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Published in GQ Magazine, 2007

Pic: a memorial to Billy Cox in Fenwick Place, Clapham, 2007. By Stuart Griffiths.


Respect, gun crime and murder: London’s secret teenage war

It often feels like London is, as John Berger wrote, “a teenager, an urchin.” The city is piratical, rebellious and creative, but also prone to compulsions, low self-esteem and self-destruction. In 2007, the teenage city turned in on itself in dark and ugly ways. During 10 days in February, three teenagers where shot dead within a few miles of each other among the innards of south London.

This tragic trilogy made news because when overall gun and violent crime was falling, they illustrated some tough truths: that the age of gun crime victims was also falling, while youth involvement in shootings was rising. On Operation Trident’s watch – the Metropolitan Police bureau dedicated to black-on-black gun crime – 31 per cent of victims were teenagers. In the first six months of 2007, 15 teenagers died from stabbings and shootings in the capital.

The deaths combined the mundane and the macabre. On Valentine’s Day Sixteen-year-old Billy Cox, a young offender who lived under curfew in his parents’ flat on the Fenwick Estate at Clapham North, was in his bedroom when he was shot in the chest. Eight days earlier, the churchgoing 15-year-old Michael Dosunmu was shot in his home on Diamond Street in Peckham, a short walk from where Damilola Taylor was murdered in 2000. And on February 3, James Andre Smart-Fordd was shot in a disco at the Streatham Ice Bowl. the 16-year-old collapsed onto the ice as skating partygoers rushed the exits, and his blood mixed into slush.

Political and media attention immediately intensified on the area triangulated by the murder sites, a complex, unpretty swathe of the capital where grim social housing estates halt abruptly at gentrified streets.

In parliament serious questions were raised and proposals made to stoughen legislation on the use of firearms. In the papers, meanwhile, speculation quickly grew with reports of mistaken identities, executions and vendettas resulting from “respect” issues and drug turf wars. News sources carried stories of gangs of tooled-up, “feral” hoodies, some barely into their teens, who flagrantly dealt drugs, wore their ASBOs with pride, and took the piss out of visiting politicians. When they weren’t terrorizing commuters, it was supposed, they were busy waging war on each other with knives, guns and CS gas.

During February, Operation Trident found itself working “beyond capacity” in Lambeth. Patrols from CO19, the Met’s armed division, were dispatched into the toughest areas.

South London, one newspaper said, was “nihilistic anarchy”. Media execs dispatched duly hardman of soap, Ross Kemp, and the Rt. Hon Anne Widdicombe as mediagenic peace envoys to the ravaged estates of Myatt’s Fields and North Peckham. And although Lambeth, with a total of 175 “events” since 2001, tops Trident’s Murder & Shooting Incidents index, the same “nihilistic anarchy” headline remained unrecognisable to the vast majority of residents (including me).

After the media-political circus moved on, London life continued. A shrine to Billy Cox with a graffiti mural was improvised on the Fenwick Estate; some residents complained it would reduce property values. The mural was defaced, then repainted. The teenager’s presence lives on in his “Remer” tag, spayed on walls and fingered into drying cement on the pavement.

Then in June, Metropolitan Chief Inspector Ian Blair announced the launch of The Met’s Operation Curb, targeting gang violence, after five teenagers across London were left dead in a fresh wave of stabbings and shootings. In one week alone Martin Dinnegan, 14, Ben Hitchcock, 16, Annaka Pinto, 17, Abu Shahin and Sian Simpson, both 18, all died. As ugly as February’s events were, June proved that the violence didn't stop there. Nor did it stop in Lambeth or even start in February, and, in fact, London’s secret teenage conflict probably won’t end before Operation Curb does.

In June 2006, a year before this latest wave, Fabian Ricketts, 18, was gunned down at a barbecue in Battersea and Alex “Tiny Alien” Malumba Kamondo, 15, was stabbed to death in Kennington. In October Jamail “Big Show” Newton, 19, died outside a Camberwell nightclub in a hail of bullets from Mac 10 submachine gun. In March, fellow pupils Adam Regis, 15, and Paul Erhahon, 14, were both knifed to death in East London. Across town on the 14th, 16-year-old Kodjo Yenga was murdered on Hammersmith Grove by a group of youths, some of whom were heard to shout “kill him, kill him” as he died. In May Dwaine Douglas, 18, was stabbed to death in Thornton Heath. These are only some of the events that got reported. Many others didn’t.

Was it “war”, this day-to-day sense threat and violence? You could say so.  To some teenagers who choose to escape its effects by attending Raw Material, a youth media and music project in Brixton – some of whom also knew Billy Cox - the sense of being in the midst of conflict is widely felt. “We are on the battlefield, we are soldiers,” says J-Hero, an MC. “Youths are use to it. Being on the street, the street is a way of life now. Someone I guarantee was being shot last night. And it’s like, here we go again. It's not gonna stop.”

“It's not even a shock no more when someone dies,” says Simon, an enigmatic young rapper. “I’ve lost count of the names. It's an everyday thing. You think in your head, Oh, that’s bad. But you get on with life.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to find others teenagers whose everyday lives are lived as if they are on the frontline, overcast with hyper-vigilance. They fear being shot, stabbed, robbed or assaulted for reasons as insubstantial as looking the wrong way, knowing the wrong person, or in a postcode lottery of a different order, being in the wrong place.

Nineteen year-old Sharlene, for example, a former gang affiliate now going through a rehabilitation process, was shot at one day on Acre Lane in Brixton. It made her angry, even though it wasn’t the first time.

She recalls standing on the roadside waiting for a friend. Some boys rode up on bikes and stopped. “There was bare smoke, so I’m looking up and thinking, Rah, what’s happening?” she says. “I dropped onto the floor - I don’t know why because I never saw the gun. God knocked my legs down and the bullet went fffffwwww over my head. People thought I was dead.”

“People getting shot in front of me or me being shot after is no longer a shocking experience,” she says. “I’ve been shot after so many times that God only know why I’m still here.”

But what kind of “war” was this? An indication came on June 7 when Don't Trigger, an new initiative on gun crime awareness, was launched at London’s City Hall. Addressing the audience, Pastor Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance, made a correction: “These aren't gunmen,” he says. “They're gunboys.”

The police reports also reveal how the violence is atomised and sporadic but, to many people, largely invisible, for one very good reason. If violence is a disease, this virus feeds on the young

At the centre of the teenage war is a perverse circularity corroborated by the understanding, shared by Trident’s DI Steve Tyler, that in this part of town, “today’s victim is tomorrow’s suspect.” It is literally a vicious circle - where knives that are carried to protect become the cause of their carrier being attacked, and where gangs form in defence, but quickly become aggressors.

David Gustave, a key worker at Kids Company, a youth support charity in Camberwell, point out another way in which the “war” is lived in South London today. “It’s war to make it out there. The guys who come here will tell, My life is screwed. They will tell you the economic fact is that  they have to get money. We’re on the frontline here.

Gustave understand only too well that young people who emerge from violent backgrounds are those who go on to violate others.

Some of those the arrivals, he argues, even exhibit symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. “They’ve been at war basically,” he says. “We see it in the same things in soldiers coming back from Iraq  - antisocial behaviour, aggression, hypervigilance. We’ve brutalised our young people to the point where we have highest amount of teenage pregnancy, sexual disease and drugs and alcohol abuse in Europe. We’ve just swept a whole generation under the carpet as far as I’m concerned. These kids are damaged and they’re programmed for collapse.”


Guns are far from the only source of the recent disorder, but their growing on the street is inevitably a central cause to London’s teenage war. Replica guns can be bought for legally for around £35 and converted for several hundred more. Altogether more purposeful weapons can also be sourced.

Indeed, asked how many of the South London gangs carry guns, Aaron, 17, a lean, afro’d former member of “Bloodset”, a gang tied to the estates around Brixton Hill, says, “all of them got guns. But only the olders have got the machine guns. Youngers have only got stupid guns - .22s and replicas.”

“They’re too easily accessible,” he says. “You can buy a .38 brand new in the box for £500. How much is that? Nothing. The only way this shit’s gonna stop is to get all the guns out of the country.”

Aaron experienced the violence at close hand. He became a gang member, because, “basically, you have to join. I seen all these kids dying, and I thought I’m not letting that happen to me. I thought, if I affiliate myself with a gang, there’s more chance I’ll live.”

He was a friend of the recent casualty Dwaine Douglas, and knew Alex “Tiny Alien” Malumba Kamondo who was killed last year. “When Tiny Alien died, I felt something in my heart for him,” he explains. “When Dwaine Douglas died, I wanted to kill someone.”

Aaron’s day-to-day is now spent under an Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Programme (SIPS), an alternative to custody, where these events have caused him to rethink his life. He spent three nights in Brixton police station after pistol-whipping someone and was told that he was facing six to nine years. It got him scared. “From the day I was released,’ he says, “I’ve never done nothing wrong. For the past 7 months I stayed away from everything. No involved no more. I just threw it all out the window.”

His ISSP mentor, Delroy Thomas, works on the fringes of longstanding neighbourhood rivalries, continually evolving “beefs”, fractious affiliations and sporadic “violations” of “face” that can flare into assault and murder in the jigsaw-puzzle of South London’s new gangland. Thomas echoes one of Trident’s insights: “the perpetrators are always the victims and the victims are the perpetrators,” Thomas says. “It's all one circle. All my young people have been victims.”

Early in 2007 the police identified up to 169 gangs with as many as 5,000 members in London. The phenomenon is only too real, and it is where random psychotic behaviour grows into organized psychotic behaviour with identities, territories, feuds and informal policing systems to maintain them. However, the function and structure of the new gangs in the majority of cases is radically different to the extortion and thuggery of pop-mythical Ron ’n’ Reg Kray era.

In this blurry, Ballardian world, affiliations, hierarchies and identities are fluid, extending across boundaries between real and hyper-real. Indeed, you can surf some of them on MySpace.

Aaron can tell you everything you’d rather not know about how the factional South London microcosm functions today. He knows what it means to spot a group of boys walking with identical, coloured bandanas hanging from their pockets or worn bandit-style across the mouth: “If you see bandanas on their face,” he says, “there’s gonna be madness.”

Depending on which part of town you’re in, red, yellow, blue, green and purple bandanas today mean you're in the presence, respectively, of Stockwell’s G Street gang or Brixton Hill’s Bloodset; the Peckham Boys; the Cripset or MZ (“MurderZone”) outfits based from the Somerleyton estate on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane; the OC, based in the swathe of housing estates of Angell Town and Myatt’s Fields; and PIF (“Paid in Full’), from the Loughborough Estate, a subset of Brixton’s pre-eminent PDC (formerly “Peel Dem Crew”), a gang who’ve recently repositioned themselves as a So Solid Crew-style music collective

The feudalism doesn't end there. He could tell you about the Brockley Boys, Young Peckham Boys, Wildcats, Roadside Gs, Ghetto Boys, DTK, SUK, Acre Lane Campaign, RMK, T-Block, D-Block, O-Tray, Heathset, Gipset, Stick Up Kids, Kids On The Hill, Clap Town Kidz, Man Dem Crew and CFR, all in Southwark and Lambeth alone.

Whether the gangs or the violence came first is impossible to tell. But as random and sporadic as it seems, the mayhem does have some form of order to it. A recent Youth Justice Board ((“Gangs, Guns And Weapons”) paper made a key distinction between relevant types of violence: “instrumental” and “expressive” crime.

“Instrumental criminality” is often a cause of shooting, usually when issues over the theft or non-payment of drugs are resolved. But often it is about the more nuanced but equally destructive “expressive criminality”. In the gang sphere, excuses for antagonism are easy to find and violence flares so quickly. All hell can break loose when someone steps on someone else’s shoes in a dance, when someone looks at someone else the wrong way, or when a casual hand gesture, as in the case of Fabian Ricketts’ death, is misinterpreted as the two-finger “gun salute.”

“In the raves, certain people don't go to party,” Richard explains. “They go in there to fight. There’s 20 of us and 20 of them. Something will just kick off. He'll says, Why you looking at me? And I’ll say, What's wrong with you? And someone will get stabbed.”

Serious assaults can result from a “perceived defection” where one gang member X judges another as failing to “rep his ends”.

Similarly, longstanding neighbourhood rivalries – “beefs” between Peckham and Brixton, for example – are perpetuated long after their original causes were forgotten, because “reppin’ your ends”, is a central function of the gang’s raison d’etre.

“If a guy’s in the wrong place, it’s possible he’ll get attacked,” Delroy Thomas says. “Peckham and Brixton are in major beef now. Guys from Brixton will not enter Peckham. Peckham guys, on the other hand, will come to Brixton. They’ll see a guy and just fuck him up, regardless of who he is – he’s in Brixton, so he’s from Brixton. It's that deep.”

Initiation rites, which range from the banal to the brutal, also play their part. To earn the respect of his peers, a young man or woman may be asked “bat beef” – publicly confront a rival to prove he’s no pussy. He may be asked to jack someone’s phone, mug a commuter for his laptop, just beat someone up or sink a knife into their back.

“When someone get stabbed, it's about someone getting a name for themselves,” says Richard. “You become a bad boy. You have the guts to prove you're a bad boy. If you stay in school, you’re gonna end up without no rep. No friends. You have to be affiliated with all the bad stuff to have friends.”

Much of the violence crystallises around the notions of “respect” and “face” - commodities that can be won or lost, and that also function as markers of gang territory. Straying into the wrong “ends” is interpreted as an act of disrespect - a “violation” - and dealt with accordingly.

Thus the “expressive criminality” of fighting serves ultimately to define the broader gang identity. Like Catherine Tate’s depiction of the histrionic teenage response to imagined criticisms, Lambeth’s young gangland hotheads are excessively “bovvered” about reputation.

And indeed, the younger the gang member, the more important this poisonous reimagining of “respect” appears to be. “Proportionally the younger they get, the more the element of respect increases,’ says DI Tyler.


Operation Trident, whose work stretches beyond the teenage crime that exploded this year, are keen to suggest that the streets aren't “awash with firearms” and nor is murder an everyday occurrence. In 2006 Trident reported 199 shootings and 18 murders - much fewer than one every day.

DI Tyler estimates the costs of a straightforward Trident murder investigation amounts to £1million. “But we don’t have many straightforward murders,” he adds.

Reforming behaviour may not come so easily to his wider generation though as it did to Aaron though. On the “Trident Criminality Theories” chart shown to GO by DI Steve Tyler, firearm availability is only one of 72 possible causative factors leading to gun crime. From the centre of the web-like chart, 12 interconnecting principal causes, such as gangs, peers, education, drugs, culture, psychology and chosen criminal career path, are fed into by many more secondary elements. They include: absent role models, unemployment, “baling”, gangster rap, deprivation, low self-esteem, protection, turf wars, “proving oneself”, belonging, fashion, revenge, school expulsion, drugs, “nihilism” and more. In Trident’s theory, the route to the extreme violence go can be through any of these.

“There is no one causal factor,” DI Tyler says. He talks, for instance about, “are psychological issues - a lot of young people live for the moment and don't anticipate living long so they do the 50 Cent thing – “get rich or die trying’”.

“And peer pressure: being sucked into badness at as young as six or seven or 7, maybe dropping of a bit of dope for a tanner. By the time they’re teenagers, they’re already in it. Drugs are usually the crime element.”

Another spoke in the wheel points towards the severe socio-economic causes that all to visible in the deprivation of Angell Town, Somerleyton or any of London’s other tough estates. “In the main Trident criminality takes place in the most deprived wars in the most deprived boroughs,” DI Tyler says.”

As to why gun crime is getting younger, DI Tyler admits the picture is unclear. “It’s a difficult one,” he says. “Some of the suppositions are that in the past gangster type families like the Kraus exerted informal policing. Young people wouldn’t have access to guns. Another argument is that a lot of Trident criminals have been put away for a long time.”

Trident also engages with schools and pupil referral units to raise awareness of gun criminality. That includes challenging the widely held belief in the inner-cities that guns are being supplied by the Government to undermine communities.

Indeed, “There is no ways guns are getting into the country without someone at the top letting it through,” Marcia, 18, told us. “Why it is so easy to get a gun in Lambeth? They put them here for a reason.”

“It's bizarre in the extreme,” DI Tyler acknowledges, “but it’s a held belief and one we have to challenge,”.

Similarly, while the mass brawls involving knives, guns, dogs and samurai swords, such as happened in Kennington Park on June 8 last year and after which Alex “Tiny Alien” Malumba Kamondo was knifed to death, are only too real, not every teenage murder is gang related, nor is every gang actually a gang.

Even the Met itself doesn’t have a concrete definition of what a gang actually is. And Delroy Thomas and DI Steve Tyler both agree with the Youth Justice Board publication above which urged against “giving an exaggerated impression of the prevalence of gangs”.

“We should be wary of using the terminology of ‘gangs’,” says DI Tyler. “From my experience, they’re not as formalised and structured. I prefer ‘groups’ – usually it's a group from one estate who don't get on with another estate.” Tyler adds that that 60 per cent of Trident shooting take place in their home boroughs. “The gunman has been born and brought up there and tends to shoot other people there.”

Meanwhile, most “gangs” are simply bunch of friends says Delroy Thomas. “A fine example – Acre Lane Campaign,” he says. “I live on Acre Lane. I know for a fact, these young lads just have a name. One of two of them are thieves, but the main group go to school or college. Because they come from Acre Lane, they become ALC. But it's not a gang. It's a group of young people.”

Thomas estimates that only around eight south London gangs are “effective” in making money and establishing tier systems. Typically, they comprise a minority of central criminal figures, around which coalesce a community of hangers-on. Sometimes they become member under duress.

Two gangs particular are notorious in Lambeth and thought to be responsible for “six months of terror”, Delroy Thomas says, earlier this year on the roads: PDC and SMS. Members of a group related to the latter, The Muslim Boys, were known to have forcibly converted rivals, on pain of death, into a gangsterish form Islam, a process which cost Adrian Marriot his life. Even without Islamist pressgangs on the warpath, the recruitment process which, DI Tyler says, “is phenomenally hard to resist”


And yet, periodic waves of teenage violence are not exactly new. ‘You could say it was ever thus,’” says the author Jon Savage, whose new study of modern adolescence, ““Teenage” includes examples of extreme adolescent thuggery dating all the way back to 1875.

Savage argues that amid the complexity of causes behind the current conflict, one element is hard to quantify but impossible to avoid. During WWI and WWII Britain experienced spikes in juvenile delinquency and violence.

“People forget we are at war because it's abstract and miles away,” he says. “But it makes a difference. If the top people in the society are saying force is right, the message trickles down. As teenagers enter society they pick up very strongly on the messages very society is giving them. The message today is that you sort problems out by steaming in using maximum firepower.”

Plenty of young people find it unsurprising that  the sensibilities of the social elites are enacted far down the civic hierarchies with weapons at the school gates, bedrooms, and ice rinks.

“War is what we see,” says J-Hero, a rapper from Tim Brown’s Raw Materials group. “It’s (i)in(i) us, and it’s shaping our future. We may vote against war, but they're still gonna do it if they want to. So you think, Well, the whole place is just war anyway.” Or as, Marcia, 18, a female former gang member, puts is, “the government promotes violence - it's (i)their(i) fault we have fights. They fight with the colour on the flags, the gangs are fighting with the colours on their rags – their bandanas. It's all territory. Who are we meant to look up to?”

Analysing events through the filter of pop culture routinely leads commentators to argue that teenage violence has its roots in other dimensions of Americanism: in particular where the “nihilism” entry on Trident’s criminality chart fuses to the martydrom narratives of gangster rappers like Biggie Smalls and Tupac, or the bleakly polarized “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” message of 50 Cent, its current <éminence grise>.

Similarly, considering the gang murder of, say, Kodjo Yenga, in the light of the mediated violence of video games like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt leads a bit too conveniently to the belief that among supposedly “desensitized” young people, real violence also is felt to have no consequence.

Those arguments have some currency, says Jon Savage. “For a long time, popular culture really worked. The problems is that is presses all these buttons.” And although he is no supporter of censorship, Savage wonders whether pop culture today isn’t “pressing those buttons that shouldn't be pressing. It’s much easier for kids to live in a world of sensation, to think you're a big man and run round with a gun, than it is to actually do the hard work to function as an adult.”

In any sense, as Savage writes in “Teenage”, it is “hard to escape the sense that these youth were only acting out what the wider society was doing.” Additionally, all those influences only hold their power when no serious alternative is offered. “It’s society’s collective responsibility to get realistic role models instead of drug dealers,” says Trident’s DI Tyler.


In April, shortly after James Andre Smart Fordd, Michael Dosunmu and Billy Cox were murdered, Tony Blair insisted that the recent ‘“severe disorder” was not a symptom of a wider social problem but caused by individuals who needed to be "taken out of circulation". Some have been: arrest in all three cases have been made and suspects are awaiting trial, while many prominent gang figures are now also behind bars today.

Both New Labour and the Tories have been big on one reading of the idea of “respect”, an equity in broad decline across the UK. Alongside a focus on police powers, the Home Office launched a series of initiatives on anti-social behaviour to tackle the causes of teenage crime, including selfesteem-building initiatives like Positive Futures and From Boyhood To Manhood that target the critical 11-18 age range.

“Government alone can't solve the problem,” Home Office minister Vernon Coaker told GQ. “We need to work in partnership with police, communities and young people themselves. That is why we have already supported 300 community groups across the country to tackle knife and gun crime and recently made a further £500,000 available to support this work.”

But how far will half a million quid will go when in some places, “respect” has been bent so far out of shape that it turns into a reason to kill - especially when organisations like Raw Material and KidsCo achieves miracles in rebuilding the lives of brutalised children, are routinely short of funds?

Similarly, it is hard to look at a certain six-foot gap of  urban-planning nothingness a short walk from Clapham North tube and ponder whether those wider social problems of exclusion and disadvantage common to so teenage lives don't also play their part in the current teenage conflict.

No more than six feet separates the wall of a pub beer garden on Bedford Road in Clapham – where one London drinks away its affluence  – and the grey brick wall of Billy Cox’s home on Fenwick Place. Through the wall at 3.30pm on Valentine’s Day, metres away from drinkers from a different world, the gunman emptied a bullet into the 16-year-old’s chest, and Cox died in his sister’s arms.

Random psychotic behaviour has always been a feature of the teenage city. There may be some kind of perverse and terrible logic that organized psychotic behaviour of the capital’s teenage war is what results when two Londons live ever closer to each other and yet so very far away.

© Kevin Braddock 2007
Additional reporting: Mervin Martin


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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