Earlier this year I heard an interview with a former criminal gang member from London on an excellent BBC Radio 4 programme called Children Who Kill. Part of the programme was one of best explanations I’ve ever heard on why hurt people hurt people. The young man – who was not identified and who said by speaking to outsiders he was placing his life at risk – illustrated clearly and powerfully why teenagers join gangs. Many come from chaotic homes whose only fixed reference point is the people they associate with on the street. But most fascinating for me was how the interview showed exactly what happens to ordinary kids when they become so disassociated from human emotion that it becomes all too easy to use lethal armoury to protect turf and settle disputes. Below I have transcribed the interview, just changing and omitting the odd word to help make more sense.
“When I started secondary school in Year 7, my cousin knew the older boys and introduced me. I thought if I mix with the bad boys I can build a name for myself. I was doing robbery, getting hold of guns, going around with different rival gangs…. To be honest for about three years consistently, almost every single day, there was an activity happening. It never started by just going out to stab someone, it started by going to other schools, and robbing other young youths. Then, from robbing them it would suddenly flip, and as they held onto their things they’d probably get themselves beaten up. For me at certain times when I was doing certain things I’d have to suck my guts in and block my mind out as if there was nothing wrong because no normal human being would go and stab someone unless they are crazy in their mind – and no one would just pick up a gun and go and shoot someone unless they’re absolutely crazy. But we weren’t crazy – we were just normal kids.
….All we saw around us was the older boys, robbing. And to us they looked like role models because they were the ones with the big name. I was putting on an act at the beginning. I was pretending to be a bad boy but I wasn’t really a bad boy. Then it literally went from me pretending to be a bad one and acting like one, to me actually feeling like a gangster. So, when it comes to doing robbery and all these things, after a while it never even really affected me anymore. I never had to suck my guts in any more. It became normal. So easy. It was a lifestyle. If I had no money, I’d think ‘bloody hell, where the hell am I going to get money from?’ Then I’d think, ‘do you know what, I’ll just go out, look for someone, rob someone.’
Whatever we see out there we’ll just take. It’s normal. For someone who doesn’t live round here they think we’re some abnormal crazy kids, but killing and people getting shot and people getting stabbed has actually just become something so normal to me…. Maybe someone had an argument and then they flipped from just a normal argument to wanting to kill each other – like literally kill each other. And now we got war and if I see you I’ll try and shoot or stab you. Some of us would carry guns just to go and buy food, just for safety. I always thought that something would happen to me. Then, one of my close friends – really, really close to me – got shot in the head. He died. Before he got shot in the head I used to speak to him and tell him ‘I think we should kind of calm it down a little bit because I think something will happen to one of us if we don’t take it easy – the way things are going on’. But he didn’t want to listen to me and said as soon as we get rid of some individuals that we had trouble with then he would start relaxing. Then two weeks later – that’s when he got shot in the head and died. From then it kind of made me think – I could be next. It kind of made me think that death could come and grab me at any time as well.”