I watched a video the other day called “Kennington where it started”. It’s a music video and my church tower is in it, behind groups of balaclava-clad gang members. Most of the lyrics I don’t understand. But the bits about sticking ‘shanks’ (knives) into other people’s stomachs I do understand. And their attitude to Operation Trident, set up by the police to tackle gun crime within the black community, is also clear: “Fuck Trident, we all violent, man back your city. Kennington where it’s fucking sticky.”
I wouldn’t call them unheard. The video, posted in January 2017, has been watched 5.5 million times on You Tube. The unheard are rather the elderly residents too scared to leave their flats; the unheard are the young people who live on these estates and do not want to find their thrills in some nihilistic glorification of death.
On Monday, 80 or so ex-gang members who go by the acronym GANG – Guiding A New Generation – gathered outside Kennington tube station, just 100 yards or so from my church, in a vigil against knife crime. For a few moments they stopped the traffic as they formed a large circle that stretched from one side of the street to another. And then they walked up to Brixton where they stopped for another vigil. And as they walked they would have passed the estate where the lads who made “Kennington where it started” live.
I hope they had some impact, but I suspect not. Ten years ago, a similar march against knife crime set off from Kennington Park led by the father of Damilola Taylor, who was murdered in 2000. The then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, even recorded a message of support. But ten years on little has changed. Twenty-four young men and women have died on the streets of London already this year. And Southwark, where my parish is, consistently has the worst knife crime record in London.
Back in November, two mothers whose sons had been murdered in the area spoke to a group of MPs in a packed committee room in Parliament. Mariama Kamera’s boy, Mohamed, was stabbed to death in the estate right next to the church. I see the flowers placed at the scene of his death every day as I walk the dog past that spot. And every day I am affected by it. His killer has yet to be found. Grace Idowu’s son, David, was just 14 when he was stabbed in the heart. She has been going round local schools talking to young people. She believes all the different aspects of community have to be engaged if knife crime is to be controlled. “It takes a village to raise a child,” she told MP’s.
But there, for me, is the rub – I have been in this parish for six years and I still don’t know what “the community” means round here. This is a parish that millions of people travel through every year. As I sit quietly in church, I can hear the Northern Line pass underneath. The Elephant and Castle is one of London’s great travel hubs of London. This is a place where people come and go.
Large tower blocks are put up and the flats are sold off-plan to buyers in the Far East. Many have never even been lived in – they are just fancy piggy banks for overseas investors. The groups that do claim the title of “community” are really more like special interest or local amenity groups rather that fully-fledged community operations; the same may go for the church here too, though I am slightly ashamed to admit it. I’d say that most of the people who worship here don’t actually live in the parish. And as far as I could tell, even the GANG anti-knife protest was most made up of people from over the river in Hackney.
My best guess about why knife crime and the gangs flourish round here is because community has become so thinned out as to be virtually non-existent. It does take a village to rise a child, a community. But Kennington stopped being that a long time ago.
Even the word community is a shell of its former self, stripped of meaning as the media uses it repeatedly, talking about community leaders and community engagement. Community has become a misnomer because what was valuable about community was the multiple and overlapping connections between people, not simply a place where people happened to live. It is these connections that establish what Robert Putnam has called “norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” through which people come to develop a sense of their moral responsibility one to the other.
But Kennington just doesn’t have the density of relationships that make for what we used to call community. Even the so-called community groups live parallel lives to each other.
The absence of fathers is often cited as one part of an explanation of why young men join gangs. But in referencing that famous African proverb about it taking a village to raise a child, Grace Idowu points us to another serious lack in our towns and cities: community itself. The fact that there are lots of groups and leaders that claim that title should not deceive us. The liquidity of modern life has severed us one from another. And gangs step in to fill that void.