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Gang warfare with a twist
Sadly for the weary residents in the London borough of Hackney, youth gangs are a depressingly constant scourge of life in one of the country’s most deprived areas. Despite a robust campaign administered through a concerted effort of ministers and community leaders – and one which included another gun and knife amnesty – all efforts have dismally proved futile. The assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Alasdair Brinely, was compelled to confirm the worryingly sharp increase in gang activity in recent years as anecdotal tales were soon surpassed by mounting concrete evidence. The disturbing trends in the growth of youth gangs in some major cities and towns have alarmed politicians and the nation alike, with calls for even more stringent measures to extinguish the escalating violence. Unfortunately, because gang violence is such a perennial hazard for society they rarely warrant front page news. However, there is something shockingly unusual about the latest crop of youth gangs that have proliferated in the fertile ground of Hackney and are sending shockwaves throughout the nation.
Typically, gangs manifest their own unique signature dress code which invariably involve hoods and trainers and some inimitable feature, such as the thick brightly colored rubber bands worn below the knees that denote hierarchy in the ‘BOB’S’ – the Band of Brothers – a notorious Sheffield based outfit that has terrorized the city for the past five years. Indeed, the gangs that have emerged from Hackney, particularly from Clapton, too have their own distinctive sartorial style which appears rather incongruous to the eye. Rather than blandly imitating the latest fashion trend, these gangs have opted for a more ‘traditional’ and unquestioningly conservative image: a plain black coat and trousers, a plain black fedora hat complete with the obligatory twirls. And not through preference have they chosen their distinguishing attire but rather through strict observance of their orthodox, Hasidic strand of Judaism! Incredible though it may sound, these new youth gangs that have emerged from Clapton are composed of authentic Hasidic Jewish youths.
When news of Hasidic youth gangs marauding on the mean streets of Clapton and surrounding neighborhoods first began to circulate, they were met with utter disbelief and contempt from the Jewish communities and anti-racist campaigners. The local synagogue based in Stamford Hill, issued a vociferous denial in a statement posted on their website, denouncing the rumors as ‘malicious’, ‘scandalous’ and ‘a vicious affront to vilify us one again”. Even when the first grainy image captured on CCTV appeared, that showed a couple of seemingly solemn looking Hasidic youths smashing the window of a local corner shop; it was dismissed as a ferocious hoax. Indeed, there was an air of stupendous surrealism in watching these images that seem ludicrously out of kilter with expectations of reality, and which gives proof to that seemingly strange scientific axiom that given enough time, anything is possible. Regrettably, a proliferation of images soon appeared that could no longer be denied by either the Jewish community or the police who too were initially dismissive. One particular image captured by a middle-aged couple on their mobile phones as they cowered behind their cars caused a sensation when first broadcast on the internet and then on local news channels. The couple, who have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, had just left the local leisure centre when they heard an almighty crash coming from nearby. With great trepidation they walked towards where the noise was coming from, the parking lot of a recently closed down pet shop, where they were met with an astonishing sight – a dozen or so Hasidic youths dressed in their traditional attire but viciously hurling bottles and punches and wielding knives.
Stunned by the surreal sight before them and increasingly frightened by the ferocity of the violence witnessed by their very eyes; nonetheless, they were calmly determined to carry out their civic duty and started to record the scenes while they waited for the police to arrive. The local police have since confirmed that the fight was between two rivals Hasidic gangs who have dubbed themselves the ‘SS’ –Stamford Soldiers’ and the “KT’s” – ‘Kaiser Thieves’ over disputed territorial claims. Furthermore, an experienced police officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has also confirmed that they had been aware of the emergence of these Hasidic gangs ‘for some time now’ but were ‘warned to keep this out of the public domain’ for fear of stirring racial tensions.
The sight of the traditionally attired Hasidic youths engaged in mindless criminality including robbery and drug dealing, does appear initially farcical. However, there was nothing funny for Natalie Clarkson, a 26yrold local Clapton resident, who was mugged by a couple members of the increasingly notorious ‘SS’ as she walked home from work one late afternoon. It started out as an ordinary day for Natalie after finishing work at the local council where she is employed as ‘cohesive community advisor’. She was stunned when a trio of the gang suddenly appeared from nowhere and surrounded her as she reached the corner of her street; still visibly shaken by her traumatic ordeal and fighting back tears, Natalie recounts that fateful day:
“At first I wasn’t scared…I mean I had heard the rumours of these so- called Jewish gangs, but to tell you the truth I didn’t believe it. I mean… I know there are lots of racists, you know …anti-Semitic people round here, so when I walked passed them and they just look like your normal orthodox type, I wasn’t scared at all. But then as soon as I walked past, they all stood up and surrounded me very quickly, and demanded that I give him my money… at first I was stunned and thought that perhaps it was just a prank, but then one of them pulled out a knife and immediately, I remembered the stories I’d heard… Two of them grabbed my bag; I didn’t fight back- I thought I was going to die.
Unlike many other victims of these gangs, Natalie was fortunate in that she was not physically harmed, but she is still reeling from the psychological trauma of her ordeal. After carrying out their cowardly attack, these young thugs nonchalantly sauntered away whilst still sniggering and hurling misogynist abuse at her as she stood paralyzed through fear. Weeks after the event, Natalie is still too afraid to venture outside unaccompanied:
“I’m still in shock, I mean you always got to watch your back living in a place like Hackney, but usually you can identify the kinds of people that will probably mug you or worse, but those orthodox Jews, I mean, they’re not the kind of people that normally do this type of thing..I still can’t believe it myself…it was like you were transported to a parallel universe or something like that. What is the world coming to?
Natalie’s ordeal and her expression of shock and disbelief over the seemingly fantastical notion of Hasidic Jewish youth gangs is echoed by many – Jewish and non Jewish alike- who are astounded by the recent developments in Hackney. The incredulous news about Hasidic youth gangs first circulated in and around Hackney, specifically the area of Stamford Hill where there is a large and visible presence of the long standing Hasidic community. Those aforementioned footages accompanied by witness reports, and by victims accounts have gradually began to spread through to the national press. The coverage has even reached a perplexed global audience. The impact on the wider Jewish communities in Britain has been particularly traumatic and distressful, with many distinguished Jewish figures engaged in often heated and frustrating debates as to the causes of these appalling crimes that have ensnared their youth.
A prominent member of the Stamford synagogue, Dr Mikhail Karshan, shakes his head visibly and mirrors the sadness of the local Hasidic community and even optimistically vows to ‘work strenuously without cease with families, schools and other agencies to break down this cycle of violence before it becomes endemic’, adding:
“this is unbelievable what is happening, we have always bought our children to be respectful and obedient, but now it seems that we are losing control, there is so much peer pressure that it is difficult to stand out as different from the norm, so they start behaving as other young people around here”
Pointing out the devastating impact of the recent recession on youth unemployment, and the frightening loss of jobs impending, Dr Karshan laments the lack of employment opportunities for young people as well as the closures of youth clubs in recent times:
“It’s hard for the young people these days, there is simply no work for them, and there is nowhere for them to go, of course boredom is going to cause them to find some outlet for their frustrations. Of course I’m not excusing these thugs, but it is very hard for young people these days’ and urges the local community “we must work together, and not just the Jewish communities but all members of the community here in Hackney”
As the descendent of Polish Jews that fled from Nazi Germany, Dr Karshan is sadly all too familiar with experiences of anti-Semitic racism and acknowledges that ‘this is very bad for our people’. And with depressing accuracy, racial tensions have indeed manifested. The disturbing developments in youth gangs have perhaps, unsurprisingly, ratcheted up the racial tensions which have always been skimming under the surfaces in this hugely diverse community. Already ‘retaliations’ against Jewish business have already started, with a kosher butcher store vandalized during a busy Thursday afternoon whilst people uncaringly walked by; and even more disturbingly, an innocent Hasidic schoolboy was ambushed as he walked home and beaten severely by a group of his fellow schoolmates hurling anti-Semitic abuse.
Tensions have certainly reached fever pitch in this troubled borough as hearsay, half-truths and truths spread like the proverbial wildfire. There is a visible and heavy police presence around certain hotspots and the local police have already installed a curfew to prevent gangs congregating to exact retribution. The police chief has strongly urged residents to stay ‘calm’ and warned both the gangs and those thinking of so- called ‘revenge attacks’ of severe penalties and urged community leaders on all sides to ‘open a dialogue to combat this living nightmare as soon as humanely possible’. Natalie Clarkson understands, and emphasizes the growing hostility towards the Jewish communities, warning ominously:
It’s terrible, I mean, my job is to ensure there is understanding of different cultural needs and to help people of different ethnic and cultural groups work together, but after what happened to me…I can’t help being afraid of those Jews and I… can’t help it but… I do find them all quite sinister now, in their identical clothing and funny hair.