IT'S NOT EASY BEING CLEAN
Some rioters trashed up my neighbourhood last week. I didn't see it, so I don't know who it was, and I really couldn't tell you why it happened (Bad parenting! Liberals! Fuck off Dave!). All I know is that on my way home that day, I was feeling pretty low about the chaos in my city. When it reached the area where I live, so that I could picture the shop windows that were being broken, it literally hit home. I spent a distracted evening loading Twitter and the Guardian live blog, scanning them for news of Queensway or Westbourne Grove, listening to sirens screaming from one end of the Westway to the other.
I wasn't the only one. That night Twitter became a meeting place for people driven indoors by the violence. We posted news before it was even news - 'Don't go to London Fields. Violent muggings.' etc - and reassured each other. On my stream, usually filled with comedians exorcising one-liners, the lack of jokes was as poignant as any silence. As the night wore on, there were fewer questions about where it was all happening, and talk turned to what we could do when it was over.
The first on my stream to talk about a cleanup was Sam Duckworth, I think around 9pm. Then Kate Nash joined in. By 11, we'd been put in touch with a man called Dan Thompson, who started the Riot Cleanup Twitter profile with Sam, and people across London had been given starting times for the first cleanup operation. I was put in charge of Westbourne Grove. The next morning I woke up at 8, filled a bag with gloves, binbags, and recycling bags (obvs), and went out. I knew loosely the areas that had been affected, and I did a tour of the area, from Queensway to Portobello Road, and tweeted when I saw something that needed cleaning up. A lot of the damage had been to individual shops, like Best One supermarket on Westbourne Grove, and had been dealt with internally already, but shopkeepers took my number in case they wanted volunteers later. As I walked around I saw other people - pre-commute, on bikes, in groups - with brooms in hand. I felt proud to be a part of this spontaneous, constructive reaction. It hadn't felt to me that the riots had a political identity, or embodied any kind of zeitgeist or message, but the cleanups did. The statement of the London riots was not in the original act, but in the people's response.
The feeling continued throughout the week. An impromptu donations callout in East London for the new Tottenham shelter drew such a response, Kate had to hire a van. She, the hero, did a total of four runs to Tottenham I believe. A singer-songwriter called Milla Traylen offered to collect in South London, and within three hours of her original tweet had posted a photo of a stairwell, crammed to the brim with bags. To drive the West London donations, the Stool Pigeon newspaper sent none other than the editor himself, in their deliveries van. When we arrived in Tottenham, and took in the rooms, and rooms, and rooms of donations, we laughed. The ten donation runs that we knew of could only have accounted for a fraction of what they had. As we unloaded the van, people were doing the same in their cars. The staff at the centre could only tell us, "Put it anywhere." Do you want us to sort it? "Just put it anywhere." The message was that they had more than they knew what to do with. It was ridiculous. It was amazing.
When I think back to the London riots, I'm going to remember the overwhelmed leisure centre workers trying to find the words to say that there was too much stuff, or the man I met on Portobello who cancelled his morning meetings so he could help with the cleanup. The story of the 89 year-old barber who lost everything is now the story of the 35,000 people who donated a pound to keep him going. In a few days, we reclaimed the narrative and made it our own. Some said the response was only a temporary solution, but here's the thing - it was the best that ordinary people felt they could do. And I think it created a lot more goodwill than any politician who jetted in from their holiday to point fingers at someone else. And I think it was important.
Almost everyone I know is now involved in some kind of post-riot fundraising event. I came out of this terrible week of violence with more, not less, faith in human nature. My favourite moment of those few days will always be picking up litter in a square in Notting Hill, and finding out it was just daily, non-riot litter. No one seemed to care - it got cleaned. We left the city cleaner than the rioters found it.
MY LOCAL SUPERMARKET BEST ONE WERE TARGETED ALONG WITH MAPLINS AND OFFICE ON QUEENSWAY:
MY FRIENDS FERRY GUOW AND KATIE COLESLAW IN WESTBOURNE GROVE AFTER CLEANING. WE IN WEST LONDON HAD BEEN VERY WORRIED ABOUT OUR COCONUT WATER AND IT WAS GREAT TO SEE IT HAD SURVIVED THE NIGHT:
PICKING UP DONATIONS IN HOXTON SQUARE WITH KATE, WHO IS WEARING OBAMA SLAM DUNK TSHIRT:
THIS LOVELY MAN CAME ALL THE WAY FROM RUISLIP:
CONTENDERS FOR 'CUTEST DONATOR':
LOADING UP THE STOOL PIGEON VAN, DISCUSSING DONATING A BOX OF STOOL PIGEONS (THEY'LL FEEL BETTER IF THEY READ ABOUT BJORK!):
INCREDIBLE SCENE AT THE TOTTENHAM DONATIONS CENTRE:
A TRAFFIC WARDEN CLAMPED THIS CAR ON THE SAME NIGHT THAT CARS WERE BEING SET ON FIRE ONE ROAD DOWN. COMMITMENT:
MARE STREET TWO DAYS AFTER THE RIOTS:
CHECK KATE NASH'S BLOG FOR MORE EXTENSIVE PHOTOS AND MORE ABOUT THE CLEANUP