Ben Obese-Jecty is the Deputy Chairman (Political) for Hornsey and Wood Green Conservative Association and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.
In January, the Prime Minister pledged to set up a cross-Whitehall taskforce, taking personal charge of a new Cabinet Committee that will tackle the growing issue of serious and violent crime, in particular, the growth in county lines drugs networks.
The urgency to defeat exploitative gangs has increased significantly as their reach and levels of violence have extended ripple-like from major metropolitan areas, fuelling the demand for recreational drugs in the suburbs and commuter towns. What started as inner-city urban gang warfare, has now moved to the hedgerows of the home counties.
I’ve witnessed these gangs in operation. Living in an area of North-East London blighted by serious and violent crime I’ve found gangs operating from cars parked outside my home in a quiet side road and in the playground nearby. The police response is lackadaisical at best, but far more gruesome events have taken place just a few roads away.
On 22 February 2019, Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck a member of the gang, WGM (Wood Green Mob), was viciously stabbed to death in Wood Green by members of rival Tottenham gang, NPK (Northumberland Park Killers). Of the five youngsters found guilty, three of those convicted were only seventeen years old. One was Jayden O’Neill Crichlow, a drill-artist known as ‘SJ’ and one-third of the popular drill act OFB (Original Farm Boys). His debut single was released shortly after his arrest, subsequently achieving nearly 11million views on YouTube, boosted by the notoriety of his part in the brutal murder. As the five were handed their life sentences, each due to serve a minimum of between 21 and 28 years, fighting broke out in the Old Bailey between the families of the defendants. Rumours swirled of betrayals and snitching.
Media outlets desperate to promote drill as a bleak latter-day Anthem for Doomed Youth, valorise these gangs with hagiographic puff-pieces, whilst comfortably detached and cocooned from the maelstrom. In September of last year, The Guardian ran a lengthy article about OFB under the auspices that they were “trying to move the genre beyond the violence for which it has been demonised”; in hindsight, a naïve stance for the paper to take. The Guardian, fully aware of the situation, was content to refer to SJ and the success of his debut single released a fortnight after his arrest for the murder, without ever addressing the topic.
Social media adds a complex dimension to the issue via a channel that is fuelling the crisis. The speed with which inter-gang rivalries now escalate is impossible to police. A perceived slight in song lyrics can quickly result in social media activity via platforms such as Snapchat that leads to fatal consequences. Young fans, ignorant of their role, are complicit in encouraging the violence, egging it on from the sidelines. The need to protect a reputation in front of anonymous and unknown peers is perhaps one of the issue’s saddest and most futile aspects.
Winding-up these gangs will require innovation; a balance of judicial, societal, and educational measures to reduce the rate of recidivism and rescue those at risk of being lost to a path from which they will find it difficult to return.
Judicially, whilst the call for “more police on the streets” is a simple solution that reassures the public, it is unlikely to deter attacks as violent as those we’ve seen previously. It may, however, prevent would-be assailants from feeling emboldened enough to launch the type of brazen and callous attacks upon which reputations are forged. A more effective strategy makes improvements to community policing via larger Safer Neighbourhood Teams. Building relationships and earning trust within local communities will develop local intelligence and inform the broader intelligence picture for each region.
Tougher sentencing is cited as a deterrent, but with teenagers already receiving life sentences, is there any scope to escalate their severity? Having worked extensively with young people exposed to criminality, Shaun Bailey has often stated that “crime needs privacy”. Tagging offenders, particularly those who’ve committed less serious offences, denies them the freedom to be drawn back into criminal activities, reduces the willingness of those engaged in such activity to associate with them, and forces those at risk to adhere to the conditions of their sentence. When coupled with the provision of work programmes that provide employment opportunities for those with such status, we can give disenfranchised young people a second chance to succeed.
Societally, whilst media outlets continue to glamorise a niche musical genre in drill so inextricably linked with violent crime, and social media platforms continue to abdicate responsibility for hosting such content, we cannot expect to see a fall in its popularity or its negative impact. Any attempts to regulate artistic expression will likely be seen as heavy-handed and only burnish its reputation as something illicit. The rejection of the violence integral to the genre must start organically. It is the role-models and community leaders who must be worked with to drive this, focusing upon those whom the target demographic identifies with, rather than politicians and celebrities so detached from those they hope to influence that their impact is negligible.
Education cannot be overlooked with the impact of school exclusions a key contributing factor. Pupil Referral Units (PRU) are the local authority’s final safety net for children excluded from education. Many fail to attend the units and both the authority and the PRU should work closely with local police as a safeguarding issue, identifying those at risk of falling into criminality. With an effective process in place, we can staunch the flow of children into the preying arms of waiting gangs targeting PRUs. To many, like SJ, roadlife presents a far more attractive, and in the short-term lucrative, option.
Ultimately the matrix of gangs, postcode wars, drugs, county lines, drill music, social media, poverty, education, and opportunity may require broader resources than a pan-Whitehall task force can muster. Key to this will be understanding the impact that targeting vulnerable young people, seduced by their perception of an outlaw lifestyle, has on marginalised communities. How does the new task force propose to eradicate gangs that are such an established part of the milieu in many of the affected areas? To achieve the desired outcome, the task force will need to reach even farther than its broad scope already implies.