LONDON—Summer does strange things to big cities. When the days get long and hot, it feels as if all the normals go take shelter somewhere in the countryside, and all the weirdos start coming out of the woodwork. In this haven of eccentricity known as London, where summer often lasts only about 10 days, the phenomenon seems especially pronounced—and, in the grandiose spirit associated with this special Olympic season, the strangeness, like everything else, seems to have become magnified. Gangs of protesters have already set about trying to interfere with the preparations for the Games and the general mood of ragingly cautious optimism that is gradually descending upon the capital.
Some of their grievances are hard to dismiss: In particular, sponsorship from nefarious corporations such as Dow Chemical, which is associated with the horrific 1984 Bhopal disaster, and BP, who ruined the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, has caused ire in certain circles. But who exactly are these disruptive people? To answer this question, I offer you my own assessment of the different groups of anti-authoritarians lurking about London.
First of all, there are the committed activists, the guys who have been camping out at the temporary basketball courts, lying on the ground in Trafalgar Square, and generally trying to get themselves arrested. These people are possessed by their causes, and it's impossible for them to imagine that anyone could not have strong opinions on politics. They're idealists in the pure sense, actually inhabiting a reality driven by ideas, but if you break it down, their ideas are underwritten by some subconscious notion of morality. They tend to be well educated, well read, and well spoken; they have an agenda, and they have ideas about how to effect their agenda. Unfortunately these programs are destined for failure, since almost everyone else has not embraced their world view, and they rely on persuasion rather than force or trickery, but they at least know how to cause a constructive, entertaining disturbance.
The city coaxes us into a coexistence that relies on the misapprehension of what strangers with strange customs will think of us. And it actually works; it actually makes us behave.
Next you've got the rebels: the anarchists, the punks, the pyros. To them, resisting power is more a matter of lifestyle, and less driven by concrete ideas about the way the world could be. Rebellion is closely connected with the accoutrements of culture: fashion, music, piercings, tattoos, graffiti, image, attitude. They wear lots of black, including hoods and balaclavas, live in squats, and show up at rallies with the express intention of making trouble, often violent trouble. For some reason that I can't quite figure out, a disproportionate number of them come from Italy. These guys tend to be more inward-looking, in that their animus arises out of an image they have of themselves which they seek to fulfill. As such, they don't really have an agenda; it's more of a collective cultural thing they want to be a part of—but when it comes to causing a destructive disturbance, they're much better equipped than Group 1.
But it's the last group that is most distinctly British, and perhaps hardest to explain, and that's the disenfranchised youth. These are the guys who sent out some undetectable impulse last August that it was time for them to all simultaneously go nuts. These are kids from estates with few prospects and lots of energy, often supplemented by alcohol and drugs, and they just do not give a shit about things like the Olympics, politics, uprisings, laws, theories, or what you think of them. They do, however, understand that they're at the wrong end of a very lopsided and screwed-up society. There are two big differences between these guys and kids in similar situations in, say, NYC: 1.) They live in an integrated city, right down the street from immense and conspicuous wealth. 2.) They have absolutely no fear of authority and specifically the police, who are, relatively speaking, non-existent, anyway. Like youths the world over, they're really only aware of each other, and have no real interest in consciously terrorizing the rest of society, but that same little message that we're all receiving all the time is tapping, tapping, tapping away at them, telling them that they should be freer, look cooler, live larger, have more. Last summer, they were acting out the script that, more than any previous generation, they'd been studying since they were born, to do whatever they needed to get what they wanted and move themselves up—even in a relative way, by bringing everyone else down.
I think it's a real mistake to suggest any crossover between Group 1 and Group 3, or, more specifically, to suggest that Group 3 and the riots have anything to do with Group 1's plans for the Olympics. It's kind of ironic and kind of sad, because the marketing juggernaut of the Games has clearly targeted the kids in group 3, which is sick, but I don't think that's really what Group 1 takes issue with, in the end—if anything, I sometimes get this cynical little twinge that Group 1 actually feels kind of left out, like they want to assert their own viability as a formidable demographic of consumers. Someone has to sell them their hipster gear, after all.
But the thing about London is that this is like a city that exists in a future version of the planet. For one thing, the city is beginning to look like a giant spaceship, an office-tower death star. But more than that, it's a post-democracy future, in which the world reaches the point where the interests of its dominant species become too manifold for there to be any sort of consensus on how we should all spend our energy, so instead we resort to this civil form of anarchy. London is this incredible experiment in social engineering, and it's actually just about worked: Squeezed on top of each other by these immense spans of green, the city coaxes us into a coexistence that relies heavily on misunderstanding rather than compromise, on the misapprehension of what strangers with strange customs will think of us. And it actually works; it actually makes us behave. Ultimately, we're all seeing ourselves through weird eyes all the time, imagining how weird we, in turn, must be. There's so much on offer here, and the place is so malleable, so retentive, so receptive to whatever comes at it that the inhabitants can't resist falling into an ongoing role play, a situation in which we all pick up different identities all the time, and therefore lose any notion of blocs, of causes, of taking sides on issues and then making some sort of decision about it. There are no divisions here, not even between individuals, and I think this might be what confounds observers of London from other cities: Here, there is no ghetto, or else it's all one big ghetto.
The logical extent of acceptance without incorporation is that the actual individual becomes diversified. So I can be a communist who loves Mayfair, an aristocrat who slums it in Brixton with no trace of self-consciousness, nor any expectation of it from everyone around me. Can I reject the Olympics, but love the athleticism, even with all its jingoistic subtext, but despise the corporations who sponsor the athletes, but still endeavor to possess the things that those corporations are using the very Olympics to sell to me? Apparently, yes, I can. In a place where everything is permissible, the protesters' machinations are perfectly acceptable, as you'll hear again and again from politicians and police spokespeople. But are they meaningful in their own right, outside the context of London? I'm not so sure they are. Like with everyone else, these guys are just playing a part, and like everyone else, they'll change, and eventually strive to undo their own work without recognizing themselves in it. Realizing this doesn't save the world from BP and Rio Tinto, but the activists won't, either; it doesn't stop the sanctioned voyeurism, but I wouldn't live here if I weren't an exhibitionist. I'm not saying the protesters are wrong—they're so right, and things have to change on this planet, but life is so good here in London, and everyone who loves this city, which is most of us, feels it all the time.
Stephen McGregor is our 2012 Olympics correspondent. He lives in Camberwell, South London, where he's been working on something big for a long time.