Captain Richard Williams, as he calls himself, made his first "Spice-head" film six months ago, when he saw a man crawling across a zebra crossing at lunchtime near his home in Blackpool.
Williams turned on the video camera mounted on his mobility scooter and let it roll, commenting, “Perhaps he’s genuine and he’s really had a stroke, but I think he’s just another Spice-head who’s hit the deck.” The man then collapses on the side of the pavement. Williams zooms up on his scooter and films again as he tries to help the man up, telling viewers, “What a mess this world’s in.”
He called the footage "Crab Man of Blackpool" and stuck it on Facebook. It proved so popular that he carried on filming anyone who appeared to be high on the drug on Blackpool’s streets. He then set up Spice Heads, a website and a Facebook page dedicated to footage and photos of people who appear to be completely out of it on the synthetic cannabinoid that is so rife among homeless people.
The Facebook page generated over 10,000 devotees, with "loyal followers" sending in their own photos and videos of people in various states of collapse in town and cities including Barnsley, Manchester, Sheffield, Doncaster and Bolton. Spice Heads now has a Twitter following of 57,000. Some videos show people wobbling around the streets to Micheal Jackson's "Thriller" or songs by the Spice Girls. In others people are screamed at, kicked and have cold water thrown on them. Rather than help them, those filming chuckle from their cars as Spice users narrowly avoid being hit by buses.
Spice Heads is not alone. It has spawned similar Facebook pages, such as Junkies in Predicaments and Blackburn Spice Cadets. Spice Heads also publishes similar "junkie porn" footage, of "zombies" and "meth heads" from America, where these videos are also wildly popular with a section of the general public who also like to mock and abuse people who are so blatantly in need of emergency medical help.
Their malicious content is gaining popularity and being lapped up by the tabloids, who love to turn what in reality is the visible manifestation of austerity into a mash-up of a zombie shoot ‘em up and the return of the bubonic plague. Last week the Sun published footage from one of the sites showing a builder with a selfie stick telling a semi-conscious rough sleeper in Blackburn to, “Sort it out love, there’s kids about for fuck’s sake.”
But while Williams purports to be carrying out a public service in highlighting the admittedly shocking sight of people in such a sorry state in town and city centres across Britain, there is a dark side to what is going on here. Because the videos on these sites do not elicit sympathy, just a constant stream of hatred and bile. Here is a taste: “Just put a plastic bag over their heads and walk away!!!”, “Sneak up, sprinkle novichok on face”, “Yet another oxygen thief taking the piss out of the NHS”, “Just kick the fuck out of them”, “Syringe full of air, have done with the horrible rats”, “The dirty bastards should be left to die”, “Another fucking ambulance wasted”…
It goes on and on.
The Spice Head admins actively encourage the abuse. Anyone complaining about the videos is told to "fuck off" and directed to the Spice Heads mission statement:
We're not here to help or advice (sic) the homeless, the mentally ill drug users, beggars, alcoholics, prostitutes, or bullies, we’re here to help inform and educate the public to protect there (sic) family's (sic), who have to cross the road or wind their way through them to go about there (sic) daily life.
I’m sorry our videos are so shocking, but this situation needs nipping the bud before it contaminates the majority of the planet. It’s like a zombie invasion, and we need to protect our citizens, in particular our women and children from the affects (sic) of this this terrible affliction. * SNOWFLAKES, WINGERS AND BULLIES WILL BE BANNED *
Williams isn’t afraid to get stuck in himself. In response to someone questioning whether putting up the videos is going to help Spice users, he says: “They should go down a back ally (sic), or in a fucking dustbin where they belong. Just a load of dirty manky Spice Head scum. Don’t feel sorry for them, it's there (sic) lifestyle choice.”
It’s all very Dickensian to me. I’m not sure which is a worse reflection on modern Britain: the sight of so many vulnerable people crucifying their bodies in public with this chemical junk or their fellow citizens tormenting and laughing at them in order to make themselves feel better.
So I call up Williams to ask him about his Spice Heads page. He tells me these videos of Spice users being humiliated have been watched over half a million times. "Crab Man of Blackpool" alone has been seen 85,000 times. He gets sent five snippets of footage a day by followers. Amid a splurge of Spice coverage in the media, Williams tells me Spice Heads is even planning to print its own "Spice Head Apocalypse" logo t-shirts.
So why does he think Spice Heads is popular? “Maybe they get a kick out of it. The majority of followers are supportive and hate the Spice users with a vengeance. They are disrupting the public by sitting around in the streets with their head in the gutter, dancing around in front of women and children, puking up and aggressively begging to buy more Spice. People are having to walk past them with their children or on their way to work.”
Williams says people dislike Spice users because they do it in public. “Back in day," he tells me, "people took heroin in their own home out of sight. People say Spice heads are homeless, they’ve got nowhere to go, but they can go in a dustbin where they belong.” Williams also says they are not only an ugly sight, but a drain on dwindling public resources. “Look at the comments whenever I put up a picture of an ambulance showing how much it costs every time one comes out to help these people. It’s all ‘burn them, piss on them, petrol-bomb them’. That’s people’s opinion and we’re not creating that.”
He’s right, he’s not creating this. Sadly it’s a natural human reaction, schadenfreude at its most basic level: people boosting their sense of self-worth by humiliating those below them. But he is providing a vehicle for something that could be nurturing a Clockwork Orange approach to dealing with our vulnerable citizens. Namely, kicking the shit out of them until they go away and die in peace away from the children.
So far, there is no evidence that Spice Heads or similar pages have directly triggered seriously violent acts. But the rising spectre of violence against rough sleepers in the UK is very real, with an increasing number of stories about rough sleepers being beaten and killed. Last week, the homeless Michael Cash was found dead in a cemetery in Eston, Teesside, days after Facebook footage emerged of him being sprayed in the face with red paint by a member of the public called Aaron Jones, who wrote on the caption, “This is how we deal with beggars on the street… I’ve sprayed him to death!” On a previous occasion, Jones had labelled Cash a "spice head" in a Facebook post. (Police have said at the moment they are not linking the filming incident to the death of Mr Cash.)
Williams says threats from family members of people featured on Spice Heads have forced him into hiding, at a CCTV-covered secret address in Blackpool. The irony doesn’t end there. Captain Richard Williams (who changed his name by deed poll from Steven Howarth several years ago) rails against Spice users for wasting valuable public resources. Williams is a convicted fraudster who stole £1million from the public purse in unpaid tax, and admits to being addicted to heroin and speed himself in the past.
Released from jail last year, Williams says that he has hated Spice ever since he ended up in hospital after smoking a cigarette that had been spiked with the substance and left him “barking like a dog”. When I ask him what we should do about the Spice problem, Williams – who claims he has a track record in helping drug users and the homeless – has an idea. “Personally I think that all drugs should be given away for free and people should be given as much as they want because most of the addicts would be dead. It would save billions.”
Spice Heads was taken down by Facebook on Friday, although its sister site of the same name is still there, alongside the rest of them who will continue to act as feeder sites to the tabloids. But this does not take away from the fact there is a sizeable crowd of people out there itching to humiliate those they see as being lesser beings than themselves.
“The people using synthetic cannabinoids are almost exclusively from the most vulnerable groups of the most economically deprived sections of our society,” says Michael Linnell, an independent drug harm reduction expert who has researched the Spice problem in the north of England. “They are often using to cope with prison or rough sleeping and often self-medicating for multiple problems that led to them being in this situation in the first place.
“I don’t think a heroin user injecting in public would be any less acceptable, but this is rarely seen and the signs of heroin intoxication are far less noticeable. Synthetic cannabinoids users are highly visible when intoxicated, it is not what you want to see when you are out buying a toaster. However, ignorance, stigma and hostility are likely to make solving or reducing the issue of rough sleeping a lot harder.”
The government, local councils and police forces can’t arrest or ban their way out of this Spice epidemic. Spice is a symptom of a deeper problem that is plainly not being addressed. But perhaps the striking visibility of its users in the streets and in our faces is the only thing that will save them. If they stayed locked in their own homes, slowly rotting to death as heroin users have been doing for decades, then what hope would they have?
This article was updated on 15.45 on 18th September to include Spice Heads' Twitter following.