Youth killings: this is London
So far, 18 teenagers have been murdered in the capital this year. Now, though, the city's youngsters are uniting against the violence. Ben Kinsella and Shakilus Townsend are the latest to die, but the dignified defiance of their families and friends is an inspiration. Cole Moreton on their determination to deliver good from evil
Sunday 06 July 2008
'The good die young," says one of the many messages covering the pavement, walls and signs on the street corner in Islington where Ben Kinsella died. "The bad still stand." But it was the heartbroken, the grieving and the angry who were due to stand there in the early hours of this morning. Hundreds of young men and women, gathering together by the piles of flowers to remember one of the two 16-year-olds murdered in the capital in the past week. "We're all going to light candles for him," said Cove O'Loughlin, 19, who called for the 2am vigil to mark the moment exactly seven days since her friend was stabbed to death. "People want to pray and basically all take time to remember Ben and what a great person he was."
She arranged it through Facebook, the social networking site. As of last night, nearly 700 people were promising to attend. That is even more than the number who walked through the streets in white T-shirts last Tuesday to mourn Ben and call for an end to the killing. He was the 17th teenager to be killed in the capital – 14 of them stabbed – since the start of the year. His murder, which happened after he tried to escape trouble in a nearby bar, received more attention than most of those that had gone before it. Ben was a good looking, talented boy with a sister who had starred in EastEnders; but more than that, his friends and family quickly channelled their rage and sorrow into a remarkable campaign, supported by tabloid newspapers and stars.
Amid all the usual talk from politicians and police chiefs about the need to understand why this was happening, some people dared to believe they were seeing something new: young Londoners saying enough is enough, and demanding to be listened to. "Everybody's been talking," said a note pinned to an Arsenal shirt at the Kinsella roadside shrine. "Nobody been listening. We got to stop it now, bro! For you."
Police arrested three men quickly. But even as they were questioned, the 18th victim was stabbed and beaten on Thursday afternoon, far south of the river in Thornton Heath. Shakilus Townsend was also 16. Family members were too devastated to talk about what had happened, but as his story emerged it became clear that here, too, Londoners had refused to yield.
Perhaps there are grounds for optimism, signs of the character that has made a great city. The friends of Ben Kinsella had clustered together for strength, and started to make themselves heard. Now strangers who did not know Shakilus threw themselves forward to stop him being from attacked.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson – who used to urge people to tackle troublemakers in the street – had said in the aftermath of the Kinsella killing that it was best not to get involved and to "move away". But that message had not got through to Sharon Simpson, who saw two youths in hooded tops with bandannas over their faces beating a boy with a baseball bat. Another was watching. "I said to them, 'Don't slap him, don't hit him at all,'" she said yesterday. "I said, 'Leave him alone.'"
They ran off. With other neighbours, she used a towel to try to stop the boy losing so much blood. "They could have killed me too, but I wasn't thinking about that," said Ms Simpson, 47. "I was just thinking, 'We have got to help him.'"
As he lay bleeding, Shakilus kept saying, "Where's my mum? I want my mum." He was in an area he did not know well, at least half an hour's bus ride from his home in Lewisham. A long way from his mother, Nicola, or father, Derek. His distraught stepmother, who did not want to give her name, said: "When I was young, it was only old people that died. These days cemeteries are full of young people."
Detective Chief Inspector Chris Lyons of the Homicide and Serious Crime Squad is investigating the idea that the victim was lured to the area to meet a girl in a floral dress. "This was a prepared, targeted attack," said DCI Lyons at the scene, not quite able to hide his dismay. "Shaki's only 16. He's only a kid."
He was the eldest of five brothers and sisters. His mother visited the scene on Friday night and left a bouquet with a message: "Baby, they can never kill my love for you, darling. Gone, but never forgotten." There were far fewer flowers than at the Kinsella shrine, but then the murder scene was still behind a police cordon. Only the closest family were allowed to lay their tributes on the blood-stained ground. Previously, black victims of knife crime have received far less attention than those who are white, but Shaki was front-page news yesterday – which may itself indicate a change of mood. For some, it is too late. "I am getting out of this place," said a man in his 30s in Beulah Crescent, close to where Shaki was killed. "I have two sons, and I must protect them. London? No more."
The Mayor used to say the chances of being stabbed in London were "microscopic" and people needed "a bit more willingness" to intervene if they saw aggro on the bus, for example. But after the death of Ben Kinsella, he reversed his opinion. "I say to kids who are going out this evening and they see a fight, don't get involved. Move away."
Mr Johnson had appointed Ray Lewis as his deputy mayor to fight knife crime. Unfortunately, Mr Lewis resigned on Friday amid accusations of misconduct. The Mayor could still talk up the success of the Met's Operation Blunt 2. Since the operation started in May, police had recovered 528 knives and made 1,214 arrests. Last week the Met announced it was sending a task force of 75 officers to the worst affected of the 32 London boroughs.
Knives are not hard to get, like guns. You only have to reach into the kitchen drawer. Today's report by the IoS reveals that London has the highest number of hospital admissions for stab wounds among under-18s. Ten times the number in the South-west or along the south coast, for example. Only the North-west comes anywhere close, with just over half as many. But there may not be as many as Londoners fear: in the last year for which figures are available, 2006/7, there were 322 teenage admissions for stab wounds of any kind.
Each statistic marks a crisis for an individual or family, of course. But even in tragedy, inspiration might be found. Ben Kinsella's case was always going to be noticed. He died in the arms of his friend Louis, 16, the son of Linda Robson who starred in the sitcom Birds of a Feather. His sister Brooke was also famous. But that doesn't explain how she found the strength to act as the figurehead for the family in the following days. On Monday, Brooke Kinsella urged young people to put down their weapons and "think about the pain and suffering they will cause". She said: "We always knew Ben would make a special mark in this world, and although this is in the worst possible circumstances, hopefully he will be the one that finally puts an end to this." Not so, sadly. Later that day, on the Old Kent Road, a 34-year-old Tunisian called Hamouda Bessaad was stabbed and died.
The Kinsella campaign was supported by Brooke's theatrical agent, who took over the public relations and started a website in Ben's name. But his friends say the startling walk of protest carried out by 400 or so of them on Tuesday and that attracted so much attention, came about not because of any PR strategy but from their desire to "get involved, say something, make people listen". The word was spread by text and online.
Still it went on. Cherie Booth told MPs that day: "As a parent I am concerned about what's happening when my children are on the street." And that night, a 28-year-old woman called Dee Willis was stabbed to death in Peckham.
The next to die was Shakilus Townsend on Thursday – but only after gargantuan efforts by the medics. In the ambulance they restarted his heart after cutting open his chest. They fought for hours to save him, and did not admit defeat until nine minutes after midnight
On Friday, three men charged with killing Ben Kinsella appeared at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court. His father George, who is a taxi driver, and mother Deborah sat hand in hand in court with their daughter Jade, 22, as the charges were read. Brooke Kinsella, who is 24, stayed at home with her 13-year-old sister Georgia. The accused – Juress Kika, 18, Michael Alleyne, 18, and Jade Braithwaite, 19 – were remanded in custody until October.
By Friday night, the ad hoc memorial to Ben on the corner of York Way and North Road had grown to include football and rugby shirts, cuddly toys, flags, pictures, heart-shaped sunglasses and even white knickers – "your favourite thing" – autographed by girls he had known. Kids from the nearby Market Estate seem to have appointed themselves the guardians of all this stuff, riding up and down and watching the visitors. Some were much younger than Ben, but their unseen parents didn't seem to mind them hanging around the murder scene at midnight.
Others had a different attitude: an expensive black saloon car pulled up and a girl got out, to come across and lay yet another clutch of flowers in cellophane. The scent was strong, despite the busy road. In the car, a man who was presumably her father gripped the wheel and looked up and down the road, into the shadows, nervously, until she returned. He still brought her, though. He knew it was important.
There have been other shrines, in other places. The fact that there is not one for Shakilus Townsend or that his family wishes to avoid media intrusion does not lessen the pain or significance of his death. But in both cases, there has been a determination that even in a city of millions, the stories of two boys can be made to count. And a hope that they provide a shock that enables the people of the capital to step back from further slaughter. There will be hand-wringing among leaders, but meanwhile more and more people are determined to see change.
And in the meantime? On the other side of town yesterday, the stepmother of Shakilus Townsend remembered he had "the cheekiest smile". Likewise, most of the messages at Ben Kinsella's memorial celebrated a creative, fun-loving lad who fancied himself as a bit of a ladies' man.
Londoners like to think it's part of their psyche, the ability to keep on going, whatever happens. Knives, bombs, keep smiling through. Brooke Kinsella wants everyone to wear wigs and glasses for her brother's funeral. "That's what Ben loved to wear. He was such a comedian. We have asked one of my friends to sing 'Only the Good Die Young'."
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