How learning to navigate London on crutches revealed a new side to the city

The world’s tallest man, Sultan Kosen, on a trip to London in 2009. Image: Getty.

When I was in primary school, crutches were not mobility aids but an interesting new toy to be borrowed at lunch time while their sedentary owner rested on a bench alone. I used to think swinging through the air on your arms looked “fun”. To children, in the context of a concrete playground, perhaps it is.  

A severe sprain recently left me completely without the use of my right leg. As a generally sprightly 20-something, usually able to go wherever I wanted easily and quickly, learning to navigate London on one leg was both exhausting and fascinating.

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Let me set the scene. It is midnight on Sunday. Two or three people are consistently tumbling into the Royal Free Hospital reception. One lies sideways across the slimy vinyl chairs as an elderly lady is ushered quickly through the system by tired nurses who somehow maintain a bedside manner.

I am not an urgent case and so I wait as the hours drag by and people run in and out of the bathroom to vomit, watching the numbers tail off until people are slowly dripping in and out of reception.

Some of these Londoners have clearly never been to an NHS hospital before. Instead of arriving armed with a large bottle of water, two books, a sheet of painkillers, and a phone charger – not to mention large measures of patience – people sporadically and loudly abuse the junior night-shift staff for their hours-long waits at the remnants of our publicly-funded health institutions.

Headache-rousing arguments at 3:00am, tired triage nurses, receptionists whose bored responses to being threatened suggest they have to deal with this shit every day. Security are called frequently and burly men arrive to repeat “sorry, you can’t talk to our staff like this.”

Some patients leave before they are even treated, surely a testament to the urgency with which their injuries actually needed to be dealt.

A creepy man, aged at least 50, shuffles past my room to stare at me every two minutes. It is probably envy, I tell myself, as I actually have a room. I actually have somebody seeing me. At six in the morning, a 20-something junior doctor teaches me how to use my crutches. Shoulder width apart, don’t use them going downstairs, how are you getting home?

Crutches are hard, it transpires. My palms are red and bruised, my shoulders stiff. The hospital taxi driver charges me an extra 50p to stop at a cash machine for the inconvenience of paying him. Two months in, I’m sure I’ll have developed buff abs, arms and shoulders, while my legs will have become completely asymmetric.

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Aside from learning just how infuriating its inhabitants find long hospital waiting hours, my perception of the capital has shifted exponentially in the past week. My path is now defined by questions I had never previously considered. Which tube stations have stairs? At home I can happily slide down the carpeted stairs on my butt, but on the tube it’s time consuming, inconvenient for others and frankly gross.

This means all tube stations without disabled access are now out of bounds. Even bus journeys are difficult; getting between stops takes so long that I am forced to allow for an extra two-hours of travel time.

What’s more, I find everybody sits in the reduced mobility seats, whether or not they need them.

One mobile-looking man in his early 40s stares at me from his reduced mobility seat, and doesn’t move. Another in his 70s, who is actually physically disabled, refuses to move his bag from the seat next to him; although for this it’s hard to feel too annoyed – bending down to pick up a bag is hard when you don’t have full mobility. A comparatively healthy woman gives me her seat a little way up. I feel bad because she is twice my age. 


As my strength increases I start “walking” more. Traffic lights are not green for more than 15 seconds. By the time the countdown reaches its closing seconds I am only a third of the way across. I panic.

The pavements are uneven and slippery when it rains, which makes life even slower because I do not want to fall and injure myself further. I have to wait at the middle part of the crossing to ensure it’s safe for me to cross the second half. It takes between three times and six times as long to get anywhere if I don’t want to pay for taxis every day.

But people actually talk to you. It’s like having a dog, only without the endorphins from being loved and depended on.

“I broke my leg 20 years ago. We didn’t have backpacks then – you’re almost lucky! You can carry everything yourself.” “Can I get the door? You must be tired!”

Sure, having reduced mobility sucks, but you make far more connections with traditionally hostile London strangers. A woman in a red car named Zoe offers me a ride, seeing me struggling not to slide on the still-damp streets. We talk about her children jovially for the five-minute journey. 

In another leg (hah!) of my journey, I have to stop every 15 seconds to shake my arms and hands. But then I become more optimistic. The busy inconsiderate hordes of commuters and kids on skateboards used to seem threatening, carrying me station-wards in their undertow. But instead of swamping me, they let me pause to rest, they circumnavigate, they ask if they can help, they appreciate my position. However, their consideration appears location-dependent; while passengers at Waterloo are friendly, for some inexplicable reason, nobody gives a shit about you at Victoria. Gatwick Express, perhaps?

Eventually I build enough strength to take the stairs: a crutch on one side, handrail on the other. London is still sorely underequipped for people with limited mobility, and it must be unrelentingly worse for those in wheelchairs or without my new physical strength.

But the refreshing compassion of its public restores the buzzing, faceless city’s humanity and, at times, certainly compensates for the physical hardships, and lack of facilities and funding that make you despair. The people make the city.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.