'Untouchable' gang uses flaming cross to make its mark on estate

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The Independent Online

A second floor walkway on the decaying Bemerton estate in north London provides a clear view of Chris Smith's Islington home, but life in the graffiti-covered, fly-infested corridors is a world away from the tolerance advocated by the openly gay former cabinet minister.

The estate is in the grip of a gang of youths calling themselves the "untouchables" and terrorising anyone who happens to be black, Asian, Turkish, gay, old or even just well-spoken.

They "control" the 13 blocks of the 1960s estate off the Caledonian Road, just north of King's Cross station, with a campaign of intimidation that reached a climax in the early hours of Sunday morning when a gang of hooded youths built a cross out of discarded wooden pallets in an invocation of Ku Klux Klan imagery.

Their action has frightened and surprised residents already driven to breaking point by the daily strain of living in an area known as "little Belfast", but so far free of organised racism. This reputation is an embarrassment to Tony Blair, who chose the estate to launch his zero- tolerance policing policy three years ago.

One 40-year-old woman in a mixed race relationship, who has lived there for 10 years, said: "This is one of the most racist areas you could ever live. I was picked on because I was a white girl with a black man. I have had bottles thrown at my windows. Some years ago an Indian delivery boy was beaten up in the walkway and left for dead.

"It is predominantly white, and you get these group of low-life trash who think they are hardmen and grow up with this racist attitude. I was actually surprised at the KKK incident. I knew there was a racist element, but I did not think it had gone that far."

The cross went up as the youths, many of whom are thought to come from outside the estate, practised their nightly routine of racing through its corridors armed with golf clubs and baseball bats, banging on doors and hurling bottles from the walkways. One mother kept awake to 5am by the noise heard the crowd shouting they were "the untouchables" and claiming that they were proved right by police inaction, which had allowed them to get away with months of intimidation.

Police were called to the estate early on Sunday when a British Transport Police car pursued a motorcyclist who was not wearing a crash helmet. The car was met by about 70 youths who attacked it with bricks and bottles, smashing windows and leaving two officers injured. When other cars were sent in support, they were also met by a hail of missiles and one special constable was hurt by flying glass. There were no arrests for the violence, although four people were apprehended after the motorcycle was recovered.

Police have invoked powers to stop and search anyone on the estate until midday today, but say there is no particular racial problem. However, they accept it suffers regularly from criminal damage and anti- social behaviour.

A patrol car drove through the estate yesterday, but residents say there is normally never an officer to be seen. They claim that the estate has become steadily more lawless as it continues to fall into disrepair. Tenants have recently created their own organisation responsible for maintenance and cleaning, but it cannot overcome years of neglect and the flaws of the original design. One burnt-out flat has not been repaired five years after a fire, the dark corridors that are freezing even on a warm June day are covered with graffiti and strewn with rubbish, while windows torn out of the top floor walkways are not replaced.

To add to the sense of menace, racist slogans appear among the obscenities scrawled on the walls, one threatening the Turkish community. Islington council has recorded a spate of abusive attacks on Turkish shopkeepers along the Caledonian Road, as well as four incidents of racial harassment in the area, but it too insists there is no history of racial problems on the Bemerton estate.

Another woman, who had brought up her family on the estate, said she was no longer surprised by anything inflicted on its residents. "It goes from bad to worse. They pick on you if you are old, if you are gay or if you are posh.

"They think they have a God-given right to do whatever they want, and there is no control from the police or the council ­ they have to take responsibility."