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Today in Kingston-upon-Thames, an outer borough of London, I turned a corner and came across a work van with its back doors open, revealing long sheets of plywood, boxes of nails and screws, and a long silver stepladder.
These panels of wood weren’t for patching up windows that were smashed in during the riots, but were to protect storefronts that are still safe and intact.
In line with what has become a kind of catch-phrase around London right now, they were being put up “just in case.” A man with flower tattoos around his wrists and arms waited for a break in traffic before carrying the plywood, panel by panel, to a nearby department store. Soon, another man joined him and they took turns measuring the windows, lining up the plywood and getting to work.
“Do you mind?” I asked as I lifted my camera.
“Not at all,” said Glen of Gilham and Gilham Glass Company.
I asked about how the riots have affected their business.
“We were out ‘til half past twelve last night. It’s definitely thrown our work load off. We’ve got our regular jobs to do, you know? We’ll be out tonight as well. Let’s just hope it’s not ‘til twelve again.
But,” he added, “I suppose we can’t complain.”
Chris, with slicked-back grey hair and a tape measure clipped to his side pocket at all times, climbed a ladder to begin drilling while Glen steadied each panel from below and talked with a passing parking enforcement officer.
“Man, where are the police at? What else are my taxes for?” the parking officer asked.
“We’re doing this just in case,” Glen replied.
Just in case, indeed. It was mid-afternoon on Wednesday, and nearly two days had passed since the worst of the rioting took place on Monday night. But from the many boarded-up windows around the town centre, it seemed shopkeepers in Kingston were still hesitant to sound the all-clear.
Unlike many of the major flashpoints from Monday night’s riots, the county in which Kingston resides, Surrey, has the highest GDP per capita in the country. I was surprised to find such precautions being taken, but what was even more surprising was coming across another scene this afternoon: a group of three teenagers carrying not bats or looted items, but a video camera and tripod.
As they got set up on the sidewalk to interview passersby, I spoke with their mentor, Sarah, the woman who was accompanying them.
“They’re involved with The Challenge, a program for 16-year olds that’s all about people’s perception of youth. They choose their focus, such as photography, media, or business enterprise, and have a community partner who works with them. At the end of the summer, they have a chance to showcase their projects to their families.
They also come up with their own fundraising ideas. One team is working with Safe ‘N’ Sound Peckham against gangs and violence. Then they go in front of a panel of three dragons,” referring to Dragons’ Den, a UK reality TV show in which entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas to millionaire investors.
As images from the riots still flashed through my mind–scenes of young people the very same age as those in The Challenge, carting out plasma screen TVs and bags full of stolen clothes–it was amazing to note the difference. I watched the three teenagers with Sarah interview people of all ages, getting their thoughts on the riots and preparing to unveil their project in the next few days.
For these teenagers, it wasn’t about precautions or preparations. Instead, they’d taken to the streets and were actively repairing the damage caused to the reputation of Britain’s youth this past weekend.
Keep Calm and Carry On is an iconic British phrase that dates back to the Second World War, when the government came up with the slogan as a means of boosting morale. The classic red-and-white design of its poster has now become a part of the nation’s consciousness. If Kingston’s streets were anything to go by today, carrying on is exactly what people plan to do.
Even the last thing tacked onto the plywood Glen and Chris installed was a single white sheet of paper:
Open As Usual.