London attack: how last night's candlelit vigil united the capital

Samuel fishwick
Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

A stillness settled on Trafalgar Square last night as thousands gathered at a candlelit vigil to remember the victims of Wednesday’s attack. “We have come together to send a clear message: Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism,” said Home Secretary Amber Rudd, standing shoulder to shoulder with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Met Police’s Acting Commissioner Craig Mackey.

The police cordon remained in place around Parliament Square until 9pm, making the approach to Trafalgar Square more complicated than usual, but the crowd that gathered were calm, even as helicopters whirred above. “I don’t feel scared because that’s what they want,” said George Phillips, a 22- year-old Wellcome Trust worker. “And if you feel that way, you’re letting them win.”

Here, we saw London at its best. Intrafaith groups gathered to pay their respects, while candles were kept alight beneath plastic cups. Among the crowd was Dr Atta Quddus, a lecturer at the University of Surrey who had travelled from Aldershot with other members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The group wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with the message “#IAMAMUSLIM, ask me anything”. A policeman joined them, and together they raised a sign reading “Love for all, hatred for none”. “What happened yesterday was done in the name of our religion, and it hurts me,” he said. “So we stand shoulder to shoulder to show that we have common values, we protect them, and we won’t bow down against these acts.”

Friends and family of the victims attended too. Jess Okpere, 18, whose Spanish teacher Aysha Frade was one of those killed, carried daffodils. A pupil at DLD College, she had been in a McDonald’s close to Westminster Bridge when 52-year-old Khalid Masood began his attack.

“I just saw chaos. People were telling me the wrong thing. I kept hearing ‘oh this person got stabbed’. I didn’t know what was true.”

She is reeling from the death of her teacher. “It’s something I’ve never experienced before so I can’t know how I’ll feel yet,” she said, “but I’ll find a way to move on, whether it takes a few days or a few months. If anything, it will make us stronger because we’ll realise we have to stick together in terrible times like these.”

The daffodils were the idea of her friend Matthew Newman. “I thought it would be symbolic to bring something quite British to show the pride we always have.”

A Franciscan nun with a British flag tied around her roller bag said she knew Ms Frade as a regular at her church, St Mary of the Angels in Bayswater. “Her two little girls go to our school,” she said. “I’m heartbroken. I never thought terrorism of this scale would happen again in London.”

But she, like others, was defiant. “It’s the greatest city in the world, the most tolerant. I believe this will strengthen us. I’m proud of the British courage and resilience.”

Nursing students Megan and Faima, on placement at St Thomas’, praised their colleagues. “We’re honoured and privileged to know many of the doctors and nurses who ran out,” said Faima. “We want to work to be like them.”

But there was a troubling undertone. “On Twitter we’ve been getting a lot of hate because we’re Muslim,” said Faima, who said she’d been refused service at a shopping centre checkout the previous evening because she was wearing a hijab. “They need to understand that we’re just as scared as any other person. We’re just as scared as you. They’re targeting all of us.”

“We’re here today to show that we are united and we will not be divided,” added her friend Lipa, an 18-year-old student at Westminster College. “If we stick together, nothing can break us.”

Samuel Fishwick: @fish_o_wick

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