London, UNITED KINGDOM
VIJAY SHAH and SUNNY ATWAL
In between the colourful pages of comics or the viewing recommendations on Netflix, there are many fictional towns plagued by baddies, criminals and no-gooders of all sorts, terrorising the inhabitants and making everyone’s life a sodding misery. Crime is rampant, evil prevails and no-one is foolish enough to walk the streets at night.
But, where there is bad, there must be good to put it in its place. A vigilante to right wrongs, put baddies behind bars and fight evil while living for another day. Gotham City has Batman, Smallville has Superman, and New York has Spiderman. Although these are fictional examples, does having a vigilante who takes it upon his or her self to protect decent and upstanding citizens make the difference to a huge, bustling and crowded city like our London?
London is a cool place to live. It is brimming with culture, history, trends, fun, entertainment, and the everyday trappings of life. With a population of eight million, it is a hard city to police. The Met, the British Transport Police and the City of London Police do a fantastic job keeping our streets safe and managing Londoners’ welfare, but even before the current wave of Tory cutbacks and tougher rules for recruitment of new police officers, it is an obvious fact that the days of the ‘bobby on the beat’ are long dead, and logistically it would be impossible to have a cop patrolling each and every street, road, avenue, drive, cul-de-sac and alleyway. London has more than 60,000 streets. It’s a tall order and an impossible one at that.
As much as London is a fun and vibrant place to live, let’s not kid ourselves. Like in any big city or town even, crime is a fact. People do get robbed, murdered, assaulted and conned. According to the latest crime figures published by the Met Police and other sources, crimes number in their tens of thousands. Since 1990, an average of 171 homicides takes place across the 32 London boroughs every year. In 2008–09 alone, there were 70,962 assault with injury offences. London is also home to many gangs involved with everything from guns and drugs to prostitution and illegal immigration. Gang members have no qualms about wandering the streets tooled and ready to main and kill. In 2009 alone, 3,295 gun-related offences were reported to crime-fighting authorities. At about the same time, 12,611 offences were reported where a knife was involved. Even teenagers are not safe, with around 13-15 fatally stabbed or shot every year in our city. Add to that, 35,857 robberies, and thousands of other crimes such as assaults, muggings, vandalism, shoplifting. Figures reported by London newspaper The Evening Standard in January this year suggest the violent crime has increased by 22 per cent, with Haringey borough alone seeing a 38 per cent jump.
Now don’t get me wrong, London isn’t some crim-infested hellhole where you are fleeced (or as we say, rinsed) of your worldly possessions the moment you step out of your front door. I am a born and bred Londoner who has lived here all of his thirty-one years of life. I have been mugged only twice, saw one opportunistic attempt at a burglary (someone had opened the back door of my houseshare while us housemates were out) and once had someone point a knife at me years ago in school. I live in one of the roughest and poorest parts of London.
Back to our main question, does London need a vigilante?. There are a lot of criminals in this city and having a vigilante around to mop up crime would be a huge help to the police with their stretched and shrinking resources. The British media have been awash lately with stories of ordinary people who have taken on superhero-like personas and even got themselves kitted out in costumes to boot. In March 2015, the Mirror reported on the appearance of 200 ‘superheroes’ in cities across America, all ordinary people with day jobs and family responsibilities who don masks and capes (and maybe underpants over Spandex bottoms) and protect their communities. In Seattle, Phoenix Jones dresses in a superhero outfit of his own design and tackles car theft, street fights and change the car wheels of distressed motorists five days a week. The American capital, Washington, DC, has its ‘Guardian’ who wears a full-body stars-and-stripes outfit and wanders the troubled areas behind the Capitol building. Then there’s RazorHawk, from Minneapolis, who was a professional wrestler for fifteen years before joining the Real Life Super Hero movement. Some even come equipped with a sense of witty humour that would make the Fantastic Four beam with pride. New York, home of the fictional Spiderman and Superman/Clark Kent, does actually have a real-life superhero fighting against its troublesome trade in narcotics. The Big Apple’s ‘Dark Guardian‘ approaches drug dealers making sales in cannabis in the city’s Washington Square Park at night, shines a light in their faces, and sends the pot merchants scurrying with the firm words “This is a drug-free park!”. American real-life superheroes and city vigilantes also carry out community services such as helping the homeless and elderly people and giving advice to schoolkids.
London, too, has its guardian of the streets and protector of the innocent. Step forward The Shadow. Wearing a bandana and keeping his identity well-hidden as a superhero should, he has been credited with saving a woman from a pervert who attempted to assault her in Greenwich. The crook had tried to grope her, The Shadow appeared from the shadows, and put the octopus fingered creep in a hold lock, while telling the woman to flee to safety. “If anyone thinks they can get away with this sort of thing then they are mistaken,” the Shadow told the Evening Standard. “I live in hope that one day people who cause fear through crime to others will fear me enough to think twice about their actions,” he added. The unknown hero was previously called the Bromley Batman, after an area of south Greater London near to Kent and he has been fighting crime for three years. Some people however had dismissed the existence of The Shadow as a mere urban legend.
It’s not just London, mind you. The UK’s other big metropolises also have their iconic crime-fighting legends. Head to Salford, near Manchester and you may have a chance encounter with Knight Warrior, a youngish lad in blue and black with some tough biking gloves. His real name is Roger Hayhurst, a 19-year-old gardener by day, who possesses the superpower of a “supernatural desire to make the world a better place.”. He mainly tackles the drunk hooligans that regularly pour out of Salford’s pubs, kicking off ‘cos someone looked at their ‘bird’. He also distributes food to the city’s street dwellers. Yeovil, a charming seaside resort in Somerset, southern England, can lay claim to having its very own ninja, 33-year-old Ken Andre, whose alter-ego is Shadow. Wearing the mysterious black suit of a true master of the dark ninja arts, Andre’s approach to vigilante justice includes stopping drug dealers and muggers. He is well-versed in the sacred martial art of ninjutsu to which he was inducted as a child and once caught a carjacker in his tracks by hurling nunchuks at him. In his own words, “I tied him to the lamppost using his own legs and called the police.”
Does London need a superhero dispensing vigilante justice? In many ways yes. Vigilantes can help the police with tackling crime, assisting them and reaching out to the community, a badly needed thing in a city notorious for its individualistic mentality, where people mind their own business and not everyone is helpful or considerate. Vigilantes can be the best option in places where the police are simply not there, due to their falling numbers and strained resources, such as on housing estates or tourist areas late at night, when most police patrols end. They are more personable and relatable, particularly as many people feel uncomfortable or downright dismissive of the police, and let’s face it, superheroes are pretty cool, right? Vigilantes can be tolerated by the police and community, even encouraged, provided they stick by the rules of the law and don’t take things too far, for example by shooting dead a rapist. Having a vigilante around your area can also do wonders for people’s perception of crime and their safety too. Knowing that there is someone around making crims feel tetchy and always looking over their shoulder means you don’t have to worry about constantly looking over yours. Having a vigilante around means we can feel safe, knowing there is a good guy out there, selflessly giving up their time to make our homes safer and more secure. Being such a massive sprawl of a city, London has more than enough room for different kinds of vigilantes, and with common goals, they could easily form a Justice League of their own.
There are some cons to having vigilantes that should be mentioned. London is a massive city, with hundreds of communities and peculiarities. Unless he or she had real superpowers, it would be nigh on impossible to tackle every crime and stop every crook. Even the police can’t be everywhere at once. Vigilantes can put their lives at risk should criminals be armed. Use your imagination as much as you like, but it is highly unlikely that your rented Superman costume can actually stop a bullet or a jab from a flick-knife. Vigilantes, with or without the superhero costume, are only human. There is always the risk of a vigilante getting too ‘drunk’ on their power, and taking things into their own hands. There are also moral implications of vigilante justice, not to mention legal ones.
Everyone loves superheroes and superheroines, whether real or imagined. They are larger-than-life personifications of the best bits of humanity, putting their own lives at risk to help others. But while we can salute one-man crime fighters and their special brand of vigilante justice, we shouldn’t forget the many unsung heroes who make London a better and safer place – neighbours looking out for each other, people who give to charities, ambulance staff, police officers, doctors, nurses, social workers, foster parents, and many others who may not wear capes or tie up criminals with webs, but are just as valuable for our London.