How postcode wars have made London a murder capital
The homicide toll this year has reached 50, as gun and knife attacks spiral out of control
A forensic officer at work at the scene of the shooting in Tottenham, north London, which claimed the life of Tanesha Melbourne (17). Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
At 17, Tanesha Melbourne was still at school, working part-time for a catering agency and volunteering at a youth centre in Tottenham, north London, where she mentored younger teenagers at risk of being drawn into gangs.
Described by teachers as “bright and bubbly”, she posted a video on Snapchat last week showing her in the back seat of a car with friends, laughing and joking with music blaring in the background.
An hour later, Tanesha was walking near her home when a car drew up next to her and shots were fired through the window, with a bullet hitting her in the chest. Shortly afterwards, the teenager died in her mother’s arms, becoming the 48th person to be murdered in London this year.
Tanesha may have been caught in the crossfire of a “postcode war” between drug gangs who carve up territory in London’s boroughs, often attacking rivals and their associates if they set foot in the wrong street.
Twenty-five minutes after her shooting, 16-year-old Amaan Shakoor was shot in the face about two miles away in Walthamstow, dying later of his injuries in hospital.
A fatal stabbing in Lewisham two days later brought London’s death toll from violent crime this year above 50.
The rise in violent crime had already become a political issue after London recorded more murders in February than New York, with Labour blaming government cuts to youth services and a 14 per cent fall in police numbers across the country since 2010.
London faces local elections on May 3rd, and while Labour holds Theresa May’s government responsible for rising crime, the Conservatives want to put the blame on Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in the capital.
This week, Amber Rudd announced a £40 million package of measures to tackle violent crime, focusing on early intervention and targeting “county lines” gangs that use teenagers to supply drugs to towns and rural areas outside London. Rudd wants to restrict the online sale of knives and ban the private possession of weapons such as zombie knives, which are used in many attacks.
Dublin-born Patrick Green is chief executive of the Ben Kinsella Trust, which campaigns against knife crime and runs programmes to educate children about its consequences. He says there is no single cause of the recent rise in violent crime but that there is a clear relationship between crime levels and the funding of youth services.
The more youth workers you have on the estates, the more people you’re connecting with
“When we saw knife crime in England and Wales fall from 2011 or 2012, shortly after the London riots, you had a real focus on violent crime, you had a real focus on youth work. You had a lot of central government and local government interest. You had a lot of funding that comes on a three-year cycle.
“That sort of fades away around 2015 and between 2011 and 2015 violent crime started to fall. The collective view around that point was, ‘we’re no longer a violent society, crime is changing, crime is falling’ and priorities and focus just went elsewhere.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when that momentum disappeared and some of the basic building blocks for the infrastructure to tackle this disappeared, we start to see that spiral,” he says.
Green says that, although the impact of youth services can be difficult to measure in terms of value for money, they are crucial to identifying and engaging with those at risk and helping young people to turn their lives around.
“What youth funding does in a lot of cases is it puts young people at risk in touch with good mentors, good role models and gives them activities to do that often push them in a more positive direction. So the more stuff you’ve got going on, the more youth workers you have on the estates, the more people you’re connecting with.
“Anybody who has been in an offending lifestyle and has come out of it, when you hear their story there’s nearly always one consistent fact, somebody somewhere along the line believed in them, invested time in them and helped them. That’s an immeasurable thing that level of work does and it’s often hard for the public purse to quantify directly the value they get out of it. But it does really work,” he says.
In the heart of Loughborough Junction in south London, an area with one of the highest youth crime rates in the country, a repurposed railway arch at the end of a derelict street is alive with activity. Inside, children as young as five are ducking and weaving inside and outside the boxing ring, sparring with partners and pounding mitts held by adult trainers.
This is Dwaynamics, a club founded by Lorraine Jones, an ordained minister whose son Dwayne Simpson died following a knife attack in 2014.
“He saw a younger boy that he used to work with being chased by somebody and he looked like he was in trouble. He went to go and help and this person had a sword. I watched the CCTV. He gave him one jab and that sword went right through Dwayne’s heart. He was in King’s College Hospital for two days and then he died. He was 20 years old,” she says.
A man was arrested for Dwayne’s killing but the charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter because the evidence suggested that the killing had not been premeditated and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
“Some of my children and members of my community were outraged because Dwayne had been killed and he should have got life. But me personally, when I saw him in the dock, I saw a vulnerable young man. I could see he hadn’t a clue of what he had done,” Jones says.
Dwayne had become involved with a gang during his teens and served time in custody for acting as a lookout during a robbery when he was 15. Before his death, he had set up a boxing club in a disused shop on the crime-ridden Angell Estate, where he and Jones lived, offering teenagers an alternative to drugs and crime.
“He would tell me about the streets and how vulnerable the young people were because there were no spaces for them. So a lot of them were just out on the street, on the walls, in the park,” Jones says.
After Dwayne died, the young people he had worked with asked Jones to help keep the project alive and she worked with Richard Davis, a trainer at Miguel’s boxing gym nearby. Dwaynamics runs classes six days a week and has about 300 people on its books, mostly children and teenagers, many of them from troubled backgrounds and some who have already become involved with gangs and crime.
“It’s boxing and fitness but it’s mentoring, it’s coaching, it’s life skills, it’s helping young people to develop. We also have referrals from the youth offending team, so young people who are going through challenges of carrying knives, the police will refer them here.
Drug dealers have to be really thankful for a society that has been created where you have so many disaffected youth
“And they do the programme, they build up so much inner strength. They feel within themselves that they don’t need to carry a knife and that’s because of the transformation mentally,” Jones says.
“The problem is the same problems Dwayne spoke about, the lack of spaces for these young people. What we’re experiencing now is the peak of how they’re responding and reacting out of the pain that they’re going through.
“We get to see a lot of the videos of attacks. When you see them in action, you’re seeing a child that has deep mental and emotional problems. And that’s why we’re very strong in advocating for the mental health approach, just like they’ve taken in Scotland, and they’ve cracked it. We need that here. Because it’s not just about law enforcement, stop and search, arresting them, putting them in jail,” she says.
“We’re talking about young people for a long period of time taking drugs, going through violence themselves. Because even in the gang setting, they go through abuse, physical abuse, torture, as well as taking drugs and emotional abuse. They’re literally broken and it’s almost like we have to rehabilitate them. But we first need to be able to engage with them because a lot of them, they’re hidden.”
Scotland dramatically reduced knife crime by adopting a holistic approach based on a model pioneered in Cincinnati, which links education, healthcare, social services and law enforcement to target the issues that drive knife crime.
Much attention in recent weeks has focused on the role of drill, a form of hip-hop with lyrics that often celebrate gang violence and knife attacks and is popular in parts of London.
Jones believes the music does play a role in fuelling violence, particularly through videos shared on social media, which often include specific threats or taunts aimed at local rivals in postcode wars.
“That plays a big part and I think that the government needs to use their powers and influence where it will create a drastic change. Laws need to be put in place where they cannot release this kind of drill violent music. Because a lot of it gears these gangsters to go and commit crime because it influences them.
“If you watch some of the videos they actually tell you in the video what they’re going to do and they will call individuals’ names. A lot of these young people are in fear because their names are being called or their area is being called, because we are going through a postcode war, and because of that they are in fear,” she says.
Green is more cautious, warning against the tendency of older generations to feel threatened by new forms of expression they don’t understand. But he shares Jones’s concern about the role of social media platforms, which he says have been negligent in failing to prevent violent threats being amplified through their networks.
He welcomes some of the measures Rudd announced this week and cautions against attempting to simply apply the Scottish model to London, where the nature of criminal organisations is very different.
“In London, the drug market is very sophisticated. Scotland didn’t have what they call the county lines, young people being put on trains with loads of drugs and moved around to various cities,” he says.
“Drug dealers have to be really thankful for a society that has been created where you have so many disaffected youth who have no ambition and can see nothing beyond getting into criminality. They’ve got a steady workforce at their fingertips.”