08.11.11

A Tinderbox Waiting for a Match

The world was shocked by England’s angry rioters. But inner-city violence has smoldered for a long time, explains crime journalist Gavin Knight.

“It was bound to kick off sometime,” were the chilling words spoken to me by my source Pilgrim as the five-day street riots, the worst in decades, ripped through Tottenham, North London last Friday. Pilgrim, a feared gang leader in Hackney with a conviction for armed robbery, had driven into the area in his gleaming black BMW 4x4 with his children. There he found a street full of young kids he recognized, their hoodies up, strutting round a burning car. “Their faces were contorted, they were so angry and emotional,” he told me, “I knew I couldn’t engage with them. I had to get my family out of there before they attacked the car.”

Over the next five days, horrifying images flashed around the world: a woman’s silhouette leaping from a burning window in Croydon. The dignity of a heartbroken father, Tariq Jahan, pleading for calm to mourn his 21-year-old son, killed by a hit-and-run driver. A YouTube video of a foreign student who was mugged by youths pretending to help him.

Over the five nights of rioting that followed, Keisha, a 30-something youth worker with wild hair and twisted nail-extensions from London’s East End, defied orders from her superiors and stayed out on the streets until 5 a.m., talking down hyped-up teenagers. “We had strict orders not to engage with them,” she said. “It was too dangerous.” The teenagers in her care were already designated “at risk” for their volatile tempers. Now they were whipped up into a frenzy by Blackberry messenger texts plotting new acts of violence. “It became all about—right, what can we get away with now,” she told me.

While the global press and Middle England were stunned, the riots were no surprise to Keisha, Pilgrim or the social workers, youth workers, cops and residents who live and work in brutal, fractured communities of Britain’s deprived inner cities. For more than two years I was embedded with frontline police units in Manchester, London, and Glasgow and spent time with dozens of violent criminals, gang members and families of victims of violent crime. I could tell this rage and violence had been brewing for years.

In the notorious badlands of Moss Side, South Manchester, deep inside the heavily fortified police headquarters, I zipped up Kevlar body armor with haggard detectives from the specialized anti-gang unit XCalibre. Staring down at us was a 40-foot wall covered entirely in rows of photographs of 200 violent gang members. The two gangs, Gooch and Doddington, have been engaged in a 20-year feud on the Alexandra Park estate, separated by a four-lane highway. At the top of the wall were ultraviolent “impact players,” often armed, who catalyzed violence. The echelon below were 18-year-old Olders, overseeing Babies and Tinies as young as 10 in the final rung. We headed out in a fleet of unmarked cars until 3 a.m. to patrol the fortress-like cul de sacs of Longsight, Moss Side, and Fallowfield. The gangs use military tactics. Unseen in the night sky, a spy plane picked out infrared images of a diamond formation of hooded figures moving on bikes on an “incursion.” When they encounter cops or rivals, the outriders will starburst, creating a diversion. The one in the center carries the gun.

In Glasgow, among some of the most deprived estates in the U.K., I spent time with Karyn McCluskey, a feisty single mother, codirector of the Violence Reduction Unit. When she arrived in Glasgow 10 years ago, it had 71 murders a year, making it the most violent city in Europe. There are 170 gangs, with 3,500 gang members aged 11 to 23. Trauma doctors handled one facial injury every 6 hours. 70 percent of the violence went unreported.

I spoke to charming, baby-faced teenagers in the bleak 1950s housing estates of Glasgow’s East End who engage in pitched battles with swords and machetes every Saturday night. They light fires on top of two neighboring hills, hurl bottles, then charge across the uneven stony waste ground to batter each other. “It’s so dark all you can hear is the bottles hitting the goal posts,” one grinning boy said to me. “The ground's so muddy and slippy. The number of times we’ve battered our mates. Aye, happens all the time.”

From the 80s onwards, after manufacturing collapsed, the inner cities were awash with hard drugs. One night, in the police no-go area of Barrowfield, I walked out with a convicted killer. He’d grown up one of the 350,000 kids who have drug-addicted parents in U.K. In his twenties, off his head on coke, he’d put a machete down the back of his shorts, a balaclava over his head, and set off for the Celtic heartland of the Barras looking for a fight.

Besides drugs, another factor behind the riots is the idea of intergenerational disadvantage being passed on. An exhausted, overworked social worker told me about her clients—a father and son. The father, Mick, stabbed his brutish father in the eye of at the age of 7 in self-defense. Mick grew up to be a notorious armed robber, executing efficient heists with a shotgun. A heavy drinker, he battered his wife in front of his son Mick. By 19, the son was £4,000 in debt to the local coke dealer, so he took his dad’s shotgun, a family heirloom, and held up a security guard for £40,000. Sixty-three percent of violent fathers have sons who go on to offend. When asked about role models, one London gang member replied wittily, “Sure we have role models. Barack Obama. Nelson Mandela. They just don’t live round here.”

For more than two years I was embedded with frontline police units in Manchester, London, and Glasgow and spent time with dozens of violent criminals. I could tell this rage and violence had been brewing for years.

It’s been a mistake of Middle England to brand these kids as just “yobs,” “thugs,” or “hood rats.” Among the despair and chaos, I found undefeated human promise. It’s not just the boys either. I spoke to a girl in her teens who shaved her head and dressed like a boy so she could deal drugs to repair her shoes and go to auditions. She was well-read, articulate and interested in current affairs. We sat in the kitchen of the North London hostel for delinquents where she lives, on probation, an electronic tag around her leg. She told me, “I want to be an actress, not a drug dealer.” She worked hard dealing drugs, but at the end of her shift the boys would steal her earnings at knife point. On the third day, she stabbed one in the arm and they left her alone to earn her money. As we chatted, her flat-mate arrived with a pitbull the size of a warthog. Within minutes a fight erupted upstairs with death threats and stab taunts bellowed out. Her youth worker rolled her eyes to heaven and checked her mobile. Fights like this are commonplace. It’s just everyday life for this lost U.K. generation.

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat, true stories of inner city crime, is published by Picador.