Crack crack crack. Three shots, really close, from a car-park just across the road. Everyone in the crowded street stopped. No doubt what this was — gun crime erupting under our noses. Two more shots. Crack crack. Then another. Crack! My eight-month-old son was in a buggy and I shoved him into a gap between two parked cars. What next? Run for it? But I might charge into the line of fire. I paused, terrified.
Around me everyone stared in shock and bewilderment. At the end of the street a young black guy came running round the corner, both hands under his sweatshirt, hiding something. He looked wired and frantic and was clearly fleeing danger but he was also trying to be unobtrusive. He ran a bit, then stopped, ran a bit more and stopped, looking over his shoulder anxiously. I froze. Another black guy appeared round the same corner, also with his hands hidden under his top. Another gunman. Even scarier! Would he shoot the first guy? No. They seemed to be accomplices. They made their way past me down the street, jerkily — running a bit, stopping, running and stopping, constantly glancing behind them. Was a third gunman about to appear?
My head swam with imaginary bullets and the accompanying headlines. ‘Blasted tot fights for life.’ ‘Dad dies saving baby.’ The gunmen barged into a shop doorway. I took my chance and prepared to leg it but they immediately bounced back out of the shop and began coming towards me again, both peering fearfully up and down the street. There seemed to be danger in both directions. I couldn’t hang around any more. I ran for it, sprinting with the buggy to the end of the street and around a corner. Safety! Sort of. My hands were shaking but I felt better now that I had a block of apartments between me and the guns. I walked fast and glanced back. Nothing. I was clear.
The new street I was in, which I’ve known for years, suddenly seemed completely different, an oasis of tranquillity and goodwill. I wanted to smile at people, shake their hands and talk to them pleasantly about nice things. I took a circuitous route homewards but curiosity drew me back to the scene of the shooting. I arrived there six or seven minutes later. No sign of the gangsters but people were standing around discussing it. Distant sirens were approaching and I left just as the first of the squad cars arrived.
Trundling the toddler home, I noticed how complex my feelings were. I was elated and relieved that I’d come through it unharmed. I also felt proud that after living in Hackney for 16 years I had finally been blooded. I’d heard incoming fire! I was a veteran. My feelings towards the gunmen were even stranger. I’d been surprised at how ungunmanlike they looked. The first in particular, despite his manic appearance, had a plump, kindly, genial face. I also felt a reluctant pang of envy and admiration for them. It takes courage to pull out a gun in broad daylight, loose off a few shots and then escape down a crowded street. But my overriding feeling was one of anger. The temerity of it. The cheek! They don’t even know me, let alone bear me a grudge, and yet they’d endangered my life and jeopardised the happiness of my family — for what? Probably cocaine and its derivatives.
Back home I scoured the airwaves. There was no mention of the shooting I’d seen, but thanks to a spate of murders in London the TV news was crowded with experts and commentators agonising about gun crime. Having just been shot at (well, nearly), I was appalled at the quality of their suggestions, which ranged from the limply irrelevant to the wilfully delusional. One idea, popular with old-school coppers and right-wing hacks, is to expand the number of armed units. No thanks. More armed police just means more young men strutting around with powerful weapons and jittery fingers. I watched Tony Blair and John Reid earnestly twittering about tightening the law and introducing tougher sentences. So they would. Making law is their business, so more law is their solution. A woman from a Peckham sports centre popped up to explain that sports centres (cut to reformed gangsters playing ping pong) help keep da yoof out of trouble. Well, maybe. Most depressingly, I watched a protest march ‘against guns’ which ended with images of weeping matrons singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, an anthem of despair if ever I heard one. Who organised that? The Church.
A trend emerges. Every expert suggests a solution that amplifies his own sphere of influence. One mistake we make is to accept too readily that gun crime is something ‘we’ ought to solve. We all know the causes. Poor education, lack of opportunity, drugs, poverty and racism, right? Actually, no. Social disadvantages, taken together or separately, don’t force youngsters to take up crime. Education is there if you’re willing to embrace it. So is opportunity. Drugs are avoidable, poverty is surmountable, and racism won’t stop anyone with guts and intelligence. The problem lies with individuals. There’s a failure of brainpower, imagination and ambition. A failure of will. One thing you notice in Hackney, and in any city in Britain, is how many people are addicted to life at the bottom. There are swarms of them everywhere, all ages, all races, slouching around in baggy nylon leggings and smock-tops blazoned with the names of the multinationals who manufacture them. Who dresses these people in loserwear? They do. Why? Because they’re stupid. They make poor choices. They can’t analyse or plan, they can’t expand their horizons or imagine a different future for themselves. It’s here that gun crime originates: in the mind of a sweatshirted dimwit who thinks a career in drugs will lift him out of the ghetto. And no government measures, no wise speeches from Kwame Kwei-Armah, no groundbreaking initiatives from police commissioners will prevent stupid people behaving stupidly. Another mistake is to see stupidity itself as a problem. It’s a fact of life, like the Milky Way. And you’ll notice that those who analyse it as ‘a problem’ invariably stand to gain from ‘solving’ it.
I’m hardly blameless. The current gun-crime frenzy (of which this article is a tiny part) fuels the glamour surrounding illegal weapons and boosts their status as an emblem of rebellion. To tackle this, we should report gun crime less and not more. Fat chance of that. Too many journalists’ salaries depend on stoking the panic. The truth is that we’re looking for solutions where we won’t find them, in social structures that can be easily tinkered with rather than in the faultlines of the human psyche. There is no remedy for individual error. Meanwhile, if crack addicts want to shoot each other dead, let them.