`Happy slapping' hits Britain

British youths smacked with civil orders in random attacks on strangers

June 19, 2005|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON - Watch out for "happy slapping," the latest youth craze to sweep Britain. It's not a new dance step or even a new designer drug. It's a criminal assault.

Groups of teenagers approach an unsuspecting person and begin punching and kicking him or her while capturing it all on their mobile phone cameras. The images are later uploaded and shared on the Internet.

The victims can be young or old, male or female. Bus stops, subway stations and parks are considered prime venues.

In most cases, the injuries are minor. But last month a 16-year-old girl from Manchester was knocked out and spent two days in the hospital with head injuries.

The craze apparently started in London late last year, but has spread across the country. British Transport Police say they have investigated about 200 incidents in London alone since the beginning of the year, but they acknowledge that most assaults go unreported.

Happy slapping is the latest manifestation of what Britons call "yob culture." The word "yob" dates to the 19th century - it may derive from "boy" spelled backward - and it denotes a kind of loutish, antisocial behavior associated with working-class youth in Britain's urban centers. The British soccer hooligan is the quintessential yob.

Violent antisocial behavior is hardly news in Britain - it was common in Charles Dickens' time and was made iconic by the 1971 film and earlier Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange - but a particularly vicious incident last month once again focused national attention on the problem.

Phil Carroll, 49, a father of four from Salford, a middle-class suburb of Manchester, confronted three youths from a nearby housing project after they threw a stone at his car. Suddenly, he was set upon by a larger group. The attackers left him bleeding and unconscious in the street. He remained in a coma for two weeks before waking.

However, it wasn't the attack that drew headlines. It was Manchester police Chief Supt. David Baines' graphic characterization of the attackers:

"They are gangs of feral youths who are under no control from adults, parents or anyone else," he said. "They are not concerned about respect or their responsibilities. The criminal justice system holds no fear for them. This is a national problem. Today it is Salford. Tomorrow, it will be somewhere else."

A week later, Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to create "a culture of respect" in Britain. He used the annual Queen's Speech, in which the government sets out its legislative agenda for the year, to declare war on yob culture.

"It's time to reclaim the streets for the decent majority," Blair told Parliament. "People are rightly fed up with street corner and shopping center thugs ... [and] binge drinking that makes our town centers no-go areas for respectable citizens."

One new tactic that will be tried this summer is establishment of "dispersal zones," designated areas in cities where police have powers to impose curfews, ban groups of two or more youths from congregating and send youths under the age of 16 home to their parents. Those who defy the police risk large fines.

The government also floated the idea of forcing young offenders serving community service sentences to wear bright orange jumpsuits as a means of shaming them.

Juvenile crime experts were doubtful, and the idea appears to have been scuttled.

"In my experience there is no benefit gained from humiliating offenders in public," said Rod Morgan, the government's chief adviser on juvenile crime.

The government's main weapon against yobbery is the ASBO. An acronym for "antisocial behavior order," it is a civil order obtained from a court that prohibits a person from engaging in certain narrowly defined activities that are not necessarily criminal but are clearly antisocial.

A neighbor who habitually throws loud drunken parties might be slapped with an ASBO that sharply curtails the number of guests allowed on the premises after 9 p.m. People who violate an ASBO can be jailed.

At first, the process of obtaining an ASBO was overly bureaucratic, slow and costly. Only 600 were issued in the first three years of the program, which began in 1998.

But the process has been streamlined, and last year 2,600 ASBOs were issued.

Some community activists say the targeted use of ASBOs has been an effective crime-stopper, but others point to abuses.

In one well-publicized case earlier this year, a woman from Bath who had tried repeatedly to commit suicide was issued an ASBO that prohibits her from going near rivers, bridges, train lines and tall buildings. A woman in Scotland was given an ASBO to stop her from answering the front door in her bra and panties.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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