One of the trending topics in the UK last night was Our Crime as the British public tuned to BBC 3 for Attacked, a poignant documentary depicting London gang culture, last in the series of four-episode Our Crime s as part of BBC’s Criminal Britain Season which started on 26 March. And if you were one of the many sat in their cosy homes, eyes wide open at the horrific scenes of criminal violence on the streets of Britain, you would have felt assaulted by the million questions about the society we live in today.
Attacked focused on two attacks in two different parts of London which resulted in the deaths of the victims where the criminals were callous teens and victims helpless people caught unawares. In Tooting, a happy-slapping spree by bored teenagers escalates into a lethal attack on an innocent old man who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, killed right in front of his granddaughter by teens with no regard for the elderly and no respect for quality of human life.
In Brixton, the tension between two rival gangs is first played out online by posting inflammatory rap videos, but ends in the hounding and killing of a young man.
While the programme focused on the role camera phones, CCTV and social networking have changed people’s perceptions of violent crime and many on Twitter focused on Brixton’s Gas Gang and Nigerian grime artist Sneakbo who was part of the notorious South London gang whose name stands for ‘Guns and Shanks’, my mind went to another young Nigerian boy, the victim, the 15-year-old Zac Olumegbon.
Watching the footage of five boys aged 15-18 chase another boy, whom they might have befriended in another life under different circumstances, and the testimonies of Zac’s family members regarding Zac’s early life and dabbling in gangs as part of a rival gant TN1 (Trust No One), and listening to Zac’s pastors words on gang culture, I was both saddened and outraged at the waste of a human life.
True, after the death of his father, with his older brother out to put food on the table, Zac lacked a male role model, as his brother said. True, he has started getting into trouble at school. True, he had got involved in TN1. But Zac was turning his life around at the time of being stabbed in the heart, neck and buttock as part of a revenge attack, leaving him to die the kind of death you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, let alone a teen, bleeding to death in a back garden.
The killers Helder Demorais, 18, Ricardo Giddings, 17, Jamal Moore, 17, and Kyle Kinghorn, 18, were found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey and given minimum tariffs ranging from 14 to 18 years while a fifth teen Shaquille Haughton received a 12-year sentence for manslaughter.
In a bitter twist of fate, The day before he was murdered Zac had spoken at a conference on youth crime and told his mum “he wanted to help young people facing the same problems.”
Zac is not the only victim of Gas Gang but just another name in a long list of young people whose lives were cut short or tragically changed with senseless violence – 17-year-old Sylvester Akapalara, a promising athlete shot dead in a tower block in Peckham in December 2010 by Sodiq Adeojo, 20, was jailed for life for the turf-war killing, which the judge described as an act of “mindless and appalling violence”, Nicholas Pearton was knifed in the back in May 2010 after being hunted down by a gang who were described in court as acting like a “pack of animals”, 15-year-old Temidayo Ogunneye, killed when he demanded the return of a stolen Blackberry, has also been linked to the gang and most recently 5-year-old Thusha Kamaleswaran shot in the chest in an attack that left her paralysed after Nathaniel Grant, Kazeem Kolawole and Anthony McCalla opened fire at Stockwell Food and Wine shop last year.
And these are only a few of many, whose lives are wasted on the streets of London year after year… Remember Damilola Taylor? Remember David Idowu? Remember Oluwaseyi Ogunyemi?
What is even more saddening is that the perpetrators of these black-on-black youth crimes are – as controversial as this may sound – are merely victims themselves, whether they like it, whether we like it, or not. Just a look at the names of some of the criminals reads like a roll call of an African classroom: Elijah Dayoni (the 16-year-old given a life sentence for stabbing David Idowu in the heart), Adonis Akra, Femi Oderinwale, Victoria Osoteku (found guilty of manslaughter over the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden being knifed in front of horrified commutters at Victoria Station), Obi Nwokeh, Christopher Omoregie and Samson Odegbune (found guilty of murder for the same case), Kazeem Kolawole (another Gas Gang member found guilty of the Thusha Kamaleswaran shooting).
Some of the criticism voiced on Twitter was aimed at BBC, namely for showcasing black on black crime; however when facts and figures (and the unmistakable images and video footage) tell it as it is, how can we make it an issue of BBC pointing the finger at black youth?
The reasons for black teenagers turning to a life of crime on the streets and the number of black on black crimes this country witnesses every year, from mere muggings to gang rape to murder, are manifold and beyond the scope of my knowledge and expertise. We have often heard broken homes and lack of father figures be blamed for black boys underachieving at school, disrespecting authority and eventually turning to a life of guns and gang violence. We have also heard that the predominantly Caucasian police force and teaching staff in London’s inner city schools are not pre-equipped to deal with black boys.
Whatever the reasons, when you look at a list of names of victims and murderer that reads much like a list at an immigration centre, you can’t help but feel the pain of the families who have lost sons and daughters to the streets. No family escapes poverty, political unrest, in some cases torture, to come to a country for better prospects only to end up burying a child in that country. No father, no mother can imagine bringing their children to a country for better education, better standards of living (in most cases), better opportunities only to lose that child to street law, postcode lottery, gang violence.
Sometimes the fathers are gone, simply because marriages fail, sometimes they are there but unable to fulfil their role as positive role models because they are too busy putting bread on the table, sometimes they are absent as they have been nothing more than sperm donours and sometimes they are absent as they die long before they can see their children grow into adult men and women.
Sometimes mothers fail because they are unable to cope with their once small baby turning into a gangly young man overnight, or sometimes they are at their wit’s end taking care of two or three kids, or sometimes they are the sole bread winners working three jobs to keep the family going.
Sometimes schools fail as staff turn a blind eye to the disengaged kid at the back of the class, who will soon become the disaffected kid in the detention room, who will later become the dangerous criminal on the streets. Sometimes schools fails as teachers are not allowed much scope in the age of political correctness to pry, prod, pester an unruly kid to behave.
Whatever the reasons behind our young men turning to crime, we need to work together as father, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers; as a community to look – not just see – but take a good look at these teenagers and read the warning signs, before it is too late. And in the words of Zac’s mother, Shakira Olumegbon:
We need to stand together as the adults, stop our young ones arming and killing each other. We cannot sit back and think that because it has not touched us directly that we will not be affected by it. These young people are our future and they need us.”