Image: Two youths seen wearing hooded tops.
Geoff Caddick  /  EPA via Sipa Press
Youths wear "hoodies" in Brent Cross Shopping Center, in North London, on Friday, the same day the Bluewater shopping center in Kent, southeast England, banned them as they are regarded as intimidating. 
By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/19/2005 1:10:21 PM ET 2005-05-19T17:10:21

Although accustomed for decades to violence from "yobs" and football hooligans, Britain is stepping up its fight against what's been dubbed an epidemic of antisocial behavior.

The perpetrators of the thuggery have been identified as "hoodies," young people who wear hoods and caps to avoid detection and give off a threatening image.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has made banishment of this street crime a priority for his third term of office, while one of his closest aides has disclosed a scary encounter with the teenage gangs that roam Britain's urban areas.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who once launched a fierce left hook to retaliate for a thrown egg during an election campaign, described his alarm at being accosted by a large group of hooded youths.

“I went to a motorway café about a year ago and some kid said something to me,” he said. “I said ‘what did you say?’ and he came back with 10 people with hoods, you know, these fellas with hoods on.

“He came at me in a very intimidating manner,” the 66-year-old said.

Prescott, who was rescued from any possible attack by his security detail, is one of the big supporters of Blair's decision to focus on street crime.

'Uniform' for thugs and degenerates
Although gun crime here pales when compared with the United States, binge-drinking, street brawls, vandalism, muggings, and general menace are seen to be terrorizing the public.

The United Kingdom is the most-monitored nation in the world, with more than 4 million closed-circuit television cameras operating around the country. But culprits frequently evade Big Brother’s watchful eye by concealing their identities with the ubiquitous head wear.

"I think the fact you go around with these hats and these covers... I mean, it is a uniform, in a sense," Prescott said last week.

As a result, a large shopping center in southeast England offered a new tack by implementing a "code of conduct" that includes a ban on the wearing of "hoodies."

The 330-store Bluewater center in Kent drew up the code of conduct to outline its “zero tolerance approach to antisocial behavior” following consultations with guests and staff.

In addition to banning head coverings (other than those used for religious purposes) and swearing, “groups of more than five without the intention to shop will be asked to leave the center,” the mall’s leaflet says.

Blair last week praised the initiative. “This type of disrespect and yobbish behavior will not be tolerated any more,” he said.

‘Taking these kids on’
“I think it’s marvelous,” Bluewater shopper Jill Hopper said of the initiative this week.

“It’s such a pleasant atmosphere here; you don’t want a whole group of hoodies coming around — it’s great they’re taking these kids on,” the 46-year-old said.

“They do intimidate some people and that’s their aim,” said 27-year-old shopper Adam Cropper.

His girlfriend Laura Thomas, 23, added, “They’re all quite young and trying to act older … they wear (hoods) to make people think they’re stealing even if they don’t have the balls to do it, it’s all part of their act."

Cropper, a doorman, and Thomas, a bar manager, both added that they would like to see a complete ban on caps and hoods in city centers.

Tackling antisocial behavior
Bluewater’s code of conduct follows in the footsteps of other government and private initiatives to quash hooliganism that include:

  • Handing out antisocial behavior orders (ASBOS), some of which bar offending youths from entering city centers or visiting former partners in crime.
  • Passing out yellow and red cards in a warning system similar to that used on the soccer field.
  • Giving away chocolate to prevent alcohol-fueled violence.
  • Banning the designer label Burberry (an apparent favorite with teen gangs) from some bars and clubs.

Blair’s new minister for antisocial behavior, Hazel Blears, also suggested this week that teenage offenders wear uniforms while carrying out community punishments to shame them publicly and show the community that something is being done to reprimand them.

"I want them to be identified," Blears told the Observer.

While some of these measures may sound odd, the government and private venues are in a sticky situation.

Many “antisocials” are under 18 and know they can’t be prosecuted as harshly as adults. And, while the combination of loud music, graffiti, brawling, drunkenness, and petty theft have serious affects on communities, few single crimes carry heavy punishments.

Rights group urges mall boycott
Despite the Labour Party’s enthusiastic support for Bluewater’s ban on hoods, the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, along with child-welfare experts have spoken out against the mall’s clothing rule, and Blear’s uniform plan was deemed “a nasty gimmick,” by the rights group Liberty.

One group went as far as to urge youths to boycott Bluewater.

"The Children's Society urges children and young people to use their yearly spending power of 70 million pounds to reverse the ban on so called 'yob' clothing at Bluewater Shopping Center,” the Christian social justice organization said in a press release.

“This ban is a case of blatant discrimination based on stereotypes and prejudices that only fuels fear,” it said.

Some shoppers at the landscaped complex that offers outdoor boating, fishing, and a putting green agreed with the organization.

“It’s stupid; what you wear doesn’t say who you are,” said 28-year-old Dan Beckenham. “A well-dressed business man could be a mugger too,” the sales manager said.

‘Gonna buy a hoodie just to see what happens’
In other cases, the ban appeared to fuel teens’ desire to rebel.

“I don’t wear hats cause my head’s too big, but now I’m gonna buy a hoodie just to see what happens,” said 18-year-old Richard Morris, a student and part-time mall employee.

Another 18-year-old, Lee Chapple, who was wearing a cap at the time, said, “I’m not gonna stop wearing what I normally wear — afterall, I got a reputation to look after.”

Despite widespread media coverage and pamphlets posted around the center, 22-year-old student Sam Lam said he had not heard about the new “code of conduct” and was sporting a gray, woven beanie at the mall this week.

Upon learning of the ban he said: “I can see where they’re coming from. It’s to defeat crime from young yobs cause people advertise themselves in certain ways, but from my perspective it’s not justified cause I wear this hat as a fashion icon.”

Bluewater sees itself as a pioneer. “We’re leading this issue,” said Becky Rowlings of Brave PR, which represents Bluewater.

“But many centers have asked to see the 'code of conduct' so it may be more widespread in the future.”

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