Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London Riots from a gang member's perspective

Update: To be clear, I have no connection with any gangs whatsoever. The following is my personal take on the London Riots, informed by conversations I have had in the past about crowd mentality and gang behaviour, with people who had first hand experience.

When I was 19 I met a boy. Handsome, clever, with jet-black hair and olive skin, a pensive 16 year old boy called Chris. I remember being fascinated by his eyes: at a glance, a warm deep brown. But as we talked, all I could see was a hollowness, pain, loneliness, anger, desperation.

When I asked him where he was from, he told me the name of his gang.

Not his hometown, his neighbourhood, or the city where he had spent most of his life, or even where his parents were originally from, but his gang. The people who had shaped his life, who had given it meaning. The people who “had his back”, who would die for him. Who meant more to him than family, who had provided for him when society had failed him.

We walked along outside, snow crunching beneath our feet, careful to stay within the confines of the detention centre where hours earlier I had registered as a rare Christmas visitor.

He told me of the addictive buzz of empowerment that came with running with a gang, with a crowd of fearless boys, who all believed they had nothing to lose.

Of the adrenaline rush and the tingling that came with flouting society’s rules and knowing there would be no consequences.

Of standing up in front of the police, people you’ve been taught you should fear, and seeing the fear in their eyes instead, knowing they are powerless to harm you until you’ve harmed them first. Knowing there is nothing they can do to you that you haven’t already lived through. Feeling invincible.

We spoke of the value of property, of possessions. For him, nothing had value. Everything can be bought, or stolen. Stealing from the middle classes or vandalising their homes was in his mind a victimless crime – after all, they have insurance and not only can they get their stolen property replaced, but in his eyes they would end up with something brand new. It’s win-win, he said.

What about keepsakes? I asked. Photographs? He looked puzzled. I had to remind myself that this was a boy who believed nobody in the world loved him, nobody cared about him besides the boys who stuck by him. Why would he need photographs of them – he saw them every day. His emotional attachment even to them felt guarded – he was well aware that many of his friends would end up under ground or behind bars at a frighteningly young age.

Thinking back now about the day I spent with Chris, I feel I have a different perspective on the London riots than the people around me.

There are those who are appalled by the opportunistic looting, appalled that these kids would break through a shop’s windows and steal things, that they would vandalise property. I am appalled too, but unsurprised. Let’s remind ourselves that many of these kids come from an environment not dissimilar to Chris’. Vandalism isn’t new to them, theft isn’t new to them, it’s around them every day. If it isn’t necessarily the norm, it’s frighteningly commonplace.

That barrier simply isn’t there.

The empathy we feel with the shopkeepers and small businesses who have lost everything to the fires: how would this translate to a young lad raised in poverty or generations of unemployment? For many, owning a business feels about as attainable as owning a dragon, and they see only the financial impact – remedied by insurance companies – rather than the emotional impact on the owners. They don’t have any reference point to understand what it means to risk your savings, to toil for 16 hours a day to keep a small business afloat in a recession.

The shocking photographs of rioters throwing bricks and burning timber at the police. Many of us see a brave person standing there, a family man perhaps, working hard and risking his life for not enough pay. A real person. The knowledge that Chris and his friends would have instead seen a faceless shape in riot gear, powerless to stop a growing swarm of rioters, saddens me.

The “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality that hooks otherwise good kids or makes them feel powerless to say no to getting involved, gives me a sense of powerlessness too.

There is a depressing irony to the fact that the adrenaline rush, the buzz of overwhelming excitement that came with being part of a massive crowd for positive achievements – my Total Wipeout auditions for example – is the same thing fuelling the rioters. By nature a shy person, with adrenaline coursing through my veins and a crowd shouting my name, there I was hamming it up and performing for the crowd – so unlike me that I felt possessed, powerful, invigorated. It was better, more addictive than any drug.

Is it really possible that smashing up London with an energised crowd feels the same? That otherwise good kids are being swept into the frenzy by this incredible feeling?

Is it really possible that this is the only way they feel they can make their mark on the world?

Your comments, thoughts and experience of the London riots are most welcome.

image from Dave Hill's London Blog at The Guardian, "Things I believe about London Riots"

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

What happens when preschoolers fend for themselves

The fact that just the trailer for Toy Story 3 makes me well up is bad enough, but what is really worrying is the fact that it's on in the first place, at 8 a.m. on a sunny weekday morning. Normally the children would be having a bouncing competition on our fading mini trampoline, or bundling each other in the garden, dangerously close to those frighteningly sharp rocks we've added as decoration.Or Danger Boy would be living up to his name by dangling from the top of the fence by his fingertips, or trying to gallop down our stone steps on that ridiculous unicorn hobby horse.

Today's different, though.

Having had pneumonia for the past few weeks, I have given up all interest in moving around or getting involved in what the kids are up to. It's just too hard work, and leaves me breathless and lightheaded, especially on a humid day like today.

More or less fending for themselves, the children alternate between playing really sweet imaginative games together and some craziness that looks like a scene from Lord of the Flies.

Far from the ultra-stylish-Vertbaudet-catalogue children, my two have dressed themselves and combed their own hair and it shows. Mads is wearing pink, pink and more pink, and apparently pattern-clashing is all the rage.

Danger Boy's outfit is actually improved upon by the costume rat-tail he's found in the dressing up box and one multi-coloured legwarmer.

Their little fingers and faces are grubby from climbing trees and digging in the garden to look for slugs. Or so they tell me - the mention of the slugs has meant that I can no longer bear to go to that bit of the garden.

They smell like a faintly heady combination of sweet baby sweat, cheese-pasta and mint, the mint because they are obsessively rubbing my fresh mint leaves to release the oils.

Danger Boy has a little bit of a shine to him, one arm covered in dried purple glitter glue.

Of course all of this is totally normal.

What's different is that we normally have a very small TV diet, consisting of a few stolen minutes of Peppa Pig of Mr Tumble, or occasionally a bit of one of our Disney movies. Since I've been ill, however, the kids have put themselves in charge of all technology in the house and are now fully in control of the TV and DVD player, and to be honest I can do nothing more about it than flop on the sofa beside them.

Having had 3 weeks to study our Disney films in depth, Mads is now educating Danger Boy:

When you press the triangle button, the movie doesn't start just yet. First they need to tell you all the things you can buy, and then you can watch the movie.

Tinkerbell is at the start of all the Disney movies because she is a Disney character and she is the best one. And because it's easier for her because she can fly.

I am going to go to that Disney castle. You can't go because you're only little. Mummy went but she told us she didn't go. She said she went to France, didn't she, but really she went to Disney. (Ooops. I hoped they wouldn't pick up on that!!)

The start is very nice and funny, so you can watch it with me. But then when it's going to get to a scary bit, like maybe the Baddie, or the Stabbington Brothers, then you have to get a pillow and hide under it, or you have to get mummy. But you won't miss anything because I can put it on pause. Just tell me when it's scary and I will press the one with the two lines. 

Oh good, so at least I am not totally obsolete. If Danger Boy doesn't go for the Pillow option, that is.