This is a book about what we, as a society, should do with hoodies — the familiar hooded young men, black and white, who rob, stab, shoot and sell drugs. Its author, Harriet Sergeant, is a middle-aged woman who works for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank. Should we hug these people? Or should we punish them? If I’ve understood her correctly, Sergeant thinks we hug them too much when they’re young, which means we must punish them for the rest of their lives when they get older.
Actually, that’s not quite right. As a society, we don’t exactly hug young hoodies — we just don’t have the collective will to give them a structured, disciplined life. When they don’t do their homework, we don’t make them. When they turn up late, we don’t give them a rocket. Instead, we leave them alone to do what they want. So they turn feral. That’s what Sergeant is saying. She’s saying there’s no discipline in inner-city schools, so future hoodies don’t learn to read and write properly. There’s hardly any organised sport, so they never learn to channel their aggression. There are no proper school activities, so they never have the pleasure of being in adult-led group activity. Most don’t have much contact with their fathers, because the benefits system does not encourage the poor to live as nuclear families.
The book opens during last year’s riots. Sergeant is on her way to court, to watch a hoodie get sentenced. His name is Tuggy Tug. He’s bright, charming, energetic — and semi-literate. He’s grown up in care, and ‘on the streets’ — hanging around council estates in south London. He’s committed more than 100 muggings. Sergeant explains that she’s known him and his fellow gang members, Mash, Sunshine and Jigger, for three years. On her way to see Tuggy Tug get his come-uppance, Sergeant receives a call on her mobile from his mates. They are rioting. They are wild with excitement. ‘Today,’ says Mash, ‘I can go anywhere in London.’
In the court, and throughout the book, Sergeant is torn. She should hate these people — after all, her elderly mother’s hands have just been slashed by a knife-wielding hoodie who wanted to steal her rings. But, having befriended young, inner-city thugs, having got to know them, she does not hate them. She sees their condition as inevitable. She has a son the same age as Tuggy Tug, who went to St Paul’s, was taught by the best teachers and played sport every day. In contrast, Tuggy Tug, culturally speaking, has absolutely nothing.
This is not one of those books in which the writer spends every waking minute with inner city gangs. It’s not The Corner, by David Simon. Neither is it like Sudhir Ventakash’s Gang Leader for a Day, in which the author shadows a gang and works out the economics of the drug market. What Sergeant does is different. She gets to know the gang members, who turn out to be ordinary people, who might have grown up on a very poor, brutal desert island. And she describes the social membrane between their world and ours. This consists of schools, hostels and job centres. And it turns out that the membrane is not permeable — which is appalling.
So the hoodies are stuck. That’s why Mash was so excited by the riots. Normally, hoodies can’t easily travel outside their own territory, for fear of being attacked by other hoodies. It’s not just the police they fear; it’s rival gangs. Unable to decipher society at large, they are trapped. ‘They are the pet everybody has got bored of — lonely, hungry, and dangerous,’ Sergeant writes.
She’s got a point. Life is bad for hooded gangs. Hooded gangs are bad for life. We must do something about it.