London hasn’t fallen yet

We are not afraid? It’s become tragically commonplace for cities to declare defiance to acts of terror, and proclaim their resolve to thwart attempts to disrupt normal life. London did the same again this week, reacting to the Saturday night terror attack that claimed eight lives   -  REUTERS

Us and them: Immigration has become an increasingly emotive issue in British politics in the wake of the Brexit referendum   -  REUTERS

The cosmopolis is no stranger to acts of terrorism, but beyond the flowers, candles and vigils, there are underlying concerns about keeping xenophobia at bay

On Monday (June 5), a cold and breezy evening, hundreds of Londoners gathered in Potters Fields Park by City Hall, on the banks of the Thames, for a vigil for those who died and sustained injuries in the Saturday night terror attack. Old and young, and some with children in tow, from different communities, some with flowers, some in tears, they clapped and cheered as mayor Sadiq Khan, who was only recently trolled on Twitter by the US President Donald Trump, stood up to speak. “London stands in defiance against the cowardly act,” said Khan. “Our unity and love for one another will always be stronger than the hate of extremists. London will never be broken.”

At the end of the vigil, a group of Muslim men, young and old, stood silently by City Hall, with signs condemning the weekend attack. ‘Love for All Hatred for None’, declared their banners. Some Londoners gathered around the group, and clapped in support.

It was down the road from this gathering that Khuram Butt and Rachid Redouane, residents of the east London neighbourhood of Barking, mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge around 10pm Saturday. Accompanied by Youssef Zaghba — the third assailant — the men then ran into bars and restaurants in nearby Borough Market, stabbing locals and tourists. While much of the area remained cordoned off on Monday, the nearby station of London Bridge — one of the city’s busiest — was back in operation, with hundreds of people streaming by, and even a band blasting electronic music on a walkway above. Aside from heavy police presence and mourners who gathered in corners to place flowers in memory of the eight dead, there was little visible sign of what had transpired less than 48 hours ago. Pictures of those still missing, however, caused uneasiness.

It’s become tragically commonplace for cities to declare defiance to acts of terror, and proclaim their determination to stand up to the attempts to divide and divert from normal life. However, London’s ability to do this over the years has been remarkable. No stranger to acts of terrorism, from the days of the Irish Republican Army, the city’s response to 7/7 — the 2005 bombings which killed 52 people on London’s transport system — set the tone for what many metropolises followed. People swiftly returned to work, as then mayor Ken Livingstone declared that the terrorists would fail. “They seek to divide Londoners… Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack.” Even on the evening of the attack, as public transport came to a standstill, and the screech of sirens could be heard, people gathered in the city’s restaurants and bars to reflect on the day’s events. Just days later a peace rally took place in Russell Square, in memory of those who had been killed or injured, but which also bravely sought to make a wider political point, drawing a link between the attack and the war on Iraq, which many in Britain opposed.

In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, the city witnessed a surge in hate crimes and attacks on Muslims and others from minority communities, as it emerged that the culprits were second-generation Britons. This also triggered, arguably for the first time, concerns about homegrown extremism. However, that surge soon subsided, following strong statements from community leaders across the board and also political leaders.

What will happen in the aftermath of the June 3 attack remains to be seen: it is the third attack on British soil in three months, perpetrated by British citizens (only Zaghba had an Italian passport), with ISIS claiming some form of responsibility. The political environment is also very different.

Immigration has become an increasingly emotive issue in British politics in the wake of the Brexit referendum, with anecdotal evidence suggesting a rise in hate crimes. Like much of Europe, Britain and London are seeing a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. Istreetwatch, an online tool for reporting and mapping hate crimes in the UK that was set up by the Migrant Rights Network, provides a chilling picture of the things Londoners have had to endure, some from the European mainland, some Asian, some black. In April, mayor Khan launched a new police unit to tackle online hate crime, thus highlighting the rise of intolerance in this area too.

The voices of the intolerant have also been given a more prominent platform since the 2005 attack. They include Katie Hopkins, a right-wing commentator for Daily Mail (recently dropped by a London radio station for her call for a ‘final solution’ after the Manchester attack) who lashed out at London for its measured response to the Westminster Bridge attack in March 2017. “An entire city of monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Blind.. Deaf and Dumb,” she wrote, facing condemnation and ridicule for her remarks. This week she took to her column to praise Prime Minister Theresa May’s pronouncement that “enough is enough”, and condemn the “fascist liberals”, urging May to intern the 3,000 people on the UK’s terror watch list.

The likes of Hopkins have a sizeable support base, but there are many reasons to believe that the whole of London will not succumb to such views. In 2011, the capital city was forced to confront racial tensions as well as economic divisions heightened by austerity measures, as several days of rioting and looting followed the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan (who was black). In May 2013, London had to contend with the killing of Lee Rigby, a British solider, who was hacked to death by two radicals. “This horrific attack was intended to divide communities. It had largely the opposite effect, and has in fact, brought people together,” said Cressida Dick, then head of the Metropolitan Police’s special operations unit (and now Met Commissioner).

While diversity is nothing new or unique in many European cities, many visitors to London will have been struck by the way in which it sits comfortably in its multicultural skin. There are, of course, pockets of division but, by and large, neighbourhoods are a mishmash of communities, races and religions — mixed couples and friendship groups are a common sight.

It’s also a city that has stood up to attempts to polarise. The victory of Khan in the mayoral election last year was a testament to London’s rejection of Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s aggressive campaign, which sought to portray his challenger as an extremist.

This is, of course, not to minimise the challenges that lie before London and the wider country. The two recent attacks in the city have led to the acknowledgement that Britain’s current anti-terror strategy is flawed, and that the new threat facing the nation is a different one, where individuals without substantial network and without much forethought, and armed only with low-tech means, cause devastation.

Following the London Bridge attack, a hospital consultant revealed to British news channels that one of his Muslim colleagues, who had worked to save lives on the night of the assault, had been racially abused. More such stories are likely to emerge. But the coming months, during which London will face perhaps one of its greatest challenges to date, is also its opportunity to show its strongest, unified best.



Published on June 09, 2017

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