A flurry of activity
A whirlwind of hostility
Fury turns to fear
Society sheds a tear
A spilling of red
Life becomes death
Another life gone.
I’d like to introduce you to two teenagers who have been in my thoughts for some time and will probably never leave. I’ve never met either although they have both impacted on me quite significantly. I’m never going to meet either of them, because they’re both dead, murdered before they had time to become men.
Firstly, meet Fabian Ricketts, killed with gunshot wounds to the heart and left lung on 17 April 2006 outside a bar in Battersea when aged 18. Press coverage makes mention of a “gang fight” and there are suggestions that Fabian may have been involved. You probably haven’t heard of Fabian Ricketts. His case was not high-profile like Damilola Taylor, Billy Cox or Andre Smart-Ford. If you google search for information on Fabian’s death, it’s few and far between. What will probably come near the top of your search is this page, an online memorial created by Fabian’s mother. Is the lack of coverage not a sad indictment of our attitude to teenage murder? Fabian’s death impacted on me because I had his picture by my desk at home while I was working on setting up a youth programme to divert young people from weapon-enabled crime, to provide me with a constant reminder of why I was doing it. I chose Fabian rather than one of the more high-profile cases because I have to wonder, does his age, 18 as opposed to under 16, make this death any less tragic? Does the suggestion that he may have been involved in a confrontation earlier in the evening, if true, make him any more deserving of a death penalty? Does the lack of media attention make this any less difficult for his friends and family? Take a moment to look at the memorial page. Spend that moment looking into Fabian Ricketts’ eyes and wonder, what could this young man have become? When he died he had a job in Woolworths. He had aspirations of being a film director. How much more normal could Fabian have been?
Secondly, please take a look at Samuel Ogunro. On 2 June 2010 at age 17, his body was found with a bullet wound to the head, in a burnt out car. On Friday, Ola Apena, 22, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 32 years. Samuel was due to stand trial as Apena’s co-defendant in a firearms trial, the prosecution stated during this trial that Apena had “tricked” Samuel into involvement in the purchase of a gun. After being caught he attempted to persuade Samuel to take responsibility for the firearm and he was murdered as a result of his failure to do so. Apena arranged Samuel’s murder from his prison cell with the use of an illicit mobile telephone. Samuel was attending college and studying for a sports leaderships qualification. Is it just me or could this story have been lifted directly from a Martin Scorsese script? Who needs De Niro, Pesci et al when you have inner city London? Again, I find the tiny amount of coverage of this case, truly shocking. I am again forced to reflect on the troubles I had as a teenager, while my resistance to the peer pressure to take up smoking was arduous, my experiences certainly didn’t include anyone trying to persuade me to assist in the purchase of a gun, nor my life being on the line for refusing a drag on a Malboro Light. Take a moment again and meet Samuel’s stare, what hopes and dreams lay behind those eyes?
So why am I bringing all this to your attention? Isn’t all this nicely boxed into disadvantaged communities far away from here? Well, yes, often these types of killings happen against teenagers who are socially excluded and committed by others from a background of disadvantage. When the victim is from the middle class, you’ll know about it, the cases of Stephen Lawrence and Ben Kinsella are examples which have attracted enormous press coverage. However, all these killings are happening on OUR streets, while this is going on, we all have a responsibility to address it, particularly those of us who grew up and live in places where we can have far fewer worries about what may happen to our children when they walk out of the door. Remember, it doesn’t matter who is shooting bullets at who, we can all be hit. If people feel the need to arm themselves to walk the streets and you inadvertently have an altercation with one of those people, it could be you with an online memorial in your honour.
Be under no illusions, this issue is related to inequality, too. In The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show us that murder rates are lower and children experience less violence in more equal societies.
At present, youth unemployment is very high, 963,000 in February 2011 and rising, crime is going up, benefits are being reduced, police numbers cut, youth services and youth provisions cut. All of these things constitute a reduction in protective factors, i.e. those things that protect young people from getting involved in crime. Depending on where you live and spend your time, this will be more or less likely to affect you.
If you’re still feeling fairly comfortable about whether or not youth crime can touch you, consider this; income inequality is getting more pronounced, the rich are getting richer and the poor, comparatively poorer. Our society is becoming polarised. So, for the time being you may be comfortable with that, but have a think about where this is going? Do you want to live in a society where large swathes of the population live in abject poverty, where brutal violence regularly explodes? How would you feel if you can’t keep up with the rich and it’s your area that starts to become ghettoized? If you’re fortunate enough to keep pace, do you want to live in a world where you have to employ towering gates and walls around your comfortable home, CCTV watching every side of your abode and the possibility that you will be violently liberated of your valuables each time you step outside your bubble? This is the reality that we’re facing, what kind of world do you want for you, your children and your children’s children?
If you can take it, I highly recommend the film documentary, Scenes from a Teenage Killing which chronicles every teenager who died as a result of violence in 2009. It’s on iPlayer here or on Youtube from Part 1, here. It’s extremely powerful and should leave you in no doubt that we must address this problem.