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After worst riots in a generation, proud Britons reaffirm faith in lawful society

The British are proud of their reputation for refusing to bow down before adversity, a spirit that has brought them through the Blitz, the race riots of the early 1980s, and the terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005.

And now, the worst riots in a generation. Before the ashes of the torched buildings were cold Tuesday morning, thousands of people in London and the surrounding areas had answered a call, issued spontaneously on social media networks, to begin sweeping up.

"I had a day off today between jobs and I just couldn't justify doing something like shopping," said Felicity Deane, 27, a lawyer from Sydney, Australia, who lives in the City, London's financial district. By 10 a.m., she had made the trip south of the river to Clapham Junction, one of the worst-hit areas, a pair of yellow rubber gloves tucked in her pocket.

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At a bus stop, she struck up a friendship with Silvia Almaraz, a Spanish dance teacher, who was heading toward the cleanup zone herself. "It's the right thing to do, to come out and help these small businesses that were looted," said Ms. Almaraz, also 27, who lives nearby in Clapham Common and had been awake until four am watching the news and checking on her friends' wherabouts on Facebook.

Early in the morning, as fires burned out of control across the city, she noticed mass volunteer event, Riot Cleanup, being organized on Facebook and Twitter. The organizer of @riotcleanup is a British artist named Dan Thompson, whose rallying cry proved so effective that some riot sites were actually tidy before most volunteers arrived yesterday morning.

"I wanted to find a way to help that was quick, simple and practical," said Mr. Thompson. By early afternoon, a photo of the cleanup crew in Clapham, holding hundreds of multicoloured brooms in the air, had spread more quickly than the fires that inspired the effort. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, attempted to bat away criticism of his delayed return to the city by grabbing a broom (he was booed for his attempt).

Sean Joness, a lawyer and part-time judge, stood by patiently before the cleanup began, holding two push brooms and a roll of heavy-duty garbage bags he'd bought on the way from his home in Wimbledon, south London. "We like to think of England as a lawful and polite society," he said. The activities of the previous evening had shaken many people's faith in that idea. "This morning," said Mr. Jones, indicating his broom, "is my way of reaffirming that idea."

Mr. Jones singled out something that had left many others shaken and confused: There seemed to be no logic or purpose to the violence. The rioters had looted hairdressers and baby-clothing shops and a store selling bibles. They'd set fire to a party-supply store in Clapham, where local children bought balloons and costumes. Across the street from where he stood, a charity shop that supported hospices had its window kicked in.

Local businessmen were struggling to reconcile their peaceful, upscale neighbourhood with the rampages of Monday night.

"I had seen riots like that on telly, but never with my own eyes," said Hiron Ahmed, who has owned Panahar Indian Restaurant in Lavender Hill, south London, for 30 years. When he saw a stream of young men run past his restaurant, breaking windows as they went, he hurried his customers out the back door (after wrapping up their dinners.)

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"These are very aggressive people. It's not right what they did." Still, Mr. Ahmed planned to re-open his restaurant as soon as possible. "I have no choice," he said. "It's my business."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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