Murder in the Playground

April 18th 2018

Waiting for the bus the other day I stood and read a shocking poster.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague earlier this week. It occurred against a backdrop of the screaming headlines that more than 50 Londoners are dead and no one seems to be able to do anything.

The press asks “what can we do?”  and the responses are varied.  Families cry and look bewildered saying “but he was a good boy, I just don’t understand it”. Perhaps we need more police, more opportunities for young boys, better housing, more engaged Dads, happy families, boxing clubs, sport training, youth clubs, access to education, better support for parents… the answer is probably all of this, but at different times, at different levels and in different formats.

In the meantime, of 670 LEYF staff, two have lost a brother to street violence. We also had a gang related murder on the front step of a nursery in broad daylight. However, the most poignant conversation I ever had was with one of LEYF’s fantastic nursery managers,  the content of which left me aghast.  Living in a London housing estate in a gentrified borough she fears for her two teenage sons’ safety. She recalled a discussion they had in the light of the headlines. Here is a snippet:

Do you feel safe when you go outside?
All the time?
What can I do to help?
Nothing, this is how it is.
What do you do to stay safe and out of the eye of the gangs?
Don’t wear Adidas.
What else?
Wear football clothes, they respect that and will leave you alone.
What happens if they stop you?
Careful how you answer, remember to say “I live in” not “I am from”…
One says you must be part of another gang and they will attack you?
What if you wear your school uniform, does that keep you safe?
Don’t be ridiculous, it’s just as bad there.

Imagine how she feels as a mother.  She says where they lived before her sons could go and play football, be out on their bikes, feel safe to travel to events.  Now, they limit their outings and stay indoors. No one is happy but they are safe. Is this right? She said the worse thing was the acceptance of this as part of their lives.  There was no drama from them, they described their reality factually and calmly.

The Serious Violence Strategy blamed gangs, drugs, and social media. The police confirm this, saying that it’s hard to get arrests because they are met with a wall of silence. That’s unsurprising, given the issues faced by ordinary people sharing their neighbourhoods with such thuggery.

Politicians spat about the number of policemen on the beat having fallen to its lowest comparable level since 2014.  Although, the following weekend there were 300 extra police on duty but mostly in central London.  My nursery manager did not see anyone walking about her South London estate.  There has been a 16% drop in actual numbers of police officers taking it from 144,353 police officers to 121,929.  The debate is out as to what the numbers mean, is it local community police, drugs trafficking departments, more police cars or stations? Bandying numbers about without some focused and purposeful researched debate on how to best use the police we have is just smoke and mirrors and lets politicians off the hook. That includes you too Mr London Mayor.

While this has occurred there has been a blatant increase in drug trafficking on the streets with some drug barons using corporate marketing techniques such as loyalty card system to compete with rival gang drug distribution.  They have also got the use of social media down to an art form.

Police try and pressure Twitter, Facebook etc. to delete gang contact as well as placing restrictions on online sales of knives and a ban on the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s. But we know how difficult it is to get these corporate companies to act.  We have had direct experience of this, trying to managing a disturbed and disgruntled staff member who appears to be allowed to continue to post malicious, abusive and slanderous messages online.

Some years ago, we invited John Carnochan who set up the Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit. He told us the story of David, best articulated in the Ken Loach film the Angel’s Share. He was clear that we needed investment in children and families as early as possible because a stable and secure community is the best place to police itself.  We need to help young people join what Michael Oakeshott calls the conversation of mankind. Our schools must worry less about exam results but more about helping students to be able to reflect, think, ask questions and debate. We need our young people to be brave enough to identify and call injustice into question. I have recently seen great examples of this at City Spark and Enactus UK.

Mr Mayor, let’s help shape the London communities by investing in infrastructure that connects people. Consider the systemic issues of poverty, alienation and lack of care.  Too many young people have to find their way in societies being transformed by the liberating yet profoundly destabilising forces of globalisation, raising issues of culture, identity, belonging and belief.

Make it easier to take apprentices and employ locally.  Invest in more accessible childcare, community hubs, libraries, and the many ways we can access to play, sport and learning. Make it easier for small local business to thrive. Give tax breaks and ask local authority to stop raising rents on High Streets so only faceless corporates can afford to be there.  Let’s work in a coordinated way and show community leadership!

If we don’t we will continue to see young people murdering each other for time to come. We cannot afford to stand idly by, the next boy murdered could be yours.