At around 10pm on an average Monday night in Walthamstow, East London, local residents heard two loud bangs coming from a nearby school. “I thought it was fireworks” said 43 year old father of two, Min Win, who has lived in the area for nearly 15 years. “We didn’t even realise why these police cars turned up”.
A young boy of 17, standing close by, said that he saw two hooded figures run straight past him, “They must have run up to them, stabbed one in the arm and faced the other one and just shot him. I wasn’t startled because I’ve seen all of this before”.
Mohammed Asghar was stabbed twice in the arm and taken to a nearby hospital, but Amaan Shakoor was shot in the face and killed. Amaan had recently been held up at gunpoint and threatened for selling cocaine on rival turf, his friends claimed, but they also told reporters that this incident, as well as his murder, was a case of mistaken identity. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whether Amaan’s death was directly drug-related or not remains unclear, but in recent weeks politicians and the police have linked the capital’s rising violence to the cocaine industry, calling out “middle-class” users in particular for helping to fuel it.
Cressida Dick, The Metropolitan police commissioner, called these types of coke users “hypocrites“ who will “happily think about global warming and fair trade, and environmental protection” but who also “think there is no harm in taking a bit of cocaine”.
“Well,” she said, “there is; there’s misery throughout the supply chain.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan echoed these sentiments saying that, “we have got to make sure we take action among those young people who are involved in criminal gangs as well as those who are buying them at middle-class parties”. But who exactly are these users that Khan and Dick refer to? How much is their consumption of cocaine fuelling inner-city crime and are they at all aware of it?
Sam, who did not want to disclose his surname, is a lawyer and a self-proclaimed “middle-class cocaine user”. Speaking to The Versed, he described his experiences with the class A drug.
“I was always the one that got it [the cocaine] because all my friends were public schoolboys who were terrified of rudeboys in East London. It’s just true you know what I mean? they live in Dalston but they shit themselves and don’t know any black people. That’s reality. I didn’t mind because I’m a London geezer kind of. People genuinely don’t give a fuck where it comes from as long as it’s on the plate in the kitchen at the house party where they’re showing off about being an out of work actor.”
Now that he’s no longer in his twenties, Sam says he takes coke a lot less. “I had to stop. Like most of my friends, I’ve been a city boy for about 13 years and it’s absolutely everywhere. And I mean everywhere. In my firm, it goes from board level to everyone else.”
“I was a broker for three years and did it at my desk. We all did it at work. On the phone. To clients. The whole trading floor would do it. We’d throw it at people, people would get us bonuses. I did it every day for years.”
Sam described a working and social environment where a flagrant disregard for the consequences of cocaine use was commonplace. “People just think ‘fuck it, I’ve got enough to worry about’. And personally, I never ever, ever thought about the supply chain. I didn’t give a fuck. I’d just get my gear from whoever, and then all I cared about was how good it was. That’s all I cared about. I don’t think ‘well a Bolivian might have got shot for this’ I couldn’t give a shit man, my time was just getting pissed and taking it with all my friends, which is awful in a way”.
David Lammy, (the Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000) spoke in Parliament back in April about one of his constituents, Reece Oduleye-Waters, a 17-year-old who had been stabbed a few days earlier with life-changing consequences. This type of crime, he said, “is being driven by gangsters, organised criminals and dirty money.”
Lammy is a believer in the “direct link between middle-class people buying cocaine and young, poor foot soldiers dying in turf wars in places like Tottenham”. But Harry, another confessional middle-class user who works in events, told The Versed that placing blame on one group in particular is oversimplifying the issue.
“There are so many different aspects, it’s difficult to blame one party. It comes through so many different hands, you can’t just blame the person at the end of the conveyor belt. It’s almost more the fault of the people whose noses it passes under if you’ll pardon the pun, before it gets to the end of the line”.
Harry also admitted that he’s perfectly aware of the tropes middle-class users tend to share; environmental conscientiousness with regards to eating less meat, driving less, and recycling, yet willful ignorance regarding the ramifications of cocaine use, beyond a sore nose and a numb face.
“Personally, I do claim to be environmentally aware and do preach every now and again”. At the bar Harry runs, they have campaigned against single-use plastics, introduced paper straws, and had a massive overhaul of their produce to make sure they’re in line with the rest of London. “But again,” Harry admits “I still do cocaine all the time. I think people are very good at ignoring their morals in order to have a good time. Especially in London”.
The situation is much more complex, though, than a simple case of middle-class hedonism fuelling the entire of the UK’s cocaine industry. And it’s much more nuanced than Khan, Dick, and Lammy’s comments would have you believe.
Cocaine is generally consumed either as powder, which is snorted, or as crack, which is smoked. Both types are used by wildly different clientele in the UK. As journalist and drug specialist Max Daly illustrates, “If everyone stopped snorting cocaine in London, the street crack and heroin trade would likely carry on regardless, because it generates enough cash to warrant the importation of huge amounts of cocaine independently of the snorting trade”.
The price of cocaine has steadily decreased, says Daly, to a point where the industry is no longer entirely driven by “middle-class dinner party types railing a couple of lines after their lemon possets” but rather by “Britain’s most desperately addicted underclass” who are more likely to buy crack than powder. The distinction between these two worlds is important.
When it comes to inner-city violence, Daly thinks there’s no more than a tenuous link between the snorting trade and the recent spate of London killings. The real reasons are, for him, “inequality, austerity and prejudice” which lead to the creation of “claustrophobic communities” where users and sellers operate and “where life is so tough and blinkered that small disputes swiftly escalate into deadly bloodshed”.
So what can the government do about this situation? “There’s two things they could do to combat the cocaine problem” Harry argues. “They need to either legalise the substance in order to take control of the situation, or to crack down on it much harder”.
But where does the responsibility lie? Is the onus really on the middle-classes to boycott the industry? If they did, would it have much effect on inner-city violence? For the most part, it seems, the direct line drawn between these middle-class coke users and violent crime isn’t particularly clean cut.