Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Rising up against riots in London

In the wake of the UK riots, while the nation fumbles for explanations whilst being given scant clues by the rioters themselves as to why it happened when it did, the strongest message coming from the rest of the population is one of defiance.

The Twitter call for #riotcleanup support in Walthamstow generated a gigantic cake-baking effort and a flow of volunteers to man the respite centre. Other unimpressed Londoners, it turns out, took an even more hands on approach.

The BBC and other press have leapt at the opportunity to start hand-wringing about vigilantism, and in a particularly offensive and ill-informed move, lumped concerned locals in Southall together with drunk EDL supporters in Eltham.

When a weary-looking work colleague told me he hadn’t been home after roaming the streets of Ealing for most of Monday night, I probably looked a bit shocked. Despite following Twitter reports of Turkish locals in Dalston helping to defend the businesses of friends and family, I hadn’t realised how quickly, and in what large numbers, people had taken to the streets to stop the looters.

As he told me more, however, my initial consternation turned to admiration for those braver than me. So, instead of spending this post musing from a safe distance on the breakdown of the social contract as I had planned to, I want to pass on his story, and his views, as he prepares to embark on a third night of patrols. I won’t use his name, since, as he put it, “We don’t want fame or legend status, we just want to help. Plus - we are not trying to be heroes. We are simply standing up for what’s right!”

On Monday night, when Ealing and Southall were suffering badly at the hands of rioters, fifty or so men got together and headed for the local police station. They either live in the area, or have friends and family there, and were concerned about their safety as well as the possible spread of rioting into nearby neighbourhoods.

The police reaction to their offer of help was unsurprising: help us by getting out of the way and going home. But they insisted; the police relented and handed out arm bands, so they’d know who they were – which side they were on. That night, police men stood alongside them as they stopped rioters from continuing with their destruction.

The next night, the volunteer patrollers turned up in their hundreds. Some swept up broken glass, others helped detain looters using cable ties supplied by the police. Despite a huge variety of backgrounds, races, and religions (Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Hindus amongst others), the message amongst the group was one on unity, and uniting against wrongdoing.
As my colleague described it, “It was good to see the communities unite as one, no matter what colour or religion you are. It’s good to see all race and personal problems put aside to protect against the rioters. And the line a lot of people were using was, we have Unity here, as this is the United Kingdom, so we must unite!”

After days of devastation, and a growing sense of powerlessness amongst its witnesses, this kind of positive direct action and declared unity has a powerful emotional effect. A couple of days ago, London felt like the passive victim of an unpredictable monster. Buildings burned while fire crews waited for police protection; shops were emptied out while owners and police looked on. Now, when I hear from people like my colleague who want to help – and help everyone, regardless of type – there is the peculiar feeling that latent goodwill, a sense of community some of us did not know we had, is all it takes to feel we have overcome the monster.

Not that it will end here. As my colleague put it, “We need justice, and they need to be taught a lesson. We can’t go soft on them. They’re spoiling it for all of us.” He’s right, but importantly, the action he and his fellow patrollers are taking now is about protecting communities, not about getting revenge. The message is, as he said himself, one of unity. While we wait for justice, this spirit will be the comforting silver lining of the cloud that has hung over us this week.


  1. This is a fabulous post and I wish it could be more widely read than what is in the mainstream press. I wish there were more people of your colleague's stripe in this world. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Yesterday I posted the following quote on my facebook page: How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply "easily", because they feel they don't actually belong to the community. Quoted by the director of the Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh.

    Main argument of this article to drive home the high cost of caring today youth. Care cost too much. Today I've been asking a new questions does vigilantism marginalize people who are responsible rioting even further. For years the right, nor the left have taken responsibility for such emerging underclass. Returning to original point, does vigilantism champion the voice of those who are already heard.

  3. Another great post. From where I am it all seems a world away, unimaginable, the true causes beyond understanding. Perhaps the nearest experience I have of events like this ( and it's not a very recent) was the Miner's Strike in the Eighties when my village was deeply affected and demonstration at times turned ugly. One of the legacies there, for a period anyway, was a stronger community which is perhaps analogous to what is being described here. I hope that is a legacy in Walthamstow too.

    Thinking about it there were street riots in Leicester in the early eighties when I lived there, and I remember my fear of cycling to work at night, and my relief the next morning that my street was safe. Strange, until now I'd completely forgotten that.

  4. 'We need justice and they need to be taught a lesson.'
    It suits us to emphasise the sense of community of the people you are writing about...and with luck this impulse will grow....but it will suit our masters to forget the justice and lesson part.
    They need an underclass to provide a focus for mainstream keep attention from the misrule at the top.

  5. I was unaware that local people had been voluntarily patrolling riot areas to stop further trouble, so thanks for that (I followed the link from e). That explains why London has been so quiet for the last couple of nights. Good to see people taking their own initiative to deal with the problem instead of just wringing their hands in despair.

  6. e recommended I come over and read your post and I am glad I did. It shares a different perspective.

  7. Thanks for your comments. Presenting a different perspective - even from my own - was exactly what I wanted to do. It's too easy to let our interpretations be shaped by what the press tells us when we are not in the thick of it ourselves.

  8. Good post.

    I found myself thinking this at the time of the Bradford riots - it's uncanny how these sorts of events bring different parts of multicultural Britain together. Pheonixes (or whatever the plural of that bird is) tend to rise from the ashes.

  9. Beautiful testimony to mutual aid. I came here from e's blog as well. It did my heart good. Human beings are amazing, just amazing.