Saturday, August 20, 2011

London’s dark underbelly

‘It’s a shame, it’s a shame’, muttered Jeremiah, a 30 something Jamaican man from Tottenham. Jerry walked with a swagger and carried a crooked smile as he sat comfortably in a chair opposite me.

‘It’s a shame,’ he repeated.

‘You mean the rioting?’ I asked.

‘No, no, rioting was the good thing. It’s a shame they- police, government, media- still don’t get it,’ he explained. 

Jerry told me then of how he saw the family of Mark Duggan, the young man, shot by the police during an anti-gun operation last Thursday in Tottenham, wait for hours outside the police station on Saturday and be ignored.

‘That’s what they do to blacks,’ he said angrily. They (police) pretend we (blacks) don’t exist unless they are out to make arrests. Then they can only see the blacks.’ 

But there were people from all colours, all backgrounds joining the riots, I intervened.

‘Yes, because many poor people today feel they are the new blacks. The young who have no decent living feel they are the new blacks; and the youth who cannot go to college no more and have no job no more feel they are the new blacks,’ Jerry spoke in a matter-of-fact way.

Then Jerry, who did time for theft, looked me in the eye and asked me, ‘You be honest, Miss, will I ever get a job?’

‘If I do get a job in a supermarket, everyone will be looking at me with suspicion all the time and if someone nicks a can of beer, they would first think it was me,’ Jerry voiced his concerns.

He told me it is easier to join a gang than look for a job. I asked Jerry, who is expecting a child in November, if that’s what he wanted to do. ‘Hell no, Miss, that is why I am trying to find a respectable job’.

The new blacks

I thought about Jerry’s comment on the new blacks and put a question to another young boy from Enfield – a white European, call Troy.

Troy laughed when I asked him if he was the ‘new black’. You mean because I joined the riots?, he asked. ‘Loads of white boys and girls were there in Enfield Town. Everyone hates the police and the politicians - they lot screwed up the world. I know people born here who hate them.’

Troy came to this country four years ago. Too old then to be put in school, he slipped through the system until the job centre sent him to an English school a year ago. Now he can speak far better than he can read or write. He wants to work in a shop but has so far been unsuccessful. He spends his days ‘hanging out’ with friends.

‘I like to be white,’ he confessed. ‘I think life here is better if I am white but sometimes I pretend to be like the black – talk like them, walk like them you know because a lot of my neighbours are black and I feel we have a lot in common. We all live in bad houses; we have no education and no jobs. They are like my brothers here, you know…’ he explained.

It’s true that people who share similar circumstances bond together in brotherhood. The blacks for centuries were considered the ‘underclass’, the oppressed, the destitute- a feeling that is now increasingly gaining prominence among a section of the youth (of every colour) in this country. With broken homes, parents unemployed, school education deteriorating, university education out of reach for many, cost of living rising and no prospects of jobs, many young boys and girls today only see darkness ahead.

Raj, is a 50 something Asian man from Kenya, who worked in the City in a respectable job for over two decades but was made redundant a year ago. He thinks that some progress was made to improve racial relations but believes that the recent cuts have once again pushed his community back and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. 

‘Only the poor are suffering and cuts have made them poorer. Bankers are still rich and can send their children to private schools, universities and get them great jobs in the bank or even in politics; what about people like us?’ said Raj.

Raj paid taxes for 26 years; but is now jobless and has no money to put his youngest son to university. ‘I’m also too old now to get a good job. Is it fair? My neighbour a English man has the same problem. His girl can’t go to university because the old man has no job anymore. Maybe now we all are the new blacks.’
The term- ‘new blacks’- worries me. Firstly it signifies that the negative stereotypes associated with the black community are still very much existent. Secondly, government policies instead of moving the have-nots upward in society have managed to push a significant number of more people to the bottom.

Youth gangs

I spoke to a group of young boys on the streets of Edmonton. They are a part of one of the 200 odd youth gangs that exist in London. I promised to keep their identity a secret but they said they didn’t mind their names being used. Then on second thoughts suggested I use pseudo names.

I wasn’t surprised they didn’t want to hide their identity. Gangs thrive on popularity and there is a lot of competition among gangs to be more famous than the other. But I also understand their hesitation as the police is now on a lookout for gang members in their areas. None of them deny they support the riots. All of them hate the police.

The ‘uniform’ of most gangs is similar- track pants and trainers, hoodies, a lot of bling around their neck and wrists and of course a blackberry.

Jonathan, 16, told me that they have seen their fathers been subjected to the searches by the police so often that it built a resentment towards the police even when they were as little as five. Now they go through the same.

Young boys like these bond together and thrive in a gang culture. Schools in the UK lack discipline and with many coming from broken homes, gangs are where they find the much needed ground rules and objectives. ‘It’s not just cool to be a part of the gang but it gives you a sense of belonging, brotherhood and shared culture and wisdom’, says David, 17.

‘My brothers (gang members) watch my back if I’m being bullied at school or on the street. They tip me off when there is trouble and teach me some tricks of the trade. It’s useful to be in a gang, ‘cos if you are alone, you are in trouble,’ he adds.

Gangs give a sense of cohesiveness, create fear and demand respect among their peer. It’s also a shot at fame. ‘Every kid knows the gangs in their areas. People don’t mess with me, they know I’m in a gang so they know what I am capable of,’ says David while quickly sending off messages on his blackberry.

‘I’m just telling my mates the plans for the evening,’ he replied seeing me eye his Blackberry.

‘It’s the best way to connect with everyone. This is how we all knew what was happening during the riots,’ adds Jonathan.

There are gangs of all hue and colours. Inter gang rivalry has seen a lot of bloodshed on the streets of London. Some gang members have guns while most carry knifes and in times of trouble even machetes. ‘It’s more to scare people off. Like self protection,’ says David.

But not many of these young ones want to be a part of a gang forever. Some have aspirations to go to university, find jobs and settle down in life peacefully.

‘No one will stop you if you decide to leave. Maybe if I can go to university then I will quit the gang because anyways I won’t have any time to hang out here,’ said the 18 year old. ‘But I don’t think I can go to university as I have no money. Maybe I’ll work on cars. I’m good at the kind of stuff.’

Phil, 17, who sat quietly until now asked me, ‘what do you think about the riots?’ It was their turn to question me.

Seemingly satisfied that I wasn’t in cahoots with the police, they decided to give me some advice, ‘the police are scumbags, don’t ever trust them!’

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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