Shopkeepers start the cleanup in Ealing, west London Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Column Riots show the worst in us, but also the best

As English cities struggle to recover from several nights of rioting, London councillor Mike Harris looks at the aftermath.

After several nights of rioting, local councillor Mike Harris writes about the effect of the disturbances in his area of Lewisham, south London.

IT’S HIGHLY UNUSUAL to have widespread violence across a city, where the authorities have absolutely no idea of the root cause.

There’s no one to negotiate with, no community group to speak to, no leaders, no ideals to challenge: it’s just sporadic mob violence. My constituents have been shocked by its spread and unpredictability. St Stephen’s church just off the High Street has boarded up its windows, as have local pubs. On Tuesday our local branch of Barclays had a sign that ominously proclaimed: “This branch is closed until further notice”. Twitter has become a dangerous tool: provocateurs are using it to spread rumours that the far-right National Front is going to march upon Lewisham to “reclaim the streets”. On Tuesday night panicked tweets exclaimed: “200 national front marching to Lewisham”. It wasn’t true. But in a highly diverse area where over 100 languages are spoken, rumours are enough to cause fear.

If you plot where the violence has happened in London against deprivation there’s a clear relationship: the violence mostly happened in poorer areas. There’s also a historic link between austerity and social unrest, according to a discussion document just published by the The Centre for Economic Policy Research. Yet, no one thinks the individuals who caused the violence were anything other than opportunists – some career criminals, others who saw a chance to loot.

The first before the courts included an organic chef, an opera house steward and a university student. There’s no political sentiment being expressed by the looters except for the downright stupid – such as the “I want my taxes back” looter in Clapham Junction which went viral.

‘People wanted to stand up’

This civil disorder has brought out the worst elements from our community. It’s thought that some gang members were behind the most extreme violence. But it has also brought out the best in Lewisham. People have genuinely wanted to stand up for their community. On Tuesday morning, unprompted, around 15 local people came down to the town centre on their way to work to help with the clean-up. Fantastic images of Londoners coming out onto the streets to clean up the mess have been seen across the globe. One American tweeted in response: “English people, WE’LL stop thinking you’re all quaint and proper as soon as YOU stop immediately cleaning up after your own riots.”

My constituents have inundated me asking me how they can help. This Saturday, local people will be gathering in the town centre for a ‘carrot mob’: armed only with shopping bags, we’re going to go and do our weekly shopping at the local market and at shops damaged by Monday’s violence. It’s a great way of putting money back into the pockets of those affected. It’s also a show of solidarity.

London is a chaotic place. It’s survived terrorism, the Blitz, the Great Fire, civil war and revolts. Asymmetric violence for no cause has visibly shaken us – and we have to deal with complex issues that have created this situation including the culture of greed. The collapse of trust in our major institutions isn’t helping. In amongst much confusion, one thing is clear, the decent majority have to take an interest in their communities. And politicians have to be visible on the streets and listening.

Mike Harris is a Labour councillor for Lewisham Central, where looting took place on Monday evening.

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