Drugs, Drills and Drama

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BY BENJAMIN OBESE-JECTY

“Cut the head off the snake”. A powerful and evocative image that conjures the metaphorical decapitation of a foe, rendering it leaderless. 

Earlier this month 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, by cutting the head off the snake of criminal gangs. But what if rather than simply being a snake, it was a creature altogether more pervasive? What if the snake was something akin to the fabled Lernaean Hydra from Greek mythology, generating two heads for every one cut off?

The Conservatives’ intention to restore their reputation as the party of law and order will reinforce one of the key reasons that many voted for them. The task force will look at strategic targeting of county lines drugs networks, stopping the upstream ingress of illegal narcotics. A visceral and illustrative way of restoring that reputation; every photo of a young victim resonating with a public that expects a solution.

The challenge of how to tackle these exploitative gangs has pinballed around for the past 18 months, the urgency increasing as the reach of the gangs extends ripple-like from major metropolitan areas, particularly London, fuelling the demand for recreational drugs in the suburbs, commuter towns and home counties. What started as an inner-city urban gang warfare has now moved to the hedgerows of the home counties; for many the bocage is much closer to home. 

I’ve witnessed these gangs in operation. Living in an area of North-East London blighted by serious and violent crime I have previously found gangs to be operating from cars parked outside my home in a quiet side road, or in the playground around the corner. The police response is lackadaisical at best. But far more gruesome events have taken place just a few hundred metres away.

On 22 February 2019 Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck a member of the gang WGM (Wood Green Mob) was brutally stabbed to death in Wood Green by members of rival Tottenham gang NPK (Northumberland Park Killers). Of the five youngsters found guilty in December three of those convicted were only seventeen years old. One of the three 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 and has subsequently achieved nearly 11million views on social media, boosted by the notoriety of being on remand for his part in the brutal murder.

Earlier this week, as the five began their life sentences, each due to serve a minimum of between 21 and 28 years, longer than any of them have been alive, fighting broke out in the Old Bailey between the families of the defendants. Rumours swirled of betrayals and snitching, fuelled by accusations on social media and the over-reaction to snippets of information which typify the environment in which the five exist.

Parts of the media, desperate to promote drill as some sort of bleak latter-day Anthem for Doomed Youth, valorise these gangs with hagiographic puff-pieces showing the extent to which they feel comfortably detached from the maelstrom that consumers of the end-product are cocooned from. In September of last year The Guardian wrote 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 was content to mention SJ and the success of his debut single, when it was released after the murder, without ever broaching the topic or establishing a correlation between the two. 

Social media plays a significant role in this and adds a complex dimension to the issue via a channel that is fuelling the crisis. The speed with which inter-gang rivalries can now escalate is near impossible to police. A perceived slight in the lyrics to a song, can quickly result in a flurry of social media activity via the likes of Snapchat potentially leading to fatal consequences. Young fans, ignorant of the part they play in proceedings are complicit in fuelling the violence, egging it on from the sidelines. The need to save face and protect reputation in front of anonymous and unknown peers is perhaps one of the saddest and most futile aspects of the issue. A warped extrapolation of social media’s appetite to consume what little self-confidence its young users project. 

At the recent Mayor’s Question Time in Haringey, an event that took place in the theatre on the opposite side of the road to where the attack on Gabbidon-Lynck started, Sadiq Khan was interrogated by local residents who demanded to know how he planned to solve the issue. Residents who freely admitted they were too scared to venture into parts of the area. Khan unsurprisingly had no answers, relying on safe soundbites about “Police funding”, “Tory cuts” and an inability to provide youth services. Should Khan gain re-election in May, it would appear he has little appetite to provide a solution to such a prescient issue. His focus upon youth services gives hm an easy out, but no amount of after-school table-tennis is going to benefit children excluded from school, or who fail to attend a Pupil Referral Unit. Like O’Neil-Crichlow, roadlife presents a far more attractive, and in the short-term, lucrative option.

Those looking for leadership from Local MPs have seen a sclerotic response too. David Lammy and Catherine West have been impotent in their ability to address the issue, with both seemingly more interested in points-scoring over Brexit, than engaging with community leaders to try and staunch the flow of their young and vulnerable constituents into the preying arms of the waiting gangs. Ever the opportunist, Lammy is unlikely to wish to highlight his own ineffectiveness in neutralising gang-activity that has been rooted in his constituency for his entire 20-year tenure. There is little or no evidence that any recent action has been taken beyond the platitudes we have come to expect following such tragic events. The gangs in question have been allowed to thrive and operate with impunity, with neither MP willing to publicly call the gangs out by name. As a display of leadership, it has been shameful. But in a borough with such disparities in socialist values, from the leafy streets of Muswell Hill to the brutalist estates of Tottenham, it is unsurprising that its MPs do not reside in the latter. The dealers do not park outside their houses.

Winding-up these gangs will require an entirely fresh approach, one that offers a balance of judicial, societal and educational measures in order to reduce the rate of recidivism and cut through to those on the cusp of being lost to a path they will find it difficult to return from. 

In Tottenham the most established gangs existed long before many of its current members had been born. The current ranks fighting as foot-soldiers in a conflict they have inherited, and one that nobody seems interested in ending. How does the new task force propose to eradicate gangs that are such an established part of the milieu? If the 2011 riots were not the catalyst to neutralise the threat that these gangs pose, why would the establishment of a new task force?

The matrix of gangs, postcode wars, drugs, county lines, drill music, social media, poverty, education and opportunity may require broader resources than even 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 an already marginalised community.

Heracles defeated the hydra by removing the heads one-by-one and cauterizing them so that they could not grow back. The task force may struggle to eliminate the problem until it has the reach to be able to cauterize each of the hydra’s heads. 

Benjamin Obese-Jecty is the Former Conservative PPC for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and Deputy Chairman (Political) of Hornsey and Wood Green Conservatives. Follow him on twitter: @BenObeseJecty


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