Sunday, 30 April 2017

Centre of attention

Last week a young girl was shot in a south London shop. Nick Duxbury visits a nearby estate to find out if new anti-social behaviour powers can stamp out the area’s growing gang culture.

Five years old. This is the age of the UK’s youngest victim of gang violence. Thursha Kamaleswaran was shot in front of her family in a convenience store in Stockwell, south London, last Tuesday by one of three black youths, their faces obscured by surgical masks and bandanas. The trio threw down their BMX bikes and burst into Stockwell Wine and Food on Stockwell Road where they fired at their intended victims, two teenagers, one of which was from the nearby Stockwell Park estate. They missed. Badly. Instead they hit Thursha in the chest and a 35-year-old shopkeeper in the face, leaving them both fighting for their lives.

The crime has shocked the nation - but for people living in the area the fact it happened is, sadly, less of a surprise. Only a week earlier a petty gang dispute at the Stockwell Park estate community centre resulted in a gang member from another estate pulling a gun and firing at a local youth. That time nobody was hurt but police are now investigating possible links between the incidents. The bullet fired at the community centre is being analysed by Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit that investigates gun crime among London’s black community, to see if it came from the same gun that shot Thursha.

‘He was one of ours,’ says Julie Fawcett, director of the Community Trust which runs the estate’s community centre, of one of the intended targets of the shop shooting. ‘We leant on him to go to the police and name the person who fired the shot and he’s done that now.’

Gang culture

When I visit the estate a week earlier, the tragedy involving Thursha has yet to unfold. Ms Fawcett meets me at the entrance to the community centre and points to a hole in the door. The concave metal scar on the door bares testament to the rise of gangs, a growing problem among young people that the police, social landlords and tenants are struggling to get a grip on. The government’s latest effort to tackle gang culture is the introduction in January of gang injunctions as part of its overhaul of anti-social behaviour measures. But if the bullet hole is a symbol of the terrifying rise of gangs, it is also a warning that existing anti-social behaviour measures have not worked. Indeed, according to Ms Fawcett some measures have become as much a part of the problem as the solution.

The growing presence of gangs on the 1,700-home Stockwell Park estate - run by Community Trust Housing, part of 17,000-home Network Housing Group, since it transferred from a tenant management organisation in 2006 - is a perfect example of this.

According to Ms Fawcett, many residents and the police see the estate’s community centre as a Mecca for gangs and gang-related ASB; and therefore the epicentre of the area’s gang problem. However, she argues that without the centre the problem would be much worse. While she professes to cater for the ‘mad, the bad and the sad’ in the centre she says it helps young people by educating them, relieving poverty and tackling racial tensions. Open from 10am to 10pm, it offers everything from free internet access, pool and table tennis tables, and an activities hall to tea and toast. She argues that any problems associated with the centre and the estate are, in fact, the result of short-sighted police policy and counterproductive anti-social behaviour legislation.

Dangerous mix

Both Ms Fawcett and Delroy Rankin, director at CTH, blame the influx of teenagers from other estates into Stockwell Park on a police dispersal order introduced five months ago, which prevents more than two people loitering in a specified area on the neighbouring Stockwell Gardens estate, owned by Hyde Housing Association.

Now, the community centre is not only attended by members of the local ABM (All ‘Bout Money) gang. It also has occasional visits from rival gangs such as TN1 (Trust No 1), Gas (Gangs and Shanks), and the Roadside G’s, based along Loughborough Road which runs through Brixton. And that’s why there’s trouble.

In October 2009, a 15-year-old was shot in the centre in a gang-related altercation. The victim had simply intended to sell a motorbike to another gang, and then changed his mind.

‘Gangs around here are not about drugs and money,’ explains Ms Fawcett. ‘It’s not even territory. When you have nothing and know you’re going nowhere, and you have no real family, then gangs offer a replacement. It’s like Lord of the Flies out there. They [kids] operate without a single adult looking at them or speaking to them.’

Ms Fawcett has unique experience of tackling ASB and dealing with gangs. Her position at the centre means she is constantly working with both gang members and the police. She has lived on the estate for more than 20 years and was chair of the tenant management organisation which took over the running of the estate from Lambeth Council in 1994 prior to its 2006 transfer to Network Housing Group. Before then the estate was one of the most crime ridden and socially deprived in the UK.

Ms Fawcett recalls how she was robbed 15 times within the first year of moving to the estate. She would often come home to smashed doors or find her dogs bleeding having been beaten with iron bars. Muggings were a daily occurrence and her husband was beaten up. She says she perseveres in the face of such violence ‘because these people are my neighbours’. She adds: ‘I still have to walk the streets. And, at the end of the day, they are just children.’

Today, while gang culture is a new problem, these other crimes are now rare on the estate.

‘Ours [kids] are not muggers. They used to be - they used to steal the pool balls and go out with them in a sock. But they’re not now.’

So what changed?

‘We got to know them,’ she says simply. ‘We had to knock on every door to hand round flyers. If you don’t know your neighbour then they can get away with a lot more. If you create a community where people know each other, it is actually very difficult to be a criminal within that community. Crime and ASB is far less of a problem now than it used to be.’

Police presence

CTH’s Mr Rankin says the reduction in crime and ASB is also down to the association’s collaboration with the police. This has improved, he adds, since the association took over the running of the estate from the TMO, which had a more guarded relationship with police. This is evident from my visit to the community centre.

As I arrive, two plain clothes officers from Trident pay Ms Fawcett an unexpected visit about the shooting in the community centre. As they leave, the uniformed ‘governor’, area commander Nick Ephgrave, arrives and Ms Fawcett has an even longer, more animated meeting with him.

It is clear there is growing tension between the police and young people in the area. Poignantly, Monday will mark 30 years since the Brixton riots in which 5,000 people took to the streets clashing with police and ransacking shops and cars. The trigger was anger among the predominantly black local community stemming from aggressive police use of stop and search powers based on suspicion alone. The hated ‘sus’ laws cited when searching 950 people over the course of 5 days were scrapped after the riots. But as police try to clamp down on gangs three decades on, similar powers which allow somebody to be searched without suspicion of an offence, are leading to concerns that history could repeat itself.

As I wait for Ms Fawcett’s 90-minute meeting with area commander Ephgrave to end I look for youths to speak to but struggle to find any. Instead I speak to Steve, a volunteer at the centre who lives on a neighbouring estate. He is quick to draw parallels between the old sus laws and current police scrutiny of teenagers.

‘The police have some questionable methods,’ he says glaring directly at an officer who arrived with the ‘governor’, two seats to my right. ‘When schools are out you have four or five unmarked cars stopping kids for no reason. This is at 3pm. These are school kids! It is very heavy handed. They are only 13 and 14-years-old and the police have their dogs out on them. Being under that level of scrutiny from the moment they leave school puts these kids’ backs up at a very young age before they even have a chance. Kids around here don’t care about ASBOs. It doesn’t deter them. It turns them into criminals.’

Part of the crew

Her meeting finally over, Ms Fawcett walks me round the estate. Along the way she breaks down some myths about gang culture.

‘A gang is hardcore, while a crew is a bunch of silly little kids that run around making a huge amount of noise. And that’s what we have; they are 14 but want to be treated like adults so they get guns so everyone’s scared of them. We tell them to pull their trousers up and tuck their bloody underwear away.’

Ms Fawcett quietly points to several such teenage crew members. They don’t wear any colours to identify themselves. But there are common themes: none of them looks older than 15, but despite this they are on the streets instead of being at school. They are all black - but they are not all boys. A girl walks by who Ms Fawcett describes as a ‘stud’ - a influence from New York in which girls dress more like boy gang members and play up to lesbian culture.

‘I saw a bunch of around 20 girls attacking this 50-year-old man round the corner,’ says Ms Fawcett sadly. ‘They are no less dangerous than the boys.’

Another boy passes by. Ms Fawcett confides that his friend died in his arms after being attacked with machetes outside his school last year - and she says the same gang is looking to kill him too. This is just one of countless shocking stories Ms Fawcett has to tell about teenagers in care with crack-addicted parents being excluded from school for their own protection because they have been threatened by gangs; others being jailed for refusing to talk to the police.

According to her, these marginalised teenagers and the gangs they join are a product of their environment. She is concerned they will be written off as an acceptable loss in the rush to ‘gentrify Brixton’ - an area which has seen an influx of middle class households from surrounding boroughs, keen to take advantage of lower house prices.

Tackling the root cause

Ms Fawcett is adamant that existing tools neither solve ASB itself nor the socio-economic problems that cause it and is therefore cynical about the prospects of new powers. Her answer is to invest in and engage with young people, as the community centre does.

‘Freedoms are very restricted here,’ she says, pointing at a ‘no ball games’ sign. ‘What we have is imposed control instead of self-control. And the more control is imposed, the less able people are to exercise self-control.’

She shows me examples of spaces she describes as ‘deregulated’ that were created by the TMO. The first is a graffiti pen - a former five-aside football pitch, which attracts world-famous graffiti artists and is hailed as a constantly changing urban gallery rather than the product of vandals. Another deregulated area is a skate park. The third is the community centre.

But the centre’s future is uncertain. Right now it’s at the mercy of the police and local residents - especially the long leaseholders who can have the centre investigated if there are more than five complaints under new rules introduced by the government. Furthermore, under the terms of the centre’s lease, the trust can be evicted if it is deemed to be perpetuating ASB.

Funding is also a concern. It receives £120,000 a year from CTH for core costs including staff wages, but is struggling to raise charity funding. Ms Fawcett says she is critically low on staff, and only made their wages with £2.76p to spare this month - and now she is being told by the police to install £300,000 of additional security measures.

Ironically, the crackdown on ASB and gangs in the surrounding area means Stockwell Park estate’s community centre has never been more in demand. And as government spending cuts affecting the police and local authorities begin to bite the centre will only come under more pressure.

At a community meeting on 22 May officers from Trident will make a public show of support for the work the centre does and call for more financial backing. But with newspaper photographs of five-year-old Thursha still fresh in the minds of local residents and politicians, their plea may fall on deaf ears.

The new anti-social behaviour tools

The coalition government promises its new anti-social behaviour measures will be quicker easier to obtain, and will seek to address underlying causes of ASB rather than criminalising the perpetrators.

The changes largely reflect a streamlining of existing tools. Anti-social behaviour orders, known as ABSOs, are to be scrapped and replaced with criminal behaviour orders. Alongside these are a raft of other measures such as crime prevention injunctions, two levels of community protection orders and police direction powers. All are civil preventative orders that can be attached to convictions banning individuals from activities and places.

In addition, gang injunctions - or ‘gangbos’ as they have already been dubbed - were introduced in January. These are also a civil tool that allow police and local authorities to prohibit gang members from associating with named people, going to certain areas, wearing ‘gang colours’ and certain activities, such as having a dangerous dog. They are intended to tackle a ‘higher level of criminality’ than ASBOs do now but will not lead to a criminal record if breached. However, they are legacy of the previous government and their future is already uncertain.

Delroy Rankin, director at Community Trust Housing, says he welcomes the new measures - as long as they are not just ASBOs with a new name. On gang injunctions he says: ‘It is all nonsense. It reinforces the postcode gang culture we already have. I’m sure it makes wonderful headlines, but I’m unconvinced.’

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