Image by: Stefan Paul: twitter @sketchdesignsuk
Are you willing to kill?
Last week I had the opportunity to have a discussion with a group of young people who are actively involved in a gang in Hackney, East London. Their allegiance is decorated on their skin with tattoos of their postcode and gang name. They gave their consent for the documentation of our discussion based on anonymity. The intention of the dialogue was to explore their reasoning regarding their gang involvement. None of these young people are engaged with local youth projects.
Initially the conversation focused on questions about gang hierarchy. With a unanimous voice they declared that they answer to no one and will act on impulse. One replied “the time we use to answer to ‘olders’ (older gang member) is long gone”. “You have to put in the work for your team; this is how you get your status up. Eventually when people know your name they will fear you as an individual or your gang.” Another shouted “at the end of the day it is all about respect”
I intercepted their outbursts with a personal account of my annual video tribute dedicated to all the young people who had died in London due to gang and youth violence. Expressing my sorrow at this situation I enquired about their feelings towards youth deaths. The response I got did not surprise me, the oldest one exclaimed “this is how it is now, people become immune unless they are directly affected”. There was no emotion on their faces, lacking empathy they were devoid of care. The desensitisation to youth fatalities was evident in their reactions. It became apparent that this hard outer shell was embedded into their survival technique ‘never show signs of weakness’.
My questioning shifted to serious topics: Are you willing to kill for your ideals, your gang, or where you live?
The smallest out of the group replied; “we are in too deep, I have enemies who probably will not hesitate to kill me if they saw me slipping (caught off guard). That is why I am always prepared for whatever the occasion and if that means dropping a body in the process then so be it”
Although many may be shocked by this, I was not. Unfortunately this is not the first occasion in which I have witnessed this same content from young people. I am always reminded of a quote from the film ‘we own the night’ “I would rather be judged by 12, than be carried by 6”. After I told them about that quote, they all agreed, saying that is exactly how they see it.
What would it take for you to move on from this lifestyle?
They all exchanged glances before one of the quiet ones who hadn’t yet participated in the discussion piped up: “to be honest even if I decided to go legit, I would still be in the game because like they said before we are in too deep. I would probably have to move out of London totally to actually concentrate on other things. Apart from that no way, my guard stays up 24’s.”
It is young people with this mentality that I am consistently attempting to engage with. Their loyalty to their peers and self perception as gang members forms a stumbling block from opportunities to change. Although weapons cause considerable damage, the real danger is spread through the mindset of these young people. Minor altercations can now result in a fatal shooting or stabbing, leaving yet another family with a scar that can never be healed. I attempt to get these young people to attend my consequences workshops or engage in youth activities but they refuse. However I consistently converse with them to challenge their way of thinking and provide an alternative lifestyle to the one they currently uphold.
More senseless killings
A few days after our discussion, I found out about the fatal stabbing which took the life of Kwame Ofosu-Asare (17) in Brixton. Reading the story made me angry and reminded me of the pain of losing someone. Also thinking about the family and how they will now cope with this void in their lives.
I am reminded of the period when I was doing research for my book and a man in his late 40’s said to me “do not waste your time it is inevitable, they will continue to kill each other”. I chose not to accept what he said, that can only happen if we do nothing and allow this to continue. The thing is people do not think it is their problem until something happens that affect them. The way things are anyone could be a victim.
I wrote my book Consequences to enhance my ability to spread my message to people around the country and of the young people I work with that believe in change. Thankfully I have been doing that by speaking and working in schools, at youth projects, prisons, and in the next month I will be running more consequences workshops, speaking at youth conferences in Wolverhampton, and also in Berlin.
Although I enjoy communicating, action is essential for change. Due to this I have enlisted positive young men to take charge and make an impact on someone’s life through mentoring. There seems to be an outcry when the police kill someone, while young people are killing each other every day, with a lack of effort for change and justice. One thing I learnt from my time in Los Angeles, speaking with former OG Crip gang member is to always have hope no matter how bad things may seem.
My repetition is for emphasis: everyone can play a part no matter how small.
If we strive to change mindsets, promote ambition and invest in young people then we would not need to tell them to put the knives and guns down. They would be in a position to make the right choices. This is not the time to give up, or to remain silent. A generation of future doctors, lawyers, prime ministers and teachers are wrapped up in a detrimental lifestyle of violence where innocent people are dying. Complacency cannot bring change.