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Birmingham's Ex-Gangsters Are Trying to Make the City a Safer Place

But the lure of drugs and guns is still strong.

by Alex Godfrey, Photos: Alexander Piatti
28 March 2013, 6:35pm

Shabba (left) and Dylan.

For the past 20 years, gang rivalry between Birmingham's Johnson Crew and the Burger Bar Boys has been making the city a more dangerous place to live. The violence began after disagreements within the Johnson Crew led to a number of members splintering off and forming the Burger Bar Boys. Since then, that initial disagreement has developed into a much bigger mess, as the two factions compete for control of the second city's drugs trade. And by compete, I mean murdering each other and innocent bystanders with knives and guns.

In 2009, filmmaker Penny Woolcock shot the UK gangster movie 1 Day in the area, which starred Burger-affiliated Dylan Duffus. While researching the film, Penny met Shabba – a member of the Johnson Crew – who was clearly moved enough by the film to contact Penny again in the hope of initiating a truce between Birmingham's rival gang factions. Penny introduced Shabba to Dylan, and the two agreed that it was time to try to put an end to the fighting that had been ruining the lives of young men and women in inner-city Birmingham for decades.  

Penny filmed the process for her upcoming documentary One Mile Away, and, with funding from various sources, some of the guys involved have since formed a social enterprise, running programmes in schools in gang-affected areas. I met Dylan, Shabba and Zimbo, another star of the film, to talk about the film, their future and why they still have hankerings to return to the old days of drugs and gangs.

VICE: Shabba, Penny said you approached her because you thought something pretty bad was going to happen.
Shabba: There was a sticky situation – it was tense. That's not to say it's better now and all patched up, but it could be worse.
Dylan: Tell them the story.
Shabba: There was basically an altercation with the two gangs while I was out of town. I thought it was gonna get ugly so I came back to Brum and saw nine or ten geezers walking past me. Straight away I clocked that they were from the other side, so I was expecting them to come over and smash my head in, but they showed me respect instead. I was shocked – I left the scene thinking, 'Does everyone not hate everyone any more?' So I figured we should try to do something where we got the people who could get along together and try to teach people something. 

Dylan, how did you feel when Penny told you that Shabba wanted to talk?
Dylan: At first, I thought, 'What? What's happening?' Then I thought, 'Actually, I've got kids – this is only right.' My kids are at the age where they could fall either side of the line, so I had to do something. I've felt the harsh effects of this lifestyle and there ain't nothing good about it. No children should have to go through it. So, because I'd been in 1 Day, I had a little bit of influence; the kids were listening when I was speaking. And, as a so-called role model, I'm obliged to say something to them.

Zimbo, how did you feel about it all, because it took you some time to get involved, right?
Zimbo: I don't know. I wanted to deal with the real issues, I wanted to do something that would actually change my life and, to me, stopping the beef between the Burgers and the Johnsons wasn't life-changing.


Why not?
Zimbo: Because it just wouldn't mean nothing.
Shabba: You could stop the beef, but because of the mentality, someone else would just start it off.
Zimbo: Everything else is still there. For example, I feel safer around these man than I do around a lot of people in my own ends. So us stopping this little ting, what does that change? Everything we were going through, we're still going through – there's still always other shit going on in your own area. This little ting between this side of town and that side of town is bullshit. That's why I was against it, because it's not going to make any difference to my life.

Do you still think that?
Zimbo: Honestly? Yeah, I do. If we keep all the same issues but stop the beef between the Burgers and the Johnsons, then what's changed? That I can go to his ends and he can come to mine? That's not changing our lives.
Shabba: I never say gangs should stop – I'd like to see gangs more organised.
Zimbo: This little issue that's in the papers, that's the least of our problems. We get rid of that, everything else is still there. We're still gonna see the same amount of shootings, because half of the shootings aren't even Burger and Johnson related, they're probably in-house nowadays. It's every man for himself; the mentality has eaten us to the point where we're not even loyal to each other no more. So yeah, I still feel like that.

I watched an interview with you where you said you'd never worked before now. How were you managing to stay on top of things and keep your head above water?
Zimbo: Criminality.


But, I mean, you're here now.
Zimbo: Once we started doing all this, all that stopped. You have to do one or the other. You can't be selling drugs and robbing everyone and doing all this shit and be trying to do this. Because, for one, it's a big contradiction, and two, you'll get yourself arrested doing that.
Shabba: We had contracts. We were getting good money selling drugs. Now I work for a good company and I'm on good money. But if I could say what I'd rather do, I'd go back to selling drugs. I'm gonna stay at work and do the right thing, but if it was down to me, I'd take the easy route.
Zimbo: Selling drugs ain't the easy route. When you're selling drugs, you take losses. 

Like what?
Zimbo: You wanna kill a man because he owes you money. Man wanna kill you because you owe him money. Who wants to live like that, fam? The reality is that 98 percent of man that sells drugs and robs and does the rest of it are broke. They have money one day, the next day they've got no money. These man are living stressed every day. They're in big debt – they have to go and pick up gun to rob man and do this and that. Who wants to live like that?
Shabba: I've never in my life had to go through that, blud.
Dylan: I have. It's horrible.

How did your situations differ?
Shabba: There's different levels. You could be running a food shop, but don't mean your food shop's running like mine. You could be out there selling crack and heroin, taking risks, or you could be a dope dealer who doesn't even see these people.
Zimbo: It's the same shit to me, fam. Anyone who robs for a living and sells drugs for a living has not got a stable lifestyle.
Shabba: You see all these things that we're discussing – this is why we have beef, not because of the postcodes.
Dylan: It's all the politics and lack of trust that goes with the lifestyle.


What does the older generation in your area think about what you're doing now? 
Zimbo: They're supportive. They think it's a good thing, but I think they just gave up.
Dylan: Everybody was too busy fighting the system. But there's no businesses for us – you can't employ your children. With the Asian community, if the kids were messing up in school they could work for their dads in family-owned shops or businesses. Us, we have our gold teeth, we look a bit attitude and employers can sense that. They sense you're nervous and you don't get the job. It's hard.
Shabba: We're allowed to get rich, but we're not allowed to get wealthy. We're allowed to have a bit of money, cars, jewellery and women to distract us, but we're not allowed to have wealth. You won't walk past a building that says on it "Co and Co, 1852" that's run by black guys. We'll never have nothing, that's how it is.

Zimbo: No, we will.
Dylan: Yeah, we will.
Shabba: I'm not saying never, but we don't have anything now. We might be able to get a bit of money, but there's no longevity.
Dylan: We're just a product of what's happened before our generation – the mess that's left over. We go to school and this is what we're taught: "You lot were slaves." And then we learn about the guys that conquered our countries. Then we walk around and see the cleaners in McDonald's and it fucks with your head. So you'll do anything to avoid that situation, but you put yourself in more problems and that's how it grows. That's the mentality; it's a big, big problem. Gangs are just one symptom of it.
Zimbo: I think we can change the situation ourselves, though.

You're already doing something really positive with this film and the programmes you're running.
Zimbo: We're changing the situation.
Dylan: Break it down, Zim.
Zimbo: The shit we're doing now is crazy. There are people who've never thought about working, their whole life, who are now looking to work and do something positive. We've got man that would see each other daily and pull out a gun and unload. That was me two years ago. The shit that we're doing now is epic.

One Mile Away is in cinemas from Friday the 29th of March and you can donate to help raise funds for their #RoadToFreedom tour at Kickstarter. 

Follow Alex on Twitter: @MrGodfrey

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