Respect from the barrel of a gun

Henry Lawes, shot dead in a London street, is the latest victim of a growing guns-and-drugs culture, writes Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online
HENRY LAWES had only stepped out to buy cigarettes. Along the street where he lived, children were starting to trickle home from school. Then, as the sound engineer ambled back from the corner shop, a blue Daewoo Matiz car pulled up alongside him and two men with guns jumped out.

They shot at close range as, in a futile gesture, Mr Lawes tried to shield himself with his hands. The men calmly drove away as he bled to death in the gutter.

Urban drive-by shootings are commonplace in America, but Mr Lawes, a 51-year-old black man, was not gunned down on the mean streets of the Bronx. He died on a quiet residential street in Harlesden, an amiable if shabby area of north-west London. In St Mary's Road, where the murder took place last week, roses have been left in tribute to this latest statistic in an increasingly brutal gun war.

Mr Lawes is the fifth person to have been shot dead in the area this year. Earlier this month, two men were killed by gunmen only a street away in Nicoll Road. Their deaths added to an even higher tally of shootings this year: many are not reported to police but unofficial estimates are that 26 have taken place in north-west London since January. This compares with a total of 25 shooting incidents there in the whole of 1997.

The rise in gun violence, carried out by men wielding weapons ranging from Uzi submachine-guns to Browning pistols, has left residents afraid to walk the streets even in daylight. The violence is not just limited to Harlesden. The neighbourhood is part of a triangle which includes Willesden and Kilburn, where shootings have also taken place. Police are investigating links with other incidents south of the river in Brixton as well.

So serious is the epidemic of shootings that officers, carrying revolvers and Heckler and Koch carbines, have been drafted in to man a special armed- response vehicle. The Metropolitan Police is also bringing officers together to form an intelligence cell to investigate the murders.

They have been hampered by the reluctance of people to come forward with information. If a serial killer were on the loose, then they would be swamped with calls. But when it comes to people in their own community, the locals keep silent.

Leaflets urging people to "take a stand" remain largely untouched by customers in the Diamond Cut Barbers, whose conversations are drowned out by the boom of rap music.

"This situation has been brewing for the last two years," says Colin Bucknall, the assistant manager. "These men use guns because they have to protect their own. And no one is going to talk about it because they might get shot as well. It's like New York in the 1980s."

Drugs, especially crack cocaine, are believed to be at the root of the problem. The proliferation of rival dealers, all competing to feed off the booming drug industry in London, has stretched tensions so far in recent months that violence has spilled over on to the streets.

Yardie gangs - criminals who have illegally entered the country from Jamaica - have been blamed for infiltrating drug networks in Britain and bringing their gun culture with them. But this is not a theory which the police are keen to promote.

"Yardie is not a term we would be using," says Commander Andy Hayman, who is in charge of the Met's drug directorate. "It gives the wrong impression and feeds the street credibility of people who want to be linked with that term."

Another theory suggests that young black men born in Britain, rather than outsiders, are responsible.

"The easiest way for these young people round here to earn money is to deal drugs and to cheat each other," says Guy Elliston, who runs the Brent Campaign Against Racial Discrimination.

"Years ago, when I came here, people would knock each other out physically. Now to carry out their `business', they need a gun which earns respect, but the end result is more lethal."

For many young people, their whole identity stems from the philosophy of street "respect". Getting it means having the money to walk up and down Harlesden High Street in designer clothes, to wear several gold chains around their necks and to drive cars like the BMWs and Mercedes which are parked conspicuously on the side streets.

The majority of blacks living in Harlesden are law-abiding citizens who came to the area after the Second World War and have worked hard to make something of their lives. For most, the favourite pastime is attending church on a Sunday, where they learn how to love their neighbours better, not how to kill them.

The recent shootings have left them not only afraid but angry. Afraid that they may be caught in the crossfire, and angry that they are being associated with the violent activities of a minority.

At the vicarage on St Mary's Road, the Rev Keith Robus will have little difficulty choosing a suitable topic for his sermon at St Matthew's Church today. "These people are trying to lead decent lives and are angry that they are being labelled," he says. "There is a healthy spirit of `love thy neighbour' here. But you can't hold jumble sales because everyone is too proud to wear second-hand clothes.

"The problem is the young men have to have respect on the street. For the older community that means being Christian and having a good education. Now the young people earn this if they carry a gun."

Anyone who drives down the High Street cannot help but notice the two large yellow police boards on either side of the street appealing for people to come forward with information. There is a sense here that everyone would run for cover if a car backfired.

The Pepper Pot Afro-West Indian take away is only a few streets away from the scene of Mr Lawes's death. Here, Joyce Walker is taking a break from serving customers portions of curried goat and steamed fish. Strains of reggae music waft out into the street.

"Everyone is getting scared about the amount of shooting which is going on," she says. "You have to be so careful to go out. We are just as confused as anyone as to why this is happening."