London’s #riotcleanup: Keep Calm and Carry a Big Broom

Building a better London might just start with a broom and social networking.

The news tells us that communities have had their hearts ripped out. Yesterday morning, the streets of London were littered with debris, smashed glass and bricks, buildings were burnt or pillaged and three nights of rioting and looting had left the city smoldering.

Dan Thompson sat at his home in the coastal town of Worthing, West Sussex, 60 miles south of the capital, and tweeted a plea for anyone nearby to bring him coffee. He hadn’t slept all night, having started the idea of #riotcleanup on Twitter the previous evening. Soon the hash tag was trending, more popular than #LondonRiots, more popular even than Justin Bieber.

More importantly, thanks to Thompson, thousands of people had mobilized to meet at various points around London, Liverpool and Birmingham. They brought gloves and heavy-duty trash bags and flasks of tea. They called themselves Riot Wombles. Hilariously, people complained that in some places the council street cleaners had been too efficient and there was little for them to do.

Pictures began arriving on Twitter. Crowds marching down the streets, not with the masked faces of rioters looking for shops to loot, not an insurgence of violence and anger, but instead armed with brooms and smiles, ordinary people who had taken time off work and out of their lives looking for a mess to clean up, shops to help repair.

For many, this photo taken outside Clapham Junction station has become emblematic of the community whose heartbeat was said to be flat lining.

Meanwhile, an exhausted but elated Thompson was attempting to deal with over 100 tweets a minute.

In his every day life, he runs the Empty Shops Network, bringing disused buildings back into service to give cheap space to artists, makers, social enterprises and charities. While that network proved a good starting point for #riotcleanup, the majority of momentum came from the community, from people who love where they live, who wanted to show solidarity against threat and used the speed and might of social media to do just that.

While much of old media wrung its hands over the use of new media in organizing the riots, mostly through the Blackberry BBM network, the reality is that social networks were also streamlining positive action, like a rapidly charging defibrillator.

We are now onto day four of the riots.

Some 16,000 police in London last night ensured a quieter night in the city, but Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool and Birmingham still suffered. Three people died trying to protect their community against violence.

No one knows why it is happening, although many have speculated. But this kind of violence almost certainly doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The rioters may not have a cohesive, coordinated voice, and while some are without a doubt opportunistic thugs, others are angry about something. We now have to ask ourselves: What, exactly?

As we reflect, we have to remember that while a handful of disenfranchised and disaffected people began destroying cities, the rest of the country collected together in an astonishing display of community. #riotcleanup mobilized thousands. Hot on its heels was Anti-riot: Operation Cup Of Tea, a Facebook group encouraging peace-loving members of the public to upload photos of themselves eschewing acts of violence and instead enjoying the most British of pass times – tea drinking. It currently has 220,000 members, 20,000 more than when I started writing this article an hour ago.

Then there is Something Nice For Ashraf, a reaction to the shocking video of a young Malaysian student who was injured in the riots and then mugged while bleeding profusely. He allegedly lost his front teeth, alongside a replaceable but probably still much loved bicycle, mobile phone and Sony Playstation. The Tumblr seeks to do something nice, to show Ashraf and his family that people in England are not really “scumbags and dickheads.”

Despite what Malcolm Gladwell would have us believe, social networking, in all its furious righteous indignation, its frenzied panic and easy moral outrage, is shaping up to be a new heart center of our communities, a simple place of gathering in an increasingly fractured world where we can show we are strong and caring and willing to stand together, where we can show what we can do with a little bit of love and care.

On Twitter, @riotcleanup now has nearly 88,000 followers. There’s nothing to tidy right now, so they’re playing #cleanupanthems for amusement: Litter Sweep Symphony; Where The Streets Have No Stains; Broom Shake Shake Shake The Broom; Sweep Caroline. It’s silly and self-deprecating, making light of what has been a harrowing and shocking few days. More than anything, it’s incredibly British.

After all the asking why is done, this is the message we should take away from the events of the last few days, this strength and humor, this common goal to live somewhere peaceful and fair and safe, and the knowledge that we have the drive to achieve that goal.

Someone tweets @riotcleanup: Nice idea, but what if they riot again tonight?

@riotcleanup replies: Then we clean up again tomorrow.