Tag Archives: Gangs

Boyz N the Hood: Revisited. 2012 UK Edition

Last week while searching for something to watch, I came across a film I had not seen in years. John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood was released the summer of 1991. The film stared an unknown future oscar winner, Cuba Gooding, Jr and the gangster rapper Ice Cube known for being in ‘The Most Dangerous Group in the World’ N.W.A. The film depicted the story of three friends as they battled through the tough streets and social problems of south Los Angeles. You had Doughboy (Ice Cube) deep in the gangster life style – drugs, alcohol and gang rivalries dominated him and his crew’s time and energy. Meanwhile you had Doughboy’s half brother Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut), the hope, the all American sports hero. Ricky was the good, clean cut kid who was getting the scholarship and going to college. Somewhere in the middle was Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr). Tre was fortunate to have his brilliantly named father, Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) who was every sons dream and nightmare combined (handsome, intelligent, clued-up, deep and all up in your business – we all remember his legendary Compton speech!). In a nutshell the film contained drugs, gangs, violence, sex, moral and ethical questions, police brutality, tragedy, bad parenting, pipe dreams, tears, laughter and heartache. Just another day in L.A.

This was L.A. 1991 and I sit here in London in 2012 and the landscape painted in Boyz N the Hood is now all too familiar in the UK. When I watched this film in 1991, aged 13, nothing like this existed around me…well not to this extent. 20 plus years later and Boyz N the Hood paints the grim picture which is witnessed in parts of any major city in the UK. Don’t believe me?

In 1991, 1729 people were sentenced and found guilty of being in possession of carrying a knife in England and Wales. In 2010 the number was 6475. Source: Knife crime statistics, House of Commons, 2011

In 1998, 3667 people were admitted to hospital for assault by a sharp object in England and Wales. By 2011 this number had risen to 4643. Source: Knife crime statistics, House of Commons, 2011

In 1991, 12,129 offences were recorded by the police in which firearms were reported to have been used in England & Wales. By 2008 the figure stood at
17,343 (in 2011 the figure was 11, 227)
Source: Firearm crime statistics, House of Commons 2012

Regarding, sexual health: Between 1990 and 1997 there were between 2,000 and 2,700 HIV diagnoses reported annually in the UK. From 1999 there was a steep increase in the number of annual HIV diagnoses, peaking in 2005 at 7,982. There was a slight decline in subsequent years, but the number of new diagnoses today is still far higher than the pre-2003 rate. Source: United Kingdom Statistics Summary

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Although I have only taken a snapshot of some of the issues plaguing inner cities (knife crime, gun crime and poor sexual health), the statistics demonstrate how stagnant the UK have been to treat the issue depicted on film in Boyz N the Hood 20 plus years ago. We have caught up with America. Re-elected London Mayor Boris Johnson recently said tackling crime and keeping London safe continues to be a top priority for the Mayor. Let’s hope in the next 20 years London and the UK are still not playing catch up in terms of prevention and intervention.

Father Deficit

One thing which Boyz N the Hood highlighted was the need for positive male role models. The need for fathers. On reflection, one of the reasons Tre did not go down the route of Doughboy or suffer the same fate as Ricky was the steady stream of advice, nurturing, encouragement, support and love from his father, Furious. As Martin Glynn wrote in his report on young gang members in Baltimore entitled Breaking the Forth Wall:

‘The vast majority of these young men are functioning, positive, and healthy. However, at the tail end there is chaos, mayhem, and turmoil. The need for a father and to experience positive fathering is on an epidemic scale, and should be treated as a public health issue. All of the young men spoken to had absent fathers who were not around for a whole series of reasons. The impact of this area of young men’s lives cannot be underestimated or ignored. Once again there are many books, research reports, programmes, activities, workshops, conferences, and seminars designed to improve and address this situation, but research would suggest that many of those young men have “opted out” from wanting to address their feelings on this issue, and find solace in their crew and extended peer group. For some young men the issue of “being a man” is a continued problem’.

The issue around father deficit is an area which at times is ignored when gangs and serious youth violence strategies are developed, yet the loss of a father can be the root of many issues that young men and women are going through. In Mark Stibbe’s excellent book ‘I Am Your Father’, he quotes Dr. George Rekers:

‘A positive and continuous relationship to one’s father has been found to be associated with a good self-concept, higher self esteem, higher self-confidence in personal and social interaction, higher moral maturity, reduced rates of unwed teen pregnancy, greater internal control and higher career aspirations. Fathers who re affectionate, nurturing and actively involved in child rearing are more likely to have well adjusted children’

In the UK where 1.5 million boys are separated from their fathers and half a million have no contact with their dad, isn’t it time policy makers invested money and resources into an area which is responsible for so much devastation. Let’s hope it does not take another 20 years before we realise the UK has ignored a problem.

*Update*
In it’s report, Against All Odds: Mind the Gap, the charity Family Action argues that welfare cuts and poor quality housing is having a negative impact on mothers’ mental health and their ability to bond with their babies. Family Action insists that early intervention should mean intervening before at-risk babies are born, by providing services that support vulnerable mothers emotionally and help develop parenting skills, alongside financial support.

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3 things I learnt from the death of #Shaklius Townsend

Last nights drama My murder was heart wrenching, thought provoking and all too familiar. Unfortunately for myself, colleagues and friends this was our first experience of losing a young person we were working with. From a personal perspective, My Murder was very, very difficult to watch. I remember the day we heard that Shak had passed and the numbness that spread through the office and the support we had to provide for one another. After watching My Murder last night and going through a multitude of emotions, I came to a few conclusions. These conclusions are from an inside perspective. A perspective which was not shown last night but one which I feel needs to be shared. Below are 3 lessons that I learnt from Shak’s murder.

1. The need for Clinical Supervision for Youth Offending Service

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The first thing people say when you work with young people in the field of serious youth violence is that there is a likelihood that you may lose a young person to murder. It’s just the way it goes. Thanks for the warning but how about some support for workers when it does actually hit the fan. When Shak passed workers gathered together, cried together, prayed together, encouraged one another and supported each other to the best of our ability. Yet, there was no outside space where staff could unleash their emotions with out fear of being diagnosed with mental health issues. I can not understand, in a field where staff regularly witness testimonies of rape, robberies, violence, face abuse and on the rare occasion have a client murdered that there is not regular out side 1:1 or group clinical supervision. It’s not enough that youth offending staff have monthly task orientated supervision with their line manager. Nor is it sufficient to be offered one session of counselling after such a horrific and traumatising event. Regular outside supervision, with trained clinical psychologists is the key. I believe if youth offending service staff are offered this, productivity and well being will improve. With the high level of case loads YOS staff deal with, this is the least local authorities can provide.

2. The Media are part of the problem

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Let’s get one straight. Shak was on his way out of gang life. I think My Murder depicted the everyday struggle of a young inner city youth battling with his surroundings very well. Shak was no angel but I remember waking up on Sunday morning to the News of the World front cover above and feeling physically sick. Firstly, the picture with the knife was an old picture. Secondly, workers will testify he was so focused on trying to stay positive and move on with his life. However, the front page of he News of the World did not show this. A mother had just lost her son to an ambush. Where was the sensitivity? Shak was the victim, yet time and time again the media are allowed to twist the facts and create a moral panic in the UK. I do believe Shak’s ethnicity played a part in how he was portrayed. Too often its easy to come to this conclusion – Black boy + Inner city + Murder = Gang!?! Obviously Shak’s murder was pre-Leveson inquiry and pre-UK summer riots. I wonder if Shak would have been depicted as the victim in light of these two events. The unfortunate truth is, probably not. I am glad that there is now more scrutiny on how the media and in particular the written press report on stories.

3. Let’s not forget Samantha Joseph is a victim as well

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Samantha Joseph did not die. Samantha Joseph was key to Shak’s death. These are the two facts where people will disagree with me suggesting she is a victim. However, if we look closely, Samantha was a young girl caught up in a dangerous lifestyle which many young women find difficult to break. Fear and panic make the most rational people do stupid things. Who could Samantha turn to in her time of trouble? Where could she get advice from? Samantha made some fatal decisions that day but I don’t believe she intended for Shak to die. For a deeper understanding of some of issues around girls and gangs I would recommend reading ROTA (March 2011) The Female Voice in Violence Project. Final report: This is it. This is my life… written by Carlene Firmin. The report gives an insight into the pressures young girls face who are caught up in gang life.

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My Bullying Expereince: Meat and Walkmans

“The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometime.” Henry Hill, Goodfellas

They say time is a healer. Not always.
On Friday night, my wife and I were out with close friends for a delightful Turkish meal in the heart of SE4. With the conversation flowing and the meat building up in my belly, the conversation turned to school experiences. My friend shared some unfortunate nicknames teachers (yes teachers) used to call him and I recalled a time when the new African kid turned up at the start of a new school year and was called Whale by our form tutor all year (His name was actually Wale). We laughed and joked and then for some unknown reason the tone changed and left our friends in tears.

I shared a story of when I was at secondary school. It was the last day of term and I was in the 3rd year (year 9 to those born post 1983). I remember it being a hot day. I always enjoyed banter with the boys a couple years above me. When I say boys , what I actually mean are the most hardcore, scary, gang connected kids in my school. However, up until that day all was well and we all got along.

I was playing football and something which felt like a black cloud came over the football pitch. ‘Run’ I heard. So about 10 of us legged it. This black cloud (10 older youths) chased us around the school. Suddenly, I began to notice the group I was running with started to disperse. What started of with 10 of us went from 10 to 5 to 2 to ME! I always had a Nike back pack which basically consisted of a Walkman, Hip Hop tapes, my journal and a pen. They caught me near the music suite and I got a beat down. As the punches rained down, I remember being more concerned about my music in my Nike back pack. Needless to say, they nicked my tapes and Walkman and left me balling like a baby (I was 14 before I get told to grow a pair).

Fast forward twenty odd years, I was surprised why a story never shared before brought genuine tears to my friends eyes and raised such strong emotions in me. To be honest, this experience did not shape me, neither did it turn me into a bully. However, reminiscing on my childhood made me wonder about a few things.

Firstly, if this case of bulling had happened in 2012, would I even be alive to tell the tale. As much as my experience was unpleasant, there were no knives involved. Times have definitely changed. Secondly, if feelings and emotions can come out randomly for me (and this case of bullying was an isolated incident), what must people who are or who have been constantly bullied go through daily – mentally and emotionally.

According to Bullying UK’s 2006 National Bullying Survey (the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind at the time)
69% of children in the UK report being bullied
87% of parents report that their child had been bullied in the past 12 months
20% report bullying others
85% had witnessed bullying
(admirably, 82% of them tried to intervene).
Source: http://www.beatbullying.org

While these statistics are shocking, they are not unsurprising. What the figures do not show are how many cases of bullying can lead to serious youth violence. Cases of revenge attacks have caused fatal incidents in the school environment. I am personally an advocate of more in school support for issues around conflict. These may include mentors or peer motivators. Models where young people can connect with young adults who have gone through similar experiences have been proven to be successful in diverting young people into making better choices. This combined with emotional, behavioural and mental support for young people could be difference between life or death, or in my case, not reliving a frightening situation 20 years after the event and making my friends cry in a restaurant.

At primary school level, I have seen drama-therapy work well in allowing a young person to express their fears and concerns in a safe and fun environment. At a secondary school level, the MAC-UK model of combining young people from the streets with clinical psychologists to deliver sessions on themes such as knife crime, substance misuse and anger management has proven successful in supporting young people to open up about the issues which impact themselves and their friends in the borough of Camden, London.

I believe part of the solution around the ongoing battle of serious youth violence is for models like MAC-UK to be placed into full time education. We can not keep underestimating the significance the experience of bullying and conflict can have on a child’s education. I was fortunate. I grew up into a 6:2, 15.5 stone black man and my experiences of being physically bullied were minimal (I’ll leave my emotional and verbal bullying tales for another post). Time for a change of focus in the education system to focus on the emotional health of the young person as well as the academic.

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