The Rise of Acid Attacks in the UK: VICE Reports
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The Rise of Acid Attacks in the UK: VICE Reports

January 21, 2020

Recently, I got a text from a friend warning me to stay away from Mare Street in Hackney. Thieves on scooters were going around throwing acid into people’s faces… … so they could make off with their bags and phones. It was the first time I’d ever heard of acid being used outside of an honor or revenge-based attack… and as a weapon to commit petty theft. I almost didn’t believe it. No one expects acid to be thrown on them on a night out. Since 2010, there have been 1,800 reported acid attacks in the capital, with a steep 70% rise from 2015 to 2016. As the number of victims grows, data suggests Britain has the worst record in the developed world for sorts of household acids, like bleach and drain cleaner. My identity is changed because of what’s happened… because I am scarred for life, so… I’m not the person I wanted to be. So why has it become the go-to weapon for young criminals in the UK? Most people in the UK first heard about the rise in acid attacks because of the Mangle incident. In this nightclub in Hackney, 20 people were sprayed with acid. The attack, which happened between two groups of men allegedly over drugs, left two clubbers blind in one eye, two men with severe facial injuries, and people needing treatment for scarring. An incident involving such a large group of people is rare, but the Mangle attack confirmed that the use of chemicals as a weapon… … is now horrifyingly common in the UK. Earlier this year, there were reports of acid attacks happening in the suburbs just outside London. From a 17 year old throwing industrial drain cleaner over five teenagers at a train station, to chemicals being thrown at a kids’ football game, and even between school children… one of them as young as 12. I’m meeting Jeff Shah of the Acid Survivors Trust International… … who’s on his way to visit an acid attack survivor just outside of south London. The most obvious trend here in the UK is that… there’s actually more men being attacked than women being attacked. In fact, two-thirds of victims are men, and that goes against the global trend. The global trend, generally, is 80% of victims are women. So why do you think that most of the victims tend to be men? I suspect, you know, based on the data we have and which is very limited, so there’s… some degree of speculation here, but it could be… kind of gang-on-gang related attacks. What we do know [is] that only a quarter of attacks recorded have actually led to charges being brought. Why do you think victims are afraid to come forward? There’s an issue of stigmatization around acid attacks. Because of your appearance, you’d be marked, but also the genuine, real threat that there might be violent repercussions. The issue of masculinity is probably an underlying cause for all of the countries, including the UK. So, we really need to better understand what it is about our culture that facilitates this kind of behavior. And it has to be about engaging with young men, and talking and understanding and encouraging them to understand the repercussions of violence on their victims. Jeff took me to meet Samir Hussein, a victim of an unprovoked attack, who had sulfuric acid thrown in his face outside a cinema. Samir asked that we not film the front of his house, for fear of a repeated attack. Can you tell me a bit about the day that led to the attack? I went to the cinema with my friend. What happened is in the cinema, there were a few people throwing sweet sauce, which I guess is quite childish, so I thought nothing of it. As I left the cinema, as I was going towards my car… Em… to continue to talk… As I got to my car, lookin’ after the floor… and then one individual came to smash my car window. There was a substance thrown on me, which I found out was acid. I clutched my face… and my eyes, because I could barely open them. After that, I ran to my car to get a bottle of water, but I think by then, the damage was pretty much done. When it happened, what was your first reaction, what was your first thought? My first thought was, “Why me?” because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Em… at the same time, searing amount of pain. I got third degree burns on the side of my face… all along my arm…. and, em, also along my neck. So, I have had skin grafts to try to minimize the damage but… as you can see from here, it’s not going to get any better. The mask is helping to reduce scarring, because before, the scars protruded out quite a bit, so they were more visible, but it’s trying to reduce that. And I need to wear this 24 hours a day. – Should I show you?
– Yeah… I’ll take this off and… and you should be able to see it. – So if I take it off, you can just see it along here.
– Gosh… yeah. Over here, here. All along here… – And then around my face.
– Mm-hm. Do your injuries still give you any pain? Nah, the injuries don’t give me pain… physically, anyway, because… I think once the burn had occurred, all my nerve endings had all burned off because of how deep it was. And then after that, it was more about… numbness and no feeling anymore in these places here. – Right. When it came to prosecuting these people and getting justice for yourself, how did that go? So, it took around two years to get my court case to trial, and one of the attackers got sentenced to eight years in jail, which… Yeah, it’s not enough. What they’re doing is trying to destroy someone’s life, so why shouldn’t they get that in return in that sense? Acid attacks are on the increase, so at the moment there’s no other way to deter a person, and um… if we do see that sentence and happen I think it will. And what about, you know, psychologically? How do you think it’s affected you? I’d like to say it hasn’t, but um… I think it has. It’s something which I need to adapt my life to, you know? Because I’m afraid of what people might think… or even what people are capable of. Closure is probably never gonna happen… because I am scarred for life, so… when I look in the mirror, or if I have a– ever have a happy time in my life and look back at memories, I’m always gonna be scarred now. Em… my identity’s changed because of what’s happened, and um… Yeah, I’m not the same person, so… And now I’m taking a different path in life. Meeting Samir was a really sobering experience, because I don’t think I’d realized the magnitude of how much an acid attack can affect you. Every time he looks into a mirror now, he’s going to be reminded of that trauma and… for him, there’s not getting away from that. London is the acid attack capital of the UK, but it’s the East London Borough of Newham with the highest number of cases. Of the 1,800 attacks reported in London since 2010, over 400 of those happened in Newham alone. Gangs are switching from knives to acid beacuse it’s readily available. It’s not illegal to carry drain cleaner around on the street, and it doesn’t leave a trail for police to pinpoint attackers through. So I’m gonna go to one of Newham’s many hardware stores… … to see just how easy it is to pick up a corrosive liquid. Just picked up several drain and blocker products from the hardware store. There’re about 15 hardware stores in Newham that sells these kind of household liquids. “Handle with extreme care. Can cause severe burns.” “Contains sulfuric acid. 91%.” When I went in to buy them, I wasn’t asked for any identification, I wasn’t asked for any proof of age, and all these products cost me less than 10 for each. A few days later, we heard about another attack happening not far from the hardware store where we bought sulfiric acid. A man in his mid 20s was rushed to the hospital after he was stabbed… … and had acid thrown over him in broad daylight. The attacker got away on the tube, and no one has been arrested in connection with the assault. But why is acid-based crime becoming so commonplace in the city? Dr. Simon Harding is a criminology professor, and works on interventions with young people caught up in gang violence. So when did gangs start using acid? Well, the strange answer to that is probably about 200 years ago. Uh, it originated probably in Scotland during in the Industrial Revolution. It was known to be something that could cause damage, so it’s been around. It’s just fallen out of public consciousness… So it is worrying that it’s kind of come back in the past four or five years– something’s that’s been adopted and also now adopted by street gangs. Why do you think it’s happening in East London so much specifically? The London Borough of Newham has the highest level of acid attacks… so, sadly in East London, there is something taking place; we’re not entirely sure what. Perhaps a form of kind of neighbourhood escalation. Once it has been used, the bar of what is acceptable then becomes lower so that other local individuals suddenly think, “OK. This is now a permissible action.” What we do know is there’s been a significant crackdown on the use of knives and guns by the police. So there’s some anecdotal evidence that young gang-involved people are perhaps switching from knives… … to throwing acid. Up until recently, it was something that was quite rare. Is there a psychological element to using acid on someone? Because it seems to me that… it’s a weapon [that has] serious psychological consequences as well as physical. I think there is, and I think that’s part of the attraction of this particular substance. It demonstrates an attempt to completely control somebody, to put them into a place of permanent… pity, if you like. So it’s a permanent victim status, and I think offenders understand that– may even want that… And it creates a persona or a character that is to be feared. I think we need to get to a place where there are no cash purchases; things are only purchased using a credit card. There’s maybe even a register that you have to sign. The current availability in purchasing is simply too– too easy. Do you think that alone would be alone would be enough to stop the acid attacks from happening? No, I don’t, but it’s a start. There’s more work to do, I think, in terms of the criminal justice system. If you attack someone with a knife, you’re talking about attempted murder. If you attack somebody with acid, you’re talking about grievous bodily harm. But acid can burn through to the bone and can be fatal, so we need, perhaps, to also work its sentencing. Fifty years ago in this kind of East London environment, scores would be settled by a fist fight. Five or ten years ago, a knife fight. Now, we seem to be moving into darker territory. I’m heading to Stratford to meet Jermaine Lawler, a former gang member turned youth violence consultant, who now mentors young men to help them turn their lives around. He’s taking me to meet someone he works with who was involved with an acid attack. I lived that lifestyle of constantly making wrong choices, wrong decisions… in and out police stations, courts… A lot of my friends not making it past 17, not making it past 20, or ending up in prison and doing long periods of time in jail… Ten years, some doing life. And when you were in gangs, did you ever see acid being used by people? I witnessed that happening. It was quite horrific. I’ve worked with young people that have done it, so it’s definitely happening more often. It’s so easy to get your hands on, it’s easy to conceal, and the consequences are devastating… but when you live within London and within the conditions that a lot of our communities live in, this is just another one of those things. So we’re gonna meet a young man I’ve been working with. Gang-affiliated, a lot of complex issues. I work with him to actually empower him to be able to go out and make better choices, to better his life, and then therefore, better his community. I’ve put in a really positive rapport, positive relationship, building up trust… so he’s not– he’s not where he should be, but that initial process is taking place. For obvious reasons, he wanted to remain anonymous. So how did you meet Jermaine? What kind of stuff have you guys been doing? So do you know about acid attacks? Have you done it yourself? So who was the person that you did it to? – Oh, wow. So how come the girl got attacked as well? ‘Cause she didn’t have anything to do with it, did she? Do you think they would report it to the police, even? How come? Do you think you’ll ever pick up acid and use it? Wouldn’t you? Why is that? So, is acid a last resort for you? Or is it the first thing you think of if you want to hurt someone? You’ll think, “I’m gonna get some acid.” So piercing through the bravado of all of that, what really scared– and shocked me, actually– was how casually he spoke about using acid. To him, it’s just become another part of the arsenal of weapons you use against someone. It just goes to show how much of a psychological weapon acid is becoming. He’s thinking about how… women– they care about their face and their beauty, so he’s gonna use that against them. But at the same time, he said completely contradictory things, so he’s saying that if you get a splash of acid, you deserve it. But then he goes on to talk about how he jumped on a guy and the girlfriend of the guy got a splash of acid… not because she had anything to do with it, but because she just happened to be there. And that, to me, just underlines the completely arbitrary and scary nature of acid attacks. You don’t have to be anyone to get a splash of acid. You could just happen to be there; it could be a totally random attack. But how hard is it to police? How do you stop people from carrying around a dangerous weapon… … that also happens to be a common household cleaning product? DCI Mike West is leading the Met Police Task force to stop acid-based violence in London. In the summer of last year, we started to see a bit more of a trend in these types of offenses happening, but in different crime scenarios. So, from use on the street, within street robbery, and then, obviously, direct assaults using acid as a weapon. But across London, 25% of all acid-based crimes are robberies, as an example. And around 60% are actually used in direct assaults. And are these attackers– are they usually linked to gang activity? We have seen some gang-related offended, um… and we’d really like to get behind some of the reasons for that, especially on the Borough line [indistinct], which has a majority youth population, you know? Young adults and teenagers. So we need to understand what they feel like they have to carry. ‘Cause someone could be carrying it ’cause of fear. How do you think acid is related to knife crime? Do you think it’s because, for instance, you could prosecute knife crime more effectively, whereas it’s quite difficult to prosecute someone for carrying a bottle of acid around? I think those things we have heard again. The um… they think the best chance of being arrested, and certainly less chance of being prosecuted. There’s pretty defined legislation around carrying knives, so we have certain laws to use, but I think it would be interesting in pushing the ownership of acid on the street at the time. In a receptacle [indistinct]… doesn’t necessarily make it a automatically a weapon. – Mm-hm.
– And that’s a difficult one to combat. It’s absolutely key we get into younger people, so they understand the impact of using such fending. I think we need to keep gathering intelligence and information, and then the final part is around changing policy… lookin’ at legislation and regulation of the access to some of the more concentrated forms of acid there are available to purchase. But back it up with some real solid education. From speaking to Detective Chief Inspector Mike West, I… kind of got the feeling that they still really didn’t understand the true extent or nature of acid attacks in the UK. I think that the police are right in thinking it’s about education, it’s about… teaching kids that violence isn’t the answer, and that you don’t have to pick up a bottle of acid to protect yourself on the streets, or to solve your problems. But whether or not that message gets into people is another story. Is there any way to stop an epidemic of acid attacks? A recent petition to restrict the sale of acid has gone viral, but the government have yet to create new laws targeting this crime. Until something is done, we’ll keep reading about people disfiguring each other in horrifying ways… as it becomes just one more disturbing facet of living in the UK.

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