Tag Archives: gangs

One Mile Away

This post was contributed by Emma Pearson, a MSc Politics student at Birkbeck. She also writes for dailyinfo.co.uk and blogs at emmalouisepears.wordpress.com.

The first event leading up to Birkbeck’s Surplus: Waste, Wealth, Excess forum in June was a screening of One Mile Away by Penny Woolcock, a documentary at once fascinating, subtly flawed, and an engaging trigger for debate.

It traces the fledgling peace efforts of two warring Birmingham gangs, following in particular two young visionaries for peace, Dylan of the Burger gang and Shabba from the Johnsons. They work tirelessly to recruit fellow gang members and elders to their cause, warn the younger generation away from violence, and soliloquise over the graves of its victims. All this is interspersed with rap performed by their recruits – a tell-tale sign of the theatricality underlying the facts.

Anthony Gunter, lecturer in criminology at UEL and author of “Growing Up Bad: Road Culture, Badness and Black Youth Transitions in an East London Neighbourhood”, led the discussion after the film. It is, he argued, very easy to categorise inner-city violence under ‘gang warfare’ and forget about it. It’s nicely self-contained, outsiders need not trouble themselves with any deeper causality, and David Cameron can label the 2011 riots as “criminality, pure and simple” without too much responsibility coming his way. For the media’s part, gangs are a well-understood drama. It’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, tribal war. There is no need for context, and One Mile Away gives very little.

But context should be everything, because the situation facing many young black males in Britiain’s cities today is dire. Lack of education, meagre employment prospects and a broken down relationship with the police mean that many feel – and are treated – like surplus population. The ‘road culture’, far from its roots in the Caribbean drive towards social being and outdoor living in the cradle of the community, has become a thing of chaos – something aptly illustrated by Woolcock’s film. Shootings and stabbings abound in the silences between camera takes, but no one really knows where, or why, or even who. The one time when details are given, it turns out the dispute was about money, not gang membership at all.

So on the part of the young men in the film, perhaps the gang narrative – the regurgitated language of the press – is at least partly a means to impose order. Perhaps the film and the ‘peace process’ were simply something to do, a way to have some purpose when the system seems to deny them everything else. The fact that all the young men were performers, and Dylan possessed of powerful charisma, may indicate that we shouldn’t treat this documentary as an accurate representation of real life.

It is a performance, however, that still has a lot to tell us about the state of Britain today. Because even if this absorbing film is propelled chiefly by the enactment of myth, its flaws as a real-life documentary point us towards the truth of the chaotic situation. We should not use the ‘gang’ label to distance ourselves from inner city violence. Far from being “criminality, pure and simple”, we are all a part of the complex system leading to it.


JENGbA – Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association

Presentation at Birkbeck on Wednesday 9 May 2012; 7 – 9pm.

Debbie Johnson, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture:

The Joint Enterprise Law is hailed as the answer to ‘gang crime’ in Britain.  However, an alarming number of teenagers are currently serving life sentences for being ‘guilty by association,’ or simply being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’  This includes being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, could not have foreseen, had no intention of committing or even in numerous cases – tried to prevent happening.

JENGbA campaigners Gloria Morrison, Patricia Brown and Karen Horlock spoke at Birkbeck last Wednesday evening about the implications of the Joint Enterprise Law (JE) and why we should be concerned about its current application.

The evening began with a short film detailing the history of JE.  It is a law over 300 years old for the prevention of illegal duels holding equally culpable all in attendance, not only the combatants but also the medics or any witnesses – they would all be ‘guilty by association.’  It is this law which has re-emerged as Britain’s answer to ‘gang crime.’  However, its current application is targeting large numbers of working class families in Britain particularly those from Black, Asian and Ethnic minority groups.  JENGbA are campaigning for the reform of the Joint Enterprise Law.

Karen Horlock spoke first relating how the JE law had devastated her family.  Her son is serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit and despite having witnesses to testify that he was not present at the crime, he was imprisoned because he knew some of the people involved and by JE law is ‘guilty by association.’  Karen questioned why her son – a 30 year old married man – has been imprisoned under an archaic law supposedly used to prevent teenaged gang crime.  Karen further explained the impossibility of the appeal process; it is inadmissible to use evidence used during the trial, you are required to find fresh evidence ‘how do you find DNA evidence to prove you weren’t there?’ said Karen to the stunned audience.

‘It encourages lazy policing,’ said JENGbA campaigner Sharon Spencer sat in the audience, the police no longer need to find evidence, you are guilty simply by knowing the person who is involved, ‘people have been imprisoned for a phone call.’

Patricia Brown then spoke about her son.  While walking home from school with a friend, they were attacked by a much older boy, Patricia’s son managed to break free, he was 15 years old at the time and ran home scared.  Later it was discovered that his friend had stabbed the older boy.  Patricia’s son was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, was not present at and – as also required by JE law – had no forethought or knowledge of.  Patricia was visibly distressed, speaking just above a whisper, she like Karen is still grappling with the enormity, and pain of what has happened to her son.

Campaign Coordinator Gloria Morrison then gave what proved to be a rousing finale to the evening.  Gloria outlined JENGbA’s aim to not only campaign for the reform of The Joint Enterprise Law but for solidarity with all miscarriages of justice.  Gloria cited many examples of social injustice against working class people including the deaths in police custody of Christopher Alder and Anthony Grainger.  She invited everyone present to JENGbA’s fundraiser on Tuesday 26 June 2012 and also an upcoming presentation on Monday 21 May 2012 to include John Carlos who performed the iconic black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, Doreen Lawrence the mother of murdered Stephen Lawrence and Janet Alder the sister of murdered Christopher Alder.

Liz Feteke – Director of Institute of Race Relations:

Room incredibly packed – must be seventy people.
Very diverse audience, age-wise, gender-wise, race-wise a real representative cross section of the population.  People in the audience shaking their heads when they hear the sentences of the people convicted under JE.
Karen Horlock explains how JE works and what happened to her son, also the lack of evidence in JE cases, and the long term impact on the health and well being of her family.
Patricia then spoke of her son’s case and the media handling of a high profile case.
More people coming in as Gloria does her ‘state of the nation’ address on JE.
Questions are very challenging. One lady in the audience reveals that her godson has been sentenced for 18 months for a crime he did not commit, and he has gone off the rails now. A lot of focus on the media

Anna Foldvari, Birkbeck MA student:

We heard the voice of the voiceless. Thanks to JENGbA we heard how frequently in the name of justice and order, injustice occurs in the UK. The fact about the destruction of the lives of hundreds and thousands of ordinary and innocent people and their families cannot be hidden anymore. The horrid experiences of families and innocently imprisoned people cannot be denied anymore because JENGbA and the amazing people behind it raise their voice. They are here and they are campaigning against an outdated, politically charged law which application is so very often motivated by racism and middle-class anxieties. And because change is desperately needed, responsible citizens cannot turn their head away and cannot sit with their hands folded.”

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