A former gang member says rising violence levels won’t be solved until the socio-economic causes behind young people joining gangs are addressed.
Jermaine Lawlor, 26, from Newham, east London, told talkRADIO that he joined a gang while still a child.
He’s since left the world of gangs to found Voice for Youth Against Violence (V4YAV), an outreach organisation that mentors children at risk of joining gangs and adults involved in gang culture, and works with professionals to train them how to offer support.
“I remember it from when I was 8 years old, coming from a family of 10 brothers and sisters, in a single-parent household. I had lots of issues and anger that wasn’t addressed,” he says.
“I was going to school and getting into fights. The behaviour wasn’t being addressed because the teachers weren’t skilled enough and there weren’t enough resources. I couldn’t identify a role model I could confide in.”
The scene in Deptford after a stabbing incident yesterday
Gang life offered 'acceptance'
By 11, Lawlor had been arrested, and by 13, he was on probation and wearing a tag.
“At 15 [my home] was raided by armed police officers. I got kicked out of my house then and I was homeless, living on the streets and selling drugs.”
He turned to gang life because it offered acceptance that he hadn’t had before.
“I was looking for a sense of belonging. I guess that’s what draws a lot of young people, you really can come as you are.”
The rising levels of violent crime in London and around the country - there have been 61 murders in London this year alone - have led to police implementing more stop-and-search procedures and targeting YouTube videos they say are gang-affiliated and promote violence.
But Lawlor says this fails to tackle the root of the issue.
A still from a drill music video - a kind of music police say could incite violence
No relationship between communities and police
“There’s a big communication problem between police and communities,” he says. “There’s no relationship there.
“If young people don’t feel they can call the police and be protected because they won’t be there in time or deal with it adequately, they’re going to continue to carry a knife. They’ll put it down because they feel safe and secure - they have to be supported.”
As well as youngsters reacting to their environment and having little faith in the police, Lawlor says poverty, unemployment, racial stereotyping and lack of youth services all contribute to young people turning to crime.
“There were numerous youth clubs and community projects being shut down due to understaffing because of cuts, at a crucial time [during his youth]. There’s been no reinvestment since,” he says
He thinks public authorities should consult with communities affected by gang crime before implementing policies designed to tackle it.
“Instead of having policies and procedures about gang culture from people who’ve never experienced it, there needs to be more recognition and publicity for those who are helping young people. There are people who’ve been through it and are giving back and can inspire young people.
“If I’d had an organisation like V4YAV or a role model like myself, i would have minimised the chance of me committing crimes.”
The way the media reports issues also contributes, he says.
“You hear about four killings, then nothing for six or seven months until another four or five people are killed. But this isn’t something that’s just crept up, it’s been a problem for years. These areas that have problems with other areas has been going on for generations.”
A perfect storm of deprivation, a lack of support and stereotyping in the press is then formed.
“It’s social conditioning,” says Lawlor. “If you’re seeing council estates, dirty alleyways, a lot of drug users, violence and police brutality, you’ll conform to that.”
Leaving a gang isn’t easy, either - the “no snitching” ethos means that those who want to leave can be putting themselves at risk.
He adds that “young black men are more likely to be victims of crime or be stopped and searched” - (statistics from the government’s 2016 Race Disparity Audit show that people from ethnic minority communities are one-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested).
Studies also show young black boys don’t achieve educationally at the same level as white students, with figures from 2014 showing 47% achieved A*=C at GCSE compared to 56% of white children. Lawlor says these reports can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Police announced this week they were cracking down on videos that could incite violence, many of which are drill music videos. YouTube has already removed half an hour’s worth of drill videos after allegedly being “forced” by police to do so, according to drill promoter Pressplay, in a now-deleted Instagram post.
Drill music 'a scapegoat'
A drill video from promoter Pressplay
“It’s being used as a scapegoat,” says Lawlor.
“I love drill music, I love rap music, I rap myself. I use music as a tool to engage with young people.
“What these young men and women are talking about is the reality for them. It’s what they’re living. It’s a reflection of their circumstances and they’re using it as a form of self expression.
“I guess because drill music is associated with ethnic minority communities because the majority of the artists are black, they may be associated with a gang, there seems to be a reason to tackle it,” he adds.
“But it’s hypocrisy because YouTube is accumulating advertising money from this [some drill videos do have pre-roll ads on them]. Look at death metal, drinking blood, running into each other, what about that kind of music?
“Anything we try to do in the community is always sabotaged.
“Maybe if we did put other forms of support in place there wouldn’t be as many artists going down that route. They want to express themselves because they don’t have a voice apart from that mic.”
A petition currently at over 5,000 signatures is on change.org urging YouTubet to stop banning artists, and talkRADIO has approached the Metropolitan Police and YouTube for comment.
What is V4YAV?
"V4YAV works in schools and colleges and goes into prisons, and our sole purpose is to dispel the myths around joining a gang.
"We have a paramedic, a police officer, a father who’s lost a son due to gang violence and an ex-gang member who speaks about the consequences of being involved in a gang, the effect it has on your family and your future, and the effect it has on your mental and emotional wellbeing.
"The consequences on your mental health is so impactful, and when it’s not addressed at a young age and when it goes with substance misuse, it’s a recipe for disaster.
"We’re showing people the preventative measures they can take, that’s working with years 4, 5 and 6, as young as 9 and 10 years old, as well as working with those that are 26 or 19, those that are really down and entrenched in gang culture.
"We do mentoring and training for staff around understanding gang culture and its complexities, and interventions they can use."