Some personal thoughts on #wewillgather

I’ve never wanted permanence. I’ve never wanted to stay in control of things I’ve started. I’ve never worried about letting go.

Demo at NestaSo I’m not sad about closing down the #wewillgather website. It was a good idea, it delivered on the investment Nesta made in it, it inspired lots of people to do good things. It was built by Revolutionary Arts, the tiny business I’ve run since 2001, and our technical partners were Fresh Egg. They were from our hometown – it felt good to put a good contract in local hands. We never made #wewillgather into another organisation – it was always just a project, a bunch of freelancers working together. mainly, me and Lloyd (when I say ‘we’ that’s who I’m thinking of).

#wewillgather has helped lots of bigger organisations look at how they can mobilise volunteers, too. I’m talking to a group of National Trust managers this month about how they can encourage small-scale volunteering- even the establishment are interested. It’s a pity we didn’t get one big adopt – the national beach cleans, say, or a major campaign by a big charity. That would have pushed the site over the top in a way we never quite managed. But over the next few years, some of the organisations we met and evangelised to will adopt similar ways of working to the one we championed with #wewillgather. Volunteering is on the rise. Our type of volunteering especially so.

We were able to talk to politicians too, across the party lines, about the stuff we loved – social media, organising without organisations and taking local action. We showed them a smaller, street-level world outside the big, monolithic charities that usually lobby them.

#wewillgather parliamentary launchWe were open, and egalitarian. I’m proud of that. Like Tim said at the London 2012 opening Ceremony, ‘This is for everyone’. In 21 months, #wewillgather was used by town centre managers, Rotary Clubs, independent shops, national cleanup campaigns, anarchists, the RSPB, small charities, happiness campaigners and most often, by committed local citizens. It showed them they could organise for themselves. It helped people take a first step towards gathering their own tribe around them.

Nobody got rich quick, and nobody lost a fortune either. But it was good to have a budget for once, that covered a proper website build, and the time and resources needed to make things happen. That’s rare, and a privilege, so thank you to Alice Casey and the team at Nesta for allowing it to happen that way.

BBC LondonIt wasn’t an easy project at the very start. I wrestled with a technical partner, much bigger than our team, who never really got our ideas about being Open Source and thinking Agile. They were into building big, shiny things for clients, not working collaboratively. With hindsight (and with more confidence – I have that now) I’d have done things differently there. But we built it, on time, on budget, it worked and people loved the neat Twitter integration. Did you miss that? You could start a page on the website from a Tweet. Dead cool.

But I’m taking it back to where we started – Twitter and Facebook. We started good things, and the ideas we pushed will continue to inspire people to start their own good things. We’ll keep the community that’s grown up on Facebook and Twitter talking about similar ideas, new ways of working, good tools for getting people together.

I’m looking forward to what’s next – fresh conversations and new collaborations.

Was #riotcleanup fascism in action?

Q: Was the #riotcleanup(1) after the August 2011 riots fascism(2) in action?

A: No(19)

1. #riotcleanup was a response to the burning and looting of small shops(3) and people’s homes(4) during riots(5) across London. Started on Twitter(6), it mobilised up to 12,000 people(7). They cleaned up local independent shops(8) to help them reopen.
2. Fascist movements venerate the state(9), are devoted to a strong leader(10), and an emphasis on militarism(11).
3. Retailers lost 30,000 trading hours(12) and damage to businesses across London cost £100 million. 48,000 businesses suffered financially as a result of the riots.
4. At least 100 homes were destroyed during the riots, mostly flats above shops(13).
5. The riots left five people dead(14), and 14 people injured, including a 25 year old Malaysian student(15) and a 75 year old lady. Ten firefighters were also injured. A 13 year old was raped during the riots.
6. The first Tweet was sent around 10.30pm on Monday night. Around a dozen events were subsequently arranged, and the hashtag was added after midnight. A number of people built websites, set up Facebook events and organised their own events under the #riotcleanup banner. On the ground, people who gathered organised themselves, without leaders.
7. It is, of course, impossible to judge the class and ethnicity(16) of all 12,000, let alone their motivations(17). It is probably that they represent a broad a spectrum of society, with diverse reasons for getting involved.
8. For every pound spent in independent shops, over 60% stays in the local economy; with larger stores, less than 40% stays local.
9. As before, it is impossible to attribute this love of the state to all 12,000 people involved in #riotcleanup.
10. #riotcleanup had no leaders, and was organised by hundreds of people, independently and without the permission of any authority. That style of organisation is anarchy(18).
11. The broom, as used by those involved in #riotleanup, is an unlikely weapon(19).
12. Many people employed in shops will be on contracts which left them with no income while their shops were closed.
13. Presumably, not lived in by particularly wealthy people. The Riot Relief campaign, an offshoot of #riotcleanup, collected donations of food, clothing, toys and household goods to help people who had lost their homes.
14. Trevor Ellis was shot, Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir died in a hit and run and Richard Mannington Bowes was killed by a mob.
15. Ashraf Rossli was beaten and then robbed twice by looters emptying his rucksack.
16. One photo, used to suggest that a white middle class were clearing the streets, was subsequently found to have been cropped to remove black people.
17. It is, of course, equally impossible to say why people rioted in the first instance. There were no protest banners or flags, so it is only by an act or arrogance that a commentator can say this was an anti-capitalist(20) or anti-elitist protest.
18. Billy Bragg said “The people who spontaneously came out to help tidy up, that’s anarchy. Anarchy is people organising themselves for the common good in some way, without anyone coming round and giving them orders.”
19. Although it is used by Gandhi’s Shanti Sena (or Peace Army), who have cleaned up after riots in India, as a gesture of peace.
20. And, if it was an anti-capitalist protest, it does rather beg the questions of why were rioters so keen to take symbols of capitalism, such as branded trainers or widescreen televisions.

Fresh challenges, new collaborations and further adventure

P1020430It’s been a good few years for Revolutionary Arts, and we’ll be 13 years old this Thursday. As always with a birthday, that means some reflection – and some thinking about the future..

We’ve set up all sorts of projects with Revolutionary Arts. One, Empty Shops Network, has made the case for town centres, and it’s now accepted that we should be reusing spaces on our High Streets for something more interesting.

Projects like Workshop 1a and Workshop 24 tested the ‘agora’ idea, Retail Ready People gave young people a voice in the debate about tomorrow’s High Street, and I’ve just curated the Amy Winehouse Foundation’s pop up shop in Camden. All that experience meant that I was asked to write a book, Pop Up Business For Dummies – seeing it in a bookshop for the first time was rather special.

Starting #riotcleanup in August 2011 meant I got to hang out with some great people, And building on that experience, Revolutionary Arts got funding for #wewillgather and used it to test, prototype and try new ideas around getting people together to do good things. It’s shown that people love the places they live, and are willing to roll their sleeves up and make change happen.

Travelling to talk about these ideas and to help people start their own projects, I’ve seen more of England than ever before. I’ve fallen in love with some of the places people never tell you that you should visit – Boston, Coventry, Leeds, Margate, Rochdale, Southsea. Trips to Belfast, Rotterdam, Stresa, and Newcastle in Australia have been experiences which I’ll never forget.  I’ve been to 10 Downing Street, watched the New Year fireworks from the roof of the BBC’s Bush House, and went to the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Better than the places were the people I’ve met; inspiring, challenging, entertaining.

I’ve been feeling a little bit like that work’s done. I need a fresh challenge, new angels to wrestle with, another unexplored corner of the map. And I’d like your help. So – as Jed Bartlett would say, what’s next?

You can tell from this site what I’m interested in, and the skills, knowledge and experience I have. You might have heard me talk, seen me on telly, or read something I’ve written.

I’m interested in architecture, in the problems around housing, in cycling and the infrastructure that goes with it, in the return of small-scale manufacture, in local distinctiveness, in easy listening music, in going back to Newcastle NSW for a longer visit, in writing about England, in looking at the working class culture I grew up in, in working with young people, in Mod style, in reusing old buildings, in design and typography, in making social media useful, in tomorrow’s High Street, and in taking a DIY approach to problems. I’m looking for fresh challenges, new collaborations and further adventures. Want to talk about something?


Picture1I was talking to an artist today, who’s doing some work inspired by #riotcleanup. I recently got access to my Twitter archives and it’s quite interesting reading back the Tweets from the first night of #riotcleanup, and seeing how it pulled people together, organising without an organisation.

This isn’t comprehensive; by the nature of Twitter, there’s a lot of repetition and side-channel chat (I’d be happy to let somebody better with spreadsheets than me pull out all the relevant Tweets). But this sequence of Tweets shows how #riotcleanup unfolded:

2011-08-08 15:27 Sounds like London has decided riots are inevitable tonight; watching Tweets from all over about shops shutting up, Police lining up ready

2011-08-08 17:42 RT @loudmouthman: what if everyone ;  the adults, the responsible, the true protesters for peace swarmed the streets and blocked the rio …

2011-08-08 17:50 @loudmouthman @masakepic We need ‘we’re for peace’ hi-vi jackets – or UN-blue hats

2011-08-08 18:27 Police have obviously lost control of Peckham; my grandad’s home turf

2011-08-08 18:58 Scares me more than anything yet RT @spider0246: Plz Mr prime minister send in 3 sqn RAF Regiment and the Para? (cont)

2011-08-08 19:23 Police reporting spectators getting in the way; Twitter showing lots of people struggling to get home after work. Maybe not spectators.

2011-08-08 20:10 Police have lost control of London. There don’t seem to be that many rioters. What’s gone wrong?

2011-08-08 20:24 Time to recall Parliament. Cameron coming back is a start; we need govt to show it’s in control

2011-08-08 22:12 Tomorrow we need to work out how to help independent retailers who’ve had businesses destroyed in all this. A minor thing, but must happen.

2011-08-08 22:46 @james_eggers Insurance will take weeks or months; small business will need help from tomorrow

2011-08-08 23:11 Empty Shops Network Facebook group; can we mobilise volunteers to help small business tomorrow?

2011-08-08 23:13 Can we volunteer to help local shops tidy up, clean up in the morning? Can we help find #popupshop premises?

2011-08-08 23:24 @CamdenTownUnltd think we can mobilise volunteers to help shops clean up; can you and your shops use them?

2011-08-08 23:34 @forgetcape I’m trying to match volunteers with local shops – would love your help

2011-08-08 23:35 Looking for volunteers to help clean up and support local shops in the morning in Hackney #londonriots

2011-08-08 23:36 @madeinhackney Thanks – will try and send people your way. Maybe we should just ask volunteers to meet at a certain time, certain place?

011-08-08 23:41 @Avery_Delany If you can, that would be fantastic – hope to find a volunteer to co-ordinate in each area affected

2011-08-08 23:48 Can anyone around Camden help me manage volunteers there, if we can get any?

2011-08-08 23:54 We have a hashtag – thanks to @commonacademy for #riotcleanup

2011-08-09 00:09 Getting the clean up together – Meet outside Tackle Shop, Roman Road, hackney 9am in the morning to help local shops clean up.  #riotcleanup

2011-08-09 00:10 Second clean up is at Camden; meet outside Camden tube 11am to help local shops, follow @jinacreighton @CamdenTownUnltd for more

2011-08-09 00:35 #riotcleanup Tackle Shop, Roman Rd, Hackney 9am; Chalk farm Tube10am, Camden Tube 11am; take bin bags, brooms, whatever you can #londonriots

2011-08-09 00:36 #riotcleanup Peckham, meet outside library at 8am. take bin bags, brooms etc. Follow @phoeberoberts for updates #londonriots

2011-08-09 00:42 #riotcleanup Clapham – meet outside the Falcon pub, 9am. Follow @silv3r for updates

2011-08-09 00:58 Clapham – #riotcleanup starts at 9am outside the Falcon pub. bring gloves, black sacks, brooms

2011-08-09 01:08 Croydon #riotcleanup – meet East Croydon Station, 10am – thanks @lucyorlulu for this one, follow her

2011-08-09 01:10 Lewisham #riotcleanup at 9am – meet outside Lewisham Shopping Centre – follow @drwhofreak for details

2011-08-09 01:17 Camberwell #riotcleanup starts 10am, corner of Walworth Rd/ East St with @darwinslibrary

2011-08-09 01:19 @Tonsko thank you – if you can take times/ locations from my feed that would be great – really appreciated

England riots

England riots. It has a history of rebellion, revolt and rough protest.

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.

The Guardian’s Reading the Riots and the Riot Communities & Victims Panel report both provide a valuable insight into why the riots happened.

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.

Building on #riotcleanup

As Worthing’s magnolia trees are in full flower, and a small patch of snowdrops has emerged in the front garden of Thompson Towers, I can’t help but reflect on something Tim, from The Beekeepers, said a couple of years ago; we love the blossom so much because it’s temporary, because it has a short life.

He was likening blossom to pop up shops, but it a good thought about any temporary intervention, occasional use of space or momentary action.

I’ve always favoured temporary, nomadic and transient projects; not through any fear of commitment, but because I like the way they inspire other people to follow them up with their own acts. Pop ups unlock the potential of people and places.

Last August, a month when the late summer heat hazed the South Downs and I spent the summer holidays swimming with my children in the sea, I started something which lasted a day but has rippled through the subsequent months.

#riotcleanup was a simple, open, honest response to the riots that had spread across London and then were imitated across England. I asked my friends on Twitter to help their local shopkeeper, if they had been affected by the riots. Get a broom, I Tweeted, some black sacks – nothing complicated, nothing political just an hour of helping somebody else. Sophie Collard, a travel writer with an abnormal interest in train travel, added a hashtag, #riotcleanup. And musician Sam Duckworth started a Twitter account to help to amplify the message.

An incredible number of people heard it, of course, and the images have become iconic; this week #riotcleanup is on the front cover of the Riots Communities & Victims Panel report into August’s unrest and last week it was light entertainment in an Omid Djalili dance for Sport Relief.

Looking after the place where I live is something I’ve always done; on the council estate where I grew up, proud ladies swept their garden paths, tidied away rubbish from communal areas and berated us children for our untidiness. Later I organised neighbours to clear up neglected green spaces on the Maybridge Estate. And during heavy snow in 2009, I mobilised residents to clear packed snow and ice from a footbridge. I’m not interested in becoming a ‘volunteer’ for somebody’s organisation, but am more than willing to stand up when my community needs help.

So, seven months after the riots, one of the ripples has hit the shore with an amazing opportunity. NESTA, with the Office of Civil Society, are investing in projects with the potential to increase in the giving and exchange of time, assets, skills, resources and money.

They’re supporting an idea Sophie and I had in discussions at the RSA in the weeks after #riotcleanup. So in the coming months, we’re developing #futurecleanup – a website which will use Twitter and Facebook to help people organise small, local, community actions all year round.

The same things that happened on the Maybridge Estate, many years ago, but with the power of the networks behind it. I went back to the estate, last week, to be photographed for the Worthing 50 project; the redbrick 1948 houses still look magnificent in the sunshine. But even more glorious is the blossom on the trees edging the streets.

Billy Bragg on #riotcleanup

During the week of #riotcleanup, I wrote about why the Broom Army was the best of anarchy. It didn’t get much notice from the anarchists or lefties, although oddly enough, David Cameron read it. I don’t mind him talking about it, but I wasn’t the leader; I was just the chap with a megaphone and a whiteboard.

However, Billy Bragg did:

“The people who spontaneously came out to help tidy up, that’s anarchy.

Anarchy’s not smashing windows and taking tellies, anarchy’s not setting light to branches of McDonalds. That don’t change nothing.

Anarchy is people organising themselves for the common good in some way, without anyone coming round and giving them orders.

That’s the thing I’m most proud of’

(Billy Bragg on Dermot O’Leary, BBC Radio 2, 15/10/2011 – you can listen here, it’s 41:35 in)

Cameron’s conference speech

Cameron’s conference speech was written by former ice cream seller Clare Foges. Whether you believe in what Cameron’s saying or not, there is some good writing. I am, for fairly obvious reasons, rather chuffed with this extract:

“Nobody wants false optimism. And I will never pretend there are short cuts to success. But success will come: with the right ideas, the right approach, the right leadership. Leadership from government: to set out the direction we must take, and the choices we must make. But leadership also from you. Because the things that will really deliver success are not politicians or government. It’s the people of Britain, and the spirit of Britain.

Some say that to succeed in this world, we need to become more like India, or China, or Brazil. I say: we need to become more like us. The real us. Hard-working, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do. That’s the spirit that has made this United Kingdom what it is: a small country that does great things; one of the most incredible success stories in the history of the world.

And it’s a spirit that’s alive and well today. I see it in Tania Sidney-Roberts, the head teacher I met in Norwich who started a free school from scratch, now four times over-subscribed. Her ambition? To set up another school and do it all over again. That’s leadership.

I see it in the group of GPs in Bexley who have taken more control of their budgets, and got their patients – some of the poorest in the country – free care on Harley Street. Their ambition? To cut waiting times, cut costs and improve care – all in one go. That’s leadership.

And we all saw it this summer. Dan Thompson watched the riots unfold on television. But he didn’t sit there and say ‘the council will clean it up.’ He got on the internet. He sent out a call. And with others, he started a social movement.

People picked up their brooms and reclaimed their streets. So the argument I want to make today is simple: leadership works. I know how tough things are. I don’t for one minute underestimate how worried people feel, whether about making ends meet, or the state of the world economy. But the truth is, right now we need to be energised, not paralysed by gloom and fear.”

PS this is the published version – Cameron slightly fluffed the lovely rhythm of ‘I see it/ I see it/ we all saw’

PPS David Cameron saying my name out loud doesn’t automatically make me a Conservative party member. If you want to find out about my politics, take me out for coffee and I’ll tell you.