One of the first things we teach our children at they learn to fend for themselves is the practicality of how to use a knife and fork at the dinner table. In a civilised society you would surely not at the same time also be thinking to explain the dangers of carrying the same knife around as a weapon when leaving the safety of the home, would you?
Rhetorical question I guess but the stark reality is that in many of our UK inner city communities that is exactly what parents are having to do in order to try and keep their own children safe from the epidemic of stabbings blighting our major cities. Statistically more so in London than anywhere else!
Tuesday September 20th 2016 heralds the 8th anniversary of an event I helped to pull together that we called "The Peoples march against knife crime". There were 29 deaths of young people at the hands of other young people in London in 2008 and the amount of grieving families and helplessness being felt by everyone in the youth sector as to how the tide of violence might be turned had reached fever pitch after Ben Kinsella was murdered and the media jumped on the fact his sister Brooke had been in Eastenders. This made life even harder for the Kinsella family of course as the glare of publicity gives you no time to breathe let alone grieve properly. I thought Brooke herself handled it amazingly for one so young and her subsequent campaigning and support of other victim families as well as ambassador roles for the likes of Victims Support was outstanding. It took its toll on her though as the weight of responsibility was far from fair for one so young. It was clear from the outset that her and Ben had shared a very close relationship and so to become the spokesperson for not just her own family but at times it seemed the entire UK victim community was a huge burden. One the media would not worry too much about inflicting on her.
Around this time I had been supporting the Damilola Taylor Trust as a pro bono consultant to launch a project their management team had constructed called "Respect your life not a knife". Sadly it had not got out of the starting traps beyond a high profile launch event at City Hall with Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand, Home Secretary John Reid and then Mayor of London Ken Livingston. I helped pull a team of top PR and event management crew together from organisations such as Freud and Shine Communications to work free of charge to stage the event which was picked up by all the major TV news channels. Beyond that though the school pledge wall project progressed no further. It had been an early alarm call for me of how authorities and media can work together to hype issues to suit their own agendas without worrying unduly about any real impact or positive outcomes where actual change is concerned.
This was fresh in mind when I found myself right in the middle of the fallout from the death of Ben as I was trying to get the "Respect your life" project picked up by the major news media to support the Damilola Taylor Trust getting it launched. Face book pages were springing up with tributes calling for something to be done to stop the killings of innocent youngsters like Ben and then I got contacted by a couple of girls who had set up one of the groups asking for my advice on how they might organise a peace march. The newspapers were not interested in taking the "Respect your life not a knife" campaign but suddenly they were fighting with each other over running campaigns using Brooke - In any event Brooke had heard about the plan for a big peace march and so reached out to us and the plan was immediately crystallised. Brooke was massively keen to bring all the victim families together as well and her enthusiasm in this respect really drove the planning from this point onwards
Roughly 4 months later after weeks and weeks of preparation and planning I was stood with Richard Taylor in Kennington Park SE11 as senior Police officers communicated with their colleagues stationed in Caledonian Park N1 where Brooke and her family were gathering ready to set off to Hyde Park shortly before our march left South London, We were told that planning a march of this magnitude was pretty problematic in terms of local council road closures and protocol procedures so we though right then we won't just stage one we will stage two. Why only deal with two borough councils planning departments when you can deal with four!
I first met Gemma and Sharon at a planning meeting with the Police liaison team at Charing Cross Police station. We would have some fun and controversy in the planning stages as we moved the Police relationship direct to Scotland Yard with their senior events team and then got the media involved as well. At this stage when we brought in several other Facebook page admins the shenanigans with some of them started when it became clear that personal profile building with some of them was going to become a problem where media was concerned!
Somehow though we managed to pull quite a tight team together. Ros Wynne Jones from the Daily Mirror was central to this and before long the Daily Mirror had a dedicated team supporting us. This would lead to some problems with the funding as to put on a stage and plan a peace rally in Hyde Park at the end of the two marches where everyone could congregate and listen to some key note speakers and celebrity performers we needed to find almost £60,000. The Mirror could not put anything like this in from a cash perspective so we set about trying to raise the money ourselves. The Mirror struggled to get a response from the new Mayor of London, Boris Johnston who we had been told was ready to support but we had no way of reaching. The Mirror openly admitted to us that this was political due their relationship with the labour party and fact they had backed Ken Livingston to stay in office for a 3rd term. We were running out of time so we took up an offer from the Sun newspaper to contact Boris for us. They called him directly and got an appointment within 24 hours. Politics, media and the establishment!
We had a problem with Boris and his media team as they did not seem to fully appreciate what the march was all about. Kids were going down like nine pins on London streets and Boris team told us that for them to make a donation towards the costs then Boris would need to do a video address from the peace rally stage talking about the preparation for the 2012 Olympics. I kid you not. This was my first indication of how out of touch Johnston was when it came to dealing with real life issues in London! In the end we reached a compromise for what would be on the video. It had already been agreed with the Daily Mirror that Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be doing a video address as well and that the team working with the Mirror would meet him first at Downing Street so it did kind of balance out the political agendas. To suit the needs of the Sun for delivering us Boris Johnston we arranged for Gemma and Sharon to meet with the leader of the opposition, David Cameron at the same time as the rest of the crew were at Downing Street with Brown. The juggling between Political parties and their media backers was tedious to say the least especially given what we were trying to achieve. Nobody was getting paid to do this of course whereby both the Politicians and newspapers staff are all on salaried time clocks. I was left pretty battered by the whole experience at this end of it!
We also brought in Choice FM the urban music radio station to help manage the peace rally stage where their DJ and TV Personality Richard Blackwood hosted the rally. Celebrities like Asher D from So Solid Crew also pitched in while we had gospel choirs and guest speakers like Vernon Coaker the Minister for Police.
The story for how we raised the full £60k would not be resolved until 48 hours before the event when after failing to get the Royal Parks approved stage rigger to drop their prices I was still £30k short of the full total needed. The business banking manager at Barclays Bank the Damilola Taylor Trust's bankers at the time somehow let me talk him into giving the Trust a £30k loan to cover the cost to be paid back over 3 years was an absolute star. He is back home in Australia now and works in the youth sector. I was thrilled some years later when he emailed me saying he was sick of banking and his experiences supporting us with the development of the Spirit of London Awards post the march had given him a desire to get into youth work so could I give him a reference. Not all bankers deserve the rep they get. Most of them but certainly not all!!
Anyway the money was raised and the stage riggers loaded the staging equipment and headed for London. We were game on to stage the biggest march of its kind with 63 victim families and what eventually turned out to be a crowd of around 30,000 from both marches and those that turned up directly in Hyde Park. The Mirror would approximate the figure at closer to 50k and the Sun somewhat more bullishly at 100k. Estimates, guestimates who really cared. It was all about the victim families and the young people whose voices were heard that enough was enough. This was what we had done it for and all that really mattered. And the day had been a success for the families especially the grandmother who insisted on staying on the main stage clutching a picture of her 14 year old grandson lost to knife crime a few months earlier. She recited his favourite poem. I was in tears at this stage and I am pretty sure Richard Blackwood was as well along with many in the crowd
The chaos as Richard Taylor and Brooke met by Eros as the two marches converged at the same time thanks to great planning support by the MET event team led to a fight with the scum bag paparazzi photographers that had stalked Brooke and her family the whole way from Islington and I got quite a telling off for Chinning the photographer who smashed into Richard and Brooke as they tried to embrace on meeting! All just by the by memories!
Was the march a success? Yes I would say it was a huge success. It demonstrated that people wanted solutions and would stand together in order to find them. Did it lead to safer streets and a drop in the violence? No it did not and now 8 years later the problem with kids carrying knives and wantonly stabbing each other is worse than ever sadly. This is a societal problem and one that I feel that sustainable solutions being found have been hampered by political cycles. Short termism and flawed policies have created an industry of large and small organisations all doing similar things duplicated many times over but with very little cohesion or collaborative planning. Can this change? Well it will have to if we are not going to be caught in this current ground hog day escalation of violence forever.
I am currently writing up a report based on my experiences and those that have worked with me over the last 8 years since the march took place. It has been a very tough environment to work in but once you are caught up in something as complex as this if you are truly passionate about helping find solutions as I am then it is not easy to just turn and walk away. No matter how tough it gets without funding or support from the establishment and their status quo!
Violence is a societal not a youth issue. I do not think we should allow the establishment to label it "youth violence" for much longer. That's become part of the problem in my view.....