London’s Violent Streets: ‘I Think It Ends When Everyone’s Dead’

“I think it ends when everyone’s dead,” the chubby 10-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 10-year-old had been listening intently to a group of older youngsters, mainly teenagers, explaining the finer points of London gang culture, including the role drill rap music plays in street violence to the selling of drugs and how gang members build a reputation and attract a following.

The venue is a youth club above a shabby library on a bleak public housing project, which has seen 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 10-minute drive away they’d be able to see the reality and the kids at risk of being swept up in the vortex of violence.  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 boys killed were members of the Moscow17 gang.

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.

‘That’s the destiny’

Two hardcore gang members 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 Friday evening Youth Futures sessions, including hardcore gang members.  Some would turn up with bloody puncture wounds says 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.  But attendance levels have dipped, “as the violence has gone up,” Duncan laments.

The Metropolitan Police recorded 40,147 offenses involving a knife or bladed weapon in the first three months of this year, a seven-year record.  The city has seen 119 violent deaths this year, more than half were stabbings.

Amid public alarm there have been angry accusations that city authorities and police have lost control, partly due to austerity-driven funding cuts by the government for policing and local youth departments.

There are an estimated 49 street gangs in south London 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 and youngsters in Youth Futures dismiss police claims that kids are intimidated to join and groomed.

Their explanation is different and they display 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 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.

‘Like in a prison’

They say many youngsters have no choice but to join.  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 10-year-old to interject, “But at the same time you are putting yourself at risk of dying.”  There’s a collective pause.

The kids say there’s no incentive to try to flee the gangs made up of their neighbors, friends and relatives.  With few job opportunities, selling drugs helps them feed themselves and 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 university 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.

“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,” Murray says.  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, don’t possess.

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,’” Duncan 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.”