Spragga was carrying a gun. He did not bring it out into the open, but was prepared to talk frankly about why he went about armed, on condition that his real name was not used. "In the drugs trade 10 out of 10 people either carry guns or have access to them," he said, getting straight to the point. "I am making so much money. Gucci, Moschino and Rolex are my name brands. If I'm rolling with a Rolex I am up in the money. That includes a gun because someone is always looking when you've got a £25K watch. You've got to watch your back."
The 31-year-old had met me in "Crack Alley", Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, wearing a blue and yellow baseball cap pulled low over his face, and Gucci sunglasses that he kept on all the time. In a hooded tracksuit, jean jacket and Nike trainers, he looked every inch "in da money" with the bling bling - lashings of gold and diamonds - to prove it.
"They know when I'm strapped with a machine [a Jamaican term for gun]," said Spragga. "It's power. Once you got money and a gun, you got power. You don't need anything else. If they know you'll use it they'll know not to mess with you."
Had he ever been messed with? "Yes. I've been shot. I've been in shootouts. They missed! Sometimes you just bus a shot [let off a round in the air] and people know you mean business."
He denied ever actually shooting anyone but said he was prepared to if necessary. "Are you ready to die for what you have? If not, you're vulnerable. Someone will come and take your diamond ring. You have to show a level of fearlessness. If you show weakness your time is limited."
His self-justification for possibly shooting someone was clear. "If someone takes your rock [crack] and don't pay, they have to know they can't get away with it. My gun drives fear into people. You can threaten them and give them chances to pay. Otherwise you'll have to make an example of them."
When I asked if he worked, Spragga laughed in my face. "My profession is shotting [selling crack]. It's full-time, and jail or deportation is an occupational hazard. All I does is hang out and wait for da money to come in."
He was often found in clubs. "A lot of us top-shotters go to the dances. I am head of a little crew at my beck and call. We are very high earners pushing a Mercedes, running with a Rolex. You can tell I've got money. I'll go to a club and spend £600 at the bar, buy four or five bottles of champagne at £50 a piece. We intimidate doormen so somebody can get in with a gun. Most clubs don't have metal detectors. If the bouncers are scared of us we make that a regular haunt."
Suddenly he launched into a tirade. "In the street people know a lot more which is why the police pay informers. The informers are flossing [showing off] with guns. I'm not an informer. I never would be." It sounded like a very dangerous thing to do. "I've got friends who have been shot and I know people who've died. I only know two people who've been shot and are still alive. These were victims and were part of that world."
Certain areas were known for gun culture, he said. "Anywhere there's a ghetto is where it happens. A lot of this crime is sporadic. You have certain 'dons' from Jamaica who come here with a reputation, mostly illegally. In Jamaica it's easy to kill people and escape: you've got hills to run to, wooded areas, places with no electricity where you can hide. There's no intelligence as people don't talk [inform]. Here you're offered relocation and new identity when you help police. A whole new life just because you saw someone knock down a door! But if you move from one country to another you want to move to where you know someone, so that type of offer doesn't appeal to us."
Spragga sought to distance his brothers from some of the blame. "Carrying a gun is part of the equipment. But the people converting guns are white men. Black men don't convert guns. You need special lathes and tools. People who have access to these are connected to legitimate business. The police intention is to highlight the black community but it wasn't the black community that developed conversion."
He had never tried to convert a replica gun himself. "Because of the way a bullet works it has to be precision-made or it will blow up in your hands. It has to be done properly, isn't it? It's not as simple as boring a hole. You have to know about guns: the firing pin, the muzzle, the heat it can withstand."
Drug dealers and other people known to have money, like DJs and musicians, are more likely to get jacked [robbed in the street] so they carry guns visibly as a deterrent, he said. Then there are the copycats. "Young guys want jewellery and jackets like Averex and they're sticking up building societies or petrol stations. After a while you start picking up the mentality. Sooner or later you get a bit macho. You develop the mentality that doesn't care about other people's lives and feelings. You care only about yourself and your ultimate survival."
Spragga had strong opinions about the conditions that caused him and others like him to carry guns. "The economic situation is bad as it stands for young black unemployed men who are always ostracised within the school system. Excluders are the most likely to carry guns. I left school very early. How come no one targets this? Shouldn't people seek to block that?"
Lives were being sabotaged by the education system, he said. "The school system purposely shuts down black kids' bravado or self-esteem because the system doesn't understand that we're not the same as other children. You have to break down their cultural characteristics. Africans are from a whole other culture. I've known so many exclusions. They think West Indians are out of control."
Treating kids badly led to them feeling uncomfortable about themselves, he said: "They look for role models that stand for something. It will be someone who stands for aggression and strength. They'll say, 'I rate this guy. He's got a gun.' Remember their self-esteem has been broken. They'll say: 'I'm a rebel like him.' When they see blacks stand up for something they have respect for them. It doesn't matter if it's destructive and illegal. At least it's standing for something. When you're being bombarded, you need to look for alternatives. You don't want to conform. You don't like the way your teacher pressured you. Every white man reminds you of your teacher."
Football, fashion, movie and music icons had the most influence on young people, he said. "All the films now, from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and Wesley Snipes, are gun-toting action and killing. Songs are about murder, murder, murder. 50 Cent says, 'I'll kill your mother so you can come for me.' Why are people surprised at what happens? These gangsta rappers, that's what they talk about."
Spragga had things to do, places to go. Our conversation was ending, and as it did he seemed to grow weary and disparage his own lifestyle. "Most criminals like the glory, the nightlife. They love the stuff that comes with it: the girls, sex, drugs and music. If you're a cockroach you have to find the right type of environment."
The writer is senior reporter for 'The Voice' newspaper
Opinion: 'All they see is blood, blood, blood'
Beanie Brown, 55, community activist in Birmingham
The people carrying guns are involved in the drugs trade. They need to protect themselves because they may be threatened by other people with guns, or might be robbed. Some people know they carry a lot of money to do their deals. If someone robs them of drugs money they can't go to the police because the police would lock them up. They wait, then they go and settle the score by getting that money back. It's a vicious circle. Crack cocaine brought in the trade of guns. Now it's a show-off. It's a fascination with guns, music, film and computer games. Young people are brainwashed to believe that guns are cool. They don't understand that a gun kills. Computer games are all about killing. All they see is blood, blood, blood. They're programmed into thinking nothing's wrong with having a gun. They say playing games doesn't have any effect but it does.
Gill Marshall-Andrews, 40, of campaign group Gun Control Network
It's not a simple matter. What troubles us a lot is that guns are available - and particularly imitation guns. This fuels the gun culture enormously. You can buy something that looks exactly like a real gun in a newsagent next to a primary school. You can use it as if it was a real gun, to frighten people and for crime. You have got the feel of it. Once you realise showing a gun gives you power, it becomes a habit. A very large proportion of crime is committed with weapons that started off being converted, imitations bought legally in a toy or camping shop. You take it down the machine shop and get it converted - 70 per cent of guns recovered from crime are imitations of one kind or another. Cartridge weapons brought as airguns are blank-firers which can be converted to carry real bullets. This is a very big problem. A small boy's interest in harmless toy guns spills over into kids having access to things that look like real guns. It is only a matter of time before a police officer shoots a child who has an imitation gun. It's every police officer's nightmare.
Charles Bailey, Brixton record producer, founder of the Don't Shoot campaign
Not all black people are going around killing each other. People have personal grievances. People in the drugs business are ripping each other off. Gangs are robbing other drugs people. This creates gun culture. You've also got grudges from people who have murdered each other's relatives in the Caribbean, who meet up here and continue the feud. British black youth have had to adopt this culture. If you're a drugs dealer you need a gun. If somebody wants revenge, one incident can create four or five - it's a cycle. Anyone can get involved. Murder breeds murder. This is why I'm in the schools educating children in years nine and 10, to break the cycle.
Dr Robert Beckford, theologian, University of Birmingham
There is no one set reason why people carry guns. People are brutalised by passive forms of violence in the educational and employment systems such as racism. Social exclusion is a form of passive violence which indirectly legitimises other forms of violence. It makes some other forms of violence, for example gun crime, an acceptable response. Gun culture is part of a long history of urban violence in Britain. This is not new. Socially disaffected people have violence visited upon them through the educational and legal system, and that in turn makes violence acceptable. Gun culture is just a new phase of urban violence which is intimately linked to economic and racialised oppression. I'm more afraid of the potential violence from white men in grey suits in Whitehall than working-class youths carrying guns on an inner-city estate.
Sonia Robinson, 45, full-time mother, Kensal Green
People carry guns to protect themselves, but a gun is not the thing to protect yourself with. In my days there were fist fights; you only heard about the odd milk bottle. Maybe people carried knives. Now carrying a gun is their way of surviving. They don't put their trust in the police. The police can do only so much. It's like an in-thing, like a mobile phone, to say who's worse than you: the bad-boy image. It's a stereotypical thing. The songs I hear my kids sing, I think, "You don't need to be singing that." But you don't have to listen to any special kind of music to be a bad boy. Before today's music there was calypso and reggae.
Judy-Alexis Ikeme, 21, student from Wembley
People have a lot of money. A lot of black people don't like to see someone progress. They want to take their money and jewellery. Lots of people will try to take it from you. It's the mentality: kill or be killed. A lot of them are not educated. Their parents are not educating them enough to go out and progress. Your mum's selling drugs and dad's got a gun.
Gun gangs of the capital
London is far from the only city infested by gun gangs. Teenagers Letitia Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis died on New Year's Day when they were caught in the crossfire of a dispute between Birmingham rivals the Burger Boys and the Johnson Crew. Gun crime is at an all-time high across the Midlands. In Nottingham police declare themselves "astounded at the bravado" of openly armed drug dealers. Manchester has been nicknamed Gunchester because of gang shootouts in Moss Side, Longsight and Hulme. And the St Paul's area of Bristol is a battleground for the Aggi Crew and their rivals the Hype Crew, the Mountain View Posse, the Back to Back Gang and The Gucci. But the shooting of Toni-Ann last week was a reminder of the extent to which gun rule is prevalent between gangs on the streets of the capital.
Who rules where
1 Ladbroke Grove
Battle ground for a variety of Jamaican and black British drug gangs, none of which has overall control.
Mainly Jamaican-born Lock City Crew see themselves as the real Yardies, while Much Love Crew are mostly local. Three deaths and 45 other attempted murders or non-fatal shootings here in the first half of 2003.
Home turf for Asian gangs with such names as Holy Smokes and Tooti Nung, and up-and-coming rivals the Bhatts and Kanaks.
Asian gang the Drummond Street Boys are smaller than their rivals but keen to expand.
5 Soho and Chinatown
Chinese triads run gambling, drugs, extortion and people trafficking. Police identify the main gangs as 14K and Wo Shing Wo but they are challenged by the Snakeheads, mainly from the Fujian province, who operate networks bringing illegal immigrants into Britain.
6 King's Cross
Albanian gangs traffic girls to feed prostitution rings in all seedy British city sex districts and are running an increasing number of saunas. The Metropolitan police estimates they control up to 80 per cent of off-street prostitution in London as well as smuggling immigrants from the Balkans. Well-armed, they are challenging the Turks for control of heroin supplies.
White working-class gang the A-Team still holds sway in this part of inner-city north London despite intense police operations over the past 13 years.
8 Finsbury Park
Turkish gangs here and in Green Lanes run heroin despite armed police raids earlier this year and arrests in one of three main families. Politicised Kurdish gangs also run drugs through network of clubs like the Turks, and with them control 70 per cent of the 30 tons of heroin imported into Britain every year.
Two major black gangs: the Spanglers and the Fireblades, who take their name from the Honda Fireblade motorbikes ridden by gang members.
10 Brick Lane
Bangladeshi and other Asian gangs proliferating here could widen their power base beyond local drug sales and petty crime. Second-generation teenagers give themselves such names as the Brick Lane Massive and the Stepney Posse. Lesser groups include the Bengal Tigers, Cannon Street Posse, the Shadwell Crew and the East Boys of Bethnal Green.
Black gangs Kingsland Crew battle the Hackney Posse for dominance.
12 Bow and Canning Town
The Hunts, a white, working-class crime family, have gained ascendancy in drugs, extortion and, relatively recently, theft of upmarket cars, and they have also moved into parts of Soho.
13 Bermondsey and Rotherhithe
Traditional base for largely white crime gangs with big interests in drugs. The Brindle family and Arifs have fought turf wars here for a decade.
Ghetto Boys are arch rivals to the neighbouring Peckham Boys and the Younger Peckham Boys, all black gangs. Most members of the competing African Crew have now been jailed.
Of the 200 or so hardcore Yardies based in the borough of Lambeth, some of them are members of Firehouse Posse or Brixton's Cartel Crew.
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