Tag Archives: Surplus symposium

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.