinned by a shared understanding of the international political factors that they believed were contributory factors - Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the US-Saudi relationship.

Finally, the police spoke. First Martin Bridger explained how he had come to pay his respects as a father to Mr de Menezes and his family, and not just as a policemen. A practical man rather than a philosopher, and only six months in his job on this sprawling chunk of London, he spoke of his continual surprise as he had gone about his work at the level of community engagement and dedication He spoke from the heart, which was what mattered.

As did Brian Paddick, who still lives locally even though it was his policy of openness towards, and engagement with, all members of his community that began the process that led to his removal as borough commander for Lambeth a few years ago. Paddick reminded us in Stockwell that while Ken Livingstone recently described London as a place where any person could be themselves as long as they hurt no one else, Lambeth had been such a place for longer even than the rest of the city.

It may not sound like much - maybe you had to be there - but this modest meeting was full of understanding and wisdom, so much more than can be heard in the words of politicians, activists, journalists and commentators. It will be hard to begin with, under the pressure we find ourselves. But somehow we all must strive to open our hearts and our minds instead of shutting them and hope that others will start doing the same.

The police team involved in the chain of events that led to the death of Mr de Menezes must make a leap of faith and offer unflinching testimony. If they are honest in their evidence, then their fears and mistakes will be understood and sympathised with. Only the truth can illuminate this dark story and bring precious insight. The same goes for the bigger story of which this is a tragic, lamentable paragraph.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments