So, this morning, I opened the old boiler cupboard and stared at the broom tucked neatly inside. Twitter had informed me very early that there would be a clean up in Hackney at 10am; for me, sitting at home, watching news unfold by the minute and feeling that my heart rate was unusually high, I needed to go out and feel that we could do something. ‘Doing something’ is so vague! Unfortunately, in this time of what feels like sheer helplessness against forces that we cannot control, I only have that terminology, even if I don’t have the actual answers as to what ‘doing something’ actually means. Thanks to some wonderful people who organised hundreds of people today to clean up places like Hackney and Clapham Junction and Ealing, I feel that in all of this, there is some small hope. And I have relearned something that I should have remembered, but was too scared and tense to do so. Londoners, when challenged, come together and make the best of bad situations.
There have been dozens of examples of how people have come together, how humour has been used to ease tensions and to make people feel that a sense of humanity can shine through even in the darkest times. Signs up in Finsbury Park saying: “Be Nice to Other Londoners”, a sign in Angel: “It’s easy to destroy. What have you created?” and countless others. But most of all the gloom that has descended on me lifted when I walked towards Hackney Town Hall, after parking a ridiculously long way from Mare Street, and met a man who saw my cheap, blue Ikea broom and knew me to be a volunteer. We spoke, he informed me as to what was happening and seemed astounded that we were from Tottenham. I then went to the Town Hall and felt, for the first time, that I was standing next to people who wanted to change things.
As it happens, we were told by the organisers that most of the cleaning had been done, thank you very much for coming. He asked us to walk to Clarence Road near to the Pembury estate to show solidarity for the shop keepers who had lost businesses. And so we did.
Who would have thought that the humble broom would become such a symbol of hope? We held them up for people to see and we walked. We walked together. That was enough for me, just to feel that we could make people smile on a morning that could be so depressing. The pictures from last night of a woman jumping from a burning building, the footage of a young, injured boy being robbed even though he was bleeding were enough to make even the most liberal person think and feel things they wouldn’t normally feel. Somehow, making a stranger smile allowed me to remember that not everyone is angry, not everyone is on the rampage, not everyone is a mindless criminal. I saw people smiling everywhere, bemused, perhaps, but focusing on something positive.
It’s not every day I condone vigilantism and for the record, I don’t believe that people should take the law into their own hands. I had become aware last night that Turkish and Kurdish shop owners defended the Kingsland Road in Hackney; rumour has it that they allowed the police to go elsewhere, where they might be needed. A video is in circulation and I have to confess, the first time I have cried in all of this was when that video ended. Such outrage and determination to defend businesses that they have built – not just their own, but others’ too! It wasn’t that they were chasing down the Kinsgland Road, making quite scary war cries that made me tear up, it was the fact that they care and they want it to stop. Men, of all ages, chasing looters down the road, some with sticks, some with nothing but their bare hands. They have said that they will be there tonight, watching over their shops.
I know that tonight, I may do the same things I have done every night so far: jump at sirens and helicopter noises, watch the rolling coverage of the situation until I feel nauseous, attempt to sleep whilst wondering whether I should sleep in my full clothes just in case I need to get out quickly, consider exit strategies just in case the building is on fire, play Monopoly using an app and revel in building houses on the Old Kent Road because at least I am building something and not burning it. I know this. But something in me feels that I can face another night, even if it is bad and even if I do feel worried for my friends and family living in London and cities beyond, in the knowledge that human beings can be amazing creatures. This will end.