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.