In 1381, the peasants rose up, murdering tax collectors and bishops. Under Wat Tyler, the mob marched from Kent to London, where they looted palaces. For nine days, the peasants were in control.
In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley led people unable to pay high rents to landlords, and the rebellion took over wastelands to build their own self-sufficient community. The good life.
In 1782, workers marched into Birmingham, calling for regulation of food prices which had risen. Marches, riots and looting were commonplace at the time.
In 1812, Luddites rose against unemployment, and fought the owners of businesses who were making huge profits while their workers starved.
And on, and on. Chartists and CND, suffragettes and the Skeleton Army, Poll Tax Riots and anti-nazi protests, Boudicca burning down Colchester to Cable Street – this is the history of the people of England, alluded to in Danny Boyle’s marvellous Olympic Opening Ceremony this month. The world is regularly turned upside down. And when it’s righted, the people have made another incremental change to the order of society.
The riots of August 2011, though, stand separate from this tradition. For sure, they can be explained in the same terms; there is great poverty in England, and the gap between rich and poor is wide. Unemployment is high, while the richest take big bonuses. 500,000 forgotten families currently ‘bump along the bottom’ of society. And trust in the Police is low.
But this time, there wasn’t a challenge to the rich, a call for equality, or a riot to support a political manifesto. Instead of ransacking palaces, rioters smashed local shops, and burnt their neighbour’s homes down. 50% of the people prosecuted have been charged with ‘Acquisitive’ crimes such as looting or burglary. And altogether, only around 12,000 people are estimated to have taken any part in riots.
So people responded, and not in a way that was ‘anti’ the riots but in one which was firmly ‘pro’ the community. Everybody knows that England is in trouble, but only 12,000 rioters in a nation of 62,641,000 people felt that looting local shops was the answer.
The most visible of the things that happened after the English riots, and one which gave energy to the others, was #riotcleanup. I’m proud to have had some part in that, starting #riotcleanup just after midnight with a single Tweet and by the end of the day being one of perhaps 100,000 who got involved via Twitter, Facebook and out on the streets.
The opposite of fashionable anonymous protest, #riotcleanup was a visible, public show of support for local community and was about real people. Even the iconic #broomarmy photo is taken from inside the crowd. It makes you part of the action, not a spectator.
After #riotcleanup came a relief effort, fronted by Kate Nash, which saw vanload after vanload of clothes, food, toys and other essential items delivered to the families whose homes had been burnt down. #riotrebuild mobilised the building trades, and saw Siva’s grocery store in Hackney reopened within weeks. Fundraising campaigns, started online in the days after #riotcleanup, raised tens of thousands of people and helped where the official Riot Act compensation failed to appear.
And here, a year on, the work to address the deeper problems the riots highlighted carries on.
Peckham’s Peace Wall was a spontaneous gesture at the time, a transient sea of Post It notes written on by local people saying why they loved their home. One year on, notes scrawled on paper have become a permanent memorial and been commemorated in a limited edition artwork.
Retail Ready People has just been launched by vInspired and Retail Trust. It has its roots in the riots too, in a campaign run by Retail Trust called #highstheroes to help independent businesses. And now it will train over 300 young people, many working in retail’s lowest-paid jobs.
In Lambeth, one man has set up the Team Lambeth Boxing Club, to give young people a structured way to get rid of their aggression.
The #reverseriots campaign shows the good that young people are doing in society, to counter the myth that the younger rioters across England were representative of a whole generation.
I love MCR and I Love Tottenham are two local campaigns, both allowing people to show pride in the places they live.
Happiness in Tottenham, funded by the crowd, looks at why Tottenham has a history of riots, and at whether there is an architectural solution that could help the area.
And #wewillgather is the direct descendant of #riotcleanup. It will let people get together to do good things in their community, creating flash mobs of volunteers who come together in one place, for a short time, to do some good.
They’re just some of the things happening, one year on from England’s riots. I’ve worked in community arts, been a street-based youth worker, and tried to reclaim our privatised town centres for community use. So starting #riotcleanup didn’t feel like a big step away from my everyday work.
It has, though, changed my life. And I think the projects that have started since then, all addressing the big issues in some little way, might change the lives of others, too. The pro-community work didn’t stop with hundreds of brooms in the air, the problems haven’t been swept under the carpet, and the effort that everyone made when they helped clean up certainly hasn’t been wasted.