A mass-brawl and a child thrown into the canal marked the start of a bad week for young people in Queen’s Park, North Westminster. The week ended with three girls wounded by shotgun fire in what is reported to have been an indiscriminate cycle-by shooting.
Weeks earlier a group said to be from the rival South Kilburn estate drove menacingly by our youth club, with what appeared to be a shotgun out of the window aimed at frightened children inside. No shots were fired that time but the fear it instills cuts deep. Muggings, kidnappings and stabbings have become all too common in the last two years, but the community is now starting to respond.
Almost unequivocally the victims are innocent, and with little confidence among young people that next week, month, year will be any better, what hope is there for children unable to escape this hell?
It’s easy to blame the young people, or the parents, but it’s time we ask ourselves if there is a collective failure of the children and families on our estates. With little visible protection by the community or authorities is it any wonder that young people are increasingly resorting to violence to defend themselves and their friends?
Growing up in London is a frightening affair. Children’s coping mechanisms are varied of course and it is a minority who retaliate when provoked, but learning to trust only those you recognize from your ‘endz’ has brought about the so-called ‘postcode gangs’. Trust in the police is at a generational low, with children here questioning why the police are more concerned with criminalizing them than protecting them. “We’re sitting ducks” says one young man from the Mozart Estate referring to the attacks from the apparently meaner and more powerful neighbouring gangs in Ladbroke Grove and South Kilburn, “why are they [the police] never here when we need them?”.
Could it be that the current strategy of stopping and searching young people indiscriminately where they live has the effect of making them feel like criminals? And what affect does this have on their self-esteem and behaviour? The new Met Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, would do well to heed the views of young Londoners who deserve a supportive police service.
Reversing the tide of gun and knife crime gripping the capital will require a concerted joint effort between the police, the authorities and local communities in equal measure.
But what can the community do about it?
After the recent riots communities were lauded for their clear-up efforts, while others where criticized for their vigilantism. But what does the Big Society look like when the issues are this serious?
Here in Queen’s Park local residents have been working to support each other. A peer support drop-in run by volunteers offers practical and emotional support to families, but there is also a recognition among residents that much of what once held the fragile social fabric together is being undone through shrinking public and charitable services – Sure Start, Neighbourhood Guardians, Festivals, Youth Outreach Work, the Neighbourhood Forum and much more besides. It has left a hole too big for the Big Society to fill through volunteers alone. For this reason residents in Queen’s Park have voted overwhelmingly in support of a new neighbourhood layer of government which will agree local priorities democratically and structure an organised and funded plan for much needed improvements.
At the beginning of the year residents launched a Campaign for a Queen’s Park Community Council. One of the many things campaigners want, is to form a funded ‘Youth Council’ to give young people a voice and to include them in local life as part of the solution. Wesminster Council will decide in May 2012 whether to give permission to residents of Queen’s Park to have a greater say and influence over local matters. If Westminster approves the plans, it will mark the start of a new era of mass participation and collective responsibility to restore order and civility in one of London’s most challenging neighbourhoods.