My documentary film 'One Mile Away' screened on Channel 4 in the U.K. the week Margaret Hilda Thatcher died, alone, at the Ritz. The film follows inner city, gang-affiliated young men struggling to settle a bloody feud that has raged in Birmingham for over twenty years. It's a territorial war between the Burgers Bar Boys from the B21 post (zip) code and the Johnson Crew from B6. I believe they are Thatcher's unacknowledged children.
They are not her only inner city brood. Her legacy lives on in every city. In East London the boys who slug it out with knives and guns on the streets of Tower Hamlets are of Bengali heritage; in Liverpool, the North East, the Welsh Rhondda Valley, Edinburgh and Glasgow they're the white grandchildren of car factory workers, dock workers, miners, shipbuilders and steel workers whose jobs she wiped out.
What happened when those jobs disappeared? In true entrepreneurial Thatcherite spirit, they were replaced by robbing and drug dealing. Bankers, speculators and hedge fund managers got rich, pharmaceutical companies made a killing out of producing addictive anti-depressants. Out on the streets, bag snatching and selling crack cocaine and heroin succeeded in less spectacularly lucrative ways. One of the favourite sayings in the hood is: 'It's all about P'. (P = money). Profit first.
Communities of unemployed people filled their enforced leisure time by zoning out on heroin or getting high on crack while others sold them the gear to do it. Building more prisons for these dealers and addicts when they became bothersome provided new jobs and uneducated people were taken off the dole, given uniforms and paid to incarcerate other uneducated people. Bingo.
And as long as young inner city men were killing each other and crack was a ghetto drug nobody bothered too much. Collateral damage.
My life as a young black man started when I researched a fiction film about two notorious Jamaican heritage gangs in Birmingham in 2007; I met some of the Johnson crew on the B6 side and then drifted over the front line to Burger territory in B21. I came up against a wall of suspicion because it seemed that every single white person these men had encountered on the streets worked for the police. After several months I met Dylan Duffus - affiliated to the Burgers - who believed that I was actually making a film. With his help I wrote, street cast and shot a hip-hop musical, 1 Day (2009). https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/1-day/id360807044
The film was shot and cast entirely on the B21 Burger side because at that time the two crews were killing each other 'on sight'. However I remained friendly with one of the Johnsons known as Shabba.
Of course I am not a young black man but by hanging out with them I was treated like one by the West Midlands Police. A week before 1 Day was released a police officer advised cinemas across the West Midlands that they would be inciting violence if they screened the film. Every cinema in Birmingham, Coventry, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley promptly pulled out; cinemas in other cities got scared and made us pay to have security guards on the door which put people off going in. That same week they happily screening Harry Brown, a film that was far more violent but starred Michael Caine - a big fan of that demented old lady who died at the Ritz. Without word of mouth from the Midlands where people were waiting for it, nor a massive publicity budget, 1 Day flopped. I have been unable to raise the finance for a feature film since. The pirate version was phenomenally successful and Dylan Duffus is mobbed everywhere he goes. But the pirate version does not pay back the investors and film financiers do not pay attention to them either. Dylan and I are only big in the hood.
Then in September 2010 Shabba telephoned and asked whether I would help him explore some kind of truce and document it on film. I was the only person he knew, who knew people on both sides. I rang Dylan and he agreed to join us to try and stop the pointless killing. At this point we had one man from each side and one white, middle class, middle-aged filmmaker.
My life as a young black man began again.
In London I am invisible to the police. I hardly notice them either. When I see a police car speeding past I assume they are heading off to protect and serve. While making One Mile Away my assistant and I drove around to meet the guys on street corners in her Granny's old Polo. Whenever we turned up, the guys always laughed, "You're being followed by the gang busters." We thought they were being paranoid but gradually those omnipresent cars, the green one and the silver one, wormed their way even into our thick heads. Phone calls to my private number from officers in the police gang unit inquired why I was hanging out with notorious gangsters and demanded to know exactly what I was doing. I refused to explain. This is not a police state. I was not committing any crime.
Being followed around and harassed by law enforcement officers began to affect me. When I saw a police car I bristled with indignation and behaved in surprisingly angry ways. It did not take long for me to see them as the enemy. Standing in someone else's shoes is always illuminating. Maybe if I was in gang unit police shoes I'd be thinking, "Who's this white woman standing around on street corners talking to 'nominals'. What is she up to? Let's crush her."
When I refused to cooperate, the West Midlands Police demanded that I hand over all my film rushes for them to inspect. This is known as a 'fishing expedition' and the law does not support it. The police are required to have reasonable grounds for believing that filmed material could help them prosecute a crime. I was not filming criminal activity but a peace process. If I had handed over the rushes I would have been seen as a police collaborator and my life and those of the young men who were defending me against those who believed that every white person is a snitch would have been in danger. Eventually the police took me to crown court. It was a stressful time but it was thrown out of court and we were awarded costs. Phew.
The next time I went to Birmingham I had a meeting with some of the young men at a convent with some sympathetic nuns. The police followed some of us to the pub afterwards and waited for Dylan on his mother's doorstep. "What were you doing at the convent with Penny?" It's funny in a way. We had a publicity photo shoot, people from both gangs, now working together and peacefully posing for a picture. The police raided the photo shoot and arrested one of our guys.
I was now locking and bolting my house from the inside because I'd got it into my head that the police were going to kick my door in. The idea of them as the enemy seeps its way into you like a virus. I am a sixty three year old grandmother but when I saw the police I became irate. We were trying to do a good thing but they were not on our side.
Before 'One Mile Away' was screened on Channel 4 we were obliged under Ofcom (television regulators) rules to offer the West Midlands Police a Right to Reply. We were concerned that having a card at the end of the film with a police statement on it might look as if we were collaborating and would put people's lives at serious risk. Jo Chilton, head of the Gangs and Organised Crime Unit, insisted to the One Mile Away Social Enterprise team that it was the television company (and by implication myself) who had requested that the police insert their opinions at the end of my film. Her response may have been a bizarre misunderstanding - quite odd from someone of her rank - or a malicious lie in an attempt to cause a rift. The WMP Press Officer confirmed that he knew the choice was theirs. He checked again with the gang unit and they insisted we keep the card. There have been various other sly attempts to undermine the young men who are trying to deter boys from following in their footsteps.
If crimes are committed then the police have a job to do. If we are trying to stop gang and criminal activity then leave us alone.
I am not of course a young black man. But I have had a taste of what it's like. The young black men I know get stopped regularly, react angrily and spend a night in the cells. This week I met a professional black man who runs an arts organisation. He has completely given up driving because he is sick of being stopped and cautioned for driving his own vehicle.
I am white and invisible again.
'One Mile Away' can be bought from onemileaway.co.uk and is also available on 4oD.Suggest a correction