Article on drug related violence in North West London and the Nation of Islam’s community based response. From Black Flag #218 1999.
There have been 26 shooting incidents in Harlesden in the last year. Six recent killings connected to "Yardie" infighting have had a connection to London NW10, including, most recently, those of Henry "Junjo" Lawes and Dean Roberts. Harlesden has more than its fair share of crack, more than its fair share of young men desperate enough to be ghetto stars that they’ll sell rock to other young men who just want not to be who they are, if only for 15 minutes. Most people here though just want to live their lives, 2nd and 3rd generation Irish and Afro-Caribbean couples getting by as best they can. Most of the shootings have involved small time criminals in turf wars over drug spots and security rackets. No big deal -- and no threat to anyone outside the circles of those directly involved. A combination of media hype, paramilitary policing and the council’s withdrawal of funding from local services have contributed to a sense of crisis -- street crime is really the icing on the cake -- working class communities turning in on themselves. On Saturday 19th June the Nation of Islam held a rally in Harlesden town centre. Well over 100 turned out for it, demanding, simply, "Stop the Killing", "Gunmen Get Out", "To Shoot Your Brother Is Suicide." The Black United Front, a community based coalition, held another rally later in July. The NoI has begun to organise Black Watch patrols in Harlesden.
The NoI activity has had a real impact. The NoI mixes an apocalyptic version of Islam with an orientation to the self-pride of minority urban communities. It is riddled with contradictions -- black pride mixed in with anti-Semitism and sectarian theology. None of that mattered on June 19th. The demonstrators were 95% black, with a few supportive whites in attendance. Junjo Lawes was killed on the 14th. Five people had been shot in the preceding weeks. People had been afraid. For an hour or so, grouped together by the clocktower, that fear was gone, replaced by a new sense of community and a sense that the lives lost had some value, that the families mourning mattered, that people in NW10 mattered, if only to ourselves. A sense also that something could be done.
In his forceful new book Redemption Song (Verso), Mike Marqusee points to the basis for the NoI’s continued presence within poor ghetto black communities.
"The Nation grew within and against the culture of the ghetto. It set itself up as a counter-attraction to all the temptations of ghetto life: drugs gambling, prostitution, prize fighting."
In the most fragmented working class communities, "its promise of redemption linked the individual to the collective, self discovery to nationhood." The left in NW10 doesn’t exist, except in the fantasies of its few remaining members. The Socialist Workers Party tell us on a Saturday that all our ills will be cured by the abolition of capitalism, but in much the same way that temperance societies used to tell us that all our problems were down to drink. As to what we do about the problems caused by capitalism in the here and now, they have nothing to say. New Labour has declared war on the poor and a vacuum now exists as the local labour movement decays. In Harlesden, that vacuum has been, at least temporarily, filled by the NoI. If we want to contest that space, if we want to build a movement committed to the self-determination of working class communities, we have first to understand why so many people looked at the NoI demo and said "At least someone’s trying to do something."
Crime is endemic to capitalism, a fairground mirror distortion of the social relations engendered by capital. For every belly there’s an underbelly, as the crime writer Ian Rankin puts it. One of the myths being spun by both police and politicians about the shootings in Harlesden is that they’re somehow particular, entirely about "Yardie" gangs battling for turf, as if crime is something imported from Jamaica. All of this of course allows New Labour’s local representatives the chance to play the race card, and the police an opportunity to step up their presence again, this time with community consent.
There are two big holes in the "Yardie" argument, though. One, it pretends that crime, that battles for drug turf, the use of force to gain that turf and the market for hard drugs are all peculiar to the "Yardie" gangs and the community around them. Two, it denies the role of the police in perpetuating the idea of "Yardie" crime. The trial recently of Yardie informer Eaton Green revealed that officers of the Drug Related Violence and Intelligence Unit ran Green and protected him while he carried out a spate of armed robberies in the UK, even allowing him to bring two accomplices, Cecil Thomas and Rohan Thomas into the UK. From 1994 they also ran Delroy Denton, who raped and murdered Marcia Lawes in Brixton, and was shielded from both crime squad and immigration attention by his handlers, PC Steve Barker and immigration officer Brian Fotheringham.
Roy Ramm, former head of the Met’s Yardie Squad, has stated that "I’m absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as a black mafia or black Godfather operating in this country" and described the Yardie gangs as, unlike the Mafia or Colombian cartels, opting for a "little and often" method of importation rather than any large scale drug smuggling operation. In truth, we have a government in office which is set on redistributing the resources currently spent on welfare into the pockets of the upper echelons of the middle class. The social consequences of this, so far as New Labour is concerned, will be confined to working class areas. Policing becomes containment, making sure the poor prey only on the poor. The notion of "Yardie" crime as a distinct phenomenum allows us the illusion that such policing is "for our own protection."
The Guardian’s Nick Hopkins and The Observer’s Tony Thompson have worked particularly hard on behalf of Scotland Yard’s Operation Trident to perpetuate the myths about Yardie crime. Thompson, in a recent [i]Observer/i] piece described an interviewee, purportedly of St Mary’s Road NW10, fearfully crossing the street to a butcher’s shop on the other side, scared, as she puts it "of being shot hit by a stray bullet." There has only ever been one shooting incident in St Mary’s Road, and there’s no butcher’s there either, but as Thompson’s interview was a fabrication that’s no surprise. Nick Hopkins’ piece “Turf Wars” (8/7/99) paints a vivid picture of a Yardie war between the Kick Off Head Crew, the Much Loved Crew and a Posse from South London, with Uzis and Ingram Mach 10s the weapons of choice. In fact these weapons weren’t used in the majority of shootings, and the majority of those killed were UK nationals. There is no evidence of the involvement of any of the gangs named. (We wrote to The Guardian and asked for their comments - sadly their commitment to freedom of information didn’t stretch to a reply.)
It is, though, precisely because crime thus becomes something that the poor do to each other, that those of us who believe in working class self-organisation cannot afford to ignore it. As the criminologists John Lea and Jock Young remark, "working class crime really is a problem for the working class." In their work What is to be Done about Law and Order (Pluto) they put forward as a solution an unworkable reformist strategy based on increased police accountability. Nevertheless, they understand the core issues;
"It is vital to realise the contradictory nature of working class crime. Its cause is seeing through the deception and inequality of the world; its direction is towards that of selfishness. Its cause is righteous, its direction individualistic. The political energies that could have been harnessed for a transformation of society become channelled into ensuring its inertia."
There has been little real work done by the "left" to tackle issues around crime in working class communities. The obvious reason for this is -- tellingly -- that most "left" activists don’t live in communities affected by crime. Republicans and socialists have come together on estates in Dublin and in the Six Counties to organise campaigns against dealers. It is good to see also the Independent Working Class Association set itself the task of addressing issues around drugs and crime. The IWCA statement "Cracking Up" is rare in having the courage to tackle the issues head on. As they say,
"drug use clearly has a major impact on working class communities which cannot be avoided by those who are committed to championing working class agendas."
But what can be done? In his book Anarchism and the Black Revolution, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin tackles the issues around drugs and crime head on. As he puts it,
"Only the community can stop drug trafficking, and it is our responsibility, however you look at it."
The strategy advanced is based on establishing a combination of street counselling and street clinics with community action against dealers:
1. Set up drug education classes in the community .. to expose the nature of the drug trade, who it hurts, and how the government, banks and pharmaceutical companies are behind it all.
2. Expose the death merchants and their police protectors.
3. Harassment of the dealer, i.e. threatening phone calls... having citizens march outside their place of business and other tactics.
4. Set up drug rehabilitation clinics so that junkies can be treated.
5. Physical elimination of the dealer, intimidation, driving the person out of a neighbourhood or out of town.
The only way ultimately to tackle crime in working class communities is by replacing it with politics - by rebuilding community solidarity and self-organisation such that crime is no longer seen as the only survival option. In doing so, we have one clear lesson to learn form the Nation of Islam. The left’s orientation to the state has left it exposed in areas like Harlesden where the state is the main landlord and a primary employer. Meanwhile, many who would claim to speak for a tradition of struggle from below have abandoned an urban politics for pastoral/primitivist utopias that mean nothing in working class areas. We have lost what the US socialist Marshall Berman calls the capacity to "imagine modern life together afresh."
In the US, much of the urban credibility of the NoI was based on the success of its "dopebusting" patrols, which gave those living in crack-infested blocks an alternative to a state which used crime as an excuse to criminalise whole communities, and gave local kids a chance to feel as if they could take control of their lives. As one Chicago youth put it, "Police treat you like garbage. The Muslims treat you with respect, and the way they come to us is the way we come back to them." (Chicago Sun-Times 13/2/94)
If we are not concerned with giving communities a sense of self-worth, of pride and respect, if we are not able to operate, as Mike Marqusee puts it, "within and against the culture of the ghetto", then our politics will be irrelevant to the communities we purport to address, and the chance to rebuild working class solidarity will be lost.