Me: What are you doing with your half day off?
Student: My friends want to go to Westfield but...
Me: But what?
Student: I keep saying we should get the train there.
Me: So? What's the problem?
Student: One of my friends says we should get the bus.
Me: Does it matter?
Student: It does when that bus goes through a gang postcode that doesn't like us.
Having this conversation before Christmas left me thinking. This 15 year old student, well behaved and mature, was deciding not whether he wanted this present, or that present for Christmas. He was deciding which route to take to a shopping centre that would not endanger his life. I really wish I had been surprised, but I wasn't.
Every time I send my students home for the holidays, I can't shake the tiny voice in the back of my head. Will they all come back, safe, alive, unhurt? It may sound overly dramatic to some - where does this women work and surely it can't be that bad? I work in Hackney, where gangs are pervasive and influential. Before that I worked in Walthamstow, where I knew the local gang colours and where there were certain estates one just did not walk through alone, child or adult. Before that, Newham - another borough with its own set of gang-related problems.
Am I exaggerating? During the summer holiday, another young boy was stabbed and he died. I watched the news report, realised it was in the borough where my partner works as a teacher and we both hoped it was no one we knew. This time, it was one of ours. A boy well-known to my partner - a child at their school; someone well-liked but troubled, involved with local gangs. The police spokesperson in a statement issued close to the time declared: "'There's certainly no evidence or any intelligence at this time that this is a gang-related murder.'
I wonder who they had spoken to. Maybe there is a gap between what our perception of a gang and gang-related crime is and what it actually looks like on a day to day basis. It might not be organised, mafia-esque, with leaders and followers. I have heard tales of de facto leaders and the 'youngers' who run drugs and weapons. Not all gangs operate like this. Sometimes, they are just groups of boys crowding together with no other sense of loyalty than a postcode.
They are small groups sometimes, maybe with loose links with larger organisations like the London Fields gang. They are affiliated, known to be associated, but not necessarily active. They get caught up in skirmishes based on a warped sense of being 'disrespected'; they meet, sometimes by accident in places they would not normally consider getting into an altercation. They fight and often, someone dies. They end up on the news; it seems that the most remarkable thing about them is by much how they've raised the statistics on knife crime in London. The 10th boy to die, the 11th, and so on.
The list of the dead in 2011 includes: Wing Juan Ho, 18; Kasey Gordon, 15; Ezekiel Amosu, 17; Negus McClean, 15; Stephen Grisales, 21 and a 16 year old boy in the same week of September. The list goes on to include two stabbing incidents on Oxford Street in August and now two more in December, most notably the stabbing of 18-year-old Seydou Diarrassouba outside Footlocker on Boxing Day. These are just the boys that made the news and these are just the boys that died north of the river. This list does not include the countless number of boys admitted to hospital with knife or gun related injuries that have not proved fatal. Were all of the murders entirely coincidental? Did the victims and the culprits all exist with no awareness of each other before the fatal moment? I think not. They dance around each other on a daily basis in their local areas; they clash and someone dies.
To coin a phrase, the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem. The default position here in the UK is not one of consistency when it comes to first admitting we have a gang problem and then in dealing with it. In August, when it was widely believed that gangs had been involved in the orchestration of the riots, Bill Bratton (former Chief of Police in LA and someone with extensive experience in dealing with gang violence) was touted as the next Police Commissioner. The response? A BBC news report in August following the riots heard Association of Chief Police Officers' head Sir Hugh Orde saying: "I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them." A verbal snub and one that ignored the fact that even if gangs had not been involved in the riots directly, the violence and fear that they caused generally may have been alleviated by a more visible policy on gangs and gang related crime.
We do like a feel-good story about succeeding against the odds though. Someone who has dealt with gangs and addressed some of the violence and disorder that come from their existence in a specific location is allowed a feature in the Guardian, as in the case of Karyn McCluskey in Glasgow. But London gangs don't have the same treatment, or spotlight. Rhetoric about sentencing from the government has proved entirely ineffective if "groups of young people opposing each other" (interestingly, not even called gangs by the mainstream media anymore) feel such a sense of immunity that they stab each other in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses on Oxford Street. Tightening the law on knife possession may seem laughable when in the aftermath of the stabbings on Oxford Street, the police think they have the right murder weapon, because they have recovered so many other knives at the scene.
Type in 'gangs' and 'schools' into a Google search and you will be greeted by a handful of UK gang related stories; however, dig deeper and you will notice the sheer number of US, state-specific websites about dealing with gangs - with information for parents, teachers and members of the public. I'm not suggesting that websites are the answer, but we simply do not have an equivalent approach that recognises that if more people are aware of the signs of gang involvement, the greater chance we have of pulling some of our vulnerable boys and girls back from the brink - something that Sheldon Thomas from Building United Communities has been saying for a long time. If there is a policy, a way forward to help this generation of lost children, then I don't know what it is and I have the inclination to search for answers. It seems to me that an invisible policy is no policy at all.
My question, as a teacher who does not want to wake up to a news story about one of her children being stabbed to death in a brawl, is which death will finally prompt our authorities to take a more frank and honest view of what is going on in London? Which boy needs to die so that someone in charge can finally say they recognise that gangs are a problem and we need to take a firm, multi-agency approach, just like Karyn McCluskey did in Glasgow? Probably not another boy from Edmonton - it seems that they can die without anyone really passing comment these days. Who will it be?