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

'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'."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Murray celebrates reaching the final
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
James Corden’s social media footprint was a factor for CBS
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Arts and Entertainment
Master of ceremony: Jeremy Paxman
tvReview: Victory for Jeremy Paxman in this absorbing, revealing tale
Sir David Attenborough
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness