Society proves itself to be more big than broken
Acts of kindness replace acts of violence as a shaken, post-riotEngland picks itself up
Sunday 14 August 2011
A shaken country has begun to dust itself down, clear its head, and demonstrate what most of it is really made of. There had been, after those bad nights, much recrimination and odd flashes of remorse. But yesterday came a resolve from those very same streets to put at least some things right.
It was evident not in the continued verbal arms race between pundits to explain what, in the end, may be unexplainable, or in the squabbles between police and government over credit for the quiet since Wednesday, but in a thousand positive and collaborative acts which will hopefully prove greater and more enduring than the sum of last week's destruction.
Marches and vigils in north and south London reclaimed for the majority areas ambushed by the few; some businesses trashed on Monday were reopening, often with community help; appeals to revive small traders were overflowing with donations; and builders, garden centres, wholesalers, and IT firms were offering assistance free of charge. The job of catching those responsible was boosted in places such as Manchester, where the police were "inundated" with tip-offs from people responding to their "Shop a Looter" campaign. If a high number of arrests can ever be called a good thing – and in these circumstances it can – the total number of alleged rioters and looters detained is now more than 2,000.
And the dignity of relatives of the three men killed by a car during Birmingham's disturbances continued to shine. Yesterday, Abdullah Khan, uncle to brothers Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir, who died alongside Haroon Jahan, asked for the family to be given justice, and said he had been "humbled" by support from the area and messages of condolence from people around the world.
There are still worries – victims unhappy at what they called neglect by authorities, and many concerned that the disturbances could return as swiftly as they receded – but also a beginning in repairing the scenes of the troubles, if not their underlying causes.
In Wood Green, north London, Smile Mehmet set up a table and red carpet outside his damaged jewellers shop and has been replacing watch batteries in the street. In Ealing, Brij Sehgal of Seba Electronics says people have been ringing up from as far away as Bristol offering to work for free, and Elizabeth Pilgrim, whose baby-clothes shop was badly hit, was hugely cheered by what she called "an amazing sense of community".
She said: "I've been overwhelmed by the amount of help – tradesmen offering their services for free, to suppliers asking if I need any stock and it would be free. I've had artists who are going to do a nice picture on the hoarding... I've had strangers saying they would donate money to pay my bills, passers-by trying to shove money in my hand. It's been incredible."
In Clapham, Duncan Mundell, whose Party Superstore was set alight, has been so moved by offers of support that he and some volunteers erected a 30ft-long banner by his premises last night thanking the community.
And from Croydon, at the family business whose large living and dining room furniture department was destroyed in a fire which symbolised Monday's disturbances, there was further heartening news. Reeves, whose bedroom department across the road survived, albeit with all its windows broken, has received thousands of emails of support from as far away as America, the local paper have given them free advertisements, and the store is now open, even if nearby roads are not. Maurice Reeves, the 80-year-old great-grandson of the business's founder, told The Independent on Sunday that a man who had read of the fire drove all the way from Nottingham to buy furniture. He spent more than £800, and Mr Reeves was so touched he offered him a 40 per cent discount. "He said he would only accept if I signed the wardrobe. So I will." He added: "I've seen a lot of good in the last few days."
The rebuilding of Reeves is one of the many causes that have attracted major support from online donors. An appeal to help restore Siva Kandiah's Clarence Convenience Store in Hackney after its destruction by rioters – Save Siva's Shop – has reached £13,291, and perhaps the most impressive response has been to the fund to help 89-year-old Tottenham barber Aaron Biber reopen his uninsured shop. More than £35,000 has been raised in just a few days, more than is needed. The excess is being given to others affected in that area.
It was here, last Saturday, that an English summer ignited, and yesterday it was also the destination of a march by 1,000 people. Some had contentious points to make ("Blame the Tories, not our kids" was one chant), but most seemed to see it as a chance for the communities to reconnect, make sure that the events of last week are not repeated, and ensure all cultures stay united. And the crowds that gathered on the pavements showed their appreciation with thumbs-up gestures and shouts of encouragement. One group even clapped to chants while seated at the bus stop. Passing cars honked their horns and groups from various shops and restaurants, mainly of Turkish or Kurdish origin, stood on their thresholds and watched with approving nods.
Haci Demir, 33, who works at a refugee workers cultural association in Stoke Newington and who helped organise the march, said: "Social inequality has left no future for the youth. There is a lot of anger among young people in this area. Turkish and Kurdish shop owners came out to protect their businesses, but that doesn't mean they do not have sympathy for the youths. The media presented them as fighting the young people and we want to show that this is not the case."
Samantha Dean, 19, from Dalston and unemployed, said: "We must make sure that young people like me stay connected to society. Nobody should be proud of the events of the week, but the root cause needs to be dealt with."
Janet Opoku-Agyemang, with daughter Leah, 9, said: "I feel sorry for the generation to come as hope is almost lost. Children should be given an opportunity at an early age, there is no point trying to intervene when they are 17. My daughter wants to repeat her year at school because she feels there are gaps in her knowledge. Unfortunately, she can't, and she is going to suffer for it."
North of Tottenham is Enfield, scene of last week's other great blaze, at the Sony DADC warehouse. Many small firms have been financially crippled by the fire, losing entire CD stocks. The centre was the major distribution point for independent labels, and stored recordings by companies such as XL and Domino, whose artists include Adele and the Arctic Monkeys. Yesterday, the BPI – which represents British music companies – said it is to create a fund of more than £100,000 for labels affected by the fire.
A week that began with such ugliness seems now to be showing that it can be, to use two separate diagnoses of the Prime Minister's, a society both broken and big at the same time.
Additional reporting: Francesca Infante, Samantha Brook, Jermaine Haughton, and Sanna Chu
The best of British: Heroes of the week
The bereaved father: Tariq Jahan
Mr Jahan's 21-year-old son, Haroon, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, along with Shazad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31. The dignified bereaved father called on people to stay calm and "respect the memories of our sons".
The stoical shopkeeper: Graham Reeves
Mr Reeves, 52, was the Croydon-based furniture seller whose store, which survived the blitz, was burnt to the ground. His family vowed not to be defeated and to carry on the business at its remaining shop.
The officer: PC Gordon Murphy
PC Murphy fended off a mob of 50 youths who were trying to loot a retail park. Mobilised from Catford police station in south London, he and colleagues charged at the mob, despite being outnumbered.
The matriarch: Pauline Pearce
Now internationally famous as the walking-stick wielding grandmother, 45, who stood her ground as violence escalated around her in Hackney, east London, and berated a gang of looters vandalising a building.
The hero schoolboy: Iftikhar Ahmed, 15
The teenager carried his injured mother for a mile through the Birmingham riots, after she was set upon by a dozen thugs with baseball bats. As he did so, he was pelted with bottles by another gang of violent hooligans.
The good samaritan: Peter Firstbrook
Mr Firstbrook, 60, ignored the danger to himself and battled his way through the rioters to the injured Richard Mannington Bowes and dragged him away from a wheelie bin fire in an attempt to save his life.
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