by Joe Thorne
On Friday night, at around 1am and at the bottom of my road in Hackney, Jahmal Mason-Blair was stabbed in the neck and dead within the hour. He was 17, the ninth teenager murdered this year on the streets of London. The boy who has been arrested for Jahmal’s killing is 13 years old.
At a nearby cafe yesterday morning, Jahmal’s murder was still on the minds of locals. Jahmal was what they call a ‘good kid’. A talented, ambitious footballer, someone who knew where he was going. People say he was trying to break up a fight. But the talk in the cafe is all about punishment; capital punishment, preferably. I point out that they have capital punishment in the US, and it’s worse there. Nobody listens. One guy tries to talk about prison; but others pipe up about not wanting their taxes to go to buy food for the prisoners, let alone Playstations. “If I could, I’d get a machine gun…” are the last words I hear as I walk out the door.
At the temporary shrine of flowers and football shirts under the railway bridge, a few of Jahmal’s friends were milling around, setting to rights the cards that had blown over, and the t-shirts that had become crumpled in the night. But mostly just standing, below a billboard advertising the services of criminal lawyers – “Arrested?” it asks. I got talking with a woman, a passerby. Her idea was the same as those in the cafe. “They should be killed”; she’s got a son, you see, about the same age, she’s worried about him. She talks to him every day though, she says, a little proud, and she’s moved him to a different school to keep him out of trouble. Jahmal is the second pupil at Hackney Free to have died a violent death in the last ten months. And on top of that, the school is 150m from the spot where Shaquille Smith was stabbed dead in September, she can remember his name. Lamely, I make the point about the death penalty in the US to her. She doesn’t seem convinced, either. Later, I find that Damilola Taylor’s father has been calling for the same thing. The only other suggestion at the cafe and on the street, was of a curfew – “out at that time? And thirteen” – combined with the usual questions about ‘the parents’.
This doesn’t represent a movement to introduce capital punishment, not at all. What it represents is hurt, anger; people groping in the dark for a solution, finding no answers, and grasping hard to an idea which, however horrific – they know they are talking about a 13 year old child – is the only one within reach. And where are we? Where is the left? What are our answers, where are our solutions? Where, even, are our questions?
The sources of violence
The rate of violent homicide among teenagers in London appears to have fallen slightly since last year, when it reached 28 by the end of December – in 2007 the figure was 26.[i] Nonetheless, at this rate, this year, the figure will probably pass 20 – the police would claim that this is a result of Operation Blunt, basically a programme of intensified Stop and Search on predominantly non-white youth, mostly of dubious legal foundation. The issue has faded from the headlines a little, but it is still important: not only because of the numbers of deaths, but because of what it says about life in the more deprived parts of Britain. So what do we have to say about it?
As has been argued elsewhere, one wrong approach is simply to blame crime on the deprivation, alienation and social chaos of capitalist society in general. Of course, in itself, this is true. Crime does tend to increase with unemployment, inequality and poverty, and the following map, which plots gang turf over deprivation is a graphic illustration of the essential truth of this idea.
Fact is, we need to look at why some working class kids are turning to weapons for respect. They’re not getting it, and they don’t believe they have a prospect of getting it, anywhere else. Statistics show that social mobility is falling. Working class people are more likely to have to choose a university near home, if they go to one at all. It’s not just a crisis of aspiration; it’s a crisis of reality. Get up in the morning and work in some terrible service sector job for £6 or £7 an hour for the rest of your life, while private equity bosses cream it off? Come on. The life which young working class people in London are looking at – when they look at the lives of the people around them – doesn’t look good. That’s no excuse for getting involved in violence. But, along with the economically mandated breakdown of families, it is a real cause of the fact that people do.
However, by itself, this approach fails to recognise or establish a role for members of the community to actively address crime or gang culture, short of ‘fight for socialism’ or – worse – ‘join the party’. It also fails to recognise the impulse which young community members in areas overshadowed by gang, and gang related, violence to take responsibility for the culture they are part of. On the one occasion where I have been present for a discussion by young people in London about gun and knife crime this tendency – to talk about the need to ‘take responsibility’ – was extremely pronounced. Against the attempts of adults to blame computer games, music, and the need to ‘find God’, the most articulate young people were clear both that the deprivation of their communities was the incubator of violence, and that there were things which they could do to uphold different values in their peer group.[ii] They recognised that gangs were a source of respect, emotional support, income and validation for some young people unable to obtain those things by other means. But they also unreservedly and pointedly condemned the violence.
While decaying capitalism will tend to produce violence of the sort we are seeing, the interventions of responsible family and friends undoubtedly makes a real difference in particular situations. There should be a role for socialist propaganda to talk about both sides of the equation (and about the uselessness of “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” politics), but to produce this credibly will involve a deeper investigation into the communities around us, their concerns, their perceptions.
The left is so used to focussing on struggle, that sometimes we forget that the actual constitution of communities (locally or in the workplace) must sometimes be a priority, and is often a precondition of struggle. This is perhaps easier said than done. For my own part, like many twenty-somethings who rent, I haven’t lived in one house or flat for more than a year and a half – and only once for more than 6 months – in the last 7 years. I interact with neighbours as much as I can, but I’m not an organic part of the communities where I live. So I can’t offer any easy answers; except to note that perhaps I should have got together with like-minded people living nearby and tried to produce a leaflet to give out locally. Perhaps I still will. Another idea might be to look at local community centres and see if there are opportunities for volunteering in projects which address basic community needs.
Pseudo ‘practical’ demands such as those promoted by The Mirror (metal detectors for police, “texts and internet will help win battle”!) are striking for their vagueness, and lack of real engagement with the problems identified by the young people themselves – which are at least present to some degree in the manifesto which was developed at the event I referred to earlier. But what do we have to add to them?
Confrontational politics clearly doesn’t give us a model to directly address the sort of gang related violence we are talking about. [iii] Perhaps community building is the only thing that can do that. But taking responsibility means not only taking responsibility for addressing violence directly, but in the long term. To do so is to fight with your community for the sort of life that kids can grow up being proud of. Good jobs, good homes, good schools, time with your family. These are, have always been, things that proud communities, which respect each other, fight for. Building without fighting will not turn back the tide of deprivation which capitalism brings; fighting without building will probably seem abstract and opportunistic to demoralised communities. But, perhaps, as much as these things, we need to keep our minds open, and keep listening to what people particularly young people, in affected communities are saying.
Under the bridge, Jahmal’s friends are still milling around, talking quietly to each other.
[i] Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, and it is hard to say whether there is a significant spike in knife crime, for instance. British Crime Survey statistics suggest a steady but unremarkable increase (though, crucially, leaves out under 16s), while reports from police suggest a spike over the last few years. In any case, knife crime in London is still nowhere near the levels that have existed for the last decade or more in, for example, Glasgow.
[ii] I also note that the suggestion that police need to respect kids as well as the other way round, which received applause, was left off the ‘manifesto’.
[iii] Incidentally, the predecessors of modern gangs were formed by non-white youth as a tool for self defence against racist violence on the part of organised white gangs, whether criminal, sub-cultural, or political (such as the National Front) [*] [*]. The same is true of the ‘Crips’ and ‘Bloods’ in the US, the bastardised descendents of elements of the Black Panther Party, deformed by COINTELPRO, deindustrialisation, and the narcotics industry.