Letters From London

A Mystery of Violence

Terrorism fills the British papers this week, but over the winter a different sort of violence kept London on its toes. Our correspondent reports on the personal impact of a season of murders.

To the outsider glancing at the newsstands, modern London must appear as a fearful, dark, Dickensian space of casual, perpetual youth violence, where social conventions have crumbled and a misplaced look or accidental elbowing earns you a death sentence. Since the start of 2007, seven young men—six of them teenagers—have been murdered in the capital; four stabbed and three shot. The nature of the deaths—several victims were directly targeted by their killers, either in their own homes or in very public places—has created an indelible and visceral image of streets awash with lawless youth, with little respect for authority and no disdain for violence as common currency to solve the most trivial issues.

Each new killing has been accompanied by a sob of anguished think pieces and quasi-informed media comment, as newspaper columnists dredge their own memories for run-ins with youth violence, politicians rush to condemn violence and support the country’s beleaguered urban communities, and reporters hit the fated streets themselves, penning self-consciously bleak vignettes of deprivation and intimidation. At the heart of this outpouring of empathy is a desire to understand how violence has trivialized young lives, struck through with a very real fear of the culture that underpins the attacks.

We live barely a mile from one of the most notorious killings. In the early hours of Tuesday, February 6th, two men entered the family home of 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Dosunmu. Michael was in bed, his sister in the room next door. The men attacked Michael with a sub-machine gun, and he died in hospital less than an hour later. Three days earlier a 21-year-old man, Javarie Crighton, had been fatally stabbed on an adjacent street. I drove past the scene shortly after Crighton’s body was found, alongside a row of modern townhouses that had replaced a bleak stretch of public housing, notoriously known as the North Peckham Estate. The entire area was cordoned off, with police cars scattered up and down the road, their blue lights strobing off the windows of the surrounding properties. At the time, it didn’t seem especially unusual for this part of town. There was no overbearing sense of death or loss, just a feeling of chaos and conflict, the police presence strong-arming the community into submission.

The other two shootings also happened in South London, the first in early February at a popular ice rink in the nearby suburb of Streatham. Sixteen-year-old James Andre Smartt-Ford was shot twice while attending a roller disco, in front of hundreds of witnesses. To date, no one has been arrested. Barely 10 days later, Billy Cox was shot dead at his home in Kennington, an inner London district made up of high-rise public housing and large, well-kept terraces of Victorian and Georgian villas. He was 15.

The world of the London gang is a series of feuds that die out, feuds that linger, school pitted against school, housing estate against estate, and borough against borough.If the shrill media commentary is to be believed, I am apparently residing in the heart of a war zone. Yet I feel almost entirely detached from the violence. Outsiders can barely conceal their alarm—and their prejudices. “I live in Peckham,” I remember telling an elderly acquaintance of my parents-in-law after a church service, shortly after we moved. She thought for a minute, before stating confidently, “There are an awful lot of black people there.” Was she making an observation she felt I could relate to? Or was this meant as a commiseration? Or a warning? That exchange, more or less, is the (usually unspoken) subtext of many reactions I get about where I live. It used to be hard not to be defensive, but now casual racism makes me flush red and become almost dizzy with embarrassment and discomfort and a desire to curtail the conversation with immediate effect. There are no cutting retorts that will change opinions set in stone.

In Britain, commentators are careful not to explicitly conflate race and violence, but the killings have raised awkward, undeniable questions. The seven teenagers killed so far in 2007 were all black. So, according to most witness accounts, were their killers. The establishment of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident in 1998 was an explicit acknowledgement of “black-on-black” violence, with its roots in the Jamaican-based “Yardie” criminal gangs and the steady, profitable drugs trade between Jamaica and the U.K. These recent killings appear unrelated to established drug feuds—for one thing, the victims are too young, or had no connections, family or otherwise, to the West Indies. Instead, the blame is being placed on teenage gangs, a burgeoning scene of school-age children involved in endless turf wars, petty crime, and vicious squabbles about respect.

Respect is a quasi-mythical commodity that has to be afforded in equal measures, making those who value it hypersensitive to any perceived slights, real or accidental. By combining the desire to claim territory with the need for respect, young people—and this is by no means a black phenomenon—have set up their own mental map of the city, a jagged patchwork of boundaries that are fiercely patrolled. It’s this hypothetical, invisible nature of territory that cloaks me; I’m a 30-something white man, and therefore all but invisible to the progenitors of the violence. The world of the London gang is a series of feuds that die out, feuds that linger, school pitted against school, housing estate against estate, and borough against borough. This secret landscape of sleights and scowls is plotted on lines hidden to most of us, a cartography to which I have no access. Hence, it’s become easy to dismiss even the closest of violent crimes on the grounds that I simply do not exist on the same page as the killers and their victims.

I was sure I could hear a woman’s voice screaming, again and again, “Help me, help me!”Of course, this is all a coping strategy. It helps that I have never been a victim of violent crime in London; never targeted, never struck by mistake. In fact, I have never been a victim of violent crime, full stop. In 14 years of living in this city and amongst its fringes, I have had my car broken into twice: the first time I forgot to lock it, which cost me an old camera, and the second time a window was smashed but nothing—at least nothing I could remember—was taken. I was angry. I swore. Victimhood formed a small well of emptiness in my stomach, but the risible form letter I received from the police after the first incident—”We’re sorry to hear you have been a victim of crime”—meant I didn’t even report it the second time round. Far better to toughen up and move on. Without my own invisible map of grievances and disputes to overlay on the city’s streets, I have no second sense of imminent danger. As a result, my fear of crime has receded dramatically. This could have gone either way; in some, such unfamiliarity breeds constant, lurking terror. Again, lack of personal experience works to my advantage, although some incidents do stick in the mind.

Perhaps five years ago, maybe six, when we were new to the neighbourhood and hadn’t yet attuned ourselves to the nuances of noise and street activity that defined it, the horrific lottery of random violence appeared to strike close by. Early, early one morning, I was roused from deep sleep by screaming. The sound had fused with my slumbering sub-consciousness and reality gradually faded in, until I was sure I could hear a woman’s voice screaming, again and again, “Help me, help me!”

I ran to the first floor window overlooking the street, just in time to see a dark car accelerate away, quickly leaving my field of view. I hadn’t seen anyone, not even the driver. I wasn’t even sure that I had heard anything. No time to get a license plate, or even a color or make. What had just happened? Perhaps 10 seconds of lucidity followed my growing awareness and then sudden action, but in my waking state I gained absolutely nothing tangible. The mystery deepened, and increased my fear and guilt a hundredfold. Had I seen the final few seconds of a horrific abduction? I never found out.

Thankfully my wife didn’t hear the screams, but my swift exit from bed had woken her up and she asked what the matter was. I found I couldn’t tell her the whole truth, and provided a doctored version with no reference to the screams. Why create undue alarm? And besides, I couldn’t even be sure of what I’d heard. As I weighed up whether the police would want my woefully incomplete account—perhaps I had completely imagined the screams—I discovered my neighbor had called anyway, so I was able to unburden my guilt by going downstairs in my dressing gown and telling the attending officers what (little) I had seen.

The short walk to our local tube station took on epic levels of danger. Any approaching youths were swiftly translated into ambling gangs, walking in Larry Clark-style slo-mo toward their next victim, me.Fears that the event would set a pattern for nights of off-stage terror were unfounded, but our initial lack of familiarity with the area meant that our runaway minds overlaid an imaginary landscape of violence on every new street and route. In the months that followed our move to South London, the country’s most high-profile murder took place, the stabbing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor. Left to bleed to death in a stairwell in one of the vast concrete and brick housing estates in the north of Peckham, Taylor’s killing unleashed national introspection about youth crime, the treatment of immigrant families (Taylor’s parents were originally from Nigeria and he had reportedly been bullied at school), and serious failings in the criminal justice system. It was the kind of story that reached out of its local context and was adopted as a cause by “Middle England,” that nebulous state of reactionary dislocation occupied by those who cherish a mental image of a once-great country and lament how it has been irreparably tarnished by disorder and dissent, in all its forms. Usually epitomized by newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, Middle England occasionally stoops to pass disapproving comment on the lower strata of society. The Taylor murder marked a minor change of tack, and the attention was unusually welcome. Thanks to the constant media coverage from papers who might once have been expected to ignore the lonely death of a young black boy in inner-city London, the case’s profile was raised, and the judicial incompetence that followed rightly exposed.

An immediate result was familial discontent. We lived less than a mile from the murder scene. The final, evocative image of Damilola’s body crossing the newly-completed public square in Peckham jarred horribly with what we wanted the area to project; this was a part of town on the up, not a cold, sterile, modern environment fraught with danger. Parents-in-law, tucked away safely in leafy counties many miles from the center of town, tutted and clucked anxiously, worried for our personal safety and the wisdom of our investment. As a result, in those first few years I mentally prepared myself for my inevitable role as a statistic in London’s crime figures. The short walk to our local tube station took on epic levels of danger. Any approaching youths were swiftly translated into ambling gangs, walking in Larry Clark-style slo-mo toward their next victim, me. I stalked with Larry David-style awkwardness towards what I believed was an inevitable punch in the throat, my pocketed fingers wrapped tight around my cell phone. Could I dial 999 simply by touch? Would the operator know a mugging was in progress? With each cell phone upgrade, mp3 player, watch, or camera I acquired, I found myself totting up my potential value to the gadget-savvy mugger. At times, I felt like a walking goody bag. I even took to practicing a canny sleight of hand whereby I could slip my cell down my sleeve as I raised my hands to the sky. Assuming, of course, I was asked to put my hands up. After all, surely that was what was going to happen? What else could I do with my hands? I could therefore be gently frisked and declare, in almost all honesty, that my pockets were empty. The assault never came, or rather, it has not come just yet.

Mugged. The word itself is almost onomatopoeic in its ugliness, a cloying aggregate of hard vowel sounds, with that double g as the punch, and the final d the knee in the groin or fist in the chest.As the years pass and my statistical no-show continues unbroken, I have come to believe that I’m probably not worth the bother. City dwellers dread random acts of violence against their person most of all, and muggers like the very weakest. Of my acquaintances, those unlucky enough to be violently assaulted are inevitably those who appear meek, the least likely to give any resistance. I recall a delicate mouse of a woman, head-butted on a busy street while on an academic field trip to Paris, her bag snatched as she fell to the floor. I didn’t see the attack, but gave ineffectual chase in the vague direction of the thieves, finding only her flimsy plastic bag containing a spilt bottle of mineral water spattered across the pavement a few streets away.

Far, far closer to home, events strive to puncture my complacency. Last year, our London neighbour, small and pale, was relieved of her wallet and iPod just meters from her—and our—front door. She had been followed from the station, betrayed by white headphone cords and the promise of no resistance. Sensing a presence behind her, she had stopped in the local convenience store and lingered over the foodstuffs in the hope of dissuading her stalkers. Outside, they waited too. There was no violence, but unpleasant threats. Her shock was visceral, and she spent the following four hours sitting at our kitchen table discussing the event in breathless tones, slowly coming down from her terror-induced high to a level of acceptance. Today, we scarcely see her. She might even have moved.

Mugged. The word itself is almost onomatopoeic in its ugliness, a cloying aggregate of hard vowel sounds, with that double g as the punch, and the final d the knee in the groin or fist in the chest. “Knifed” carries equal sonic menace, the solitary f gliding in as if it had just been slipped between the ribs, a slender blade spearing its way into organs and tissue. Being shot has none of the linguistic drama. The handgun also has a punchier, angrier image, a “piece” or “tool,” “packing heat.” It is a weapon of swagger and front, something to wave and gesticulate, to whip with, or simply to flash, tucked into a belt or a pocket. The gun is a world away from the steely static flash of the knife or the brutally personal punch. It is random and unhinged, a concealed tragedy waiting to happen.

Thankfully, gun violence is still incredibly rare in Britain. But guns, we are told, are everywhere. Tabloid journalists buy them from shadowy characters in pubs and clubs, exchanging rolled up fistfuls of banknotes for tough-guy clichés. Backstreet workshops bore out accurate replicas or decommissioned weapons to sell to up-and-coming gangsters. Big-league criminals swoop in on arms caches left over from conflict and revolution, smuggling them into the U.K. to keep feuds alive. Have I ever heard a gunshot? I can’t, with any certainty, say that I have. Backfiring cars and the urban soundtrack of dogs and sirens float through my consciousness in the depths of night, backed up by delivery boys thumping their mopeds over the speed bumps that line our road.

The Saturday night Javarie Crighton was killed I was returning from a late night drive to Southend-on-Sea, a seaside resort on the southern spur of Essex. Mulling gangs of youths, drinks in hands, knots of teenaged girls to impress, bleak seafront lined with bars offering cheap alcohol, soundtracked by the roar of the sea: the tension was palpable. Southend was simultaneously bereft of welcoming life and a powder keg of pent-up frustrations. I was far, far more wary of putting a foot wrong, of conveying inadequate respect or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time than I would ever be at home.

Weather changes moods. The U.K. is unseasonably hot right now, and the long-range forecast promises a summer of unprecedented highs. Light, warm nights mean the streets will be thronged with aimless groups of youths, freshly demonized by media in search of answers, and politicians losing patience with the lack of their easy obtainment. Death breeds death; respect and revenge circle each other without remission. Perhaps nothing will happen, and the problem will simply go away. Or perhaps my studied dismissal of this stratum of hidden violence will soon be forced to the surface. It’s going to be a long summer.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell