Acid Attacks in the UK, Sadly, Are Not Going Anywhere
New statistics obtained by VICE reveal that the number of attacks has fallen, but they're still happening with alarming regularity.
Left: Jameel Mukhtar, screenshot: Channel 4 News; Right: True Images / Alamy Stock Photo
In June of last year, Joanne Rand went to visit her daughter's grave. It wasn't a particularly hot day in the High Wycombe graveyard, but the 47-year-old nurse chose to sit on a nearby bench to rest – perhaps drained by the reminder that her daughter, Charlotte, was at the time almost six years dead.
Nearby, 19-year-old Xeneral Webster was arguing with another man over the purchase of some weed. Xeneral had travelled up from London to meet an associate, and was claiming that he'd just been sold Spice, a stronger, cheaper synthetic drug that looked more like tobacco.
In retaliation, Xeneral tried stealing the man's bike, which the man resisted, causing Xeneral to pull out a bottle of drain cleaner (or "acid") to threaten him. The bottle fell to the ground and got kicked towards Joanne, the liquid hitting her face, arms, upper body and lower legs. She began screaming, before running to a local KFC branch and dousing the burns in water, while Xeneral put on a balaclava, hid the bottle and took a train back to London.
Eleven days later, on the 14th of June, Joanne died of sepsis relating to her burns. She had briefly been released from hospital before having to be readmitted, eventually suffering organ failure.
According to police, around two acid attacks a day occurred in the UK last year, including 472 in London alone. Subsequently, the country's relationship with these vile attacks became notorious the world over.
In the UK, the uproar was understandably deafening, coming not just from media outlets like VICE, but from activists and politicians who, after several high-profile attacks last summer – along with a 500 percent increase between 2012 and 2016 – agreed that something needed to be done. A year later, that uproar has largely died down.
Statistics obtained by VICE reveal that, in the first five months of 2018, the number of acid attacks recorded by the London Metropolitan Police has fallen by 43 percent compared to the same period in 2017, and 38 percent compared to that period in 2016. But they haven't stopped entirely; there were 105 in London alone between January and May of this year.
So what has changed, what have lawmakers and police done to counter the problem and what steps can still be taken?
In 2017, most acid attacks around the world were aimed at women by men, typically to do with rejected marriage proposals or sexual advances. In the UK, though, the violence was predominately male-on-male (with some notable exceptions) and – according to former members and police – related to gang activity.
Primarily, acid attacks are used to settle disputes, enact revenge and rob people, increasing in number at a time when all violent crime is skyrocketing. Across England and Wales, 2017 saw a 22 percent rise in knife crime – the highest increase since records began – while gun crime rose 11 percent. The role of acid, then, seemed to be clear: to provide a cheap, easily concealed way of escalating violence in an already violent society.
Acid's rise to prominence has also coincided with gangs' utilisation of mopeds, using them in combination with acid to rob people, or throwing acid at riders before stealing their mopeds. Last summer brought a now-infamous case of the latter type: on the 13th of July, 16-year-old Derryck John and an unknown accomplice attacked six riders in 90 minutes in north and east London, making off with two mopeds and leaving one man 30 percent blind in one eye.
One little-known fact is that, prior to their outrage last summer, the Conservative government (then under the leadership of David Cameron) actually relaxed laws in 2015 around the sale of acid, making it no longer necessary for retailers of dangerous substances to register with their local councils. This came against the warnings of their own advisory board and medical experts, and resulted in the sale of untold amounts of untraceable acid – in a move that can only be attributed to the Tories' usual evangelical zeal to deregulate everything.
In June of 2017, Resham Khan had come from Manchester to Newham, east London to celebrate her 21st birthday. On the 21st, she was sitting in a parked car with her male cousin, Jameel Mukhtar, when a man with facial tattoos approached them and – after a short argument with Mukhtar – squirted acid into the car.
As Mukhtar drove away – the man following, dousing the cousins with more acid – Resham began screaming, feeling burns to her face, shoulder, legs and eyes. Mukhtar, meanwhile, suffered burns to his upper body, arms, legs, back, neck and face, as well as hearing loss and damage to his right eye.
The man with the facial tattoos was John Tomlin, a 26-year-old multiple-offender who had previously posted a meme on Facebook from the group "English and Proud" which read: "A sleeping lion can only be provoked so much before it wakes up and attacks… and so will us British," with an illustration of a Christian solider during the Crusades.
Afterwards, Mukhtar wondered if he and his cousin had been victims of a hate crime. Interviewed by Channel 4 News he said, "I believe it's something to do with Islamophobia. Maybe he's got it in for Muslims because of the things that have been going on lately… I've never seen this guy in my life."
Despite police initially investigating the attack as racially-motivated, the judge who tried the case ultimately called it "somewhat random", while Tomlin claimed that he'd been hearing voices in his head. On the 20th of April, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Last summer's spate of attacks in London – including the one on Resham and her cousin – forced the city's Metropolitan Police to adopt new tactics to deal with them. Some were less than successful: a pilot scheme was scrapped at the beginning of 2018 after the litmus paper police were using to test for acid during stop and searches began showing positive for orange juice and fizzy drinks.
Much of their best work has, in fact, been done around dealing with attacks once they happen – for instance, all of the Met's emergency vehicles are now equipped with "acid response kits", which include gauntlet gloves and protective eyewear for officers, as well as five-litre bottles of water. These bottles are fitted with Bottleshower tops, an invention originally used in refugee camps and war zones to make water last longer, allowing officers to pour them on burns in a more centralised, effective manner.
London Fire Brigade are now also deployed to attacks as standard due to their increased ability to carry water and perform first aid, while police have begun holding events for pubs, businesses and nightclubs to simulate acid attacks and prepare them should one occur on their premises.
Changes to legislation have occurred, too. This started as a voluntary action in January, when retailers like Tesco, Wickes and B&Q pledged not to sell corrosive substances to people under 18, before the Poisons Act was amended in April to reflect the fact that, from the 1st of July, anyone in Britain buying substances with more than 15 percent sulphuric acid – i.e. many cleaning products – requires an EPP (explosives precursors and poisons) licence. These are relatively easy to get, costing just £40, but at least provide a paper trail that disincentivises acid use.
Finally, it was announced that, from the 1st of June, anyone caught in possession of acid twice would serve a minimum six-month prison sentence, with under-18s given a four-month detention and training order – mirroring previous sentences for knives.
The results of some of these measures won't be known for a while yet, but there is cause for cautious optimism. According to stats obtained by VICE from the London Metropolitan Police, there were 104 acid attacks in the capital in the first five months of 2018, compared to 182 during that period in 2017, and 169 during that time in 2016, representing a 43 and 38 percent drop.
Furthermore, where attacks are happening has changed somewhat: Enfield is now the leading borough, with 14 in the first five months of 2018, followed by Kingston upon Thames with 13, and Newham (last year's leader), with nine.
The average age of a victim is 29.1, the average age of a suspect 22.9. White Europeans suffered the most attacks, at 43, while men and women suffered 86 and 26 attacks respectively. African-Caribbeans were suspects in 61 attacks, white Europeans in 41. The overwhelming majority of suspects were male.
If the average suspect is 22.9 in 2018, that makes them 14 in 2010 – when austerity slashed council funding (a major provider of youth resources) across the UK and eliminated a programme to build hundreds of schools. Since 2011, at least 457 youth-worker jobs have been lost, and youth services have been cut by a third since 2012. Expert after expert has linked this increasing lack of youth services with the emergence of more gang activity and, in tandem, violent crime.
When trying his case, the judge said he saw "more than a mere hint of gang association or culture" in Xeneral Webster, the 19-year-old who threatened a drug dealer with acid before causing Joanne Rand's death. On the 31st of July, Xeneral was sentenced to 17 years in prison for manslaughter. After apologising to Joanne's family – his own face scarred by an acid attack he had suffered – he shouted at the judge, "All of you will probably be dead by the time I am out of here. Fuck you, bro!"