A number of other people had heard the English accent and taken their buffet lunch to sit near the bearded stranger. We were at a conference in Washington DC and the conversation was dominated by the riots in England. Buses and shops had been set on fire in London, young people were rampaging in the streets and, according to today’s news, there seemed to be widespread looting and ‘copycat violence’ in many other cities.
‘Will the government rebuild the affected areas?’ asked an African American. ‘Sure, why not?’ asked the stranger, ’though no doubt insurance will help.’
The American started talking about the Washington riots of April 1968. Arson, looting, violence: for six days after the shooting of Martin Luther King. Over two thousand buildings were destroyed in what was the traditional heartland of African-American commercial life, on 14th Street southwards from U Street and the Shaw district right down to H Street.
While the English rioters were mostly white, the Washington rioters were mostly black. The Washington hierarchy, white, used the riots as an excuse. They did nothing to renovate the area for years; rubble remained and only in the ‘90s did U Street and Columbia Heights metro stations open. The African American population moved to the outskirts of DC, or over state borders: ‘They were punished for destroying their own area. And that’s why I wanted to know,’ the African American man asked the stranger, ’how vindictive will the British government be?’ The irony, or shame, was that this magnificent conference centre, where we were meeting, was part of the ‘90s rebuilding: a civic centre on what were the sites of African American homes and businesses.