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Spending a Day with a London Gang Worker

September 23, 2015

by Danielle Aumord, Photos: Jake Lewis

Sam Duberry has been shot twice and stabbed seven times but he's lived to tell the tale: "Many of my friends have only been shot once and they died in a two year period I lost 30 of them," he says. "I'm still here I always believed that I had a purpose in life and in many ways my past life was preparation for what I'm doing now." What he's doing now is working for the St. Giles Trust SOS a charity project to engage young gang members. Turf wars among 250 street crews and criminal gangs known to the Met Police currently account for half of all shootings and a fifth of all stabbings in the capital. Figures for murders of teenage gang members this year so far total seven, in comparison a peak of 29 homicides in 2008. However gang projects are still getting reports daily of violent and traumatic incidences: stories of orders for payment and threats to rape the girlfriends of gang members who wish to exit are not uncommon.
In an attempt to stem this, the Met Police sends young people thought to be involved in gangs to projects like St. Giles Trust. Both staff and clients have some misgivings about working with the feds and it often causes conflict. The police even force people onto the project. Officers made three home visits to 23-year-old Mustapha* to tell him to engage with the SOS project or get nicked. Understandably, he found this off putting: "Initially I didn't like to the idea of the project because their letter had a police logo on it. I would have liked it more if it only had the SOS logo on it." In contrast, project worker Sam reckons that his clients engage well with him in part because of his life experiences: "Literally, you can still smell prison on me. I am the system. My clients relate to that within me." Sam previously had a nine-year stint in prison for conspiracy to supply class A drugs, possession of firearms and ammunition. The tracksuit wearing clients nod enthusiastically as he says this. They are seated around a table at a gang strategy meeting at the project's West London office, a bland building tucked underneath the A40 flyover. Local youth workers, a community pastor from a nearby church and former gang members meet with caseworkers and current clients to discuss what's happening in their community, gang wise, and to debate potential solutions. Mustapha thinks that a peer mentoring scheme is needed to reach out to children as young as nine that are at risk of falling into gangs. "Prevention is better than cure," he says. "Yesterday a 12-year-old told me that it was cool to go to prison so I told him it's not." Suggestions are made for more family based support work and for gang mediation to intervene in trivial disputes that could potentially escalate. One of the clients, *Jerome, isn't sure whether gang mediation works. Whilst Sam was on leave, a rival stabbed Jerome and so he didn't feel ready to chat to members from other gangs. "They've gone too far," he says pensively. Another caseworker advises him to think about making a concerted effort to avoid his enemies and hopefully any further confrontations. Jerome doesn't appear to find this advice too helpful. He listens politely but looks stressed and is not in the mood to discuss this issue any further. Sam is highly animated and at this point in the meeting he moves onto his favourite topic mobile phones in prison and how they're concealed. Male rape in prison is common and apparently a lot of guys store these coveted items in their body parts. According to Sam this makes it easier access if another inmate wants to target them for a sexual assault: "I warn my clients about this, I tell them to stop putting their mobile phones up their bums. Sometimes they get angry when I talk about it." In the afternoon another client arrives for a key work session. *Nathan discloses that previously his earnings from selling class B drugs would average out to 700 per week. He's now working part-time in a shop: "I only sold drugs because I didn't have a job at the time and I needed some money in my pocket. I've now quit because I've got this job. It's easier because I don't have to worry about the police anymore. I'm just concerned about looking for more work." Last year, the SOS team helped 212 young people in the capital to safely exit gangs. The work revolves around casework sessions with a gang worker which can involve parental mediation, relocation options if a client needs to move house to avoid conflict or support to access employment and training. "Sometimes the mums have kicked their boys out of home I try to find out if we can resolve the situation. If the parent is willing I'll visit them to work out ground rules to keep the peace between mother and son," explains Sam. "But if we can't work it out I'll take the client to the local homeless persons unit to make an application for accommodation." After his desk bound lunch the staff work flat out Sam makes an unsuccessful attempt to chase a client that hasn't been turning up for appointments: "He's just come out of prison. I want to make a last ditch attempt to work with him because he's almost 25 and once he has his birthday he won't be eligible anymore." Sam leaves his phone on after work hours just in case his clients need him. He tells me that recently he had a late night phone call from one of his clients who'd been processing his thoughts after they'd had a heart-to-heart moment: "He'd decided that he wasn't going to shoot one of his enemies after our conversation earlier that day. I'd told him that there's no going back after that one because the other guy could be dead and you could be doing a life sentence."
Does Sam think it's a job well done? "Yes, definitely," he says grinning as he lifts up his top to show us numerous bullet and knife scars. "Within this role, I get to be a friend, a brother and a father all in one." *Names have been changed. @danielleaumord / @Jake_Photo
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