Brixton: home to summer leagues and guns

There are mixed signals coming through the summer heat in Brixton. A fortnight ago, a young man in hot pursuit of another fired a volley of bullets into a crowd queuing to get into a club on Peckham High Street.

It was one of those south London hole-in-the-wall-type nightclubs that attract visitors from Lewisham in the south-east through to Vauxhall in the south-west. My niece is a regular customer. Posses from Lewisham, Peckham, Brixton and the rest come to exercise their energies on each other with gun and blade. They shoot to kill, stab to maim and murder.

These territorial conflicts have been going on since time began. Layers and layers of teenagers inherit this black-on-black violence. As the older ones grow out of it, settle down to the world of work and the disciplines of the heart, another group slots in to keep the antagonisms alive. Once with the knife, now with the gun. With the IRA soldiers demobbed, many pistols make their way to London through Liverpool and Manchester - side arms, so to speak.

Peckham is a battleground, lying as it does between Lewisham and Brixton. And the Peckham posse ranks at the top of the murderous pile. The recent shooting will be avenged, I guess, before the police pull in the perpetrators through their lines of information. These are invariably school leavers: a couple of hours in the custody suite of a south London police station, and they are spilling their guts out with truths, half-truths and lies. Then Mummy comes a-weeping and a-wailing to take her little baby home. Visit the Inner London county court sessions at Elephant and Castle, and you can see the procession of these young black men of Caribbean descent on their way to youth prisons up and down the country.

After the initial clash with the law, hundreds scurry into jobs in fast-food outlets and the like; a handful remain in hard-core crime. It is a rapidly changing population.

Last week, my neighbours and I witnessed a new entrant. I am certain that he was just out of school. He stood right near my house (maybe ten yards away), fired a pistol and took off at top speed. Mrs Howe darted through the door, shouting: "He's fired a gun!"

The police were on the scene within seconds to bring peace to the "Wild South". As for Billy the black kid, no doubt he just wanted us to know that there was a new gun hand in town.

I recently attended a function at a park in Dulwich - the prize-giving of the Brixton Summer Football League. There were two games to decide the winners of the summer league and the runners-up. I was invited to hand out the prizes.

The event was tremendously well organised by young black people. They draw their players from that very vein of violence running from Lewisham to Brixton, with youngsters of all ages, from those attending secondary school to young men in their twenties. They train hard; they play hard. With so many black footballers in the Premier League, there is a groundswell of ambition to get into the world of football and out of the world of guns.

Those making the prize-giving speeches spoke again and again of discipline, of creative individualism in relation to the team, of accepting the decisions of the referee - in short, of a culture that was the direct opposite of the culture of violence for which south London is so infamous. I am sure that they vastly outnumber those who are trapped in the gun culture. I expect that this duality, which is at the core of a changing community, will resolve itself in the cutting down of crime and criminals.

As for the latter, they seem quite content to serve their time after being caught bang to rights. No shouts of police racism and the rest. Such criminals steer well away from accusations of that kind. They represent the most racially integrated section of the population; crime thrives just as much among blacks as it does among whites.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?