Watching the 8th August news was upsetting. It seemed everything was falling apart, an urban version of Lord of the Flies with Curry’s and various mobile phone outlets at its epicentre. A journalist and I briefly mulled over the idea of mobilisation. I said I thought #riotcleanup would be a good hashtag to use on Twitter, and tweeted as much. Then I left the conversation. The following morning I logged in to Twitter around 11am. And this guy had actually gone and done it. I initially thought he’d set up the Twitter account @riotcleanup and a website www.riotcleanup.co.uk (where a message detailing the above is written), but learned later that a young musician and activist had set up the account on Twitter, and a then sixteen year-old @patricksocha had set up the website. Stephen Fry and Simon Pegg had written tweets with the hashtag in them. It was trending worldwide above everything else. It was all overwhelmingly lovely. I took the train to Clapham Junction, got a broom and went to join a crowd of around 300 people who had turned up to clean up. They were calling themselves #riotwombles. It was brilliant. A teenager with a cool hairdo stood in an I Love London T-shirt with a broom, having her picture taken. At the same time, a cute little girl with a dustpan and brush swept a small area of the pavement. The assembled crowd stood in front of police tape waving their brooms in the air. Boris Johnson turned up. ‘Where’s your broom Boris?!’ the crowd chanted before someone offered him a spare one for his photo opp.
The council already had street cleaners and police out and they’d done a magnificent job. The firemen had finished hosing down the worst affected building next to the Party shop. The tape was lifted. The wombles walked along St. John’s Road sweeping. I walked into the T-Mobile shop with some of them. There was glass all over the floor and parts for mobile phones scattered around. The card machines were dangling from the counters and the till monitors had been broken. The back room door was ajar and the office chairs had been pushed over. Papers were scattered everywhere.
There was no one in. It was like something out of 28 Days Later. We closed the office door, swept the paper and glass from the floor and put mobile parts in drawers by the till. And then we were told to move to the streets. Staff were turning up to clear up the shops individually. Residents stopped to congratulate wombles on their efforts or to debate the overall rioting, sharing stories of watching people the night before, running through the streets with televisions, loading them into cars and running back to get more. Some didn’t seem too shocked about the whole thing. There was an orderly debate on one street corner, a sort of impromptu village hall meeting. It was clear there was a desire for a community meeting. ‘What can be done?’ the prevailing question. But before anyone could begin to answer that question, the more immediate one was, ‘what can we do now?’ In the end, it wasn’t as much about the efficacy of the clean up as demonstrating a refusal to give in to the actions of a few. I hope that the continued effort of the majority, will lift the affected communities and rebuild their spirit.
If you’d like to go and help clean up please visit www.riotcleanup.co.uk to find out where your nearest #riotcleanup is happening. Thank you.