London (CNN) – When two teenage boys threw acid at a food delivery driver and tried to steal his scooter, young Londoners sipping on cocktails at a nearby dim sum bar became their unwitting audience.
The acid attack, outside the Drunken Monkey in east London’s Shoreditch district, was just one of five that the boys carried out in less than 90 minutes one night in July, prosecutors say. The boys deny charges against them.
Acid attacks in London have increased dramatically in recent years, and police and lawmakers are now mulling ways to make weaponized acid, or “face melters,” more difficult to obtain.
“Most of the products can be bought off the shelf – so drain cleaner, oven cleaner – there are different types of sulfuric acid you can buy, and ammonia,” said Chief Superintendent Simon Laurence of Hackney borough in east London.
But those closer to the issue say that the police and politicians are missing the underlying cause of the issue – young men in London’s pockets of poverty have a lack of opportunity and little to do. And austerity hasn’t helped.
Police have suggested that gang members may be switching to acid over knives and guns, as the liquid is harder to detect. But knife and gun crimes are also on the rise, as is serious youth violence as a whole, according to the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
And just like knife and gun crimes, acid attacks have become a predominantly male-on-male problem, increasingly carried out by street gangs.
“Acid throwing has been adopted by urban street gangs in a way that perhaps we haven’t seen for a very long time,” Laurence said.
“The majority of victims are young males. And the majority of the suspects are males – young men on young men.”
This is where London bucks the trend. Globally, acid attacks are still mostly carried out by men against women close to them. They are particularly common in South Asia, where male attackers use the weapon to disfigure women as a form of punishment or control.
In London, the attacks are heavily concentrated in the east of the city, where young professionals and the deprived live cheek by jowl as patches of the area rapidly gentrify. In 2016, 454 acid attacks were reported across the city, up from 261 the year before, and 166 in 2014. In each of those years, more than half of the attacks were in east London.
And this year, there have been regular reports of more acid attacks in the east. On September 23, six males were injured by acid thrown during a fight at the Stratford Centre shopping mall in Newham, just yards from the London 2012 Olympic park. In August, a man was left with serious burns and scars after a drug dealer in Newham threw acid at him when he declined to buy marijuana.
Youth services pummeled
Jermaine Lawlor, a former gang member who now runs gang awareness training, said poverty has always been a major driving force for young men to get involved in gangs.
Lawlor grew up with a single mother and seven siblings in a crowded home in Ilford, on London’s eastern fringe. He says his father was violent and left when he was a toddler. Lawlor mugged his first victim when he was 9 and was kicked out of school around the same time.
The government’s cuts to benefits and public services are hitting young people where he grew up particularly hard, he said.
The Conservative government began its austerity drive in 2010 under Prime Minister David Cameron, who vowed to end the country’s budget deficit by 2020. His government slashed social-welfare spending, scrapped a program to build hundreds of schools and squeezed funding for local councils, a major provider of youth services and resources.
“Not everyone has equal access to opportunities,” Lawlor said. “After a while, you get frustrated and you realize that although I could go to prison for what I’m doing, I’m making more money than working for £6.50 an hour.”
Through his outreach, Lawlor has met young men who have carried out acid attacks, but he said a crackdown on acid as a weapon would be futile.
“It’s the same thing that needs to be done to reduce knife crime, gun crime, prostitution – it’s that policies and legislation need to be people-centered. By being people-centered, they need to understand the complexities and the multiple factors that prevent communities … from excelling.”
Lawlor was able to turn his own life around after he joined a soccer program that targeted at-risk youths. He said he found God and decided to study youth work, and eventually managed to leave life on the street.
But that program, and many others provided by the AIR Sports Network, have been axed in east London after funding cuts. That included several in Newham, and Barking and Dagenham, the two boroughs with the highest numbers of acid attacks.
Councils across Britain have complained of annual funding cuts since the austerity measures were brought in.
In the past five years, spending on youth services has been slashed by a third, or by £28 million (about $37 million), according to a collation of data from 28 of London’s 32 councils. At least 457 youth-worker jobs have been lost since 2011, a staffing cut of 48%.
Schools too are cutting out-of-hours programs as their funding shrinks. In the eastern borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, the community is fighting to save a school sports program for their kids.
The government is well aware that much of the public is unhappy with the cuts. Theresa May, upon her installation as Prime Minister last year, vowed to make the UK a fairer country “that works for everyone” and not just “the privileged few.”
When asked to comment on the consequences of austerity, the Treasury – which oversees public spending – pointed out that the economy had grown for the past four years, that unemployment was at a record low and that the average taxpayer on a basic income now pays £1,000 less tax each year.
But it warned that national debt was still too high and did not answer a question from CNN on how public spending would change in the next budget.
“We remain committed to protecting the economy from future shocks and bringing the budget back to balance,” the Treasury said in a statement to CNN.
A new underclass
Simon Hallsworth, an expert on urban violence in the UK, said that the cuts to benefits and wealth inequality have left London with a new class in the making.
“Everything has been cut. Cameron’s government came in saying, ‘We spend too much,’ and the social infrastructure of English society was ripped apart,” he said.
“We used to have a working class, but now we’ve just got what we call in sociology the precariat – people who live precarious lives. On welfare or on workfare.”
Hallsworth said riots in London in 2011 should have served as a warning sign that taking resources from youths was a bad idea. Thousands of young Londoners turned out on the city’s streets and clashed with police, looted stores and set vehicles on fire.
An increased focus on consumerism doesn’t help. It fuels some young deprived people to “innovate,” Hallsworth said, and this often leads to violence and a destruction that he calls a “slow riot.”
“They sell drugs, and they try and find respect – they don’t get respect by getting good jobs, the jobs are crap – so they find respect on the street. They walk the walk, they talk the talk, they big it up and they shoot each other. It’s an utterly destructive culture.”
‘Like looking at a monster’
If acid attacks have something to do with inequality, they are a particularly dark manifestation of the social problem. They can disfigure their victims profoundly, leaving them with both physical and psychologically life-changing injuries.
Musa Miah, 24, was attacked last year in Tower Hamlets, and has been left with deep tissue damage and scarring down the left side of his face.
“It feels like your face is just melting,” he said, recalling the attack. “Sometimes I’ll get nightmares. Even till now, I get nightmares about it.”
Miah now wears a transparent compression mask on his face all day. He uses eye drops every two hours, even in the middle of the night, to stop his left eye from losing sight.
He told CNN that he was at an apartment with a group of friends when some “boys” smashed into one of their cars. When Miah and his friends confronted them, they responded by throwing acid at them. A man and a minor deny charges made against them in the case.
Two skin grafts later, Miah is now able to talk about the horrific experience. But the first few months were the hardest.
“I didn’t really want to see anyone, didn’t want to get out of my room. Before, I was more outgoing, talking to my mates. I just pushed everyone away. It was really hard, and depressing,” he said.
“It was hard because I used to get people staring at me, looking at me, giving me looks. It’s like they’re looking at a monster or something.”
Miah’s attack appears to have been random, but in gang-related acid attacks, there can be a clear motivation to ruin someone’s life, according to Simon Harding, a criminologist from Middlesex University London.
Gang members wear knife scars as a badge of honor, Harding said, but disfigurement and scarring from acid are a more devastating blow.
“They know that acid can be very damaging and very destructive and they are in many ways seeking to mark their victim with an act of dominance or a mark of control, demonstrating their power and their ability to get to you at any time. They call (acid) ‘torture in a bottle’ and they want to be able to take their rival out of the game,” Harding said.
Why east London?
One of London’s 32 boroughs stands out for acid attacks. Newham experienced 149 last year – that’s more than a third of the total in London and well above the second-highest number of 58, in neighboring Barking and Dagenham.
Violent crime has risen steadily across London since 2010, but Newham has the highest number of serious youth violence incidents in the city, on par with Croydon in the south, police data shows.
But there’s only so much local councils can do to engage youths as they watch their funding shrink.
In 2010, Newham Council received £283 million from the central government. That amount has dropped each year since and now sits at £160 million, the council reports.
A collation of data from several London councils shows that Newham has cut spending on youth services by 81%.
The council, however, says that figure was taken out of context, explaining that many youth services are now offered through other agencies in the community.
“Therefore, the overall ‘budget’ isn’t necessarily reduced as we are able to utilize different partnerships and programs for the benefit of young people,” a council spokesman said.
Stephen Timms, the member of Parliament for East Ham in Newham, who has spearheaded the parliamentary debate on acid attacks – is unsure why the attacks are so prominent in his area. But he says the cracks of austerity are starting to show, and he points out that a cut in police numbers hasn’t helped either.
Following a series of terror attacks in the UK this year, Prime Minister May was accused of weakening the country’s security forces, having cut 20,000 police positions during her time as Home Secretary in the Cameron government.
“There is a bit of sense perhaps that we are now starting to see the consequences of the reduction in police funding, perhaps also funding for youth activities, many of which have gone as a result of austerity,” Timms said.
“Youth provision is very, very thin now. There used to be quite a big program of activity with organizations providing clubs and youth activities – that’s now largely gone.”
But when it comes to acid attacks, victim Miah is tired of all the talk and wants to see action now. He agrees with some politicians who have called for acid attackers to be given life sentences.
“There’s no point of debating about it – it should be banned. Because more days will go past, people are going to get attacked,” he said.
“It changes someone’s life. You don’t feel the same.”
CNN’s Henrik Pettersson, Mark Oliver, Lindsay Isaac, and Kevin Taverner contributed to this report.