“I think it ends when everyone’s dead,” the chubby ten-year-old wearing a Superman T-shirt says. His interjection prompts wry laughs and nervousness. One teenager responds, “I love that, that’s the realism, though, isn’t it?”
Before making his appraisal of how an epidemic of stabbings and killings on London streets will end, the ten-year-old had been listening intently to a group of older youngsters, mainly teenagers, explaining — often eloquently — the finer points of London gang culture, including the role drill rap music plays in street violence to the selling of drugs and how gangstas build a reputation and attract a following.
The venue is a youth club above a shabby library on a bleak public housing project in the south London borough of Southwark, which has seen more than its fair share of gang violence, even though it is just over the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament. There politicians have been expressing alarm at daily reports of knifings across the British capital demanding something be done; a ten-minute drive away, they’d be able to see the reality, listen to ‘warriors’ themselves and the kids at risk of being swept up in the vortex of violence.
Fear on the streets
This night is cold and drizzling as two middle-aged drunks stagger into the Canterbury Arms pub near the youth club. Aside from them, and an intrepid dog-walker, no one else is about — not just because of the inclement weather. People are afraid of being out at night on these streets.
“We have had three murders of young people who attended these sessions in the last six months. One of them was 17 years-old,” says 37-year-old Joseph Duncan, who co-founded the Youth Futures club on the Brandon housing estate. The club, which offers sports activities and workshops and mentors at-risk kids, was founded in 2012. Two of the boys killed were members of the Moscow17 gang, killed by members of a rival crew called Zone2 from the nearby district of Camberwell. Those slayings were in retaliation for Zone2 killing the brother of a Moscow 17 gang member.
Like many of the London gangs, Moscow17 is also a drill band, whose dark rap videos taunting rival gangs and bragging about violence and gun crime are watched by millions on YouTube. Drill is street slang for the use of automatic guns, and drill music first originated in Chicago’s South Side. Two hardcore gangstas encountered in south London for a tense interview say the killings will go on. “That’s the destiny,” says one. “We’re not bitches. You have already seen what Moscow’s done.”
Until recently up to 150 youngsters attended regularly the Friday evening Youth Futures sessions, including hardcore gangstas. Some would turn up with bloody puncture wounds. “Somebody came in with a machete once,” says Duncan. “One of our youth workers was at the door, obviously he wasn’t going try to disarm him; and he managed to attack another young person. That was probably the lowest of the low point for us. He didn’t die. He got cut on his back and neck,” adds Duncan, who once worked on rehabilitation projects for child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
Most of the time, though, Youth Futures has been a safe place, where kids are able to mix from rival gangs and listen respectively to each other under Duncan’s watchful eye. Nonetheless “attendance levels have dipped in the last year-and-half, and it has just slowly, slowly gone down, as the violence has gone up,” Duncan laments.
The precipitous rise in violent crime in the capital has prompted a public outcry. The Metropolitan Police recorded 40,147 offenses involving a knife or bladed weapon in the first three months of this year alone, a seven-year record. The city has seen 119 violent deaths this year, more than half were stabbings.
Earlier this month, five young Londoners were stabbed to death in as many days in the British capital. The victims in the killing spree included a 16-year-old boy, an aspiring rapper, who died in front of his parents. Another was a 17-year-old, stabbed three times outside an underground station during rush-hour. One thrust from a serrated Zombie knife mashed his heart.
A week ago, four men were stabbed in Edmonton, north London, and three others were shot less than a mile away in linked incidents. On Saturday a 26-year-old was stabbed to death as he intervened in a brawl outside a pub.
Amid the public alarm there have been angry accusations that city authorities and police have lost control, partly thanks to austerity-driven cuts by the government in policing and the budgets of local youth departments. Southwark has lost three youth clubs.
The Brandon estate is one of the front-lines in the gang skirmishes. There are an estimated 49 street gangs in south London alone — and more than 200 across the capital. The proliferation of gangs “does drive more violence,” says 24-year-old youth worker Mark Murray, whose brother was a gang-member. He, along with half-a-dozen youngsters in Youth Futures the night I visited, dismiss police claims that kids are intimidated to join and groomed.
Their explanation is different and as they talked they displayed a sophisticated grasp of the dynamics of gang culture and recruitment as well as a sense of isolation many poor youngsters living in London’s public housing projects feel, contributing to them joining the gangs. The youngsters interviewed have family members and friends actively involved in the gangs and they acknowledge they may have had associations. Two of them have had brothers killed in gang violence. None of the kids can be named under British child-protection laws.
They say many youngsters have no choice but to join. “You play the cards you are dealt,” says one. Kids are a target for gang violence whether they’re members or not. Mark, the youth worker, says, “They feel there’s no one to protect them or help them and so their best resort, in all honesty, is to join a gang for protection. Your gang will protect you in your own area. And if you go out of your area with members of the gang, you have that kind of swagger about the fact you are safe.”
This triggers the ten-year-old to interject, “But at the same time you are putting yourself at risk of dying.’ There’s a collective pause.
And the kids say there’s no incentive to try to flee the gangs. How can they? The gangstas are their neighbors, friends and relatives. With few job opportunities, selling drugs helps them to feed themselves and as well as their families, including parents, often struggling single mothers.
The youngsters feel trapped. “Everyone who lives in these blocks are living like in a prison,” says a 14-year-old. Although many have aspirations. The 14-year-old is attending a training academy of a top British soccer team. “I am trying to break free,” he says.
A 15-year-old girl says she wants to go to “uni” to study photography, “my passion,” she beams. But she’s a photographer without a camera. She had access to one at her school’s media department, until the funding stopped.
“They aren’t any pull factors for kids,” says Murray. “If they sell drugs, they can make money in the same way as if they had a nine-to-five job, but it also allows them to hang out with their friends. And there aren’t incentives for them to change. If they stop with the gang, will things change for the better for them? Probably not?” Jobs are hard to get and need the kind of discipline and persistence many of the youngsters, low on self-esteem and with few role models, just don’t possess.
“The gangs offer an alternate career path,” laments Duncan. Many of the youngsters look to gangsta-rappers who’ve broken into the big time.
“They aspire to be them. You have people who have developed their rap music careers around criminal enterprise. They think, ‘oh if I do this and I do my music and I am selling the drugs, I am going to get the money, get the girls, going to get the respect and eventually I am going to get out of the hood as a gangsta rapper,’” he says.
He adds: “It is very destructive. They get all the things they’re craving for, but it is in a very dysfunctional, unhealthy, toxic environment that can get them killed or drug addicted. The violence is spiking and it is not about to stop.”