By Vijay Shah
For two years, I was living in a rented terraced house in Forest Gate, east London. It was a tiny property built over an old graveyard and tucked away in the backstreets, and only a short stroll from the border with the neighbouring borough of Waltham Forest. It was a friendly enough area with a deep sense of community, but it was also very rough and ‘ghetto’. As is common with other inner city areas in London, there was a gang problem. While a local youth centre and an active grime music scene helped kept some teenagers busy, others remained loyal to their respective gangs or to the lifestyle of the streets, of the ” ‘hood”. There were tensions between the youths in our part of the ‘Gate’, some of whom I know personally, and gangs from the nearby council estates across the border in Cann Hall. These two sets of enemies hated each other’s guts…and probably still do. If anyone between 14-19 years age from my area was unfortunate enough to wander into Cann Hall gang territory, they would be approached, then asked “Blud, what ends you from?” (where do you come from?). Answering ‘Forest Gate’ would have had painful, if not fatal consequences.
The rivalry was intense to the point that gangsters from Cann Hall would drive stealthily into our area under cover of darkness to carry out shooting attacks or drive-bys on enemy youths. More than once, I would leave early to go work only to find police had sealed off our road and a polite copper would note down my name and address, then let me through. Gunshots would occasionally reverberate through the night air, as I lulled myself into some small false hope that it was a firework or a vehicle backfiring. A local acquaintance was shot at five times while seated in a car, with some bullets passing through his leg. Thankfully he survived, but others do not have luck on their side. Postcode gang wars have claimed many victims, and have spread fear to the point where youths will take detours to avoid passing certain postal zones or neighbourhoods on their way to school, college or work.
London, like any major conurbation anywhere in the world, has its problems with crime and violence. Poverty, lack of jobs and disaffection with life and society, and a breakdown in the traditional family structure has led people to seek solace in gangs, which become their ‘fam’ or family. According to a 2007 report by the Met Police, some 169 gangs operate within the greater London region. They are responsible for about a fifth of youth crime, and 25% have committed murder. Gangs also corner the market in street robberies, drugs, gun smuggling, credit card fraud and sexual crimes.
Over the past few years, more and more teenagers are being killed and injured on London streets and not all of them were necessarily gang members themselves. But like any crime, anyone can find themselves caught up.
– A student from Argentina, Steven Grisales, stabbed through the heart in Edmonton, north London after confronting youths who were throwing conkers (chestnut fruits) at him for a laugh.
– Daniel Graham, 18 years, stabbed 24 times in front of passengers on a bus by three members of the GMG (Guns, Murder and Girls) gang. The attack lasted only 45 seconds, but Daniel bled to death as people desperately tried to save him.
– Sylvester Akapalara, a future athletics champion, gunned down by the GMG gang in Peckham, south-east London
– Sofyen Belamouadden – barely still in school, he was set upon in the ticket hall of Victoria Underground station by more than 20 other schoolkids as horrified commuters looked on. They churned themselves into a frenzy, repeatedly stabbing, punching and kicking him as he lay dying on the floor.
– Thusha Kamaleswaran, just 5 years of age, she was playing and skipping about in her uncle’s convenience store in Stockwell, when three gang members chasing a rival fired a handgun into the shop entrance to kill him. Little Thusha was hit instead, and is now paralysed from a spinal injury and wheelchair-bound, thus ending her dream of becoming a dancer.
Ten years ago when I was attending school, such madness was virtually unknown. Twenty men chasing down one boy was unheard of. Fights were settled with strictly hand-on-hand combat, rather than arming up and using ‘shanks’ and ‘gats’ (knives and guns). After the playground scuffle finished, the belligerents would often shake hands and establish the peace. Children killing other children rarely happened, and murders were the preserve of older people. In 2008, only seven years after I left school, thirty young people lost their lives in gang-related violence. Communities and families are being affected or even ripped apart as youths clash, stab and shoot to show loyalty to their gangs, to settle scores and to gain street cred among their peers.
The police in London have their means to engage the problem, but many inner-city young people despise them. The ‘feds’ as they are referred to in the local slang, are hated with a passion. The police also do not help matters by being heavy-handed and have alienated young people through such policies as stop-and-searches, which predominantly target young Afro-Caribbean males. They have made attempts to ease the relationship though; through initiatives like school visits and helping former gangsters turn from a life of crime and fear.
Outside of New Scotland Yard, charities and support groups such as Kids’ Company are also helping in the battle. For them it entails encouraging those who otherwise might have been recruitment fodder for gangs to take a different direction in life, by encouraging and developing their talents and helping them in practical matters, like getting a job or applying for accommodation. While some gang members revel in guns and glory, others are there because to them, there is nothing else outside and the gang is the only family they have got. If there is a viable alternative for them, and if society puts aside its prejudice and accepts them, then youths can leave behind gangs and the devastation and hopelessness they bring.
Urban gang violence has many causes and many solutions. Governments and authority figures have mostly taken a one-size-fits-all ‘sticking plaster’ approach to gang disorder, which has not made a real impact. Punitive measures like house raids and frisking teenagers on the street to confiscate their £10 packets of cannabis leaf may tackle visible street crime, but have also alienated inner-city youths from mainstream society, their resentment pushing them still further into the all-too-attractive clutches of street gangs. If decision-makers try to work with young people and understand their worldviews, as my borough Newham’s Youth Parliament have done for many years, then young Londoners can feel part of a bigger thing, somewhere that they have a voice and a place. But solving our issue of gangs and youth crime is not just a mere A-to-B matter. We cannot expect quick-fix solutions and the problem will not completely go away. If we can deal with issues like poverty, deprivation, lack of youth facilities, racism etc etc. then gangs will not be so attractive any more. But in today’s recession-battered and morally broken Britain, things may get worse before they get better.
Thanks to Mohammed Miah for suggesting the subject for today’s article