4:04pm Monday 29th October 2012 in By Hermione Wright
A report into gang culture after last year’s riots found gang violence has increased. The Centre for Social Justice report, released yesterday, says the arrests of gang leaders has led to an increase in “chaos, violence and anarchy.”
Reporter Hermione Wright takes 30 seconds in Edmonton Green with former gang member Jermaine Lawlor to find out why he got into gangs, why he got out, if it’s got worse, and what can be done to stop young people from ruining their lives.
Jermaine, 21, grew up in Ilford in east London before getting sucked into the gang lifestyle at just 14 years old. He was excluded from school in Year 4 for fighting, and would carry a knife and loiter in the streets with a gang – with many members carrying guns.
He turned his life around at 18 and now visits schools throughout Enfield as a gangs coordinator with the Youth Engagement Panel to warn young people about the dangers of gang culture.
Why did you get into a gang?
“It’s the adrenaline, living on the edge – it was very exciting to know that I could get killed at any minute. The police say if you get caught with a gun or a knife you get four years, but you don’t.
“You don’t care about going to prison; it’s a youth club. I am not sure about going to prison without your friends but I didn’t care. Prison is great; if prison was bad people wouldn’t want to go back.
“Prison is fun, it’s enjoyable; you get a PS3.”
Although the youth narrowly missed prison, he was called to Redbridge Magistrates Court more than ten times for offences including robbery and criminal damage. He was warned if he was called just one more time, he would be sent to jail. However, after he was given the same warning three times without being handed a sentence, it lost its effect.
He came from a broken home, and spoke honestly of the difficulty for young people to focus at school when they are going through difficult times at home. He said: “If there is fighting in the house, if there are drugs in the house and you try to sit in class, how can you listen? All you think about is ‘is my dad going to beat me? Or is my mum going to be dead?’”
Why did you get out?
“Why do you want to throw your life away? I wanted money but it came with a price. It starts off fun, people don’t care about their mothers when they're in a gang; their mothers and little sisters are getting kicked out or kidnapped. My family didn’t want to know me when I was in the gang.”
He ended up in hospital twice – the second time he had his eye split open with a knuckle duster. And at 18, he found God and decided it was time to turn his life around. He said: “I always knew there was someone out there as a young boy. I always thought about my purpose – you can’t go through life living without a purpose, it is like driving without anywhere to go.”
He said part of the pull towards gang culture was feeling like he was part of a family, so he started playing football through AIR Football – a community scheme which helps people to change their lives through sport. In football, he focussed on a skill, kept off the streets, and made new friends free from crime.
Is gang culture getting worse?
“Definitely. Everyone is just hungry – they are just desperate. If you are not making money, how are you going to survive? You and me don’t need to rob anyone but when you have no money, you need it. You need skills.
“It's going to get worse, it is going to get to a point when it is ridiculous. Look at the power and the authority that young people carry, the police didn’t know what to do during the riots – the police say they are the biggest gang but look at the influence young people have.”
He said the riots were partly due to young people feeling neglected, and with a lack of jobs and opportunities for youths, many feel there is little other option than getting involved in crime.
What can be done to stop young people from being lured into gang culture?
“There is not much you can say, you are accountable, we have to take responsibility, we have to wake up and think about our life – there has to be a reason why we want to leave. It has to be appealing for you to leave that fast world of fast money, girls and drugs.
“We live in a great country. No matter how small the room is, we have a toilet and a shower. It can’t be that bad, we have a welfare system that provides.”
Jermaine visited Wood Green Crown Court last week to warn 15 young gangsters from Enfield about making the “difficult” decision to leave their gangs. He says staying in a gang leaves only three options - death, prison, or a psychiatric hospital.
The inspirational youth now lives by the saying: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.”