Wolverhampton is a city of many religions and a large proportion of atheists too. As the riots raged, there were a lot of people who turned to their prayers, especially those who felt helpless in the face of the violence. But spirituality had a practical side and unifying side too.
The RiotCleanUpWolv gathering saw a very visible Christian continguent. Reverends Arun Arora and Richard Moy were there with their brooms and both stood on benches to speak with the crowd. The former led everyone in a prayer, which he acknowledged in advance might not tally with the religion (or lack thereof) of all present. He hoped that we'd agree with the sentiment and, if not an amen, then a 'hey yeah!' could be substituted at the end. It struck a cord with everyone. It was all about keeping Wolverhampton safe.
As I ventured into St John's Retail Park yesterday, I bumped into Mandy Chatha. She saw my broom, so approached me to ask what it was like in the city centre. She was about to go and lend a hand too. During the course of our conversation, she told me about the people that had protected Sedgley Street Sikh Temple, off the Dudley Road, the night before. The temple has a gym attached and, on the night of August 9th, the news went out there that the city was rioting. Those inside immediately ended their work-outs and dashed to protect the building.
Word-of-mouth quickly swelled their numbers, until 'between 70-80' men were arm in arm around the temple. Some of the older men were wearing all five of the sacred Ks of Sikhism, including the curved kirpan blade. It wasn't just the Sikh Temple under their protection, it was the entire neighbourhood. The nearby church also got a cordon of Sikh men around it. It wasn't about religious pathways. It was about keeping the rioters away from Dudley Road's sacred places and they were happy to go where they were needed.
Though I have heard nothing specific about Wolverhampton's other religious communities, that doesn't mean that they aren't also out there, helping where they can. Islam was certainly represented in Birmingham two nights ago, when three young Muslim men were killed, while protecting properties in their city centre. It is heart-breaking to note that Tariq Jahan heard the bang and rushed to the scene to discover that one of the casualties was his son. He immediately administered CPR to another man, having already accepted that his own boy was beyond help. Could we all hope to remain so calm in such circumstances?
So what then of my own lot - the Pagans? Unless we're in full regalia, floating down the high street with our cloaks billowing behind us, it might not be obvious that we are there. Pagan holy places tend to be temporary circles, so there aren't the huge edifices of buildings to protect. But nevertheless there has been a Pagan response up and down the country. What you do you expect from witches? We dug out our broomsticks!
There is a reason that brooms (often called besoms in Wicca) are associated with witchcraft. As much as we'd love to soar, like Harry Potter, over the rooftops, unfortunately flight isn't actually amongst its uses. However, their use as everyday religious artefacts is well documented, both historically and in modern practice. In previous burning times, the stick would conceal a stang (an old Norse word meaning 'stick'), which became an altar, with the addition of a few flowers and other foliage. Moreover, a besom is commonly used in purification rituals.
Negative energy is swept away with each thrust of the broom handle. In its wake comes positivity. Out with the old; in with the new. It's a rite in which even non-Pagans still participate, though many call it 'spring cleaning'.
So when the clarion call of @RiotCleanUp sounded, Pagans throughout the nation noted with glee the encouragement to bring their brooms into the city centres. There were practical purposes, of course, but there was definitely the spiritual too. Did the sweeper beside you seem lost in concentration? Then it is possible that (s)he was a witch performing a rite, as the glass and litter got swept into the waiting bin-bags.
The Pagans were present and I can assure you that, on August 10th, 2011, the diameter of Wolverhampton's Ring Road was enclosed in a protective circle. The streets within it were purified. The witches brought their brooms.