Ron Shillingford on Britains Gang Culture

By Ron Shillingford

BRITAIN’S knife epidemic amongst teenagers has claimed too many victims in recent months for this disturbing phenomenon to be ignored. No wonder the media covers it incessantly.

Guns too are becoming prevalent in gang-related killings and despite campaigns and initiatives to eradicate the problem over the past decade it is getting worse.

A significant portion of the protagonists are from the Caribbean community although African and white kids are increasingly involved too.

The most disturbing of recent murders came in early April when Paul Erhahon became the sixth boy under 16 to be murdered on London’s streets in eight weeks. The ‘gentle giant’ tried to run home after being knifed in the chest by a rival gang, but collapsed near his front door.
Like the family of Damilola Taylor, Erhahon’ parents – both Nigerian – moved to Britain for a better life. Damilola, ten, was stabbed to death in Peckham, South-East London, in 2000 which caused a huge public outcry. His killers, two notorious brothers, Danny and Ricky Preddie, whose father is Jamaican, were only sentenced last year. It took that long to find enough evidence to convict them because so many witnesses were too frightened to testify against the Preddies who were only 12 and 13 at the time.

Erhahon was at the same school as Adam Regis, 15, nephew of Olympic sprinter John Regis, who died in March after being stabbed on his way home from the cinema. The Regis family are St Lucian.
Since February 3, four other boys have died after being shot or stabbed in London. The Erhahon killing was part of a turf war, with gangs in his Thatched House area of postcode E15 clashing with youths from the Cathall area of E11. This is not untypical of gang rivalry in Britain’s inner-cities. Too many subscribe to 50 Cent’s philosophy of Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

The maximum sentence for someone caught in possession of a knife has just been doubled from two years to four years but that evidently does not deter thugs. Yet many even see a prison sentence as a badge of honour, an inevitable consequence of their street life. Some prisons in Britain are so luxurious and well resourced, they are considered more like hotels, unlike the jails in the Caribbean.

It is now also an offence to use someone to mind a weapon on your behalf. Teachers have recently been given the power to search pupils who are feared to be carrying weapons. From October the age of a person allowed legally to buy a knife will increase from 16 to 18. Last year 90,000 knives were taken out of circulation during a national knife amnesty, but it still has had little effect. The new measures come after the introduction of the Violent Crime Reduction Act six months ago. It all seems like far too little too late.

Sellers of stab-proof vests, costing £120, are getting clients as young as 10 who fear they’re going to be knifed at school or on the street.

Every week in London around 50 teenagers are victims of knife crime, according to the Metropolitan Police. A child is stabbed to death in Britain every two weeks and knife killings outnumber gun homicides three to one, said Norman Brennan, a police officer and director of the Victims of Crime Trust.

‘Knife crime is out of control and kids carry them like fashion accessories,’ Brennan said. The youngest child to be suspended from school for brandishing a blade was just five. Some 42 per cent of boys aged between 11 and 16 in state-funded schools admit to having carried a knife. Students have brought machetes, combat knives, swords and sharpened screwdrivers to school, police say. Girls have been caught with blades hidden in lipstick and mascara tubes.

Prime Minister Tony Blair opened a community centre named after Damilola Taylor in 2001. Yet in February 2004, a 14-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of stabbing another teenager at the facility. No wonder a trend is growing in Britain’s Caribbean community of sending wayward boys to the Caribbean to attend schools where discipline is stricter, violence less prevalent and teachers are generally more respected.

Spencer Fearon is a successful boxing promoter and property investor. His disruptive nature as a child meant that at the age of nine he was sent from home in Kennington, South London, to live with family in rural Jamaica. ‘I went to Brandon Hill School in Clarendon for two years and it had a massive effect on me,’ he said. ‘There was no running water and we had to go and fetch it from a pipe. Everything was basic. That experience helped fix me up. It can work for some but there were other kids from England who hated it because they didn’t have the creature comforts like computer games and TV. I loved it because it was part of the Jamaican culture I didn’t know. I was with family who loved me and cared about my development.

‘I believe that the best role models are parents, not footballers, entertainers or entrepreneurs. Values come from the home and that’s where black kids are being failed, by their parents. Black people who kill have a total disregard for each other.’ Evidently, Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit that specializes in monitoring black-on-black crime is not tackling the job as well as expected.

Lee Jasper is Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities for the Mayor of Greater London. He hopes to one day succeed Ken Livingstone as mayor. Jasper grew up in Chase, a rough part of Manchester and was a disruptive teenager himself. He has nine children, including five boys. ‘I think all black boys in Britain should be sent to the Caribbean or Africa for a gap year to show them what poverty is really about,’ he said. ‘When they get to around 13 or 14 they seem to adopt this semi-gangster attitude and sending them to places like that helps them to get a better perspective on life.

‘My three eldest sons are grown up now. Two were sent to Jamaica and one to Ghana for a year against their wills around that age and they all came back with a far better attitude. They are all doing very well now. My two youngest sons are 15 and 11 and they’ll be going too.’

Former BBC radio presenter Henry Bonsu is now a director of Colourful Radio, an internet radio station. He said: ‘Violence has been casualised from images youngsters get on TV, in films and rap music and that has manifested itself in these gang killings. A lot of it has to do with self-loathing too. African kids generally have a stronger family unit than Caribbean families. After all, they retain their languages, names and customs and are generally obsessed with education and still think of going home to Africa.

‘But many teenagers from a Caribbean background have no strong sense of cultural identity. I think every school with a large Caribbean population should have an outside connection with a Caribbean organisation because they need to be more attached to their cultural background.’

Derek Amory is a social worker in Birmingham who specializes in working with juveniles. His family hails from St Kitts and Nevis. Amory does not believe that sending wayward youngsters to the Caribbean will help. He feels education is the key. ‘Using shock tactics by sending kids to the Caribbean won’t work. They’ll just treat it as a holiday.

‘The world has become Americanised. Street culture is universal. Crime needs to be taught as part of the school curriculum just as much as maths and English.’ Mothers whose sons were victims of gang culture are becoming more vocal, partly because of the inefficiency of the authorities in tackling these issues. One of them is Lucy Cope, whose son, Damian, was gunned down five years ago simply for ‘disrespecting’ a notorious gangster. Cope, a Scottish mother of eight whose offspring all came from two Jamaican fathers, formed the organisation Mothers Against Guns and is planning a huge rally – Silence The Violence – in Hyde Park, Central London in July to highlight the problem.

‘Children are killing children,’ she said. ‘They’re not scared of death. Prison is not a deterrent anymore. All morals and respect has gone for each other, parents, teachers and police. We’ve got an epidemic. Operation Trident is a joke. They would do better if they brought over some Jamaican policemen who understand the black culture better.’

Another grieving mother is Michelle Forbes whose son Leon, a successful music producer, was shot dead at 21 simply for defying a gang that was trying to extort money from him. She would like to see a form of National Service – two years compulsory army duty for 18-year-olds – brought back. ‘The kids who have no direction in their lives need to be made to do something worthwhile and get paid for it,’ she said. ‘Say, painting and decorating an old people’s home.’ Rather disturbingly, Cope added: ‘Soon, we’re going to have massacres here like that one in West Virginia.’

Ron Shillingford is a freelance journalist and best selling author. From July 2007 he will be based in Grand Cayman.

Posted in UK