Acid attacks: Stop and search won’t solve anything, says reformed gang member and government adviser
PUBLISHED: 18:50 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:55 19 July 2017
Acid attacks in north London are on the rise because teens trying to prove how dangerous they are can brag about the horrific scars it leaves, according to an ex-gang member.
Gwenton Sloley, now a government advisor and youth outreach worker, said the weapon can be made from household products in minutes, for under £3.
He told the Gazette: “If you shoot someone the wounds are not visible – same with a stabbing. With acid they will be walking around with scars for the rest of their lives. The person who did it will be saying: ‘That’s my Van Gogh.’”
His chilling words come after a boy, 16, on Monday appeared in court charged with acid attacks on six people across north London overnight on Thursday and Friday. He denied the charges. A second boy, 15, has been bailed until next month.
The attacks targeted moped riders and left one man with “life-changing” injuries. One was in St Paul’s Road, near Highbury Corner; four more took place in Hackney, and one outside Stratford station.
In his consultancy work, Gwenton – who has provided services to Islington – makes urgent risk assessments in the aftermath of an attack on a young person. He’s often among the first to reach hospital and will make sure adequate safeguarding tools are in place before the victim leaves – for instance, to check they aren’t being discharged straight back into the lion’s den.
Talking generally about acid attacks, he said: “We’ve got young people leaving school who want to be seen as more dangerous than the people before them. So they are targeting random people to prove it. It’s also an initiation thing. They’re being told by older gang members to go out and burn someone’s face.”
Figures obtained by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request reveal a steady increase in the number of acid attacks across the UK.
They show there were 504 in the year 2016-17 across 37 police forces – up from 460 the previous year and far higher than the figure of 183 in 2012-13.
The most recent year’s figures include an attack in London Fields nightclub Mangle E8 that saw 22 people hit by a corrosive substance. Arthur Collins and Andre Phoenix have denied carrying it out, and are due to stand trial in October.
But as horrific as acid attacks are, their frequency is still dwarfed by the use of blades across the UK. In 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 32,448 cases of crime involving knives or “sharp instruments” – up 14 per cent. Figures for the next quarter are due to be released on Thursday.
In the Commons on Monday, MPs called for tougher sentences for those found carrying or using acid. It followed home secretary Amber Rudd’s announcement of a review of the justice system’s response to the attacks.
Gwenton said it is essential the courts come down hard – because at the moment they are getting laughed at. “We need to show them the full weight of the law,” he said. “With knife and gun crime [the authorities] have not been doing as they say.
“I know young people on bail who were caught with more than one knife. They think it’s a joke. They’re getting told they could get jail sentences and they are thinking: ‘No, I can’t.’
“I’ve spoken to young people who say they can’t carry a knife no more, but if people know you’ve got acid they’re more likely to leave you alone.”
According to Gwenton, acid is easier to carry than a knife because it can go undetected during a stop and search: it’s just a thick, clear liquid in a drinks bottle. But it wields as much fear.
“The moped boys who go out on smash and grabs don’t want no one apprehending them,” he said. “We were seeing have-a-go heroes before, but now they’ve started rolling around with acid.”
Gwenton’s company Crying Sons, headquartered off City Road, works with kids on the cusp of gang life. Through it, he has teamed up with Shared Vision and the Chickenshed theatre to launch a programme helping kids express themselves and access support through performing arts.
“A lot of young people don’t want no one preaching to them,” he said. “If you use theatre to get them involved, then you can have a discussion at the end of it. That’s the easiest way to get into the ‘ungoverned space’.”
Gwenton is talking about kids who’ve not been charged with a crime, so aren’t able to access support despite being on the road leading to the youth justice system. “It’s about educating parents and carers to be proactive. The onus is on them. There is support out there. There’s no excuse any more for the kids to feel they have to be trapped in this way of life.”
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