Words by Sam Miller, a Spring 2017 CAPA student in London. Below, Sam shares an essay written for her class, "Analyzing and Exploring the Global City: London".
Homesickness, culture shock, and regretting the decision to study abroad are all valid fears that many students have before deciding to live in another country for the semester. All of these things certainly ran through my head while I prepared for my time studying, working and living in London, but one additional fear seemed to overwhelm the others. Being an American student my largest concern was how Londoners would react to my American background and assumed political views. With the current political turmoil bringing mounds of attention to America and our new controversial president, I was extremely anxious about how I would be viewed here and how I would respond to the dreaded “Trump question.” After arriving in London, I realized that there were definitely bigger things to worry about than America’s political state, but it seemed to be all that Londoner’s wanted to talk about. I wondered why they cared so much; how much would it really affect most of them anyway? I found the answer to these questions within the first few weeks of one of my classes: Analyzing and Exploring the Global City London. I learned about the key characteristics of global cities, one of them being political engagement, and I quickly made connections between this idea and an experience that I had at a political rally in Westminster (Kearney, Global Cities Index). Along with London’s identity as a global city comes a certain level of political awareness, engagement, all of which is clearly demonstrated in the area of Westminster, especially during a protest.
Being the home of the British Parliament, the Royal Borough of Westminster is quite literally a center for all things politics and government in Britain’s capital city. In addition to the practical, everyday use of buildings in this area for government activities, it is a widely popular tourist attraction for pictures with Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, and other classic London Landmarks. This space doesn’t only attract tourists, though, bringing Londoners from all boroughs together most commonly in the form of a rally or protest. When an issue of political or social injustice arises, citizens gather in Trafalgar Square or outside 10 Downing Street to draw attention to it. For years this area of London has been the center of rallies, site of powerful keynotes, and start of long marches all with the hopes of causing action in government officials and stimulating change (historyofparliamentonline.org). It serves as a space to unite all people to work towards a common goal, whether that be gender rights, marriage equality, or the end of racial discrimination.
These expressions of activism show how aware London’s citizens are about global issues. This is largely because of London’s tendency to attract individuals from all over, a key feature of its identity as a global city. London is often referred to as a “magnet” of sorts, its “gravitational pull…had reasserted itself” during the 1990s and began to draw people in (Duncan, On a High). The mass migration of people to London from all over during this time still shows clearly today in the ethnic diversity of the city and deeply manifests itself in how well versed citizens are in issues that are occurring across the world. Westminster provides an excellent landscape for Brits to stand beside people from Pakistan, China, and Italy and fight for something happening in America, highlighting once again the key political role that this area plays in creating London’s global identity.
I was lucky enough to witness a protest like this first hand, when Londoners joined forces to fight Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from entering the United States. It is hard to explain how empowering and inspiring it was to see people from all different backgrounds uniting to fight a discriminatory act that they were not necessarily directly affected by. The way in which people interacted with strangers - greeting each other, hugging each other, acting as if they’d known each other forever - so clearly displayed to me the power of the awareness that global cities are able to provide their people. By living in an area that is so heavily populated with both Americans and Muslims, people who had no strong personal ties to the situation felt it was their responsibility to stand up against it, knowing that no progress can be made without enough people pushing for it. This is a clear example of how Westminster exemplifies London’s political engagement.
This rally wasn’t just an uproar to bring attention to Trump’s action, though. The main goal was to scrutinize Prime Minister Theresa May for her inaction in response to the order. This brings to light another issue that global cities face surrounding social and political responsibility, most commonly referred to as politics of place. This is the idea that certain places have the ability and responsibility to create their own political identity (Massey, 21). Since London is a global city, defined by Sassen as having “tangible influence on global affairs” in one or more ways, it has the power to change the course of political events in other countries. The reaction of the people of London to the Muslim ban and more importantly to Prime Minister May’s failure to act, shows how citizens feel that London should exercise this power and define the politics of its place, assuming the full political responsibility that global cities are assigned.
The high value placed on political solidarity and obligation here in London ties back to the tube bombings that occurred in 2005 which killed many foreigners living in London at the time. The mayor responsed saying that he believes that London “is the future of the human race and a future where we grow together and we share and we learn from each other” (Massey, 1). This clearly shows that belief that London has a duty to set the pace for the rest of the world, particularly regarding issues of social or political injustice like the bombing or the Muslim ban. Reponses such as this one provide clear insight into the ways in which London takes its role a global city and political influencer seriously. Protests in Westminster, like that which I had the privilege to attend a few weeks ago, show how citizens demand that their city continue to take this position seriously and use it to positively influence the rest of the world. The implications of London’s global identity are displayed in various ways throughout the city, but in Westminster specifically they are shown through a feeling of obligation to take political action to make the world a better place, enforced by aware, engaged, and active citizens. It’s individuals like this that actually inspire change in the world and in just one night at 10 Downing Street show an American student why choosing to study abroad in a global city was the best decision that she ever made.
Duncan, Emma. "On a High." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 30 June 2012. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
A.T. Kearney. "Global Cities 2016 | A.T. Kearney." Slideshare. N.p., 27 May 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
Massey, Doreen. "The Future of Our World." (2007): 1-25. Print.
Sassen, Saskia. "Whose City Is It?" Public Culture (1996): n. pag. Print.
"History of Parliament Online." Westminster | History of Parliament Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.