The media projected Benji as an innocent victim: When Benji was shot he was Moss Side's martyr. But he left pounds 30,000. Was he a drug runner?
Sunday 04 September 1994
The apparently motiveless assassination of a young boy as he queued to buy chips made national headlines and once again focused attention on Moss Side, the scene of looting and rioting in 1981. The murder symbolised gun law taking over the streets of Britain; ruthless, armed drug gangs killing indiscriminately. The tabloids started calling Manchester Gunchester.
Benji was a victim of Manchester's drug culture, but not in the way everyone thought. He had between pounds 24,000 and pounds 30,000 in a building society account. Although everyone denied at the time that he was connected with the drugs trade - the police continue to do so - many in Moss Side say he was a runner or courier. His parents were not wealthy but the mountain bike he used to make deliveries cost pounds 900.
'Where would he get that kind of money if he hadn't been involved in anything,' a police source said. 'Schoolboys don't save up that kind of money.' In fact, Benji died wearing the uniform of one of Moss Side's drug gangs; khaki clothing and a bandana. He was with Tito Gunning, then a gang member. The gunman, who has never been caught, singled out Benji and made sure he was dead.
So why was Benji portrayed as an innocent victim? And why, 32 months later, are police nervous about any re-examination of his death, even though the murder is unsolved?
John Benjamin Stanley led an happy, untroubled life, according to his schoolfriends. He was a good, although average, pupil at Ellen Wilkinson High School. Adopted at 22 months, he lived with his mother, Denise, a child minder, and father, Junior, in Cadogan Street, Moss Side, near to the Alexandra Park Estate. At his funeral in the Church of the Holy Name near Manchester's Royal Infirmary, a month after he was killed, schoolfriends described him as 'a good laugh', someone who got on with everyone. Hundreds of letters and tributes were sent.
His mother appealed for help to find his killer and, understandably, refused to believe he had anything to do with the drug scene. 'He was a quiet boy who had never been in any trouble. He didn't even like cigarettes, let alone drugs.'
Greater Manchester Police say they still regard Benji as an innocent youth, that a re-examination of his death in any other light would not be sensible. It is easy to understand why: almost exactly a year after Benji was gunned down, Julian Stewart, 20 - street name 'Turbo' and a well known gang member - was shot in the head by a rival. While Benji's killing attracted national headlines, fired anti- drug, anti-violence sentiments and forced the government to turn its head towards Manchester, Stewart's death was like a drop in the ocean; another lawless black drug dealer got killed - so what?
Benji's killing, though, led to a sea-change in attitudes inside and outside Moss Side. In death he became a martyr to the violence that plagued a small section of Moss Side; a portent of what lurked in areas around the country where drug dealers carried guns. Mothers from the area staged a protest march to demand that law and order be restored to the estate. More than 500 residents attended.
The media began arriving in the area in force, as did celebrities like the boxer Chris Eubank, and politicians, including Paddy Ashdown. Although the area had been plagued with drugs and gang activity for years, Moss Side suddenly burst on to the national agenda.
Pictures of the area surrounding the Alexandra Park Estate - the estate itself is relatively modern, mostly neat terraced houses and maisonettes - showed the rotting shells of the crumbling and part demolished blocks of the nearby Hulme projects. The area became 'Baby Beruit', 'Britain's Bronx'. Television camera crews turned up, pointed in the wrong direction and spoke in breathless tones of a lawless underclass. Youths posed for Sunday colour supplement magazines sporting Second World War revolvers, clad in bullet proof vests and bandanas tied round their faces. Moss Side became the essence of lawless Britain.
Manchester City Council announced a pounds 6m programme to redesign the Alexandra Park Estate, the hub of drug dealers' activities in Moss Side.
Over five years the culs-de- sac and rat runs which are used by dealers and runners to evade capture by the police will be blocked off or re-routed to provide traditional street patterns. Houses on the estate will be given back gardens and derelict properties, used by the dealers as crack dens and safe houses, will be demolished. The work is under way.
The police changed their approach to the area's drug problems. Now everyone arrested in Manchester is automatically referred to a rehabilitation clinic. A special squad tackling drug-related violence has confiscated a small arsenal from dealers in and around the area.
The results appear promising. In six weeks from August to September 1992, police dealt with 110 reports of gunfire in the Moss Side area. For the whole of 1993, there were only 34 such incidents. This year, the figures are down again - by 27 per cent.
Superintendent Rob Taylor, head of policing at Greenheys police station, which covers the Moss Side area, is fiercely determined that the progress made since Benji's death must continue.
'There has been a tremendous change in our ability to work with other groups. It is about having the trust of the community so we can enforce the law with their support. We are working with the city council on plans for crime prevention, like the work that is going on at Alexandra Park. The corner has been turned. '
But the most remarkable change is in the attitude of some of the drug dealers themselves. A whole generation of Moss Side's drug traders was arrested in an undercover police clampdown - Operation China - in August 1991. Sentences of up to five years were handed down to 23 people. As some of them began to emerge from prison there were fears that they would want to resume their trade and there would be violent clashes with the youths who moved in to take over the drug selling territory in their absence. This new generation of dealers, armed and perhaps even more ruthless than their predecessors, was not likely to give up the lucrative trade without a fight.
Instead, the older dealers appear to have called a truce with former enemies. The two rival gangs which made the area notorious - the 'Goochies' and the 'Doddies', named after Gooch Close and Dodington Close, two of the culs-de-sacs that form the labyrinthine network of the Alexandra Park Estate - have been playing football against each other. The word on the street is of a cease-fire. Whether this is because they are still on parole or whether they have simply tired of living under the gun, fearing they will be shot down like Benji, remains to be seen.
Father Phil Sumner, Moss Side's parish priest for the past 17 years, is cautious about talk of a cease-fire.
'Benji's death did make a difference but then again it didn't. There was considerable feeling expressed by the mothers at the time in a public way. But it has been months since then. There is talk that the violence around here is affecting the market, that people are not coming to buy drugs in the same way. But until there is economic regeneration here there is no hope for the youngsters. Some 90 per cent of our young black population is unemployed. It's going to be a long job, but we're not giving up on it.'
There is a long way to go. A survey of residents on the Alexandra Park Estate carried out by the Moss Side and Hulme Community Forum showed that 76 per cent thought 'dealing in drugs on the street' is a very big or fairly big problem. Eight per cent avoid going out during the day, increasing to 36 per cent at night.
'We are tackling the problem of street dealing,' Mr Taylor said. 'We still have a long way to go, but there is no doubt there is a clear climate of co- operation. We think this started before Benji died. His murder was not the start of the process but it caused a lot of people to ask questions of themselves.'
For Benji, though, it is too late. His mother did not wish to speak to the press last week. His family has moved away from Moss Side to live in Ardwick, closer to the city centre. Near the street where they lived, mountains of rubble are all that are left of some of Hulme's worst slums. New houses and new hopes are springing up.
Benji's death, in a way, gave Moss Side a chance to return to normal life. It raised cries for an end to the madness, a fresh start. Greater Manchester Police are desperate not to lose hard-won progress. Mr Taylor said last night: 'I wish to stress emphatically that Greater Manchester Police has no evidence to suggest that Benji was anything other than an innocent lad.'
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