A Riot of Our Own – is Riot Wombling the new Big Society?

It’s 26 years since the Broadwater Farm riots. These took place in Tottenham. The Metropolitan Police shot dead Mark Duggan on 6 August 2011. In Tottenham. And since then, there have been riots in various parts of London, and the usual responses in Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool. 

It would seem that little has really changed since the publication of the Gifford Report and, sadly, life has been lost again. But this time, there’s been a fight-back, a counter riot. Via the work of Dan Thompson, there’s already a revolution of tidying up – the Riot Cleanup; it’s participants are Riot Wombles. 

I suspect that the Tory PR machine cannot believe its luck: in one fell swoop it gets to be all tough on crime (instantly appealing to its vicariously violent Daily Mail fan-base) and also claim credit for the invocation of the Big Society in an easy-to-identify media friendly way. And, you know what, great. There are people out there who are showing that they give a shit. They do care about the world in which we live.

Trouble is, what the Tory spin machine won’t recognize is that these people would have done this anyway – people who care will always want to help. Of course, increasingly Twitter makes it easier for organisers and leaders to help us help ourselves.

So, once all the broken buildings, homes and livelihoods are off the news, and all the shattered glass has been swept away, what will change? I suspect that the brutally hard work of the likes of Camila Batmanghelidjh will continue unfunded and swept under the carpet. Leaving aside the bandwagon agitation of the likes of The Third Estate, these are the people who are at the height of these riots: the young, disaffected and disengaged. They are outside the regular social order, they are what Blair called the Underclass and what the Victorians called the Poor. They are the people we are frightened of and who we don’t understand.

Riot Wombles won’t make the slightest difference to them – I do wonder if freshly cleaned streets may just become a canvas for another smear of destruction. And here’s the problem with the Big Society: it’s got nothing to do with government, it’s already there and it’s already helping itself. But, for those who fall outside the normal social order there aren’t enough Wombles to sweep that problem away.



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