An American Expat’s Take on the UK Riots

Young people of color feel that there is no place for them in ancient Europe, says Chicago-born playwright Bonnie Greer.

Most African Americans — like most Americans — see England as a quaint place of afternoon teas, the queen, rose gardens and good manners.

Rose gardens are not very far from Westminster Magistrates’ Court, close to the Houses of Parliament, where a young black British woman, college educated and not quite 20 years old, stood clad in a tracksuit last week and admitted that she had looted a huge flat-screen TV from her local shop.

She said that she hadn’t been able to sleep since then and had walked the TV and herself into the cop shop, where she was taken into custody. The district judge took into account the young woman’s surrendering herself to the police and sent her on her way for sentencing later.

In the end, the young woman may not do jail time. But the United Kingdom is a small country, and her name and face are known. Unless a miracle happens, this young black woman’s life is utterly ruined. 

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, I have lived in London now for 25 years. I came over from New York to do a play for what I thought would be six months. I’ve done many things, mainly in the field of culture, and even added British nationality to my American citizenship.

I’ve taught Shakespeare to black students in Brixton, London’s equivalent of Harlem. Once, when I called my London-born black class “English,” they took my head off. “English,” to them, meant the white racists who had harassed their parents and who used the St. George’s Cross, the national flag of England, as a whites-only badge of honor. England? They wanted no part of England.

That was two decades ago. A young man interviewed just the other day said that he felt like an immigrant in his own country, that England meant nothing to him. He came from Tottenham, where the English riots began.

Tottenham is a section of North London a bit like parts of Brooklyn, N.Y. It is full of people of African descent, immigrant and native born, but also other nationalities and colors, along with a smattering of artists. A Roman road, typically straight as an arrow and more than a thousand years old, runs down the middle of it.

Now known as Tottenham High Street, it used to be covered with the kinds of stores that you can find anywhere in a working-class community: record stores, computer shops, clothes stores, fast food, hairdressers, barbershops and so on. Today, after the community was invaded by rioters joining Tottenham-raised folks who hijacked a peaceful demonstration after the police shot a local black man, this main street looks like a war zone.