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"


  1. Excellent post, we need to to understand the perspective of someone like Chris to even scratch at this, to repair this. Somewhere it's gone very wrong. How are we as a society producing so many like Chris?

  2. While I'm sure this is true for some of those committing these acts, if you look carefully at the pictures, they are *not* all youths. There are plenty of people in their 20s and 30s as well.

    Stop dressing this up as some kind political or psychological statement. These people aren't trying to "make their mark on the world", they are stealing the predictable things that for them have some kind of aspirational value. It's not about making a statement, it's about meeting their consumer needs.

  3. All boils down to lack of parental control and discipline. treat fire with fire and give them what they dish out. Knock some sense into them. parents and children alike

  4. Really thought-provoking stuff.

    However, I still maintain that there are other ways they can make their mark - art groups, sports team, community projects, voluntary organisations. Unfortunately, they have grown up with the impression that only the "stuff" they have gives them their worth.

  5. I grew up on a council estate in the 70s - my future as a female was to get married to someone who worked at the shipyard, the abbatoir or in the Navy. By the early 80s, layoffs at the shipyard, cuts at the abbatoir, and cuts to the Navy diminished that as well. I worked my butt off to get a University place and lived on air for four years. Even with a degree my career prospects were limited as the new recession kicked in and the 80s boom died down. On the estate where I lived, 50% of the houses had at least one prostitute in them and drug culture was rife. There were no social clubs, no youth groups and no community centre. And yet... no one rioted, no one looted and no one destroyed property. There were, here and there, the occasional "bad apple", but they were few and far between. Even in the midst of poverty and deprivation, we still had respect for our neighbours and our community. The touted comments that we need to somehow "understand" these poor, deprived youth of today simply doesn't wash with me. Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt, didn't burn down buildings and destroy anyone's livelihood. That's my story.

  6. There is a lot to agree with here. But I would also like to add that at least 50% of these young people could be distracted and occupied by strong,well run, youth schemes - clubs, camps, bike maintenance - etc. There is simply not enough to do for too many children and young people from more modest homes in our society and the summer holidays are long and boring. Surely this is worth the investment - much cheaper than locking them up and equipping the police with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Georgina, I grew up in a similar environment myself. In my neighbourhood as well, there were some who recognised opportunities and grasped onto them tightly, and worked our butts off to get out of that environment. Others, like the person I was visiting (the reason I met Chris in the first place), had been given the same opportunities but for whatever reason were unable to recognise them, want them, grasp them and get out.

    For some people, it was because they had zero sense of self-worth. For others, they just didn't believe that life really was better on the other side - better the devil you know, and all that.

    Georgina, sadly I think you and I are the odd ones out.

    Miriam and others - yes, I absolutely agree that part of it is about empowering young people in other ways.

    A few others have made the point that this isn't all about disenfranchised youth... but Chris' sentiment still rings true. There is something about crowds, combined with recession, stress, dwindling opportunities even for those of us who work hard, that makes even good people do incredibly stupid things.

    I'm at a bit of a loss about where this all ends.

  8. material groups lead to tragic and confused individual battles

  9. I think a lot of what you are saying is valid- to a point and in other situations. If this was one night of rioting, for example. Or if it was like the G20 riots in Toronto last year, begun with good purpose and with many youth getting caught up in the thrill and the sense of making their mark. I have huge compassion for youth, I come from a tough childhood of poverty and was very destructive myself and am often amazed I'm alive. I know that feeling of fury, of wanting to lash out. But these riots are planned, premeditated, it's no longer about the "rush" when it consists of repeat nights and a premeditated plan to go out again with often targeted looting. And many are far beyond the realms of youth. This to me is very much a product of a welfare state and about wanting things for free. The stores are being chosen carefully- there is a preponderance of Carphone Warehouses being robbed for example. I actually had the experience of having a time being unemployed and seeing what the welfare state really consists of, which was incredibly uncomfortable for me but massively eye opening. And I have to say it's ridiculous what a cushy ride it was, they were actually surprised I waited until I had nothing to ask for help. You can have what, eight grand in the bank and claim benefits and they never check up on you, it is so lax I was shocked. We are talking about families with three, four generations riding the system and I just think it breeds a belief of deserving something for nothing. Sorry, but that's my view, and I wish it wasn't, but if you go sit in a job centre enough times you see some honest folk, you feel their heartbreak, but you see a lot of people with such an energy of arrogance and unearned deservability it turned my beliefs completely about this country. I think there is a reason Toronto, with it's terrible, difficult to acquire welfare situation, had no riots during the blackouts. People have different and stronger values. The UK has serious problems with its values. Now excuse me while I step off my huge and growing soapbox- oh my god this country has made me become a right over leftie eek!!

  10. Exactly. Couldn't have written this better myself, and I agree whole heartedly. Absolutely brilliant post! @chaoskay