Why London's Teenagers Are Killing One Another
UK lawmakers are launching a new strategy to deal with youth violence—but are they focusing on the right driving causes?
Left: shooting victim, Tanesha Melbourne (Photo: SWNS); Right: A social media tribute paid to shooting victim Amaan Shakoor.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Amaan Shakoor was with friends outside of a leisure center in Walthamstow last Monday night when masked attackers exited a car and shot him point-blank in the face. He was 16. Only three weeks beforehand, half a mile down the road, 20-year-old Joseph Williams-Torres died in a pool of blood after he was shot in the stomach.
The day after Amaan was murdered, yards from the secondary school where he had studied, the police forensics tent went up. Young people in hoodies and masks paying their respects clashed with police. This is becoming the custom when a youngster dies in a London street killing. Online, Amaan's friends were updating their social media profile pictures to photos of him.
"We grew up on a dirty and fucked strip. I was with you only four days ago talking about how many men we lost," said one tribute posted on Instagram. "You said to me that one of us were gonna be the next and Subhanallah you wasn't wrong. I've seen too many friends of mine drop and it needs to stop I can’t take it anymore ngl. Farewell to a true driller and warrior. Rest in power."
It's a hard time to be young and working-class on the streets of London. You don’t have to pore over statistics, or know anything about the victims, to get that these fatalities are an abhorrent waste of life. Amaan was one of three teenagers murdered in only three days at the beginning of April. In nine weeks, there have been 19 homicides in the capital involving victims aged under 25. Nine of them had yet to reach 20.
Most of those killed this year have been young black men, as was the case in 2017, when teenage homicides began to spike nationally, with 27 teenagers killed. The last time the numbers of young homicide victims was so high was a decade ago, in 2007 and 2008. Again, the dead were chiefly black kids living in deprived neighborhoods.
As the Home Office today launches a new £40 million [$56 million] strategy to reduce youth violence and tackle the county lines drug trade—identifying the "devastating effect of crack cocaine as a key driver" in the rise of the violence, and blaming social media for allowing young people to taunt rivals—explanations of why young people are getting stabbed to death in such large numbers have rained down from all angles.
Racists blame violent immigrants. Tories [conservative party members] say it's London Mayor Sadiq Khan's fault. The mayor himself wants more stop-and-search, while Home Secretary Amber Rudd says it has nothing to do with police, but the drug trade. Metropolitan police chief Cressida Dick has it down to social media, while many of her officers think the killings have been prompted by a fall in police numbers and stop-and-search. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham—where 17-year-old bystander Tanesha Melbourne was killed in a drive-by shooting on April 2—singles out the cocaine trade. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston goes further, asking recreational drug users "whether they are proud of their own role in fueling gang violence and dead teenagers."
But let's move away from the political posturing. If we want to know why this is going on in London right now, we have to look at the motives of the killers: What drove them to stab or shoot someone to death? As suspects in this recent spate of homicides are rounded up and charged, we can only guess the thought processes that led the guilty ones to murder.
However, looking at court cases involving some of the 27 teenagers killed in the capital last year provides a good insight into what it was that triggered these homicides. What they reveal is a procession of lives lost to petty social media beefs, and tit-for-tat revenge attacks and small world rivalries. It's the street equivalent of a Twitter spat that ends in the morgue.
These guys might be tough, but it's important to remember that they're still kids. In June of last year, for example, a 16-year-old killed Osman Sharif—also 16—with a meat cleaver in a Tottenham street because of a row over some laughing emojis on Snapchat. Two months earlier, 20-year-old Syed Jamanoor Islam was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old in Mile End in a feud that started with eggs being thrown by the victim's brother as a joke.
YouTube and Snapchat have become, in the words of Brixton youth worker Ciaran Thapar, "a medium through which groups of young men can fire shots at their opps without leaving their estate." Yet, sometimes the online abuse translates into visceral street violence.
In February of last year, Dean Pascal-Modeste, 21, was stabbed 14 times by two 18-year-olds after being caught up in a gang feud over a rap video shown on DJ Tim Westwood's YouTube channel. Two weeks later, Mohammed Hassan, 17, was sliced to death with a machete in Battersea by four teenagers, days after filming a rap video taunting a rival south London gang.
Social media compounds youth violence because it has the power to intensify feuds in a matter of seconds to an audience of thousands. The ubiquity of Snapchat and Instagram among teenagers now has ramped-up the potential to humiliate and therefore the need to maintain, or restore reputation.
There is a certain element of a feeding frenzy at play here. Not just that the media is reporting every single stabbing in London, but because, like social media, killing can go viral. Murders can generate more murders, especially in London’s currently febrile state, and this could be a contributing factor to the rise. Because the bar for committing extreme violence is lowered, what is acceptable to some becomes acceptable to many. As well as the inevitable tit-for-tat attacks, those involved in that world are now more likely to be armed and dangerous, whether police decide to conduct a mass shakedown or not because, in 2018, their life is more at risk.
Many—but by no means all—of those involved in these killings, both victims and perpetrators, are street hustlers who will have made money from selling drugs on the street. It's a tough life, especially if you're going country, and many of them will have carried weapons and got into fights.
But claims that the drug trade is the prime mover behind this spate of killings are hard to back up; there is no evidence to show that new trends in the drug economy have fueled London's surge in violence.
The recent rise in purity and prevalence of crack and heroin—the drugs connected with street sellers and violence—does not appear linked. The last time street violence was at its height, in 2008, crack purity had hit rock bottom. The spread of young dealers from the capital's gangs selling drugs in satellite towns may be increasing homicides in towns such as Southend, but will have little impact on London's violence.
London is not The Wire. Unlike in Baltimore, where a significant number of last year's 343 homicides were drug trade turf wars, only a handful of teenage murders in the UK capital over the last year appear directly linked to drug patch disputes. For most of them, it’s a way of making a living without attracting too much police heat, rather than a reason to commit murder.
In London—like other big cities in the UK, such as Liverpool—youth violence is more about where you live than what you are selling. In most parts of London, the boredom of everyday life is alleviated by an obsessive rivalry with crews from the block of apartments down the road. Last August, 15-year-old schoolboy Jermaine Goupall was stabbed to death simply because he lived in the CR7 zip code and happened to be hanging out in his neighborhood when a gang from the nearby CR0 zip code swung by armed with knives, looking for enemies to maim.
But there are deeper, underlying and long-term elements at play. It's difficult to understand why someone can be whacked for posting up a laughing emoji, or why carrying a knife has become a way of life for some school-age children. But then outsiders have little idea of the marginalized, claustrophobic life led by the populations most at risk of being killed and of being killers.
Dr. Ebony Reid of Brunel University carried out in-depth research, published last year, into road culture and trapping on her own estate in north London. She told me the bloodshed is fueled by a crisis: There are too many young, socially-excluded black men living in poverty in London that see zip code rivalries and a life of crime as the only viable way of making something of themselves. Once set on this path, says Dr. Reid, they become trapped, not only physically in council estates, but within the brutalized mental state that being on road requires.
"There is a structure and logic to the violence that consumes life 'on the road,'" says Dr. Reid. "Identity has to be managed, and they employ violence to redeem themselves. These men have nothing else, but their lives on the road, and no real prospect of making it. But they are essentially traumatized by their experiences. These men feel lost, isolated, and invisible."
Which leads to the conclusion that increased stop-and-search, social media restrictions and tougher clampdowns on the drug trade might not do the trick. These knee-jerk policies could temporarily put a lid on these tragic killings, but they can't tackle their deep-rooted causes. "Investing more in prevention and early intervention" will reportedly be a focus of the new Home Office scheme—which is a start, but we've heard those kinds of promises before.
What is needed is empathy, not restrictions, tasers, and batons. Crime expert Gavin Hales, who spent the 2000s analyzing intense levels of violent youth crime in Brent, got it right when he said that "policymakers aspiring for prevention must meaningfully address opportunity, esteem, and the worldview held by vulnerable youngsters."
If we fail to enter their mind-set and to understand why young people carry knives, why they live criminal lives, and why they kill, there is no chance of stemming the slaughter. Young Londoners from marginalized communities are becoming increasingly trapped in a deadly echo chamber, a blinkered zone of narrowing horizons and artificial social media beefs, where reputation is an all-consuming currency. Unless they are offered a way out, young bodies like Amaan's will keep on falling.
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