London riots bring back memories of disenfranchised British youth

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The Pembury estate in Hackney is a cluster of multistory brick buildings that bear more resemblance to a penitentiary than a housing project. It is the exact opposite of what most people imagine when they picture an “estate.”  This is a gritty section of east London, where commuter trains squeal over graffiti-scrawled rail bridges and kebab and chip shops sit next to cut-price liquor outlets.

Often the butt of jokes amongst Londoners (I heard it referred to as “Crackney” on more than a few occasions) Hackney is a predominately working class neighborhood filled with a mix of long-term residents and new arrivals (both legal and illegal) to Britain. Though ethnically mixed, Hackney hosts a large proportion of Londoners with West Indian background. You can hear the Caribbean cadence in the street markets and see it in the hair braiding shops. There is also a sizable ‘proper east London’ segment, translated roughly: white working class. Toss in Turkish, west African and Polish accents and food and you start to get the idea.

Most estates across Britain are rough places, but Hackney’s estates have a particularly bad reputation. Living in London, you learn to be wary of the council estate youth. They are easy to spot: groups of youths wearing track suits, hoodies and gold chains hanging around the trains stations, bus stops and Pound shops, drinking, smoking and cursing.  Many of these same young people have children of their own; the teenage pregnancy rate is high in council estates, and too many kids face a bleak future of dead-end jobs, life on the dole or repeated jail time.

The riots that have broken out in various parts of London started in Tottenham as a response to a police shooting – a relative rarity in the United Kingdom. According to community organizers, the police didn’t deal properly with the community after Mark Duggan, 29, was shot and killed. But what began as a political protest has morphed into something much more vague…and much darker. What is transpiring on the streets looks more like a ‘Revenge of the Council Estates’ zombie flick than a Public Enemy inspired ‘Fight the Power’ protest.

The kids on the estates have no stake in the system. They don’t believe in the power of education to lift them out of poverty, and they don’t see a point in working hard to make money. What’s the point? They believe the system is stacked against them and there is no chance of social mobility. They see their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers stuck in the same council estate for generations – and they don’t see any way out. So might as well smash and grab while the police are busy, since “we ain’t never gonna get enough quid to buy this stuff otherwise, innit?”

I don’t believe that people who have confidence in themselves and a real stake in their community could riot like this, no matter how impoverished they convince themselves they are. It is a sad state of affairs when the only time these council-estate kids get involved in their community is when they smash the windows of the local Foot Locker and steal shoes and hoodies.

As for the answers, I can’t even begin to pontificate about ‘community engagement’ or ‘estate action plans’ or ‘education’ or ‘morals’ or whatever. I don’t know the answers is. But that doesn’t mean I am surprised that it is occurring.

For a myriad of reasons, these kids feel excluded from the wider British society that gets up, goes to work, goes shopping and goes back to their nice flats after a few drinks with their mates. The estates are places where economic and social life is stagnant, a never-ending cycle of: get drunk, get pregnant, get robbed, rob someone else, get drunk, eat chips, fight, repeat. And over the past few nights, those who are born on the estates – and will probably die on the same estates – aren’t wasting an opportunity to show the police and the rest of the country where they can (to put it bluntly) shove it: “London, get stuffed.”

Joshua Hergesheimer is a freelance journalist and photographer. He used to live in Hackney, east London, right across from the Pembury estate.

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