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How do we talk about gang culture?

In a climate where we still don't understand the London riots, we need to keep the dialogue about gang culture open in any way we can.

New Statesman
Local residents flee Clarence Road in Hackney during the London riots in 2011. But how much were the riots connected with gang culture? Image: Getty

I keep thinking about a death. Journalists meet a lot of people, hear a lot of stories. Over the years, they generally recede into the long distance. But the odd one, it sticks. And I'll never forget the day I found out that Tommy Cox had died. 

The story starts six years ago - on Valentine's Day, 2007 - on the Fenwick Estate just by Clapham North tube.  It isn't such a bad place. Completed in 1970 and home to 1,600 people in 400 maisonettes spread around a curved road, it has few boarded up windows and graffiti is sparse. It's only a few yards away from the tube station and the million-pound town houses and trendy, expensive pubs that surround it. It's certainly not the estate I read about after it happened: the estate of 'Narrow hallways, the sound of barred doors clanging shut, not a blade of grass on the football field, just a few used condoms,' according to a national paper.

It began with a 13-year-old, returning from school to her home, apartment number 123 - a small flat near the entrance to the estate. She was Elizabeth Cox: a pretty, popular, happy girl. She was half-Thai, and used to spend her time dancing at Thai festivals and dressing up in traditional clothes. She'd just won a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park. The fees would have cost £21,000 a year - money her parents could never afford.

Shortly before she arrived home, neighbours reported hearing a loud bang at about 3.30pm. Elizabeth entered, and saw her brother Billy, bleeding to death on the floor. She held him in her arms as he died, then rushed to a neighbour for help, covered in her brother's blood. Billy had been shot once, in the chest. He was 15 years old.

There was none of the dignified silence that often accompanies such deaths when reporters ask locals about the deceased's character. Billy just didn't seem the sort to be caught up in anything this serious.

Shortly after his death, one neighbour said: 'He was more the girlish type. He wasn't ashamed to spend hours talking to us. Billy was often beaten up by the other boys. His friends never defended him.' Another said: ''I've known Billy since he was born and he and his sister always used to be playing outside my house together. I could regularly hear them laughing and having fun.' But somewhere along the line, things had gone wrong for him.

We'll never know the exact truth. Initial newspaper reports said it started going wrong when he joined a crew called the Clapham Town Kids, but it seems more likely he was in a younger group called Fully Equipped - possibly a Crip gang. What we do know is that Billy's peer group didn't change much - he stayed close to the same bunch of friends he'd known for years. Whether it was the gang influence or simply being a teenager or both, his behaviour went off the rails.

Soon, Billy was arrested for stealing, and given a 12-month supervision order and an electric ankle bracelet. Then he started to misbehave at his school, Ernest Bevin in Tooting. He threw fireworks in the playground and was expelled. Billy was alone on the estate all day while his parents went out to work. Again, it's hard to say how far he'd moved into crime during this period. There are reports he dealt drugs, but it doesn't seem to have been very often. There was a DVD circulating in which members of the SUK, a Battersea gang, boasted of attacking him in the months before his death: 'We bust Rem's head', one gang member said [Billy was now known by the street name Remer].

We certainly know this wasn't the direction he wanted his life to take. In January 2007 he'd checked in at the Fairbridge Centre in Kennington, a charity that works with disadvantaged young people and tries to find them a vocation. He failed to complete the ten-day course but was booked in to start again at the end of February. Before that could happen, three youths knocked on his door on that fateful Valentine's Day. Two of them left. One remained, and went into the flat with him. No one knows for sure why he died. Some thought it was a result of a beating inflicted on a rival gang member by Billy's gang, a beating in which he did not take part. The most common theory involves a dispute over a relatively small amount of cannabis, and a series of text messages, during which a row began to escalate.

***

Three years later, one cold, bright Saturday morning, a film maker and I met Billy's father in a pub just around the corner from the estate. We wanted to make a documentary about the murder, but it never got off the ground. Tommy Cox, Billy's father, hadn't been sure about the meeting at first - he wondered if he should bring the police with him. We'd said there wouldn't be any need, thinking it might mean he was less open with us

As it happened, there were two Trident officers with him, but we needn't have worried. It was clear the officers had remained friends with Tommy ever since the day of the murder, and provided support and friendship over the years, counselling him through the initial media storm surrounding the case, and keeping his hopes up as the publicity died down and the chance of Billy's killer ever being brought to justice seemed to rescind. The three of them teased each other, and us, like old friends.

Tommy was in his 50s, and a builder. He had a wicked sense of humour. In a flash he'd ordered beers for the table, and was busy laying into me over my choice of football team. He supported Crystal Palace, who'd just beaten them 4-1, and he spent a good ten minutes talking me through every goal. He had a fine line in old man jokes - cringingly awful one-liners delivered with such joy you couldn't help but laugh. Someone dropped a glass behind the bar. 'Sack the juggler!' he called out. He talked about his stresses with work, about how he was being priced out by the eastern Europeans, about how modern pubs these days only served 'dishwater'.

Tommy opened up a family picture album, and showed pictures of Billy that I'd never seen before. It disturbed me. I'd read every article about the case and got used to seeing the same stock picture. These weren't the image I'd got used to, the 15-year-old wannabe with the crew cut and stud in his ear. Here was Billy at Alton Towers with his family. Here he was in his football kit. This was a man's little boy, who loved his family and was loved by them. Tommy told us what the murder had done to his family. Billy's sister and mother would never be the same again. Tommy was a good man, and I've no doubt he was a good father too. He was just old school working class, and had little understanding of the world into which Billy had rapidly descended.

We walked into the Fenwick Estate, past the house where Tommy and his family had lived (they had since moved to the suburbs). A woman ran out from her flat to say hello to him and ask him how the family were. He chatted for a few minutes. Then we walked up to Billy's mural, an 8ft-high painting of him created by graffiti artists from the area. The residents had been undecided on the picture: some felt it drew constant, needless attention to the tragedy, others wanted it to remain.

Tommy left a cigarette in one of the glasses at the foot of the wall. Then he planted a single kiss on the cold, stone wall, and said goodbye to his boy. With that, he was gone. I went back to the pub and sat with the officers for a while. 'He's a lovely man, isn't he?' said one. 'Life's shit, isn't it?' replied the other. Back home I looked at the online memorial Billy's friends had set up in his memory. His girlfriend had been on there, writing to Billy, and telling him about the time he'd chased her round the park and tripped over a swing.

In 2011, Tommy Cox died of skin cancer. He gave a final interview to the local press. He said that knowing who the suspect was, and that he was still walking free, had made the pain worse for the family. 'I'm still angry now. Someone can walk into my house, shoot my son and nothing gets done about it. He has walked away scot-free.' He knocked on the door of the man he believed to have killed Billy three times, but was threatened by the council with legal action for 'nuisance behaviour'. Most upsetting was his fears for his wife and daughter: 'They've got to keep going. Now I'm dying I feel I've got the easy way out.'

***

The above is an extract from my updated book, which came out a couple of years ago. But I wanted to revisit the whole thing, because I've been thinking about gangs again.

A couple of things have prompted me to do so. One was the fact that Danny Finkelstein made a good point recently: even now, we don't understand the riots. Indeed, I'm talking about gangs - but how closely related were the gangs and the riots, really? Some numbers have been thrown around, but they don't tell us much. The other thing that's got me thinking has been a series of emails I've exchanged with a former political advisor who was in the top echelons of Government around the time my book was first released. It turns out he read it while they were in power and wanted my views on the recent Evening Standard coverage of gangs.

We talked about a lot of things: the way voluntary agencies work, the way they interact with the media, the problems with crime statistics, the impact of geography - but I think these were the most important lines I wrote:

"If there was real political will, it could be fixed [my correspondent would rightly correct me - mitigated perhaps, but not fixed entirely]. And I'm not convinced there is huge, urgent political will. Of course our politicians care - I'm just saying the wheels of Government turned a lot faster after the 2008 financial crisis, say, than they did after the 2011 riots. There are a lot of reasons for this - I imagine you have thoughts of your own there."

And later:

"Part of the problem of course, at the statutory level, is that this cuts across so many departments - HO, MoJ, DWP, CLG, DfE, probably more - and then once you get to a local area it cuts across the council's housing, health, education etc. It's very difficult to coordinate a response and when I've looked at certain cases in depth it's very clear that the client's been engaged with several different agencies, none of whom knew what the other was doing. To my mind that remains the defining challenge in terms of dealing with the issue.

"That's why I contrasted the 08 financial crisis and the '11 riots. It's hardly surprising that politicians, Spads and civil servants, overwhelmingly middle class, should be more comfortable dealing with an arcane economic conundrum than a social phenomenon afflicting inner-city youths, but I think the other reason is that when issues cut across departments there's either confusion or a collective failure to take responsibility depending on how cynical you are (I actually tend to the first diagnosis)."

And this ties in with the questions that come to mind when I think about Billy Cox:

- Billy slipped through the statutory net. He'd been expelled, he'd been in trouble with the police: but the only contact he'd had with a body that could get him on the straight and narrow had come off his own bat.

- Who gets excluded from school, and why? School exclusion and offender rates go hand in hand.

- By all accounts, Billy didn't really change his peer group. What's the process by which groups become gangs, and how does it impact on the stuff in which they're involved?

- Billy came from a good family who lived in a rough area. Community disorganisation has more impact on kids than parenting: we actually know this for a fact, thanks to a 2004 survey by a charity called Communities that Care.

Last night I was invited to watch a new play by Roy Williams, who wrote Sucker Punch. Advice for the Young At Heart is set during the 2011 riots. Candice, a young mixed-race woman, is ordered by her gang-leading boyfriend to lure her childhood friend Clint into a honey-trap. As she attempts to keep him in her vicinity, she's haunted by the ghost of her white grandfather, a former Teddy Boy who was involved in the Notting Hill riots of 1958.

It's a play about the historical legacy of race, and peer pressure, especially the impact it has on young women in the inner city (something Chloe Combi has written particularly powerfully about), and indeed any number of other issues I found myself covering when I wrote about cases like that of Billy Cox. It's not a particularly abstract work: it carries a clear moral about rejecting the false security offered by gang affiliation. But it works.

At the performance I was at, there were scores of kids from the inner city: somewhat removed from a traditional West End audience. They gasped as the Teddy Boys screamed into the audience that the blacks should go home, get out of their country. They stood and cheered as the characters confronted the evils in their midst. Above all, they found it authentic - this wasn't a middle class, fetishised vision of what gangs and territorial violence are about, but a totally believable depiction of the petty rivalries and bullying that comprise most of the "gang rivalries" which only ever make the headlines when someone gets stabbed.

And it's part of a growing body of art that's beginning to tackle this issue. Where policymakers have failed to engage with these issues - for years - a growing body of novelists, playwrights and scriptwriters have. Art doesn't change anything: we know that. Except it's not so simple. The slow drip of cultural change does sometimes translate into political action.  It feels, to me, like we live in an era where public bodies are being held to account with increasing regularity. And perhaps one day we'll marvel at the notion that a young boy could be gunned down in his bedroom - wasn't even the only one that year - that our cities could burn for three days, and the collective political response was a shrug of the shoulders. Tommy Cox had unfinished business when he passed away.

Advice for the Young at Heart is touring now. Further details about the play and the Theatre Centre's Adopt an Actor Campaign are available here.