The Sunday Times, 13 January 2002
In the stairway of a dimly lit
council estate in Peckham in south London, a 15-year-old
boy reaches into one of the dozen or more pockets
in his black padded jacket and pulls out two mobile
phones. You wanna see phones? These are the hottest
phones right now. Big bucks, he says, balancing one
on each hand as though weighing up their worth. These
are my new babies. They are also not his own. Earlier
in the day they had been stolen, most likely snatched
in a street raid that would have been as frightening
for the victim as it was mundane for the teenage thief.
Yeah, I nick phones, admits the
boy, who likes to be known by his street name, X-
treme. It's no big deal. A lot of kids are stealing
phones. So what? It's quick and easy money and that's
what I need right now. It ain't hurting anyone. People
can just go out and buy another one. For X-treme,
snatching phones is just a game. But not everyone
plays by the same rules.
Last week, a jury at the Old Bailey
heard how Sajid Chishti had his mobile phone stolen
in a street attack in the centre of Ilford, in Essex.
The hardworking, polite and friendly 33-year-old bled
to death after receiving a fatal stab wound during
a robbery that relieved him not just of his mobile,
wallet and credit cards, but also of his life.
The court sat in horror as details
of the case were read out in the trial of two men
alleged to have been involved in the attack. In May
last year, Chishti had driven to Ilford, parked his
car and walked around a street corner to meet a friend
for a Chinese meal.
Instead, say prosecutors, he found
himself confronted by a mob of up to 30 people marauding
through the town centre, stealing from shops and looking
Chishti crossed the road and tried
to escape the melee. But within moments the gang was
upon him, knocking him to the pavement, kicking, beating
and tearing at his jacket. Amid the scrum there was
a flash of steel.
By the time Chishti stumbled into
Ilford railway station, pleading for help, it was
too late. He died shortly afterwards.
These two stories stand at opposite
ends of the same problem: a relentless rise in violent
street crime that has seen the public grow increasingly
uneasy. More controversially, both X-treme and the
alleged Ilford attackers are young black men.Their
skin colour would not normally be relevant. Common
sense(?) tells us that crime is colour-blind and that
victims and perpetrators span ethnic backgrounds.
Yet last week figures published by the Home Office
thrust the race issue to the forefront of the debate
over the burgeoning rate of street crime.
TROUBLED by statistics that showed
street robbery rose by 13% in the 12 months to March
2001 and attacks involving mobile telephones soared
from an estimated 5,500 in 1999 to 26,300 last year,
the government decided to investigate further.
Last week new estimates based on
a survey of selected cities across the country suggested
that the total number of thefts involving mobile phones,
whether from the person or from unattended bags, cars
and the like, could be as high as 330,000 a year.
That in itself was alarming, but more controversial
still was the revelation that in four of the six regions
studied, the highest proportion of suspects were black.
In the Metropolitan police area,
71% of people accused of mobile phone theft were black;
in Bristol the figure was 63%; in Birmingham 54%.
The trend was reversed in Stockport where 76% of such
thefts were reported to involve white suspects compared
with 1% black.
Even given that most of the cities
studied have disproportionately large black communities
compared with the country at large, the statistics
still made for uncomfortable reading. Black gangs
prowl cities for white boys' mobiles, screamed the
headline on one newspaper. Was Britain really falling
victim to a wave of black criminal gangs, stalking
the streets in search of easy prey and fast cash?
Raising such topics outside a more extensive debate
on the roots of crime and deprivation is always contentious.
Yet however you balance the figures against the social
landscape, all the available statistics show that
black people represent a disproportionately high number
of those arrested and in jail.
Nationally, while they represent
only 2% of the population, black people were arrested
for 28% of robberies. In the Metropolitan police area
10% of the population is black, but black people are
arrested for 26% of all crime and 57% of robberies.
Overall, the rate of imprisonment is about six times
as high among black as among white people.
Some experts believe that black people
appear more in the statistics because they are discriminated
against by the police and treated more harshly by the courts.
To an extent this view was supported by Sir William Macpherson,
who controversially accused the police of institutionalised
racism in his report on the murder of the black student
However, Marian FitzGerald, a former
Home Office researcher and now visiting research professor
at the London School of Economics, says there is no escaping
an uneasy empirical truth. However politically difficult,
the statistics show that black people appear to be disproportionately
involved in crime, particularly robberies, she says.
If this is the case, then the big questions
remain as to why this should be so and what can be done
about it. Is it enough to blame social exclusion and deprivation,
or are there other factors at play? The muggers themselves
have their own views.
X-TREME could not be more typical of
the mobile phone theft trend. Expelled from school and living
in a single-parent family with his mother and two younger
sisters in a three-bedroom council flat, he earns up to
£120 a night stealing on average four or five mobile
Asked why he does it, he explains impatiently:
Listen, right, I'm supposed to be in school but I was expelled
for nicking phones. I am too young to work so how am I supposed
to survive? I've got needs, man.
My parents don't give me money because
they are pissed off that I am not in school. So I have to
hustle. Mobile phones are easy; people walk around with
them all day. You just jack them.
X-treme also blames boredom and lack
of local recreational facilities for burgeoning street crime.
Sometimes it's just something to do, he says. There isn't
anything round here. Boys just hang out in the street and
get up to badness.
It is stories and attitudes such as this
that have prompted Dianne Abbott, Labour MP for the deprived
London constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington,
to organise a conference in March to tackle what she calls
the silent catastrophe of the educational under-achievement
of black boys. Research by Ofsted shows that at the age
of five black children perform better than white and other
ethnic minority youngsters. But by the age of 16 the achievements
of Afro-Caribbean boys are lower; black girls are far more
Abbott believes that schools need to
recruit more black male teachers to act as role models and
instil a culture of discipline that values education more.
Tony Sewell, a visiting black professor at Leeds University,
agrees. At present, he says, black youth culture simply
does not prize educational achievement, although only a
minority turns to crime. That culture is not one that, for
example, is interested in being a great chess player or
in intellectual activity, he says.
Rather, he claims, peer group pressure
places more value on money and consumer goods such as trainers
and rap music.
There's a culture around toughness and
easy gain. Deviant behaviour is regarded as successful,
Trevor Phillips, of the Greater London
Assembly, agrees there is a problem. He believes that for
some young black men crime is a rational choice because
they see few other employment prospects. It's not that they
are willing automatons whose heads have been turned, and
if only they could be educated they would turn away from
their evil ways. You have to appreciate that this is a real
choice they are faced with, he says.
The solution, says Phillips, lies with
parents as much as with schools and other social organisations.
Black families need to do something to support boys and
bring them back into the fold. We need to create a situation
where in reality there are a wider range of choices and
possibilities for them, he says.
Lord Warner, the chairman of the Youth
Justice Board for England and Wales, agrees. The board's
annual survey of attitudes to crime by young people has
consistently shown that there are two key factors which
are most likely to stop young people offending, says Warner.
These are: the attitude of their parents and the likelihood
With this latter point in mind, last
week the Metropolitan police announced that a squad of 400-500
officers is being set up to target the estimated 320 most
prolific street muggers in London.
Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police
commissioner, sees it as a crucial step if the street hoodlums
of today are to be stopped from evolving into tomorrow's
gun-toting gangsters. Our worry is that people who are referred
to us at the younger end of the spectrum in terms of gangs
will, if we don't deal with them quickly, move into the
so-called black-on-black shootings, says Stevens.
At present, such a future does not
appeal to X-treme. I only do small crimes because I do not
want to go to prison, he insists. I do not want to get a criminal
record. The worry is that without more positive prospects
or deterrents, boys like him will have little else to fall