CROYDON COMMENTARY: Black teenagers continue to be seriously hurt, maimed and even die in knife crimes and shootings on our streets every week. In a speech last week, LEE JASPER said that there’s a ready solution to the worsening problem
I want to talk to you today as a father of five boys and four girls, as a grandfather of five and, first and foremost, as a Black man.
I want to tell you a short personal story. I live in Lambeth and have done so for some 30 years now. Our last child is a lovely, bright intelligent boy who we brought up to have empathy and compassion for all people. I had told him, as I had told all our children, if you see someone in distress you do not walk on by, you help. If your see someone bullying another person, help then if you can.
Then one day in the summer of 2010 my 16-year-old son was on his way home from rugby practice. He’s small but a powerfully built lad and on his way home he came out of our local Tube station and was confronted with a group of boys in a fight with a small boy, whom he knew from school.
My son intervened on instinct and, knowing the boy, he tried to placate the group of boys.
Seeing that one of them had pulled a knife, he grabbed his school friend by the collar and yanked him out of the way. As he did so, the boy with the knife lunged forward and my son was stabbed in his torso just above his hip.
All the boys fled, including his school friend, and left my stabbed son bleeding on the pavement. I got a call at work from my wife who was frantic. I just couldn’t make out what she was telling me. Finally, I she was able to tell me our son had been stabbed.
The feelings of morbid dread, fear and feelings of powerlessness that overwhelmed us were indescribable; a gut wrenching fear gripped me as I headed for Kings College Hospital. Once there we saw our beautiful boy, surrounded my doctors and nurses, tubes connected to him and clear panic in the medical team.
The doctors and nurses, God bless every one of them, worked to stabilise his condition. For two hours we waited not knowing how serious he was injured. That was the worst nightmare of our family life. They told us the blade had almost nicked an arterial vein above his hip.
A millimetre to either side and he would in all likelihood bled to death on the spot.
This isn’t about politics for me. It’s the reality of life and death.
Today, I’m here to say what needs to be said.
I seek only to speak with clarity, no modulation, clear and unfettered without the binding constraints of ego, agenda or ambition.
We have to face the fact, that as it stands today, our young people are engaged in a war of self-hatred, bitter enmity and extreme violence.
Look where we are? Once, not that long ago, we were a community united. Today our children kill each other with a shocking frequency and a sickening ferocity.
Today, we all sit here in shock about the increase in teenaged murders across London. Let’s for one moment consider our condition as a community.
Knife crime is up 18 per cent in London and… 10 young people have died this year already.
According to the statistics from the Ministry of Justice published in 2012, in London for every 1,000,000 white people there are 11 murders. For every 1,000,000 black people, there are 32.*
According to official figures published in 2012, Black youth unemployment stands at 50 per cent.
The findings of a Met Police multi-agency Domestic Violence Murders Review for 2006 stated that approximately 25 per cent of all murders were in London.
Furthermore, 30 per cent of children are actually witnesses to the murder of their mother. Many of these murders are happening as a consequence of bitter disputes about separation and child contact or custody. The long-term impact to children witnessing their mothers being beaten and killed is children who are predisposed to or have a propensity to violence.
We, the Black community, have one of the highest rate of Domestic Violence and DV murders of any single ethnic community in London.
Research published by the Safe Network shows that Black children and those of mixed heritage are more likely to be subject to child protection plans or end up in the care system than white children.
Figures produced by the Youth Justice Board this year show that since 2013 there has been an increase of 54 per cent in the number of Black youth being imprisoned.
Prisons and youth institutions have themselves become breeding centres of organised violence and racist abuse by staff, according to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons.
London Poverty Profile published by the Trust for London shows 20 per cent of the White population lives in low-income households, compared to 40 per cent of people from BME backgrounds.
We all know Black homelessness is on the rise, as well as the desperate figures relating to an increase in the incidence of mental health in our community. I can’t tell how many of our children our excluded from schools because, with the introductions of Academies and Free Schools who are no longer required to publish these figures, we know less about this issue today than we did 30 years ago.
The poor state of the economy is aggravating these acute socio-economic conditions and that leads me to conclude, looking forward, that things could get much worse given the very strong link between these issues and the incidence of violence.
The World Health Organisation is very clear on this issue, as is the Equality Trust whose work, the Spirit Level, sets out very clearly the relationship between long-term deprivation and violence.
So, I say to all of you all gathered here tonight that the situation we are facing is likely to get much worse and the critical question that hangs pregnant in the air over every single one of us is what are we – not the local council, not the police, not the schools – what are we going to do about it?
Add to these facts the reality of cuts to public services and local authority budgets means that their ability to help in financial terms is reducing year on year, so we know that times are going to be tough.
I want to speak to the Black men in the room and those watching elsewhere. Because all too often we are absent from the home and too often we are the perpetrators of Domestic Violence when we are in the home.
We populate the mental health, prison system and dole queues in disproportionate numbers, and sadly we are the most likely to be shot or stabbed in London.
We are in danger of ourselves, we are our biggest mortal threat, and all of us are at risk of someone close to us losing his or her life unnecessarily because of the unaddressed needs of another young person.
The challenges that we face are immense, but not insurmountable. The most basic and fundamental question we must ask ourselves is, what is the value of young Black lives?
The answer is as simple as it is sobering. The value of young Black lives is precisely commensurate with the value we as a community place upon them.
As we stand today, young Black life is cheap.
Too often we contrast the values of our children’s lives with the perceived value placed by wider society of the lives of young white people. This is an error.
The ugly, abhorrent truth is that as a community, we value our own children’s lives least of all.
There have been more murders of Black people in the UK since 2000 than the combined total of British soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.* They are not the only casualties, as we often totally ignore the number of Black youth fortunate to survive. The walking wounded, scarred, maimed and disfigured bodies that constitute the invisible casualties of a war of self-hatred. The increasing rates of black male suicide are terrifying.
These are the inconvenient truths we must now face urgently.
The pains of these losses are borne largely, but not exclusively, by Black women and children alone. The reality of the abandonment of too many of our children are broken-hearted angry boys, without fathers.
The broader consequences of this implicit, public and yet unacknowledged failure that attacks so corrosively the heart and soul of poor communities can be read on the headstones of the dead youth.
Violence and the fear of violence leaves whole communities in deep pain, traumatised and paralysed by a toxic combination of fear and feelings of powerlessness.
Our moral failure is only matched by our political failure.
We all know economic injustice, poverty and deprivation exacerbates, aggravates and amplifies violence. The World Health Organisation is very clear on this point, as are a plethora of international studies that bear witness to the tragic consequences of long-term poverty and high unemployment. Public health approaches to tackling violence are an urgent priority and we need to utilise a social action model of community organising, that is funded by us.
Against the backdrop of ever-increasing public sector cuts, dipping our hand into our own pockets is an important part of moving forward and restoring our self-respect. I believe that given these problems the awful prognosis is that things will get worse, as the public sector’s ability to meet these challenges diminishes. In that context we must step up, not step down.
Not only are we an economically impoverished community, we also suffer a poverty of ambition, a poverty of empathy, a poverty of social solidarity and a poverty of ethical leadership.
Community organisations seeking public or statutory funding are forced to compete, rather than co-operate, contributing to a climate of distrust and alienation.
Too many Black men in our communities feel both disempowered and disrespected, generating feelings of low self-esteem, shame and anger.
Even our everyday language has become increasingly violent and dominates our discourse, infecting our psyche and thought patterns producing self-regulating crabs in a barrel.
In the midst of this deep dysfunctionality lies a minority, but a significant minority, of broken families, broken children and broken communities who are starved off familial leadership in the home and ethical leadership in the wider community.
These casualties of economic injustice produce damaged psychologies, where emotional intelligence is minimal, where commitment to learning and education can be weak and the language and physicality of immediate, intimate violence and abuse becomes infectious.
Over time these dysfunctional and damaged families and local communities create a self-reinforcing environment where the virus of violence becomes not only highly infectious, but also malignant.
The simple truth is only compassion; love and empathy can overcome the challenges we face.
Doing so has the unique potential and the hopeful possibility of enthusing feelings of pride, familial love and community responsibility. Therein lies our goal and best weapon against this plague of violence.
Absent Black men need to come home, both literally and to their communities. They must come home and join Black women and children struggling to cope with the desperate trauma and grievous loss evident in the fight against this deadly infection.
Gwenton Sloley issued a simple and yet profound challenge. He called for community leaders to “pull up our socks”. We can do that but we must empower our communities through action knowledge and compassionate love.
We must return to the family, defend our communities become principled ethical leaders. We need a paradigm shift toward a “do for self” social economy.
We are the key to effectively dealing with this issue.
As the African American poetess famously said, when asked where are the black leaders: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
* This article was updated and amended to correct these statistics. See the comment by Lee Jasper below.
- Lee Jasper was the senior policy advisor on equalities to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London, and was the Respect Party’s candidate for the Croydon North by-election in 2012. Click here to visit his blog. The speech was first posted on Lee Jasper’s blog and this edited version is reproduced here with permission
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