The number of deaths from violent crime in London is climbing day by day, in an alarming trend that could take a generation to solve, Mayor Sadiq Khan warned just this month. 2018 looks set to be the worst year in a decade for the number of young people in England and Wales killed in knife attacks, with 37 children and teenagers having been fatally stabbed. Meanwhile the tally of homicides in London so far this year is fast approaching 130 – already more than the 116 who died last year – and many of those deaths are a result of gang violence.
Statistically, gang crime in the capital is down since 2010, but many believe this is because the way the Met police reports and defines "gang crime" is insufficient, and the way gangs operate has evolved from "the analogue world to the digital world". Among the 72 fatal stabbings and 14 shootings – all gang-related – in the capital this year, is the shooting of 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne in April. Gang members were spotted joking and boasting about her death afterwards on Instagram.
The narrative around gun and knife crime usually revolves around men, which makes sense given that they're the most common perpetrators of those crimes, but gang culture and crime affects women and girls, too. Often they're in the wrong place at the wrong time – Melbourne was described as "an innocent child caught up in a stupid postcode war" – while in other cases, they're coerced and manipulated by men and boyfriends and end up aiding and abetting their crimes. They are used as "honeytraps" or roped into carrying knives, guns or drugs for men as a way of "proving" their love and loyalty.
According to the 2014 report Girls and Gangs, women and girls may fulfil various different roles within gangs: as "gangster girls" (reportedly adopting "male personas" within gangs); as family members in the gang; "wifeys" or girlfriends of male gang members; mothers of children fathered by male gang members; or "links", having casual sexual relationships with gang members. But they also start gangs themselves.
One woman who did just that is Nequela Whittaker, 30, a youth worker from Brixton, south London who started a gang and spent her teenage years in gangs. She was arrested for actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH) by the age of 14, and sentenced to four years in a Scottish prison at 17 for misuse of drugs with intent to supply Class A and B. She spent a year inside, during which time she decided to turn her life around and commit instead to deterring vulnerable young people from gangs and crime. Here, she tells Refinery29 her story.
Growing up, I was part of a neighbourhood group of three girls and four boys, which we didn't call a gang. We'd look out for each other and spend time together after school and during the summer holidays, as my mum didn't let me leave Brixton. When I was 11 or 12, I started secondary school and started to get involved in criminal activities, like joyriding and petty crimes like stealing stuff from shops. I was trying to protect myself from being a victim. I came from a loving household, but I was bullied by a group of girls on my way to school because I played the violin and looked different, I didn't have a perm in my hair.
At 13, I created my own gang for protection from young people from other areas. We were a group of three Caribbean girls from Brixton who went to school in Croydon, which made us stand out. After a few fights, we decided we'd had enough and I was the gang leader. We fought against other girls, we had weapons, we were ready for war against anybody who wanted to trouble us or make us their victims. That wasn't going to happen. By protecting ourselves we gained a reputation and that brought greater power.
I saw my friend's heart get blown out of his back and no one did anything. I was 16.
We formed a mixed gang with a much bigger boy gang for greater strength in numbers when problems arose. We were fighting day in and day out. We were a rebellious group of young people who'd had enough of being pushed around, victimised and excluded or secluded from society because we weren't from the area, didn't look like other people or have the same stuff that other young people had. When I left secondary school for college I formed another girl gang, having seen how being in a gang gave me credibility. We joined with another boy gang and at that point we were getting older, so I began to sell drugs more frequently – crack, heroin, weed, MDMA, ecstasy pills – it became routine.
My nickname was "Mouthy". I'd tell other young people to steal clothes and trainers from stores, rob people, do burglaries and sell drugs. We'd also commit crimes like not paying for taxis and joyriding, alongside excessive fighting. I've seen people be murdered, people's mums being harmed, houses being run up in. I've seen a lot of drug taking and been in places used as a drug base. I've been in drug dens. I've seen people being beaten up, and people's parents being beaten up and run over. My worst memory is seeing my friend's heart get blown out of his back and no one doing anything. I was 16 at the time. It's an unsolved murder, which I find difficult to comprehend because the person who murdered him was also my friend.
The motto on the streets is kill or be killed.
Based on the young people I work with now, women are often drawn to the gang environment because of partners with that lifestyle. They're manipulated into carrying stuff, keeping things in their house or setting people up. It's a form of control that stems from not loving yourself enough and being needy of others. It's easy for a man to bribe them with money and nice things, but what are you having to do in return? Men prey on weaker women who are more vulnerable and susceptible to saying yes. Family members also get their female siblings and family members involved – it's a domino effect. Sexual exploitation within gangs is common. I was raped when I was 11. This fuelled a lot of anger and resentment, which led me to vent my anger and commit violence within gangs, although it wasn't the main cause or reason why.
I was arrested for being used as a mule to transport drugs from London to Scotland [a practice known as "county lines"]. I was sentenced to four years, which became two because I pled guilty the first time around, and I ended up spending a year inside because of good behaviour. I did a lot of growing and learning in prison – I realised I wanted to come out and change my community, so I chose to qualify to prevent others from going down the path I took.
It's very common for a young person to carry a gun or knife if they're not feeling safe. Their lives could be under threat if they're on the territory of a gang. The motto on the streets is kill or be killed. Reading about the current wave of violence in London breaks my heart. We've got parents burying their kids, and it shows that these young people don't have respect for their own lives. It's happening because of austerity, police cuts, family breakdowns, a lack of parenting, a lack of positive role models, an unconscious between the police and the black community. The solution is providing young people with more opportunities. Lower the working age and make practical activities more accessible for those who are failing in mainstream education.
I'd tell any young person thinking about joining a gang to speak to someone with experience to find out what it's like, and understand that there are real negative repercussions. The young people I work with know about my own experience, so they can relate to me. I tell young people to be committed to something, be empowered, be original, be yourself and follow your dreams.