A soldiers life is one tragic case in the history of a small part of London that has been allowed to drift out of sight and out of mind.
The community of Woolwich reminds me of shifting fault lines, which create the vulnerability of earthquakes. Like most of London its is melting pot of changing demographics, cultures, faiths and races, but unlike most of London it is a place of polarisation. It is a place of reluctant acceptances and begrudged tolerances. There maybe a dome close by, but this part of London never milked the riches of the greedy 80s and it is destined to suffer most in the austerity hit UK.
The upper echelons of the aspiring white working class, which until the 1960s supplied an abundance of labour too the surrounding military industries have by and large shifted out to the enclaves of Charlton, Eltham, Plumstead and if lucky to the Lewisham boarders of Blackheath. Neighbouring places like Thamesmead, where the buildings are almost entirely of concrete, in a Cubist/Brutalist/Modernist style, and include a number of high-rise blocks that provided the back drop for Stanley Kubrick’s ugly and violent A Clockwork Orange film.
With it’s historically pride rooted in the manufacturing of war munitions it is the birthplace of Woolwich Arsenal Football Club, which spread its wings and flow north of the river to became one of the largest football clubs in the world. The nickname of the modern Arsenal Football Club ‘The Gunners’ remains the only evidence of its birth cord back to Woolwich. Not 10 minutes travel by car towards the tourist trap of Greenwich meantime you will find yourself in the Valley home to Charlton Football Club.
Football was a fundamental working class sport and until the TV rights greed of the modern game football was the cheap and accessible entertainment of the working man. In work trade unions provided solidarity and outside work local pubs, shops and communities flourished around the football clubs. Along the river Thames adjacent to Woolwich the hussle and bustle of small enterprise and family run factories once provided work for locals. And for those wanting to escape the ever present army provided a route out.
The collapse of the UK’s industrial base in the mid 1970s, exposure to unregulated global market forces, capital allowed to flow freely across international boarders and the influx of cheap labour from the commonwealth, as well as the growing migration across European boarders changed the face of communities like Woolwich forever.
Woolwich and its immediate locus like Thamesmead become the resettlement centres for large sways of immigrants, providing relatively cheap housing on the peripheral estates where half decent overground train links make it a destination for new arrivals. These communities have some of the largest populations of none-white English residents in the UK.
Tensions between 1st, 2nd and in some case 3rd generation immigrants has not gone unnoticed. Local mosques, which have traditionally been Pakistani/Asian based have manged a growing African Muslim community. Whilst the white middle class has been able to celebrate and embrace the richness of the UK’s growing multi-cultural make up from the comfort of cultural events. The scares of these changes have remained like open wounds in the poor white working class communities.
In these areas white working communities have increasingly become economically and politically marginalised as their opportunities demise, institutions like trade unions have became demonised and their political voice traditionally provided by the Labour Party up sticked, like Woolwich Arsenal Football Club to join the well to do brigade. These communities have had to manage and absorb the reality of globalisation whilst any sense of economic stability was pulled away from under their legs.
There could be little surprise that amongst this growing resentment the evils of white extremists started to fill the political vacuum. The National Front’s infamous bookshop in the 1980s was based in the neighbouring borough of Welling. The bookshop was headed up by Richard Edmonds a veteran of British far right politics who became Deputy Chairman and National Organiser of the British National Party.
Racial tensions between black and white teenage gangs were on the increase and on the 22nd April 1993 an incident took place that shocked a nation. Stephen Lawrence was waiting for a bus when he and his friend heard somebody shout from the opposite side of the road, “What, what, nigger?” A gang of white youths quickly crossed the road and ‘engulfed’ Lawrence, who then received two stab wounds to a depth of about 5 inches on both sides of the front of his body, in the chest and arm. Both of the stab wounds severed axillary arteries. His friend Brooks began running, and shouted for Lawrence to run to escape with him. They both ran in the direction of Shooters Hill, though Lawrence collapsed and bled to death after running 130 yards.
Stephen Lawrence was 19 years old and his murder for a period transfixed this country, as the pains of his partners, family and friends played out whilst the police service stumbled incompetently to manage the case. We move forward 20 years and 10 minutes drive from where a plaque, which is occasionally vandalised, marks the place where the life of Stephen Lawrence was taken and lost. It’s Wednesday afternoon 22nd May 2013. Im at work in South London and news is starting to surface of a terrorist attack in Woolwich.
Through the gift of new technology we sit frozen watching video and photographs of two Black men, wielding blooded knifes and meat cleavers. They have just murdered a young white man, a brave young solider, on the streets Woolwich. I know these streets. I lived in nearby Charlton for five years. I worked in the centre of Woolwich for 2 years. I know people there and I see the streets I walked with work colleagues, my family, small daughter, neighbours and friends. I think about old work colleagues and neighbours and hope they are safe. Lee Rigby, 25, had many times before walked safely down the streets of Woolwich where he was attacked.
The father of a two-year-old boy, was killed in front of dozens of people and the after events were widely filmed on personal mobile phones. Whatever this young man did for a living and if we agreed with it our not, does not justify his murder.
People in the army follow orders. Very few have any genuine influence over the decisions that take them to far away lands to fight, kill or save lives. In the same vain the Iraqi or Afgan family who may have lost their son, or daughter to violence. The vast majority of victims from violent military interventions tend to be from the least economically powerful communities who share the same aspirations of stability and just wanting something better for their children.
In a callus and politically opportunist moment it will not have gone unnoticed that the ex boss of Richard Edmonds (the veteran British neo-nazi written about earlier in this blog) Mr Nick Griffin leader of the British National Party visited Woolwich on 25th May 2013. There is a time for politics and that time is not now.
Now is a time of dignity, reflection, consideration of others and most of all respect. Mr. Griffin will have caculated and knew what his presence meant to a very small number of white people in that immediate area, as well as the general populous. The opening up of fault lines will create the risk of further violence that will niggle on through mistrust and hidden resentments in the streets, coffee shops, schools and markets of Woolwich until the next victim is filmed laying in the streets.
These shocking incidents may have national and international forces setting their context, but neighbourhoods that remain polarised and insular around culture, creed, faith and race create the conditions for a perfect storm. Like a magnetic attraction the perfect storm pulls an incident towards its increasingly swirling centre. Once the storm subsides we turn our attention elsewhere, but the conditions remain for the next storm to occur.
Like the savage murder of Stephen Lawrence 20 years ago on the same streets of south London my heart and respect go out to the family and friends of Lee Rigby. If it were possible to offer something that could console their pain for 1 second I would like to believe I could offer it, but these are but words.
My respect also goes out to the brave people of Woolwich who sought to console a dying man. As I watched the story unfold and the increasing number of disturbing photographs on social media. One photograph stuck in my mind. It was poignant, but may have gone unnoticed.
The lifeless body of the young white man lay in the middle of the road and two Black women are attending to him trying their best to offer comfort. One of the women is holding the young mans hand speaking to him.
Amongst the pain and horror 20 years on things may have changed, but not all for the worse.
In Love We Must Trust