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Transcending hood mentality through community

CRIME SCENE: These police lines have become all too familiar in Peckham


It was true way back in the electrifying 1960s when Bob Dylan passionately exclaimed it, but can we honestly say that it’s true now? If you asked me this a couple of days go, I would have let out a confused sigh, looked at you doubtfully and said:

“Obviously the times are changing bro!”

Even our, or should I say, my British slang has morphed into Americanisms. 'Fam' and 'obviously' quickly became 'bro' and various versions of 'no kidding' when I left secondary school and started to become obsessed with YouTube. I went from sounding like an annoying stereotypical street 'yute' to an even more annoying, stereotypical street 'dude'. God bless the Internet.

To get back to the main point at hand, a few days ago I would have laughed at the notion that times aren’t changing. Everywhere you look, stereotypes are being broken. Young men and women are becoming billionaires like it's nothing. A silly Twitter meme can make or break you. Female sportsters are not only mainstream, but are more popping than their male counterparts. Natural hair is in, weave is out. Veganism has become not only cool, but arguably sexy. The underachievers that had every card stacked against them are growing up are now, winning and dare I say it - shining.

When you really think about it, Dylan’s anthem is an understatement in today’s world. It no longer resonates. At least that’s what I thought a few days ago. That’s what I thought until news of yet another stabbing in Peckham, south London came to my attention.

On Friday 30 December 2016, two days before the new year, a young man was brutally stabbed to death. His name was Ernest Kalawa (pictured above) and he was only 24 years old. Right now, no one knows the exact details, but based on the little information I’ve managed to gather, this unfortunate event took place after an argument about a car.

While stabbings in Peckham are not exactly groundbreaking news, this one in particular really surprised me. Why? Because it happened right outside Deerhurst House and Denstone House - my parent’s home.

It’s the house I grew up in from age 10 to 24. Prior to that, I lived in Hordle Promenade North in the now demolished North Peckham Estate where Damilola Taylor (pictured below) was murdered in 2001 - I guess you could say we got out in the nick of time.

My mother was the one who broke the news to me. She was shocked…seriously shocked. My whole family was. We have lived here for such a long time and for this to happen, two days before 2017 is just upsetting, surprising and down right depressing.

What really comes as a shock to me is that Peckham is supposed to be on the up and up. At least that’s what everyone is telling me. Yesterday, I spoke to a local resident about the incident and even she was surprised:

“Why does it have to be Peckham?”

Type in ‘Peckham living’ in Google and you’ll find all sorts of clickbait articles about Peckham being the new hipster capital of London and the top ten reasons to live here. I’m not going to touch on the gentrification of Peckham because quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. Instead, I’m going to focus on the little I’ve gleaned from my mother who was in the area moments after the stabbing last Friday.

My mother had just come back from doing a little bit of shopping. She was tired and just wanted to sit down and unwind, but she couldn’t because the police had cornered off the whole of Haymerle Road blocking her from entering. At first she was confused, then she heard screaming.

“I can still hear her voice… just over and over in my mind” - my mother was referring to the victim’s own mother.

The victim’s mother and his younger sister were crying out in anguish not understanding what had just happened. They were surrounded by cops and were desperately trying to figure out the condition of their son and brother. There was an ambulance in the corner with its lights whirring. Suddenly the lights switched off and the back doors slowly opened. A few officers stepped out, their faces downcast. At this point in time, everyone knew. I’m not going to go any further because that would be in bad taste and perhaps I’ve already overstepped the line.

The only reason I’ve touched on these details is to paint a picture. To reinforce the reality of this wretched situation - young black men are killing each other for no logical reason and it’s been happening for a long, long time. Sometimes, some of us forget how serious these acts of violence are and how they have far-reaching consequences to all people involved. I’m ashamed to say that when I first heard about this, part of me shrugged - '...just another day in Peckham', I thought. I buried that horrible line deep into the crevices of my mind but of course, it still lingers, occasionally rearing its ugly head with a knowing smile.

This isn’t the first time a stabbing has hit close to home. In 2011 a man I knew from secondary school, let’s just call him Ade, and a group of teenage boys stabbed another black man to death in Old Kent Road. Amazingly enough, this had something to do with a car too. Another man I knew from both my primary and secondary school, let’s just call him John, orchestrated the murder of a teenage boy in Peckham in 2011. I also remember Danny and Ricky Preddie, those convicted of murdering Damilola Taylor, pretty clearly from primary’s crazy how things turn out.

Between December 2015 and November 2016, there were 486 violent offences reported in Peckham, up by 30 from the previous year (UK Crime Stats, 2016). In addition, Between November 2015 and November 2016, there were 105 victims of knife crime, all under 25 (London Assembly, 2016).

The level of crime in the area shows little sign of slowing down, so what exactly can be done? When is enough, enough?

Last week, another young man in his 20s was stabbed near an Asda in Peckham. Thankfully, he remains in a stable condition and his injuries are not thought to be life threatening.

I’m not sure I have the answers we’re all looking for, but what’s becoming clear to me as the years churn by and my hair becomes increasingly grey, is that a real sense of community can really elevate your consciousness and change your life for the better.

I’ve seen it happen to kids I knew from school. In and out of jail in their teens to mid 20s, then suddenly a brush with religion completely transforms their life. Admittedly, this is not exactly the revelation of the century. I think a lot of us know that this happens from time to time, but I really think it’s one of the best methods of putting a street 'yute' on the right path.

I remember years ago in 2005, after getting my GCSE results from the school reception desk, I turned around and I saw a bunch of my peers holding hands in a circle, eyes closed and engaged in prayer. I found it amusing. A mocking grin plastered across my arrogant face. 'It’s a bit late for that', I thought. I was also going through that arrogant atheist phase that young men tend to go through, but young black men rarely go through (I was a weird child I guess).

I let go of Christianity in my teenage years but of course when you let go of that warm blanket you’ve had since you were a child, you struggle to find meaning in your life. You start to hate the freedom that religion stripped you off and desire a little more structure…but that’s a conversation for another day.

A lot of those kids in the circle went on to have great careers. Now is it presumptuous of me to say that religion gave them great jobs? Perhaps. But, is it out of the realm of possibility to say that religion guided them in the right path? I don’t think so.

I sometimes think that had I been in that circle, had I not been an arrogant know-it-all, things might have worked out better for me.

Likewise, I sometimes think if Ade and John were in that circle maybe they wouldn’t be convicted killers. A man (or a woman for that matter) needs something to believe in, especially if they are growing up in an economically deprived environment with little to no positive role models and even fewer opportunities.

I’m not saying it needs to be religion. Religion doesn’t work for everyone. Religion didn’t work for me in my teenage years and I’m still not a major fan. But every human being needs a sense of community, a sense of belonging…a sense of hope. It could be something as simple as a book club or a weekly music class or even a monthly poetry night.

Everyone needs a community to feel like they belong and that they’re contributing to something significant and worthwhile. Strip an individual of that and they become not only the enemy, but our enemy.

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