I’m typing this from the security of my flat. I came home from work tonight and deadbolted my bank vault style front door. I then called a friend and asked her to alert me if there was any danger in my neighborhood. I’ve decided not to watch any more news tonight. Absorbing the news on the riots was making me feel like a prisoner in my home.
This smells of terrorism. For the first time in my life I’ve uttered the words at work “I’m sorry, but we’re closing early due to civil unrest.”
“Wow,” said one of my yoga teachers, Gabriella. “The country I grew up in was a war zone. It feels like I’m back there.”
My mind brings up newspaper and television style images of war torn foreign countries seen across oceans. I’ve been so grateful in the past not to have experienced such things.
But now I’m seeing this all differently. I’m cautious, but not devastated. My house is fine. None of my friends are hurt. It’s still a little distant, but I can see it with my own eyes. There’s another shift too. I’m seeing the difference between the truth and the media portrayal.
I took the bus home late last night after working. I was aware of the riots, but oblivious to the level they had reached. The atmosphere around town was eerily quiet. People were being just a touch too polite for this to be London. I checked my Facebook page and was confronted with a steady stream of riot related updates. I decided that I was sticking my head in the sand and that I really should turn on the television. The next three hours were consumed by BBC and Twitter. The BBC kept asking people to check on their kids. I thought it was touching that the British were so concerned about the safety of the next generation, until I finally understood that the majority of the looters were indeed children.
I was so tired but I was afraid to go to sleep without a conclusion. Perhaps that’s a product of our TV culture. We want everything to be wrapped up neatly before we leave it. To be honest, I was more afraid of nightmares than I was of a break in. My neighborhood was still untouched, but the youtube videos were daunting. One moment a group helps a bleeding disoriented kid up off the street, the next moment they rob him. As Gabriella says, we all embody the good, the bad and the ugly, but this is a darkness I just can’t understand. Correction. This is a darkness I don’t want to understand. I don’t want to believe this is a naturally occuring state of humanity, but my eyes are now wide open.
I stayed up until I absolutely couldn’t. It worked- I slept through the night.
As I didn’t have to work until evening time, I knew I had two options on how my day would go. 1.) I could sit at home obsessively watching TV, checking Twitter and damning humanity. 2.) I could pitch in and help with #riotcleanup. I chose the second option. The first choice was never really an option.
How do you pack for a riot cleanup? I don’t know, so I went with water, trash bags, a shovel and garden clippers. The garden clippers ended up being unnecessary. I made my way to Clapham Junction figuring that I would spot the other anti-rioters in progress. I arrived to find about 500 people standing around with brooms and trashbags.
Many had already been to areas like Camden and Hackney cleaning up. They reported that with the sheer numbers of people it only took twenty minutes. Others had arrived at 9 am only to be turned away. Forensic testing needed to be completed before the cleaning commenced.
The atmosphere was one of camaraderie. People were making shirts and posters. They were talking to one another and meeting strangers. The attitude was of “we’ll do this everyday if we have to, and we’ll do it with a smile.” I honestly had more fun meeting similar civic-minded people who fight fear and rage with love and grace than I could ever imagine having rioting. And that’s not because I don’t get angry.
As we waited, a man from Sainsbury’s came out to pass out water. Battersea Art Centre brought over loads of sandwiches. We shared food and stories.
The crowd was not without it’s diversity. An elderly lady named Brenda came out to join. She had been out the night before challenging the thugs who were destroying her community. “Why don’t you go to a movie?!?” she asked one. “Because there’s nothing on,” he told her.
We played the Mexican Wave with our brooms. (That’s just simply “the wave” in the U.S.) We dubbed ourselves the Broom Army.
The atmosphere was much livelier than when I had first arrived:
I waited several hours in total as the officials carried on. The firemen in the distance are hosing down a party supply store. The looters raided the store for masks to hide their identity from CCTV and police while engaging in their debauchery. Surely that’s the type of clever thinking that when channeled appropriately could benefit our society instead of destroy it.
And that’s the theme that keeps popping up. As adults, how can we direct those who feel helpless when budgets are cut and futures are bleak? How can we help them channel their rage into something productive, good for society AND them? – not just the people at the top. Or at least we could teach them to protest properly. The riots were not a protest. Unintentionally, the cleanups were.
The rumor had hit that Boris Johnson was on the way. We instantly read from twitter that he had been heckled while addressing others in the area. As we saw him approaching, the resentment started to bubble. The crowd began chanting “Where’s your broom?” Lucky for him, someone passed him a broom. He stood in front of the crowd and addressed the cameras. I was standing near the front, but did not hear a single word he said. At this moment, I began to feel like a prop. A loving grassroots movement to clean up our community was turning into a PR opportunity.
I kept reminding myself and others “It doesn’t matter. We came here to clean.” Finally we were let go to do the job.
The streets were clear at this point and most of the shops were asking the cleanup crew to stay out. Hundreds of people milled around the streets looking for things to pick up, but feeling largely useless. There was some cleaning going on, but mostly the feeling was of community support.
Some of the stores were passing out snacks and drinks to the clean up crew. Starbucks was there with coffee. Jamie Oliver’s Recipease had cupcakes. M&S had sweeties. “Great PR for you” a woman told the Starbucks crew. A little cruel, but indeed it’s hard not to be cynical.
This lack of cleaning left a lot of time for gawking. The reason I hadn’t brought my fancy camera was exactly to avoid this. I did not want this to be a voyeur experience, but I guess some gawking was unavoidable.
It was interesting the stores that were chosen. They seemed to be ones the rioters patroned themselves, like a backlash at their own consumerism. Many of the stolen goods were destroyed in the street and not even taken home.
I left at this point as I was of absolutely no help.
I sat by a police officer on the bus on my way to work. The city is now swarmed with them.
We gave each other knowing glances. He looked at the Battersea love sticker I had acquired.
“I don’t think I was much help, but I think my presence was appreciated,” I said.
“I’ve been working very long hours today. I’m going home to my family now,” he said.
“Get some rest and good luck,” I told him.
He exited the bus and stopped to wave from the sidewalk. I waved back, not knowing how to process this exchange or the past 24 hours.