London riots - one year on: Why Hackney is still a tinderbox

Young people who had everything to lose joined the rioting in Hackney. In the second of a four-part series, Owen Jones discovers that their feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusion haven't gone away

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The Independent Online

Those who dismissed last year's rioters as the "feral underclass" will find Jahmal troubling. Recently released after serving part of an 18-month sentence for violent disorder in last year's Hackney riots, it is difficult to describe this baby-faced, softly-spoken 22-year-old as being simply motivated by "mindless criminality, pure and simple", as David Cameron described the riots.

Jahmal was born into the ranks of Britain's burgeoning working poor: his mother is a personal assistant who is studying part-time for a psychology degree. Before the riots, he was a man with little hope. "Things were tough. I didn't see much of a future. All I've got going for me is music." DJing is his passion but – like the majority of young black people in austerity Britain – he was out of work. "I've been trying to get a job for over two years now," he says. He applied for apprenticeships in construction and the London Underground, but was rejected.

So what made this young man throw two bottles at the police on 8 August 2011, as the turmoil that erupted in Tottenham spread to nearby Hackney? Fury at perceived police harassment – a worryingly familiar tale among young black men I've spoken to – certainly played a part. "I see the police as a 'legit' gang," Jahmal says. "They bully people, they harass people. My mum's been raided three times for no reason at all. Each time they raided they found nothing." He claims that his cousin was slammed against a wall and injured after a police officer objected to an unwanted stare.

"Some police officers are alright," he says. "But some will talk to you like you're a dog." The riots, then, he says, were partly about turning the tables on despised representatives of authority. "It was to give them a taste of their own medicine," he claims.

But Jahmal – who after spending months locked away in jail wants to rebuild his life, and who spoke on condition that his surname and picture would not be used – argues that a lethal combination lay behind the riots: a sense that young people had little future to look forward to.

"If you go through proper channels, people don't really listen to you. They brush it under the carpet." Jahmal says he cannot bring himself to condemn the disorder. "I'm not saying the riots were a good thing, but in a way they had to happen," he argues. "I can't state it enough: there has to b e a lot more opportunities for kids, to keep them off the street, to keep them focused. Otherwise it's going to happen again."

Hackney showcases the divisions of one of the most unequal cities in the Western world. In the year following May 2011, long-term youth unemployment in the borough soared by a stunning 186.4 per cent. "There are some of the richest people in Britain in Hackney, and there are some of the highest levels of youth unemployment, and they're all living next to each other," says Sadie King, chair of the Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth campaign and a resident of the Pembury Estate, which was at the heart of August's rioting.

The teenage son of Edy – a 46-year-old nurse who is taking on extra hours to help her daughter through university – was just one of Hackney's thousands of unemployed young men.

Edy's son, who was 18 at the time, was sentenced to 25 months after being caught on CCTV throwing stones at police and trespassing through a petrol station that had been looted earlier. After spending 17 days in Chelmsford prison with Category-A inmates, including sex offenders and multiple murderers, he ended up at Rochester Prison with his best friend, Tony. "That was a blessing for me," Edy says.

Last month, weeks after being released, Tony ended his own life at the age of 20 by throwing himself in front of an express train.

Before the riots, Edy's son was "fed up", she says: every time he went to the JobCentre, he was demoralised. "The woman there spoke to him like he was sh**. And there were no jobs." It is only now behind bars that her son is making progress. "I think this is very sad, but my son said he has achieved more in a prison sentence than he did his whole education," Edy says. "He's done six NVQs, redone his maths exam."

With so many young people facing a precarious future, youth workers warn of potentially grave consequences. Dean Ryan, 46, works with what he says "are euphemistically called 'hard to reach, hard to engage' young people". He is adamant that austerity is having a dramatic impact on the young people he works with. "Before the riots we were campaigning against massive cuts to youth services. There are over a million unemployed young people in this country. Coupled with stop-and-search, continued police harassment and so on, we were saying this is a recipe for disaster."

Pessimism about the future is rampant among young people in Hackney. Kiona, Jason and David are three 16-year-old school students. All want to go to university, but fear it is no guarantee of a secure future.

"Even when people are going to university, they're hardly getting jobs," says Kiona, as the trio walk home after playing football. David agrees: "We might not get a job at the end of it, and then you're in debt."

Fear of the future is mixed with a deeply-felt distrust of authority. Like many young black men, they have stories of stop-and-search going back years. "The police are very arrogant and ignorant about what's going on in the community," argues David. "They choose not to understand where the youths are coming from and why crime is rising. It's down to a hard fact: nobody has anything to do, youth clubs are getting cut and stuff, so there's nowhere really to go." When asked if they knew anyone who rioted, the three friends laugh and shoot knowing glances at each other. "You were involved – don't lie!" one mutters.

Adeola Sobayo, 17, is about to start studying law and sociology at Warwick University: she has looked for work for two years without success. "A lot of young people don't have a lot to look forward to; a lot of people I grew up with are in prison," she says. "It's life in Hackney: some people make it, and some people don't." But she has conflicted views about last year's riots. "Here in Hackney, for some it was a fight against police, but for some it was an opportunity to steal some trainers." The original reasons were lost, she argues: "You're in Foot Locker stealing trainers and you're hitting industries, not the police."

Others, like Jonathan Green, 17, a student at Sir George Monoux sixth-form college in nearby Walthamstow, puts the rioting down to an "underlying level of poverty and people just copying and wanting to be better than other people". During the unrest, his mother made him stay at home and "keep my head down and do my own thing". With police raids ongoing nearly a year on, he is relieved to have taken her advice.

What hope, then, for the future? For Sadie King, young people in the borough had their hopes raised during the boom period, but that optimism feels crushed. "A lot of aspiration was raised in Hackney," she says. "The dream is to escape the estate and own their own home." But the slashing of the educational maintenance allowance, rising tuition fees and youth unemployment have served as a check on aspiration.

There's the boredom, too: as well as a lack of youth clubs, Ms King talks of police clamping down on socialising; of "dispersal zones" to stop young people with nowhere to go hanging around, and of wardens patrolling balconies on the estate. "It's like having a copper patrolling your back gardens," she says. "We don't have the physical space. You can't keep them in. All they're doing is standing talking to each other."

Millions of young people from all backgrounds experiment with drugs but – with young people in Hackney facing more police surveillance than those out in the suburbs – she believes working-class people are disproportionately targeted. "Do you think middle-class kids don't do drugs?"

Sitting in a pub near Hackney's Clapton Park estate, a group of middle-aged women expressed to me their despair about the future. Amanda Thomas, 40, has three children aged under five. When I asked about their future, her response was chilling: "I'm dreading it. People say, 'Get a job, get an education'. But even if you get an education, there's nothing."

Lynne Stevens, a grandmother in her 50s, was just as pessimistic.

"We'll just get more discontent, more homelessness, more family breakdown, more social exclusion, more narcotics," she says. "How can it be any other way? The work isn't there." For many of those who lived through last year's riots in Hackney, the hope is for peace on the streets. But the despair and fear that existed before the riots hasn't gone away.

From the front line: Hackney voices

Adeola Sobayo, 17, who is to study law at Warwick, has been looking for a job for two years. "A lot of young people I grew up with are in prison. It's life in Hackney: some people make it, and some don't."

Outreach worker Dean Ryan: "There are a million unemployed young people. Coupled with police harassment, this is a recipe for disaster."

Jonathan Green, a sixth-form student, explains the riots as about an "underlying level of poverty and people just copying and wanting to be better than other people".