London's Streets of Rage

Gritty lives: Many kids in London’s estates, such as Aylesbury, feel that the prospect of a good, simple life is hopelessly out of reach. Jamie-James Medina for Newsweek

On a recent night in Stockwell, an up-and-coming swath of South London, a police van prowled the streets. The neighborhood, five kilometers from Parliament and a short walk from Battersea Park, sees its Tube stop fill with young bankers at rush hour and its pubs bustle at night. But two weeks earlier its darker side had taken hold. Hooded youths took over the streets, smashing and looting at will, as the area became a picture of the chaos that swept through London during last month’s riots.

The van slowed to a stop near a scraggly patch of lawn, where a cluster of young men huddled beneath the blocks of the sprawling housing projects, or “estates,” that sit smack in the center of Stockwell. The spotlight on the van’s roof tracked toward the group, bathing them in blinding white. In unison, they turned away, and waited. The spotlight went out, and the van disappeared into the night.

“Rage,” said one of the young men, an 18-year-old with cornrows and a cold gaze. He pulled papers from his pocket to roll a spliff. “It’s everywhere. Just everything in general for the youth. How man lives. Rage is peak.”

Tensions had been running high in the Stockwell estates, and in poor areas throughout the city, since the four nights of rioting ended on Aug. 10. Some buildings in places like Peckham, another hard-hit area in South London, were still boarded up. The police reinforcements sent from across the United Kingdom remained, and the streets were full of cops, whom the kids call “feds,” though England has no FBI. Police were kicking down doors in search of pilfered riot loot, and the hated stop-and-searches were in full effect. The annual Afro-Caribbean street carnival, meanwhile, which the previous year had ended in a shower of bottles and Molotov cocktails, was set to kick off in a few days. There were whispers about more trouble to come, and authorities made plans to pump the festival with record numbers of police.

“Bound to happen,” the kid with the cornrows said of the recent riots. “The way I grew up is rage, innit? It’s always gonna be like that. It’s always gonna be negative. Might as well get myself a new tracksuit.” Another youth—a 23-year-old sporting a Yankees cap and two tattooed teardrops beneath his left eye—offered his own perspective on the unrest. “It wasn’t insane,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say entirely it made sense.”

After the riots, the British media zeroed in on stories like those of the teaching assistant and the Olympic ambassador swept up in the madness, which seemed to reinforce the notion that the root of the problem was an overarching moral decline. In his Aug. 11 address to Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron blamed a “broken society” that doesn’t teach children right from wrong. “This is not about poverty. It’s about culture,” he said.

More than 1,500 people have so far stood accused of rioting. Court records paint the average rioter as an unemployed male under the age of 25. Three quarters had previous brushes with the law. According to an analysis published in the Financial Times last week, two thirds hailed from areas with below-average income, with an area’s level of deprivation likely to increase the number of rioters found there. Whatever their cause, then, the riots were fueled by the type of marginalized young men found tucked away into the estates. Some who know these communities well had been warning of the potential for unrest. “The kids were just going crazy at the street level, with despair, with this rage. This sense that we’ll just be angry, and fuck anyone else—that was the word, really,” says Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, an innocently named but gritty nonprofit, and one of Britain’s foremost advocates for inner-city youth. “That smashing, that destroying everything, stepping on anything in your path, not giving a damn who you’re hurting—all that comes from rage. The riots gave a good space to express it.”

“I’m sure that if you talk to one of these rioters, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know why he did it,” says Alex Wheatle, an award-winning novelist of Jamaican descent, who participated in the race riots in South London’s Brixton in 1981, which he terms an uprising, and served three months in prison as a result. Sitting in a coffee shop near his home in Clapham, an area down the road from Stockwell where gentrification is nearly complete, he recounts the scenes of destruction he witnessed right outside his door. “If you listen to the street, and you think about the political class and how it attacks the young, maybe, in a strange kind of way, they can explain themselves.”

In Tottenham, where the riots began, the initial unrest, at least, made a certain sense. On Aug. 4, an Afro-Caribbean man was killed by police, and the cops didn’t notify his family or provide a particularly convincing version of his death. When, two days later, the family staged a peaceful protest, traffic was diverted, a crowd of onlookers gathered, and things eventually got out of hand—police cruisers in flames, along with a bus, and a mob smashing up the high street.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon, when the unrest spread to South London and still other areas that had no link to the Tottenham killing at all, that it became clear something deeply alarming was afoot. Young people were wrecking their own neighborhoods, not just destroying the symbols of the government and police, but also looting Foot Locker alongside mom-and-pop shops, and flipping their own burgers at McDonald’s. The police would charge at the rioters, then suddenly stagger back, remembers “Michael,” 21, from Peckham. Or they’d chase a kid, only to see him disappear into the estates. “Once we get to the estates, we’re safe,” Michael says.

Housing estates are peppered throughout the city, tucked even into upscale neighborhoods like Kensington. Each can have its own grim character: Cossall in Peckham is said to be so badly infested with vermin that toddlers treat cockroaches as pets, while Yellow Brick—known for its pastel walls—is rumored to be a good place to buy firearms. But they share a sense of isolation. “These estates are quite depressing,” says journalist Gavin Knight, who has spent years covering London’s gangs. “There’s systematic violence. There are some very dark authority figures. They’re terrifying places to live.” Police are often reluctant to venture inside, knowing they’re both outnumbered and outgunned. (British cops police “by consent,” meaning only special units carry guns.) Apart from the occasional crime headline, in fact, the world of the estates is largely cut off. “We have kids who live on estates that back onto well-known London parks, and they don’t go there,” says Patrick Regan, founder of the youth charity XLP. “We have kids who’ve never been to Central London, even though it’s just a mile and a half down the road.”

The imposing Heygate estate was once a picture of the self-contained project, its dark corridors and layers of elevated walkways making it an inaccessible maze to outsiders. Authorities shuttered the place after deciding it had spiraled out of their control. Now it’s home to a crack house or two and groups of kids practicing wall jumps. The walkways are cordoned off by metal grates, which jut over the rails just enough to make crossing them require hanging precariously in midair. Beyond the grates, what look like sharpened metal windmills still line the bannisters in places where people once jumped between walkways. “The people in London live in the cracks of the walls, man,” says Gabriel, a former gang member who now works with troubled youth.

Gabriel, with his old connections and new reputation as a devout Muslim, can still operate inside the cracks. Those who knew him in the old days remember a jumpy and restless kid. Now he’s preternaturally calm, though in times of trouble his eyes glow with excitement. One night, wearing a kameez with a Polo sweater and Adidas, he collects some colleagues and drives to an alley beneath an overpass. Two Peckham kids, one with braces, stand face to face, staring at each other with eyes opened wide. Gabriel thinks one has brought a gun. As train lights flicker overhead, the group commences a session of close-quarters “squash the beef” shouting, the denouement of the hours Gabriel has spent in recent days to keep a disagreement from coming to a violent head. “Two days ago he tried to stab me!” one of the kids yells, and the commotion draws out the bouncers from a nearby club, who quickly retreat. Eventually a truce is called. The kids go their separate ways, and Gabriel spirits his colleagues home. He has tuned his car radio to Ramadan prayers when his cellphone rings. A friend of one kid, unaware of the truce, just pulled a knife on the other. “I can’t take this,” Gabriel groans as he speeds off to defuse the situation again.

For underprivileged young people in Britain today, “there’s a sense of hopelessness,” says David Lammy, the M.P. from Tottenham, who was sounding the alarm about violent unrest months before the riots. “At the same time this happened in Tottenham, we got the best [school test] results that we’ve ever had. Those young people, they need to know that they can make it. The jobs need to be there. The prospect of going to university needs to be there.” As for whether that will happen: “I think it’s in the balance. It’s in the balance, isn’t it?”

Sitting in the cafeteria at the House of Commons, where he is one of just a handful of black politicians, Lammy remembers growing up in Tottenham in the 1980s, which saw the area, like Brixton and other inner-city neighborhoods, gripped by race riots. Race relations have improved, but a different type of estrangement has reared its head. “The nature of inequality in Britain seems to have soared, and a hyperconsumerism has gotten worse. So in some ways racism, and a sense of bleakness, was felt worse then. But on another level we are living in times of gross inequality and real issues about materialism and consumerism,” Lammy says. “That’s why I think the world has looked with concern. Frankly, what they’re really asking is, ‘Could this happen here?’?”

Income inequality in Britain is historically high. Youth employment is at a 20-year low, with one in five people between the ages of 16 and 24 now out of work. Instead of crashing, meanwhile, housing prices have remained sky-high, pricing many people out. Next year university fees will triple, leading many to believe that higher education is out of reach; this year applications ballooned as students tried to get in before the hike. The global financial climate, meanwhile, continues to darken.

Standing in the lawn at the estate in Stockwell, the kid with the cornrows took a moment to reflect on what he wants out of life. “I just want to be calm,” he said. “I’m not one of the guys that wants cars. Electricity and things. Gas and things. And some food in my belly.” His friend chimed in with his own wish list: “Legitimate money. No problems. Looking after your kids. Just happy. Enough to look after yourself. Not Bentleys.”

Asked whether they believed they could reach those goals, they shrugged. One pointed in the direction of a nearby street corner where a local young man, who had stayed out of the gangs, was recently machine-gunned down by someone from a rival housing estate.

“We’re raising a generation—especially in Europe—that believes they won’t be able to have the same standard of living as their parents’ generation,” the novelist Wheatle says. “This to me is what the real danger is: it’s youngsters having everyday aspirations, wanting to see their kids have a better life, and that’s been, before their eyes, stripped away.”

Twenty-four-year-old “Pee,” the street name of another former gang member who has turned to Islam and social work, didn’t riot. He watched at home on TV, wanting to join so badly that he burned inside. “I want to take back what’s mine,” he says.

Pee is seated in a small Islamic shop on the high street in Tottenham, discussing the riots with a group of Muslims. An older man tells him to be thankful he lives in a country where the people don’t starve. “That’s standard procedure that I shouldn’t starve!” Pee says. “Why should I starve? It is mine.” He ticks off the scandals that have rocked Britain of late—the 2009 expense fiasco, where it was revealed that politicians were abusing parliamentary allowances to pay for things like home renovations and comic books; the financial crisis; phone hacking. “You think we don’t know about the banks? That Murdoch devil-man tapping everyone’s phones? They think that we don’t look at these things. And that’s what drives the people to do what they do. The only people who didn’t loot were the people who had reached a certain level in life where they didn’t want to get caught doing it. Some people pissed on things. Everybody broke the law to their limit.”

Volunteers Gabriel, who’s standing nearby: “It makes me sick because it’s a sin. But I said to myself the other day, do you know what? I’m gonna throw my rubbish on the floor. I’m not gonna throw it in the bin. And I could have easily thrown it in the bin, but I threw it on the floor.”

“It’s going to grow like wildfire,” Pee says, “the second people realize they can take back what’s theirs.”

The day the young man from Stockwell was killed by machine-gun fire, Grinnah was standing just down the road. He saw the shooter drive up on a motorcycle, and then his best friend drop to the ground. His friend’s last words: “Don’t cry.”

Grinnah, 22, is a feared and founding member of a notorious Stockwell gang. Leaning against a parked car in a neighborhood down the road, where he doesn’t feel safe, he endlessly scans the street. He says he’s scared—that he won’t be able to leave the estate; that the younger kids are even worse than him. Complicating matters, he has a daughter on the way. “Everyone coming up has a point to prove—I don’t even know what it is. Everybody’s just hungry,” he says. “I got my first kid coming and it’s scary. I’m scared. People are getting angrier every day.” On another afternoon, sitting at a coffee shop over a juice box and piece of cake, he dreams of getting out of Britain so he can pull himself together. “It’s not the country,” he finally says. “It’s me.”

“These kids are getting more and more disenfranchised,” says Tony Wilkinson, another former “villain,” in his words, turned youth worker, though not of the Muslim variety. Wilkinson specializes in gangs and recently completed his dissertation on them, keeping him deep in the world of the estates. “Where 20 years ago it was black people who were victimized, now it’s youth,” he says. In the growing number of disaffected young people, he adds, “we’ve got what could be a rebel army in our midst. And if you look at it that way, you see what happened in the riots. All they need is an excuse.”

Or as one girl from the South London projects puts it, “The riots ain’t even started.”

Michael, the 21-year-old from Peckham, expected riots at Carnival. That morning, he and three friends put on their best clothes, all black, the color for Peckham. They stuck some liquor and mixers into a faded yellow pack, which Michael’s stepdad strapped on, adding some joints to the mix. “I can understand rioting,” said the stepdad, who grew up around Peckham, as the group headed toward the bus. “But wrecking your own community? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s not my community,” Michael said.

Carnival is held in Notting Hill, a fashionable neighborhood in West London. Mixing drinks as the bus bumped past Hyde Park and the glitzy shops in the city center, the kids happily passed the bottles around as passengers watched out of the corners of their eyes. In Notting Hill, they walked past preemptively boarded-up shops. At the festival’s entrance stood a big group of cops. Michael and his entourage were placed up against a row of well-pruned bushes and searched—an unsettling procedure, with fingers dug deep into potential stash spots (pockets, crotch, shoes), then a tiny slip of paper to signify that the deed was done. Michael’s stepdad and his yellow backpack passed right through.

At times, the police seemed to outnumber the revelers. Carnival went off without a hitch, prompting its organizer to announce that London had reclaimed its streets. “They can’t keep all these feds out here forever,” Michael said.