Stratford is a tangle of old memories and new modern encroachments. The old shopping centre standing in the middle even if the gravitational pull of Stratford is elsewhere. A stream of fried takeaway shops nestling in every side street with their nauseating aroma that still entices you.
If you walk through the centre, there’s a gust of nostalgia of the old East End clinging in the stalls and people, the teenagers skateboarding as it is closing up, the familiar faces selling fruits and fishes. As you step outside and see sky-rise flats, Olympics Stadium and Westfield, you realise it’s also an old Stratford fading away. A snapshot of how against the backdrop of rapid and relentless changes in the city, many Londoners have been trapped in an impoverishing stasis.
It’s one of the towns that have for years suffered crime and gangs. At the time of writing this, London has endured its 50th murder in 2018, a spree of stabbings and shootings has dyed the city streets with innocent blood. But for a lot of us who have grown up in towns where drug dealers and gangs have been seeded by astonishing suffering, there’s not really a feeling of an upsurge as much as a sense of continuity finally reaching national panic.
The shock pulsing like an electrical current through the city simply suggests for so long people have been cocooned away from the London of struggling towns where drugs and crime have guttered through our lives as our reality. I went to a school where gang culture was an embedded part of life. There’s a culture of fear and need to belong that pulls you in like metal to a magnet. It starts small until it becomes your life. I once held drugs for someone I shouldn’t have, and saw what the mob mentality was like, corrosive and persuasive, the power it gave you over your own life in a society where the working-class really have none. I avoided it mostly because of my family. We were working-class, but usually comfortably above the poverty line. Others aren’t so lucky.
As the tide of crime blows like an uncontrollable storm through London I also recall something else from my school: the police officers who were always in our schools during lunch breaks and when school finished. They were friendly with us, or so I thought, but I realise now they thought we were criminals in waiting. And it was the black youth they watched and suspected the most.
There’s a tendency as always to dump things on Sadiq Khan’s doorsteps. But his hands are tied and, in a city of climbing numbers, he doesn’t have enough police officers to keep the streets safe
As ever whenever there is an uptake in knife crime there are middle-class commentators, usually those not actually from the area, pontificating about unexplored solutions that have actually been used and found wanting. Stop and search is another one of those feel-good policies people want so they can be seen to be doing something, to know their police officers are doing something. The tendency to trust authority is natural in the face of criminal threats. But stop and search does nothing except derail community relations. Instead of creating trust between police and a part of London it betrayed for years, it reopens wounds still barely healing. Research from the EHRC found black men were 28 times more likely to be stopped than white people in the UK, with majority of it taking place in London. Whereas white people saw a 38% drop in stop and search between 2015/16 year and the previous year, this was down only 8% for black people and 16% for Asians. There’s an element of class prejudice woven into it here too. It’s not a black man in a suit in Chelsea who’s getting stopped by the police. It’s usually a black teenager in a hoodie down in Peckham.
There’s a tendency as always to dump things on Sadiq Khan’s doorsteps. But his hands are tied and, in a city of climbing numbers, he doesn’t have enough police officers to keep the streets safe.
However this simply explains why the criminals haven’t been prevented or caught. Police cuts don’t explain why people want to shoot or stab someone. Other factors do, ones that are less tangible for middle-class commentators and paint a story of London’s stark inequality and the social crisis gripping the teenagers of its working-class towns. Against a backdrop of institutional racism, poverty and mental health struggles, the choices some of these teenagers live with are different. Freedom isn’t just the absence of external actors but what you can do realistically with your life. In a city where there is extraordinary wealth and yet 58% of those in poverty in work, there’s a sense of just being invisible and completely forgotten.
There’s also the idea that in a post-Thatcher Britain where community and solidarity is gone, and London has become increasingly one of rootless gentrification and poverty, gang culture and postcode wars provide a sense of collective identity and brotherhood that has otherwise eroded in its meaning elsewhere. This took on a personal meaning for me when my cousin was stabbed last year in an alley. But rather than safety he sought retribution. I couldn’t get through to him and all I could think was how though we grew up practically in the same house we veered in different directions.
Some of the people I went to school with ended up dead or in jail. One of them murdered someone and returned to the school following year while the rest of us were oblivious he was now a killer. The different road paths we all took were different. But if they had families that weren’t dysfunctional, weren’t torn by poverty and drugs would they have been different people?
The natural conclusion of poverty doesn’t mean murder, and those who have terrorised the city in the past few weeks deserve the strongest of punishments. But if London genuinely wants to know why these crimes are happening, it needs to start looking at the communities in a state of deep suffering.