Two years ago the police killed a young man called Mark Duggan in Tottenham and within a matter of hours things were kicking off all over the country. We all got to watch the whole thing unfold on live TV. For a while it seemed as if the cops were completely incapable of getting the lid back on. In the end the thing ran out of gas more than anything else. People got tired and strung out and hungover and drifted back home.
And then of course the Post Mortems started and for a few weeks it was a really, really good time to be someone with a few letters after your name and some expertise in the field of social breakdown.
Hindsight suggests that many of those who set
Tottenham High St
ablaze were genuinely outraged by the execution of Mark Duggan, but most of those
on the streets of Hackney and Nottingham and Salford
were following a very different agenda. By and large they were young, bored,
pissed off, unemployed and ramped up on cocktails of cheap amphetamines and
People with nothing to lose just lose it. Or so the saying goes. But there has to be a spark to ignite any inferno. Conditions need to be right. The tinderbox. A few hundred acres of parched Australian woodland and a fierce wind devoid of so much as a drop of moisture.
Then all you need is a match. A car window tossed fag. A bolt of lightning. A careless campfire.
When there are many thousands of increasingly disillusioned and angry people eking out meaningless lives in dismal, unheated rooms, it doesn’t take much to send them out onto the streets. It didn’t take much in 2011 and it wouldn’t take much now.
But you will always need someone to be the first to lose the plot. To throw the first brick.
Thankfully such individuals are comparatively rare. Sometimes they are born rabble rousers out of the Trotsky/Rosa Luxembourg stable: men and women who leap up onto the table and fire up a mob to hit the streets and smash everything in sight.
It has been a long time since we had anyone cut from this cloth in
The security services are pretty good and picking them out and taking them down
before they get the chance to raise a mob. Maybe Arthur Scargill was the last
of the Mohicans in this regard. Britain
Now it is much more likely that the spark to set the tinderbox alight will be some lost soul without a thing to lose. In any town the police will have a pretty good idea who these individuals are. They will probably have been a handful from the age of 12 or 13. Often they will have been taken into care when their home lives became too hellish to be deemed acceptable. School will have been a story of truancy, exclusion and utter failure. They will have done the rounds of foster homes until the £1000 a day super secure care home card is the only one left for the Social Workers to play. Addictions and prison and homelessness and crimes of violence. Rap sheets running to pages and pages and pages.
They eventually reach a point where they really do have nothing to lose. Prison is no big deal. Prison is a place where they fit in. They know the drill and they know the people. It offers no kind of deterrent.
Out of prison is a whole different story. Out of prison is a huge problem and it always has been. For many years now these individuals have developed a keen sense of entitlement. Often this has evolved from their days in the £1000 a day care system when they had Xboxes and days out lavished on them to try and dissuade them from kicking off or running away. These were the days when they were a treasured commodity worth a third of a million a year to the bottom line of the Private Equity outfits who shake down the tax payer to take care of the very baddest of bad boys.
Adulthood has meant a certain number of minimum expectations. They expect to be given a place to stay. They expect to be signed off sick for some bogus reason, usually anxiety or a methadone prescription. They expect to be hooked up with a support worker whose employers will get £25 an hour to take them on trips to McDonalds and Matalan.
For years this has been the preferred way of parking up these endlessly problematic individuals. Give them a flat, sign them off sick and sort out a worker to get them into the Job Centre once a month to sign on the line.
Well those days are long gone. Even if these guys had leprosy, the French doctors would deem them fit for work of all kinds. And this means that they are suddenly at the mercy of the new regime at the Job Centre. Log online five days a week and make at least 17 attempts to find work. And note it all down in your diary. And never be so much as a minute late for your appointments.
This whole idea is futile on so many levels. Even if lads like this were to fill in two hundred job applications each and every week, they wouldn’t get an interview. Even when the economy is booming and the job market is buoyant, these guys are unemployable. When you have record that speaks of years and years served for violent crime, just about no employers are about to risk letting you through the door. But we do not live in such times. Instead we live in times where at least 10 desperate people chase every advertised position. Those who have many years under their belt for being violent are completely unemployable. And of course they know this only too well.
It means that the whole thing is nothing more than a game. The Job Centre demands that one and all dance their new dance and any minor transgression means an instant sanction. A month. Three months. Six months.
Even if these lads decided to knuckle down and dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ put in front of them, they would still be doomed to failure. Let’s scroll back through their dismal life stories. Eight years old. Bad stuff. Mum beaten black and blue. Time locked in a cupboard. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. No boundaries. Anger and addictions and nobody to help with homework. Then the care system. Foster home after foster home and the company of fellow wild boys. Truancy and petty crime and stolen booze on the wall outside the Spar Shop.
So what doesn’t happen?
and writing doesn’t happen. Computer
skills don’t happen. An ability to prioritise and organise doesn’t happen.
These guys are absolutely incapable of seeking out a computer to use every day.
They wouldn’t know where to start. Even if they got it together to book a slot
at a terminal in the library, they wouldn’t have a Scooby about how to fill in
an online application. And even if they had all the requisite skills, there is
still the issue of the utter futility of the whole exercise. Reading
So what does it all mean? Quite a lot. Under the ‘chuck money at problems by the truckload’ policy of the last Government, these guys were relatively pampered. They were bought off all the way from their out of control childhoods to their violent adulthoods. Xboxes and McDonalds. Now there is a new Sheriff in town. They have a set of rules to follow that they have no chance of sticking to. It means no money ever and nowhere to live. It means sofa surfing and a smouldering anger.
Last Thursday afternoon I had four of them come in just before it was time to close the doors. Between them they had served over fifty years of jail time and not one of them was a day over 35. Three of them were sanctioned and one had been denied any kind of homeless accommodation. One had been out of jail for three weeks after eight years inside and his GP was still waiting on the script for his anti-psychotic meds. They shared the wild hungry eyes of street dogs in some
country who had failed to find any scraps in the bin for several days. Jumpy.
Wired. Seriously angry. Ready to kick off at a second’s notice. Did more jail
time hold any fears? As if.
I gave them their food parcels and did my best to calm them down. Not that there was much chance of that. Don’t get me wrong, they were fine with me. Polite even. But it was like telling a volcano not to blow. Pointless. As they walked out through to door into a cold, merciless wind I stood and watched and maybe I shook my head.
On Friday it was a guy on his own who burst through the door a minute or two before closing time. He was singing and his eyes were revolving around his sockets like a pair of ferrets on crystal meth. A ragged food parcel slip was yanked from a pocket. He rambled on about a book he was going to write that would be ten times better than ‘Lord of the Rings’. He collected about thirty leaflets from the rack. He sang a song about himself; a football sort of song. I gave him some food and with the flick of a switch he was threatening to kill me. I suggested it might be time to leave and the switch flicked once more and it was back to his plans to become the new JR Tolkein.
We know the family pretty well. To say the lad’s childhood was a bad one would be understatement of the week. It was worse than bad. It was worse than anything. Maybe his brain was already fragile. Maybe in a parallel universe his brain might have remained in tact.
For years he was sectioned off to a lock down mental ward. They let him out in his early twenties and within weeks he was submerged in cheap cider and heroin. Prison and prison and prison and heavy anti psychotic medication. He’s obviously out again now and god alone knows what kind of a toxic cocktail of drugs and booze was rattling around his fractured brain along with his medication. Over the years we have seen lots of people come into First Base completely off their heads.
But never this far.
I have never seen a human being so completely over the rainbow gone. He was in another world and not a better one. The voices in his head were kneading his grey matter into a whole variety of distorted shapes. Eventually he crashed out through the door and onto the pavement. No doubt within a matter of days he will be back under lock and key, either in jail or in an asylum. Or dead. Why is he on the streets at all? Money I excpect. Budget pressures. Targets. Boxes to tick.
Hopefully his road back to incarceration will involve some ludicrous petty offence like stealing a Monopoly set. Hopefully nobody winds up getting hurt. And that is all there is to do.
Fingers crossed. Touch wood. Have a rub at the rabbit’s foot. Because when you push these lads too far into a corner, bad, bad things can happen. And then more bad, bad things can happen.
It’s called a tinderbox.