A boy, dripping with blood, stabbed in the chest and back, staggered along, banging on doors. ‘Help me! Help me!’ No one dared to answer. They had watched him being chased into their estate by other boys. They didn’t know who to trust. One person opened the door but seeing the blood slammed it shut, not knowing if he was perpetrator or victim. His coat got caught and he could run no further. Eventually someone did venture out and called an ambulance. At least he did not die alone …
A scene from a horror movie? No, just another day on our London streets. This one, for some reason, has affected me more than others I have read about. I think it was that it was in NW London, the detail, the fact that they stabbed him twice, front and back, with huge long machetes, and then ran away screaming and laughing … or maybe it was that no one would answer their door to him. But it just seemed so close to home, too real, and too sad. A 16 year old boy ripped apart and bleeding to death on our streets. And everyone too scared to help.
On the way home after reading about that, I saw a man sitting in the street surrounded by police. Some witnesses were being interviews. Obviously some sort of mugging. I hurried home and shut the door. And then, the next day, an incident in Harrow in broad daylight, police with shields, the area shut off, a car surrounded, and people being asked to stay away from the vicinity. What now? I hoped not to find out, it was all too much. But I found myself feeling more nervous. I must surely pass people carrying knives on my walk home, I thought. They’re not interested in me, it seems to be about gang and turf war, mainly drug related. But there are instances of people getting caught in the crossfire.
And I worry more. Seeing 2 boys standing behind a fence, I cross the road. I hide my phone when passing other young men. I’ve long operated a policy of not walking on the pavement at night, preferring to stay under the streetlights, but now it doesn’t seem enough. I’m starting to wonder about everyone when travelling late at night. We may all feel safe on the tube if we all look benign, but what about when we get off? A few years ago there was a stabbing at my station, a fight between young men, but I passed it off as a one off. And since we now have ticket gates and security it has improved greatly, no one hanging around anymore.
A couple of months ago, the trouble across my borough was nonstop for a whole weekend, to the point that acquaintances who live up north commented that we hadn’t been out of the news for 3 days. Stabbings, shootings, fights, it was every day. We block it out because we don’t actually see it, but it is just around the corner. Eventually it came to slap us right in the face. Trawling the news I saw a double stabbing in broad daylight. Turned out to be in the park in a close friend’s street, and she saw the boy lying on the road. Heads removed from the sand, we reeled at how this could be happening in a quiet suburban road. Was it no longer safe to walk in a park on a sunny afternoon? Apparently not.
While we are going about our business, young people are living in a parallel universe of gang (postcode) rivalry, drug dealing, baiting each other on youtube videos, laughing and stabbing and shooting, accruing weapons, and patching themselves up in their bedrooms from knife wounds so they don’t have to go to hospital and answer questions. Sounds like I am exaggerating but I am not. If anything I think we are underestimating the extent to which this is taking place. How on earth did so many young people become immune from normal feelings of abhorrence at violence and death?
Even young people who are educated and have a bright future are being dragged into this life, by dint of where they live. It seems unavoidable. Just walking down the street can instigate gang rivalry, it seems. Young men drive round the streets in cars full of weapons, looking to maim or kill their rivals, real or imagined. And we are like sitting ducks in the middle, as oblivious of them as they are of us, until one of them lays bleeding outside our front door, or an innocent bystander gets caught up in it and killed. The violence breeds more violence too, with random, senseless attacks on ordinary people becoming more and more common, as today when a man was murdered in broad daylight outside a shop by boys as young as 14 using screwdrivers. To know what was going on inside their head would be even more frightening.
I have always considered myself to be a streetwise Londoner. I am born and bred. I have travelled alone, day and night, across every part of this city that I love. I know the drill. I don’t dawdle at night, don’t make eye contact, have my door keys ready. I walk in the light, don’t turn into my road or towards my home til the last minute. I don’t get into empty train carriages, I put my bag under my coat, and if I see a crowd ahead of me I keep up with them. The other night I got chatting to a woman I didn’t know but who was walking home the same way. ‘It’s changed, hasn’t it?’ she said. I agreed. The streets feel different now. People aren’t as friendly. No one knows their neighbours. The news is full of violence. Nothing violent has happened to me on my way home, but I feel ever more fearful, and who could blame me?
Should I stay or should I go? I love London, but I am worried and the streets are soaked with blood. Can we reclaim them? I hope so. And if a blood soaked boy banged on my door, would I answer? God only knows …