I haven’t been up to Stonebridge Estate – formerly known as ‘a festering sore’, ‘third world’, and notorious for problems with crack, guns, gangs and fear, now the scene of a £225 million New Labour, award-winning regeneration scheme – for a couple of months. And finally, the last of the ghost-like 1970s tower blocks is down. I’m here to meet anti-gun and knife crime activist, Michael Saunders at the Hub, part community and part medical centre.
Have you heard about the shooting of that 27 year old man at Harlesden station this week? “I was at the station soon afterwards,” he says as we walk past the strange-in-the-landscape, Victorian (remember my visit with Louis Theroux) Bridge Park Hotel, towards the modernist, Will Alsop-designed, Fawood Children’s Centre, “and forensics were there. I suppose it was a black on black crime and Trident will be investigating.” Since then, two 16 year olds have been charged with attempted murder, three others, including a 16 year old girl (all from Brent according to the Harrow Observer) have been released on bail, whilst the 27 year old survived and has been released from hospital.
Michael – known locally as ‘uncle’ – founded the British Londoners’ Business Community (which is a curious name but I assume they didn’t want to focus on black or white, and did want to sound business-like, although confusingly it has nothing to do with business) in 2009 in order to tackle gangs, gun and knife crime with ‘community unity’ meetings. The idea is to get the mothers, fathers and grandparents involved with each other, as well as with their young people. And if for instance, the mother of someone who is in prison for a stabbing, sits next to the mother of a young man who has been injured or even killed – then the community can actually witness what is happening in a personal way with each other, and work together. That’s the theory. And Michael reports that comings together of this sort have happened.
In fact, two years ago, Michael (far right in photo) found himself being challenged to do something by a friend’s then 12 year old son, TJ, whose mother was stopping him going out to the park because she was frightened that he would get stabbed. “He’d already watched his elder brother get depressed when one of his friends was shot dead,” says Michael. “So TJ wanted to know when we, the older people, who were moaning about it all the time, were going to do something. So four of us, my old friend, Lasana Fulu, TJ and his 13 year old sister, Sheneisha founded BLBC. I was aware that the mothers had already been active with marches like ‘Not Another Drop’* and we, the men, needed to get up off the sofas and be more proactive.”
Michael – who was born in Kilburn, is back there now, but lived in New York for 30 years and says he learnt what not to do around these problems from the US, as well as what to do – blames MTV and the influence of rap culture on the behaviour of young people here. “Whether they are black or white, they all want to be like Jay-Z or 50 Cents,” he says, “and that is giving them distorted ideas.”
Surely, it’s not that simple. Obviously a middle-aged, white (or Caucasian, as Michael would say) woman who was brought up in a Yorkshire village may not have all the answers but a lack of firm parenting, the failure of schools, the poverty of aspirations as a society would seem to me to be part of the problem. We agree eventually that education, discipline through sports, and community action can help change the situation.
Has the new Stonebridge – old towers down, low rise and family terraces in place – helped? “Yes, yes, yes, now it is like a community here. It’s not institutionalised any more. Look, he says pointing to a woman planting out primroses,” now people see each other in the garden, it’s not anonymous-living any more. It’s made a hugely positive difference.”
And they’re no longer a no-go zone for the police? “I lived in this estate in ’77,” he explains, “and they were big flats with great views, but the buildings were all interlinked which meant young people could evade the police very easily. That doesn’t happen now.”
Two teenage boys go into a house nearby. Michael shouts ‘hey’ to them in that ‘we hang out together sometimes, but you know I’m on your case’ kind of way. BLBC has a slogan which is FUBU – ‘For You, By You’ – which is about individuals in the community becoming aware of the power they have in their own hands. “The estate has changed over the last ten years,” he says, “but there is still a problem with young people. Right now, there’s trouble between Stonebridge and the estate over the A406 called St Raphaels. It’s so bad because there are families who have relations in both areas. Potentially, that means there is the chance that one family member might unknowingly injure another family member by mistake, just because they live at the other place. These children are running in packs. The BBC won’t run stories on them, so we use the community radio stations to calm things down.”
That’s madness, I opine, meaning the possibility of families actually attacking each other because they live on estates at war with one another. “That’s the reality,” he says in his forthright way, as we walk towards a football pitch. “Young people are influenced by their peer group. But we hope that getting the parents and young people in one room together will have an effect. Parents and relatives can pass on positive moral messages to their children. Mothers often know their son’s friends, and they can influence them if they’re altogether in the same sitting room having a conversation. They respect people they know well. Not outsiders. Family is the first port of call.”
In front of us, there is a lot of football action going on. Training at the Pavilion with small kids up to teenagers. Meanwhile, Michael admits that there is a lot of resentment amongst young people, towards the Somalis who have arrived over the last decade. “Young people who were born here, don’t like that Somalis are getting given flats,” he says. “There is a perception that the Caribbean community came here because they were needed to do jobs and so they paid their taxes, and their children and grandchildren, should be looked after. Whereas the Somalis are refugees. It’s all very well, the UK being liberal but you have to watch your backs.”
I’d heard from my son, that there was trouble with Somalis, but I didn’t understand what was going on. Now, I’m shocked, but not shocked. This is why you can see black faces in the English Defence League. As well as the myriad of white ones. And this is the vicious circle of ‘not enough for us’ that comes out of Britain, every time we have rising unemployment, rising cuts.
“We teach them what respect really is,” he says as we reach the sports club entrance. A hundred or so, young children are playing football with older mentors. “Super is the man here,” he says introducing me to an avuncular, kind-faced gentleman who’s hiding a bundle of locks under his hat, “he can tell you on another occasion about what else is going on with the young people here. It’s important that we get to the young kids, so then they form a network where potentially others will step in if they start falling off the tracks.”
Michael says BLBC identify the alpha males and females in the community and work with them. “They are often older and have the influence, they’re the leaders and they persuade the others. So it’s important to have their ears. They influence the peer group. And peer groups are so significant to teenagers.”
And parents? “Parents only have so much influence,” he says, “they might be on your ass from time to time but they don’t see everything.” Hmm… I disagree, I think parents can play a bigger role and should. I know I have with my own son.
I wonder how he formed his ideas on youth and crime? “When I was in New York, there was this young boy with an AK45 on the street,” he explains, “I asked him what he was doing and why. He said it was my fault. I was in my late 30s. He said that my generation hadn’t put the structures in place to look after that age group. I remembered that. I’m trying to help but I know it’s not going to change completely in my life time. We’re just sewing the seeds.”
By this time, we are walking up Hillside and then right down Knatchbull Road. Michael says he’s walking me out of Stonebridge, but we seem to be walking back in again. I sneak a look at lack of tower behind St Michael’s nursery. Last time, I was here it was still wrapped up and be-scaffolded. Now, there is bare terrain. It feels exciting, even though these changes have been going on for a decade. And I’m not in favour of pulling down all the brutalist 70s housing estates, some can be refurbished. But these had to go.
I’m not quite sure how we managed to get on to the subject of Obama, it was probably the lack of positive male black role models in the UK. But I couldn’t help myself. “Shouldn’t he be called mixed race rather than black?” I comment, a little cheekily, it has to be said.
Michael makes a sort of whooping noise like a wild dog caught in a trap. “No,” he cries, “Obama is black, if he went anywhere in the world, they’d say he was black. The US constitution says that anyone with an eighth black genes is black.”
But, he is mixed race, I insist. “That’s just being politically correct,” he counters. “And it’s different in the UK. Here I grew up with white kids in Kilburn listening to Manfred Mann, over in the US all my neighbours were black.”
Manfred Mann!!! So you mean it took moving to New York for you to feel black? He laughs. I like to think he’s admitting I’m right.
Apparently, we’re looking for a teenager, he calls ‘Ginger’ who is a cousin of the very up and coming Stonebridge rapper, Koke. K. Koke. K’s music videos get up to a million hits. He raps in a very personal way about the trials and emotional terrors of existence, and there is a reassuringly black and white thing going on. Although a cliched gang thing too. We can’t find Ginger – Michael wants him to do some recording for him – so we turn back.
As we walk down into Craven Park Rd, Michael’s mind turns to his supper. Red snapper, it seems. And mine turns to his hairwear. A blue cloth that reaches down his neck. “It’s a do rag,” he says in that US do-dew way,(thanks Fifi Dennison on Facebook) “I wear it because I don’t want to comb my hair, and if I take it off, my hair will be fine. It’s a black hair thing.”
*’Not Another Drop’ was set up in 2001 as a joint community, police and council response to a spate of fatal shootings in NW10.