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Could Violence Interrupters Have Prevented the UK Riots?

Violence interrupter Jason Featherstone is taking on London's gang problems.

by Joshua Haddow
Feb 23 2012, 4:25pm

Last year, after Britain rioted its way through August, I started looking into the subject of violence interrupters. If you missed my interviews with Dr. Gary Slutkinwho invented the concept of "violence interruption"—and director Steve Jameswhose film The Interrupters explores the topic—then violence interrupters are basically ex-gang members who work in rough areas to defuse tense and potentially fighty situations. They do this by using the respect and reputation they earned while running with gangs to talk both sides out of a confrontation.

Dr. Slutkin believes that outbreaks of violence should be treated in the same way as medical epidemics. In practice, this means aiming to stop the violence at its source, rather than letting it flare up into something spectacularly nasty before bashing the anger out of people with police truncheons.

Since Dr. Slutkin's Ceasefire program launched in Chicago, some areas of the city have seen instances of violent crime drop by as much as 70 percent. So it was kind of inevitable that the idea would spread to London. The man trying to employ it here is Jason Featherstone, who comes from Tottenham, the area of North London where last year's riots started. I spoke to him about his "Surviving Our Streets" program, London's unrest and gang troubles and how violence interruption can help in situations like last August's riots.


Jason Featherstone, director of violence prevention

I called up Jason for a chat.

VICE: Hi Jason. So what's your aim with Surviving Our Streets?
Jason Featherstone: To create a credible way to intervene in street violence, following the Ceasefire model. We're developing a programme that deals with those at highest risk of being either a victim or a perpetrator of knife or gun violence.

In the US they have a big problem with guns. In the UK, it's mostly knives, but are guns getting more popular?
The weapon of choice isn't really the issue, it's the behavior behind it. That said, gun violence is growing here and yes, we do have a problem with the knife crime. The younger generation have knives, whilst the older will have more access to firearms. But it's hard to generalize, because you'll find an incident here or there where a 13-year-old has used a firearm.

How are school kids getting hold of guns?
One of the big problems in the UK is the growing use of "rebores." If you get a replica firearm, replace the pin, drill through the barrel, etc, etc, suddenly you've got a live firearm. They tend to have a tendency to blow up in your hand though, so when I was growing up people avoided them like the plague. I don't know if the technique has been perfected, or if people are just more willing to risk, but rebores are being used left, right and center.

They're easier to get hold of than a real firearm, then?
One of the main differences is price. A rebore will be a lot cheaper than a real firearm. Prices vary. By the time they use it, if they're—and I hate to use this word—"sensible" in street terms, they're gonna get rid of it. So, they're not gonna spend six or seven hundred pounds on a firearm knowing they're gonna throw it in a canal after they've used it. If they're spending, say £250, or whatever, it's not gonna hurt their wallet as much.

But, as I said, the choice of weapon isn't that important. If someone doesn't have access to a firearm, they'll pick up a knife. If someone feels aggrieved or disrespected in some way, that's when they have the inclination to take matters into their own hands. In that way, London's the same as Chicago, or anywhere else, really.


Jason (third from the right) with the members of the Ceasefire programme in Chicago.

How was it for you when you went to visit Ceasefire in Chicago? I heard one of your guys looked around Chicago and said “I'm home, it's Brixton!” or something like that.
I'm from Tottenham originally, that was my colleague Mark Shopi, who's from South London. When we first arrived, we were going to get a hire car and they asked us where were going. We told them, “Englewood.” They literally threw their hands up and were saying, “Boys, boys, what are you going down there for?”

We got there and there are bullet holes in the walls and stuff like that, but it became normal once we were sitting down on the steps and hanging out with the Ceasefire guys. And this is the thing: yes, Chicago is a very different landscape to the UK, but the issues are really the same. Deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion to a point...

How do those problems translate into violence on the street?
Young people learn a way to navigate the streets, how to survive, and the rules and the laws that govern the roads. Part of that is upkeeping your image, you can't let anyone violate you or disrespect you. Violence is a learned behavior.

How do you find people to recruit as violence interrupters in London?
Through street-based networking, personal contacts on the ground level. London, you know, it's a big and small place at the same time. People move about, it's not like Chicago where people stay in the same neighborhoods. You find people involved in the gang lifestyle will have allegiances and friends all over the place.

What about postalcode gangs? Aren't their movements around the city limited by those invisible barriers between, say, E8 and E9?
Yeah, the younger generation have a nightmare in terms of postcodes. I'm not saying the older guys won't, if you've got a conflict in a particular area it doesn't matter how old you are, you shouldn't be caught down there. If I'm working in Hackney or London Fields, for example, there's been an ongoing conflict between Tottenham and London Fields for many, many years. So there would be a lot of history to get past before engaging. Minimum of a year to develop relationships in that community or, better, find my equivalent there.

Tio Hardiman from Ceasefire wrote an article saying that violence interruption could be the answer to incidents such as the UK riots that took place last August. What do you think?
Definitely. This might come as a surprise—and this is in no way pointing the finger at anyone, because we all need to work together—but to be honest with you, if we had the team up and running in Tottenham when that happened and the family were going up to the police station... Listen, I would have had as many guys inside that police station trying to get an officer to tell them what happened, so you could get them a response and everyone else outside off the street and home.

You think dealing with it then and there could have nipped it in the bud?
Yeah, Mark [Duggan] was killed on Thursday, and by Saturday there had still been no family liaison officer over at his parents' to tell them what had happened. I'm not here to point fingers—it should have happened, and it didn't. But, at the same time, there's a situation brewing. There's a history in Tottenham, it has a very volatile relationship with the police.

The word on the street was Mark didn't fire on the police officers, an officer shot another officer and he [Mark] was then shot in the chest. That was out on the street way, way before the IPCC came out. On the day of the protest that eventually became a riot, I would have been working as hard as I could with that family to get them what they needed and off the street. The more you have the family in distress, it's a catalyst. It would have helped if they'd just got them into the station, and asked a family member to go back out and say, “Everybody, they're talking to us now. Please go home. Thank you for your support.”

What is the state of violence interruption in the UK?
There are a lot of great grassroots organizations, but a lot of them are poorly funded. Also, although there are academics doing good work, they're a bit detached from the reality of the street experience. The great thing about Ceasefire is it's the perfect marriage of scientific methodology and street work. Right now, I think that's it.

@joshuahaddow

For more on violence interrupters:

Do You Want a Job Breaking Up Gang Fights in Chicago?

Riot Interrupted