The Fire Last Time

A corner in Croydon, England, in August 2011. At right, the same spot a year later (top) Hackney, England, then and now. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

On a warm evening last month, music blared from the stereo of a blue sedan parked in the courtyard at the Mother Square, a housing project in Hackney, East London, just a few miles from the site of the 2012 Olympics. “Only thing you got is some years on me,” rapped the 25-year-old Drake. “Man, f--k you and your time difference.”

Near the car with its rolled-down windows, some two dozen young men, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, milled around, moving to the music, smoking joints or sipping vodka and Red Bull from plastic cups. When a police car rolled by on the main road, the young men tensed and tracked the car with their eyes, as if a confrontation might be coming. “They see us standing here like this and they want to come and arrest us,” someone said.

A middle-aged man turned off the main road and into the council estate. Keeping to himself, he walked through the group and to the front door. Seated below him on the stoop was Raphael Carty, 24. “He doesn’t even want to know us,” Carty said, looking intently at the man, who seemed not to hear. “Hey! Hey!” Carty shouted, as the man fumbled with the lock. “What’s your name? What’s your name?”

Carty seemed satisfied that the encounter was proving a point. He had just been trying to explain the twin realities of inner-city life: fear and isolation. “No one talks to us,” he said. “They’re afraid to have a conversation.”

Last August, riots erupted in Hackney and other poor neighborhoods in London and spread to other cities around the U.K. Crowds looted stores, clashed with police, and set cars and buildings on fire during four days of mayhem that cost the lives of five people and around £500 million in damages.

In the year since, Britain has sought to understand what triggered the violent outbreak, with social workers and left-leaning politicians offering their explanations (think “deprivation” and “shrinking benefits”) and their opponents on the right offering theirs (“welfare dependency,” “deadbeat dads,” and, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, evidence of a “broken society”).

But given that the vast majority of rioters were young and poor, and footage of hoodie-wearing kids stealing sneakers as London burned became the iconic image of the mayhem, the prevalent public view has come to be that the riots were indicative of “a youth problem” in Britain.

“There’s this kind of negativity towards young people that you don’t get on the continent. It’s a cultural thing that seems to have developed. It’s like young people are the Other,” says Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which works with at-risk youth.

“Historically, the British have a very famous saying, which is children are to be seen and not to be heard. I think generally the British are afraid of their young,” says Camila Batmanghelidjh, one of Britain’s foremost youth advocates. “Then you have, added to that, the riots, and the way the public saw young men and women behave. I think the fear factor has gone up.”

In East London, so has the loathing.

To prepare for the Olympics, cleaning crews have scrubbed neighborhood parks, and Hackney housing projects have been gussied up with new windows and doors—superficial improvements, according to residents who say it will take more than a quick lick of paint to gloss over fundamental problems of crime, unemployment, and a sense of disconnectedness from the wider society. Hackney is one of the poorest areas of London, and has one of the country’s worst rates of gun crime.

Describing his childhood neighborhood, one of the young men at the Mother Square who goes by “8-miler” calls Hackney a “s--thole.” “Everyone wants to escape.”

But the beaten generation doesn’t just reside in Hackney. Throughout Britain, young people are expressing more than just youthful dissatisfaction and pessimism about their prospects.

Surveys consistently show that those coming of age think they will be worse off than previous generations. And the numbers tend to back that up. A recent study by the left-of-center Intergenerational Foundation found that the economic gap between Britons under 30 and the rest of the country is widening dramatically. The gap increased by 28 percent over the course of the decade that ended in 2010 and continues to rise by as much as 7 percent a year. Even starker: one year on from the riots, youth unemployment in Britain continues to climb, currently hovering at a record high 22 percent—or one in five.

Meanwhile, the U.K. has sunk into a double-dip recession, and the Cameron government is pressing ahead with austerity measures—including cuts in youth services and housing benefits along with price hikes in college tuition—that some critics say helped sparked the riots in the first place.

As Simon Marcus, founder of the Boxing Academy, a lauded youth-outreach center in Hackney, says, “The problems that caused the riots haven’t gone away.” Marcus was one of four people appointed to an official government panel to address the riots. After months of talks, he walked away with a sense of despair. Post-riots, all sides seem to have retrenched, while young people are more isolated than ever before. “We’re retreating into our own personal bubbles,” he said. “We all feel under siege.”

Carty, the youth at the Mother Square, said he didn’t take part in the riots; in fact, he thought the brawls had been a foolish, unproductive way to send a message. “They should have held signs up saying what they disagree with. Throwing a rock isn’t sending a message,” he said. “See, my billboard, it would be large. It would be bigger than the politicians’. It would have all different sections, on all different subjects.”

When asked, though, he couldn’t think of what the billboard would say. “I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” he said, with a sheepish smile.

His friend, John Moore, who also grew up in Hackney and says he assembled a long criminal record for offenses like robbery, fraud, and drug possession, also said he didn’t take part in the riots. The 32-year-old feels old now and is trying to go straight, but he doesn’t see much opportunity around, and the ghosts from his past haunt these familiar and bleak streets. “I’m hoping my future is going to be bright—just get a good job and take care of my kids,” he said. “But I can’t predict that I’m not going to do bad things ... I’m trying.”

With the party at the Mother Square winding down, the muscle-bound Moore drew mockery from his friends when he insisted on finding a ride home, even though he lived just a few blocks away. He eventually borrowed money for a taxi, and later he confided that he was afraid to walk home alone at night. “There’s lots of drug problems, lots of crime. They’re fixing it up, but only because of the Olympics. It looks pretty, but it’s a lie,” he said.”

When asked about the prospects of another riot, Moore had no doubts: “They’ll bring in the Army next time.”