On Monday night one of my patients was attacked by a gang of youths barely a hundred yards from my surgery. He was held up against a wall by two of them while another cut his neck with a knife, not deep enough to do any serious physical damage, but more than enough to add another psychological scar to the multitude he already has.
The attack had nothing to do with the riots which were going on a couple of miles away right outside my front door on Mare Street. His attack was part of a sustained campaign of intimidation by bored, sadistic kids on young gay men in Hoxton.
Violence is endemic around here. The receptionists explained that they cannot get pizza deliveries because the kids on their estates keep nicking the mopeds. In the winter months our elderly patients will not book appointments after dark for fear of being mugged. There is a memorial on Hoxton Street to 16 year old Agnes Sina-Okoju who was shot dead outside a takeaway last year. Last month a patient found a gun hidden in his garage and put it back where he found it in case the owner returned.
What little I know of life on the estates of Hackney I know from what my patients tell me. I’ve lived in Hackney since I was a medical student nearly 20 years ago and I’ve worked here as a GP on and off since I was a registrar in 2000-1 with a break to go to Afghanistan as a volunteer. Even at the worst of times Hackney doesn’t remotely resemble Afghanistan, from where I was evacuated in 2004 after five of my colleagues were murdered.
I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney. At 4.15 on Monday afternoon I came home from work very briefly because I had to get back for a surgery from 5-8pm. There were hundreds of police in front of our house and kids were running around everywhere clutching mobile phones and pieces of wood or stones.
By 4.30pm after 15 nervous minutes indoors, I could tell from the rising sounds outside that there was a riot about to start. The police had formed rows and held shields up ready to protect themselves. There were more kids running through the churchyard and up the street and others on bikes. There were several adults, mostly male and hooded, but there were very few of the usual shopping mums with prams and pushchairs. The atmosphere was very tense and excitable. The police hurried me through their barricade, from their side to that of the potential rioters.
They were mostly kids, and mostly holding phones rather than weapons. They were not career criminals or habitual rioters, but the air was thick with electric potential just waiting for the spark of a missile from the crowd or a shove from a policeman to light the flame. I had to get back to work for my evening clinic and rode down Mare Street as the traffic ground to a halt and hordes of youngsters came up the road heading to within less than 100 yards from where my family were.
My wife had to go out to my son’s nursery by bicycle to collect him at 5pm and cycle home without being caught in the cross fire, or even real fire if it came to that. I called home between appointments to check they were all safe. It was very hard to hear because there were helicopters just above the house and there was shouting and fighting outside.
On the way home at about 9pm there was glass all over the road, bins were overturned, smoke was blowing over from Clarence Road and shop windows were smashed. Back at home I saw a lot of kids, some really young, carrying sticks and bricks all evening until about 1am. They were throwing them at police vans and intimidating people who live locally. There was no thinking about the cars they burned in nearby streets, nor the risks they posed to residents. Residents on the Narrow Way have very good reason to be terrified of being burned in their homes just because they live above the shops.
“From my perspective this was brutal street capitalism, the violent appropriation of goods to be sold for a quick profit combined with nihilistic vandalism and intimidation. Gang leaders stood back while the younger ones ran into the shops.”
The overwhelming pressure on the young these days is not to work hard for social change, neither is it fight the system, get an education or do something for their community. It is get rich, consume, get bling, get laid. They are told that we are hiking up the price of higher education, privatising the NHS and there will be no money to pay for pensions or care for them when they old. They see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
They see the new extrovert, profligate Hackney bourgeois hedonists sipping cocktails and playing with their ipads on the streets that were until recently theirs. They think they will make more money dealing drugs (to the bourgeois if they’re lucky) than flipping burgers and get more out of life living fast and dying young. What reason do they have to believe the western democratic dream of equal opportunities if we do not?
The effect of the mob should not be underestimated. The mob attracts like a black hole, dissolves individuality and identity and suddenly for a night the kids realise that they can achieve more together than they ever could alone or in their individual gangs and nothing and no-one can do anything about it. The mob fans its own flames. That is why it was so empowering for the kids and so terrifying for the rest of us. The lesson of Plato’s Ring of Gyges which grants the wearer the power of invisibility, is that power assumed so suddenly is always destructive, even to a king.
Ultimately, though we were not rioting, we are all mobsters. They are dispossessed because our mob refuses to challenge a system that ensures we can buy Macbooks online from the safety of our gated communities while we ignore them while they harass homosexuals on the streets outside and we do nothing about the dismantling of the welfare state and the export of labour. Unless we see our mob, fixated on our own hedonistic pleasures as part of the problem, we will not be part of the solution.
We need to see our destiny as inextricably linked with those we are so quick to condemn, the solutions we propose, solutions for us all, the pressures to consume and be defined by consumption our shared problem, and their future security our own.
Dr Jonathon Tomlinson is a GP in Hackney