At 10pm on a Friday night, I was cycling through Hackney Downs on my way home. Three guys were sitting on a bench facing the path and one had his lower face covered. It made me feel nervous, but I kept going.
One of them stood in my path and shouted ‘Oi!’
I swerved round him onto the grass, feeling panicky and cycling as fast as I could, but after a few seconds I slipped off the pedals. I kept slipping as I tried to get back on the bike, and he caught up with me and pushed me over.
He grabbed my jacket and said, ‘Give me your phone.’
He was a teenager. Although the situation was scary, he wasn’t actually very intimidating. I didn’t give him my phone straight away, but then his friend showed me he had a knife. He was holding it quite loosely though, which made me think he had no intention of using it.
‘Phone! Phone PIN! Wallet!’
‘2306’, I told them straight away.
They also took my bike.
I felt really shaken, but I was okay.
I ran out of the park and stopped another cyclist, who was heading into the park.
‘I’ve just been mugged’, I told him.
‘Ah man, I’m so sorry’, he said.
He gave me his phone so I could call the police. They came and drove me around to see if we could spot them, which felt tokenistic as it was surely unlikely we would bump into them.
I felt angry with myself for taking the risk of going through the park at night, and angry at them for what they’d done to me.
For a few weeks afterwards, I looked twice at people I’ve passed on the street, feeling like anyone could be a threat. I’ve also experienced flashbacks.
As well as feeling angry, I also felt sad. What must have happened for them to want to spend their Friday nights mugging people at knife point? And where do they go from here? If they get caught and spend a few months at a young offenders institute, it’s hard to imagine them coming out and training as an accountant. What’s going to help them off the negative path that they’re on?
Crime and poverty
According to the Ministry of Justice, the reoffending rate for sentences of less than 12 months is 64%.
It made me think how easy it is for someone to rob you and how hard it is to prevent. The only way it can be stopped is by people not wanting to do it.
Last year, City Hall published a report indicating a strong link between serious youth violence poverty.
The figures show that three-quarters of the London Boroughs with the highest rate of violent offending are also in the top ten most deprived.
In Hackney, 36% of people live in poverty, which is significantly higher than the London average of 27%. It’s also the borough with the seventh highest number of crimes in the capital.
In 20 years, house prices in Hackney have risen 568%. That means that a house that cost £100,000 in 2000 is now worth £568,000. People like me are moving in, prices and inequality are sky-rocketing.
I find it’s much easier to forgive when I can imagine why something might have happened. Obviously I don’t know what led my specific attackers to do what they did, but it’s helped to think about the context it happened in. Of course there is going to be crime where poverty and inequality is high.
It doesn’t help me to feel more safe though! If anything it makes me realise how likely it is to happen again.
A technique I found helpful in letting go of what happened is called ‘Rewind’. You imagine watching the traumatic situation you want to forget on a tv screen. You then rewind and fast-forward it several times before ejecting it and imagining destroying the tape. You then imagine a new scene on the screen. In my case it was cycling home safely.
Since I did it, I’ve stopped having the flashbacks.
The incident has left me feeling more motivated to teach mindfulness in schools and prisons, and to reach out to people whose lives have turned down a harmful track., I see that as an opportunity for me to at least help a few people who are stuck in negative cycles.
It’s very easy to hold resentment towards people we believe have wronged us, and I often have done. But as it says in the Buddhist Dhammapada:
‘“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbour such thoughts do not still their hatred.’
My meditation practice, and The Work by Byron Katie, have helped me to be a lot better at letting go and forgiving. I also have a strong belief that people aren’t just born ‘bad’. Our conditions and context heavily influence our choices.
And how do I know that if I’d lived the same life as them, I wouldn’t also be doing what they’re doing?
Last week I listened to an incredibly moving podcast called ‘The Punch’. Aged 18, Jacob Dunne was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man with a single punch. It’s the story of how he turns his life around, with the support of the victim’s parents.
For us to live in a safer, more peaceful world, I believe we need a radically different approach to criminal justice and to how we view people who cause us or other people harm.