Among the many memories that have lodged in my brain while living in London, two that stand out speak to the cultural differences between my adopted homeland and the one back in the United States. Both have a connection to major news events we’ve seen this week – the European Super League fiasco, and the Derek Chauvin verdict. We’ll get to those later.
First, the memories.
One took place in a pub, and the other took place on a busy street near Tower Bridge.
The Tower Bridge incident occurred a couple of years ago, on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. It was one of those Saturdays when dozens (maybe hundreds) of adolescent boys get on their bicycles and take over the streets of Bermondsey and surrounding areas.
When I say “take over,” I mean it literally. These lads literally take over every traffic lane and even some of the pedestrian walkways, popping wheelies, hot dogging, darting between cars and buses, zipping past pedestrians who are unlucky enough to get in their way. The cyclists stall car traffic and terrorize the sidewalks, seemingly unaware of and unconcerned about the havoc they are creating.
This happens maybe once a month during spring and summer. I don’t know if it’s organized ahead of time, or hastily thrown together at the last minute, but every time it happens, I am both annoyed and astounded by it.
On this particular day, we were trying to catch a bus that was stuck in this orgy of bikes, barely able to inch forward. I spotted a police officer near the bus stop and asked her, you know, WTF is going on here?!! Her answer was something along the lines of, “Yeah, mad innit?”
To which I said, “Well, you’re a police officer. Can you tell them to maybe stop blocking traffic?”
She just smiled and gave me that pitying look many Brits reserve for idiot foreigners who don’t know the hometown rules.
Because in truth, there really was nothing the police officer could or would do about it. The police seem to have little power in these kinds of situations. Kids on bikes are allowed to take over the streets and sidewalks on busy Saturday afternoons. And it’s not just that, either. I once tried to phone the police when somebody in a parked car blasted loud music late at night. You know what? The cops can’t and won’t do anything about that, either. You are advised to contact your local council and file a complaint – the next day, after the problem has already gone away.
The underlying message I got from all this was as follows: People should be able to work this stuff out on their own, without getting the cops involved. If boys on bikes are a nuisance every so often, learn to live with it. At least they’re not breaking into your homes or vandalizing your property. And if somebody is playing loud music late at night, ask him to stop, or wait for it to go away. Just don’t expect the cops to intervene.
So, that’s Memory Number One.
Memory Number Two took place in a pub near our home, also a couple of years ago. There was some kind of important soccer match on the television. I don’t know who was playing. Arsenal? Tottenham? Chelsea? West Ham? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was sitting at a table, minding my own business, when a gent came up to me with a severe look on his face and asked me which club I was pulling for. He was very aggressive about it. I can only assume that this pub was devoted to a specific soccer team, and only fans of that team are welcome when a game is on. Since I was an unfamiliar face, I maybe pulled for the enemy team.
I looked at the guy and said, “Dude, I’m from America. I don’t even know who’s playing.” He just laughed and said, “Right, never mind, mate. Enjoy the soccer.” He put a special emphasis on the word “soccer,” which everyone outside of America thinks is a hilarious and altogether stupid way to refer to the sport of “football.”
This kind of thing had never happened to me before, being approached in a bar by somebody demanding to know which team I pulled for. It didn’t happen in New York when the Yankees and Red Sox were playing, or in Los Angeles when the Dodgers and Giants were playing, or in Birmingham when Alabama and Auburn were playing, or in Charlotte when Duke and UNC were playing. Heck, you used to see people wearing Red Sox caps in NYC bars, and nobody seemed to care all that much, even though fans of the two teams hate each other.
But in London? You’re well advised not to wear a Chelsea jersey in an Arsenal pub.
These two memories tell me something very important about the differences between the U.S. and UK, which are very similar in so many other ways.
One difference is that the police in the UK seem to have a whole lot less power and authority than they do back in the States. I base this solely on my own observations and experiences, and nothing related to research. It’s just something I’ve noticed. For one thing, you don’t see as many police here as in the U.S. They are conspicuous by their absence – even in a huge metropolis like London, where there is no shortage of crime. The cops you do see keep a pretty low profile.
As a result, I’ve found that I’m not paranoid of the police here the way I was back in the USA. As an American, I was raised to view police as law enforcers rather than public servants. If I saw a cop in the States, I automatically did an inventory of myself to make sure I wasn’t doing anything illegal or suspicious, even if I was just riding a bike around town. I’d be asking myself: Am I supposed to come to a full stop at the stop sign? Am I supposed to signal when I make a turn? Do I have the proper reflectors on if it’s getting toward sundown?
My paranoia was not all in my head, either. I once got flagged by a cop in downtown Charlotte after pedaling through a red light when there were no cars around. The cop advised me to follow the traffic rules, even on a bicycle.
I never think about that stuff here – and neither does anyone else, as far as I’ve been able to tell. You can slide through a red light at an empty intersection on your bike and the police don’t care. You can walk around with an open beer in your hand and the police don’t care. You can walk around smoking a joint and the police don’t care. I can’t think of a single place in America where you can walk around with an open beer.
You get the sense that the British police are not all that concerned about enforcing every little itty bitty law. They look at things in context, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Maybe others feel differently. Maybe some Brits think the UK police treat certain groups worse than others. I’m sure that’s true. But again, I wouldn’t know from personal experience. But I do know this: You don’t feel the long arm of the law everywhere you go, and you don’t see or hear very much about white cops killing black or brown people on a regular basis.
But back in the States? It seems to happen a lot, or at least more than should be reasonably expected.
A cop like Derrick Chauvin obviously had no problem planting his knee on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes, until he’d finally choked the life out of him. Chauvin looked totally calm and relaxed doing it, as if it were just another one of the long list of things he can do with a uniform on. I bet it never occurred to Chauvin that he might be abusing his badge, or that he could just let George Floyd go and end the ordeal. He was a policeman, and in America, that carries a lot of power.
While the looming Chauvin verdict had much of America on edge Tuesday, many folks in the UK were on edge over something else: The European Super League. That’s the proposed football (soccer) league that was supposed to bring together the elite of European soccer clubs – AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as English Premiere League clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Well, the fans here had a fit about it. I mean a fit. They took to the streets in angry protests, shouting that the football clubs belong to them, the fans, and not to the billionaire owners or money folks. British soccer fans really believe this, by the way. It’s not just a slogan. It’s an entrenched belief with no room for compromise.
Compare that with the United States. Outside of the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by the public, nobody with any common sense really believes that the professional sports teams belong to the fans. The fans might pay the bills, but the teams belong to the owners. It’s the American way. If you paid for it, you own it, and you can do with it what you want.
When the NFL Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis back in the 1980s, the fans threw a fit about it. They protested and wrote angry letters to the owners and management. Didn’t matter. The owner wanted to move, so the team moved. The same thing happened when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in the 1950s, and when the Raiders left Oakland for Las Vegas a couple of years ago. It happened in my hometown of Charlotte, when the Hornets once bolted for New Orleans.
It’s happened a whole lot in America, and the fans can’t do jackshit about it. If the Cowboys, Steelers, Packers, Rams, Patriots, Giants, Bears and 49ers ever decide to leave the NFL and form an American Super League, you can bet nothing will stop them. Personally, I wouldn’t care that much. I bet a lot of other fans wouldn’t, either. We’re used to American business owners doing what they want, when they want it.
But that doesn’t fly over here in the United Kingdom. The uproar over the European Super League was fast and furious. In no time at all the team owners folded like cheap suits. All six Premier League clubs that planned to join the Super League quickly backed out. So did teams from Milan and elsewhere. It appears that the European Super League ain’t gonna happen.
Anyway, it’s quite a dichotomy, isn’t it? While the land of my birth spent this week wondering whether it’s always okay for white cops to kill black people with no accountability, the land I find myself in now simply wondered whether Man United will ever play Newcastle again.
As a temporary Londoner, all I can say is: Thank God for small problems.