Published in the Evening Standard
The scariest thought is that we might not even be scared anymore. Children are killing children on the streets of London, and we?re gradually getting used to it.
Seven boys aged between 14 and 18 were either stabbed or shot dead in the capital since January, yet how many of us can name even one of them? The family of 14 year old Paul Erhahon won?t forget him, not after he died in his mother?s arms outside his home in Leytonstone last Friday. Nor will the family of Jevon Henry, 18, stabbed in the heart in St Johns Wood in January. Nor the loved ones of James Andre Smartt-Ford, a 16 year old shot dead at Streatham Ice Arena. Nor Michael Dosunmu, 15, shot and killed in his bed in Peckham. Nor Billy Cox, 15. Nor Kodjo Yenga, 16. Nor Adam Regis, 15.
The rest of us, though, read about these boys in the papers on the way home from work; we might see their pictures flashed up on the local television news later that night. And then, because they are not our sons or our brothers or our friends, we move on ? and forget.
That?s partly because we?ve all got busy lives and there?s only so much room in our crammed heads and over-stretched hearts. But, if we?re honest, we?ll admit there?s another factor at work here too. For too many Londoners, this spate of killing has seemed to be taking place at one remove ? as if it were somebody else?s problem. Specifically, too many white Londoners have been able to put this to one side, neatly labelling it a ?black problem.?
I don?t exempt the media from this charge. On the contrary, I?m trying to imagine the coverage if this had been seven white children slain on the streets of London: something tells me the media drumbeat would be much, much louder.
Yesterday the prime minister weighed in, calling for action on knife and gun crime. He also urged the black community to step forward and admit the truth: ?We won?t stop this by pretending it isn?t young black kids doing it,? Tony Blair said.
Of course, it?s good that the PM realises the gravity of this problem ? and most people will nod at his statement of the obvious. But there is an implied insult there, one which helps nobody.
For implicit in that remark was the suggestion that the black community currently does ?pretend? that this is someone else?s problem, that it is in a state of denial from which Tony Blair is stirring them. But that?s not true.
In February, an estimated 2500 people, mainly black Londoners, marched from Peckham to Windrush Square in Brixton in a ?prayer walk? to mourn the deaths of the teenage boys murdered in those bloody winter weeks. It was organised by Pastor Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance, with the backing of several predominantly black evangelical churches, in less than a week. As anyone who has even dabbled in activism will know, assembling 2500 people in a few days is a huge achievement ? and it illustrates a community that is in anything but denial.
Instead, black leaders insist they have ?owned? this issue for nearly a decade, urging every home secretary since Jack Straw to take action. Black radio stations and newspapers wrestle with it constantly. There is no need to tell them to face up to what they already know: rather the rest of us should start listening.
What we will hear is that this epidemic of violence comes out of a grim confluence of several problems, which have come together in the black community in a lethal combination.
Top of the list is poverty and deprivation. It?s easily forgotten, amid all the hoopla about London as a financial centre and global capital, but this city still harbours some of the worst poverty anywhere in Europe. Combine that with a high incidence of single parent families ? though not the highest: that still occurs among white Britons ? and you have communities that are exceptionally vulnerable to the kind of breakdown these crimes represent.
There are other, specific factors ? with the gang culture central. That, says Lee Jasper, the mayor?s adviser on race relations, is itself the product of large, open drug markets alongside areas of great deprivation. ?Once that culture takes hold,? says Jasper, ?it spreads.? A decade ago, drug dealers might have shot each other over drugs. Now, you get children killing children ?over nothing, trivia.?
The police have acted, their Operation Trident targeting so-called targeting crime in the black community and jailing some of the most established gang members. But that?s had an unintended consequence, say community activists, as younger, more hot-headed gang members have replaced the old guard, now in jail.
And it doesn?t end there. Yesterday Ken Livingstone added the prevalence and availability of violent movies and videogames to the list of possible culprits. It sounded like a side issue ? after all, plenty of people saw Kill Bill and didn?t go out and stab a teenager. But black leaders argue that while those from stable, well-resourced families might be able to watch and dismiss such movies - helped by other, more positive influences - this easily-available diet of violence can have a terribly desensitising effect on the vulnerable. The white kids in the suburbs might listen to 50 Cent?s ?Get Rich or Die Tryin?? on their iPod with no great consequences, but for a black kid in Peckham it can have a rather more pernicious impact.
Luckily, black campaigners are not short of suggested remedies for this grave problem. The core solution is one the prime minister should embrace: if we want to get tough on this crime, we have to get tough on the causes of this crime. That means investment in employment and education, so that schools stop failing black boys. It means more black male teachers in the classroom, offering whatever incentives are needed to bring them there. It means London equivalents of America?s ?midnight basketball? schemes, in which schools and community centres stay open after hours, getting kids off the streets and giving them a place to go and things to do. After years in which youth services were run down in the Thatcher era, it means new investment ? soon to be helped by the mayor?s plan to put in a pound for every pound spent by the local boroughs.
This is not the problem of one part of London, but of all London. Unless we want to become the kind of city where children murder children ? and everyone else walks on by.