These are the notes for the keynote speech given to senior Sussex Police officers at the American Express Community Stadium, Falmer on 16th September. I don’t usually publish notes from talks – I tend to drop in extra and drop out bits as I’m going. But a number of people there asked for the notes to quote from. So, not 100% accurate but roughly, I said…
I’m here to talk about organising without organisations.
I usually run the Empty Shops Network – which is barely an organisation – from a laptop and a mobile phone in Worthing.
I’ve worked in theatre, I’ve been a detached youth worker and run crime diversion projects with Sussex Police, I’ve set up lots of arts events and I’ve bought a record shop by mistake.
I’ve always been interested in an idea that 60s activist Peter Coyote expressed;
A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination
Or more succinctly put by the punk band The Pink Fairies:
‘Don’t talk about it man, all you gotta do is do it’
So I like making things happen – and most of my work is around empty shops and other unused spaces, running the Empty Shops Network.
Workshop 24 was a project in an empty shop in South Kilburn.
South Kilburn is a grey, cold, wet North London estate – it’s in the bed of the lost River Kilbourne which flows under the estate and sometimes up into people’s homes – imagine about 150 floors of tower blocks dropped across the old Victorian street layout like bricks tipped out of a toybox.
In South Kilburn 7000 people speak 50 languages; about 3000 don’t speak English as their first language. About half of them have only moved to South Kilburn in the last three years – but some of them have lived all their lives there. About a third are unemployed.
The estate, people living on the estate will tell you – has a bad reputation. Outside the estate – five minutes up the road in Queen’s Park or Kilburn proper – nobody knows where the estate is.
Roughly in the middle is Peel Precinct. It’s two rows of shops, an empty precinct with hexagonal paving slabs and empty planters and an empty pub, the Sir Robert Peel.
There are no seats; the Met had them removed to stop young people congregating. This place is supposed to stay empty.
People on the estate are worried about young people, and about guns, and about drugs and every now and again, the Met charge into the precinct in big vans and arrest people.
We watched them do it over and over again. In four months hosted 20 projects, 84 sessions, welcomed 750 visitors, made 1000 cups of tea – and saw the Met drive their van into the precinct a couple of times a week and all bundle out to talk to teenagers.
Our shop was transformed from a damp, cold, tatty space into part of local life – we used it to find ideas and fire imaginations.
Workshop 24 got local people making, knitting, sewing, writing, photographing, remembering, trying, talking – most of all talking. The shop was always full of conversation and cups of tea and biscuits and laughter.
We spilled out into the precinct, putting chairs outside the shop and even holding a street party without asking anyone’s permission.
We left people happier; we left people being more friendly; we left the planters full of tulips and we left a few people with a better idea of what they wanted to do with their lives.
When we were commissioned to run the project – I was scared shitless. I had no idea if a white boy from a council estate in Worthing could pull off a project among rough London towerblocks. By the time we finished – I had friends there and a real understanding of some of their problems.
So when I was watching the riots a month ago, I expected South Kilburn to be next. It wasn’t but as I watched the rest of London I knew what I’d have done if I’d still been in South Kilburn.
Aaron aged 79, is typical of the small shopkeepers I found in North London. He can’t afford to retire; he doesn’t have a pension; his business can’t be sold on and most of all cutting hair is what he does and he can’t stop.
And if he’d been in the shop next door to Workshop 24, the day after the riots I’d have gone round with the broom from the shop and helped him clear up.
I missed the first two days of rioting, I’m ashamed to say; I was at a conference in London and stayed on a friend’s sofa. So it was Monday before I caught up with the news. Monday was when Reeves furniture store burnt.
I watched that and couldn’t believe nobody was doing anything; the Met, the London Fire Brigade. So I started Tweeting – a simple idea, let’s get brooms, dustpans and brushes, let’s start cleaning up in the morning. Let’s keep calm and carry on. And people read my Tweets, and listened and they did.
I started about 11pm; by 4am I had a whiteboard with a dozen meeting points and times on it, all local people volunteering. I had somebody setting up a website and somebody setting up an extra Twitter account and somebody phoning the Met to tell them where we’d be and when.
There was no manifesto or agreed set of rules or beliefs. Nobody was in charge, or told people what to do. There was an idea first and then a hashtag and then lots of people doing things. This was properly organising without an organisation.
If Twitter’s the complete radio spectrum, hashtags are the tuning, the filtering. They’re also open – nobody owns them – once you’ve created one they belong to everyone.
And under that hashtag #riotcleanup there were hundreds of individuals who, without leadership or state intervention, took to the streets and worked out a new way of doing things. About 100,000 people on Twitter. 87,000 new followers in a day. All with their own reason for getting involved.
Remember that I wasn’t there; I was at a laptop from 11pm monday until about 4am. I slept at about 4.30am and was woken at 6am by the first media call. I did media non-stop from 6am until 9pm Tuesday evening.
Twitter is a neutral platform. On Monday night, the message in the media was that Twitter was a Bad Thing. That it had somehow caused the riots and looting.
By Tuesday teatime, after all that media, Twitter was a Good Thing, bringing back the Blitz spirit. It was neither, of course. It was just a channel. But on Tuesday night, London didn’t riot.
Twitter helped get people out – it was the spark. But it was one part – word of mouth, seeing your neighbour walk down the street with a broom, hearing somebody on the radio, watching people sweeping the streets on television all brought more people out.
The anarchic spirit of the riot clean up spread quickly across all of those neutral channels as well.
Hundreds of people had their own idea of what that hashtag meant to them.
Hundreds were inspired and started their own local projects. Riot Relief – Riot Rebuild – Riot Raffle. And in other cities in following days – Birmingham, Manchester, Wolverhampton.
The Met are a force; the strong arm of the law.
Sussex Police are better than that and deliver a service.
I’ve worked with you in the past, as a detached youth worker in Worthing, and have a lot of respect for the officers I worked with. They serve their communities.
I’ve worked alongside your social media team; they are excellent and understand that social media is about conversation, not shouting an official policy through a megaphone. They provide a service.
But I’ve also been on marches and protests. And I’ve watched you give my wife a caution just to teach her a lesson.
I’m interested in the idea Lenny Bruce discussed:
that’s another big problem, the people who can’t separate the authority
and the people who have the authority vested in them.
You see that a lot on the demonstrations, they have the concept that The Law and Law Enforcement are one. They’re demonstrating against the Police Department, actually against policemen
I think sometimes the Police forget that as well as the protestors.
#riotcleanup worked because there was a simple idea. The idea was good. The philosophy – organising without an organisation – was good. Sometimes the ad hoc is better than the organisation.
Sometimes we need to forget organisations, badges, uniforms and work together to do the job that needs to be done in the best way possible.