Violent Britain: It used to be a baseball bat - but now it's a gun

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The Independent Online
It was the kind of incident you would expect to be common on the streets of New York or south central LA. A rap and hip hop DJ sprayed with bullets in a drive-by shooting, amid rumours of protection rackets, threats and Yardie gangsters.

But this was London on a Sunday afternoon, and the DJ was the son of an Anglican bishop and employed by the BBC. Yet Tim Westwood, who was put under police guard in hospital, is no ordinary DJ. He is regarded as a kingmaker in the world of rap, the most controversial area of popular music today, who can make or break bands. Westwood's success - his ability to bring the leading rap artists and disc jockeys from the US to perform in London - is said to have made him enemies. Nor was last Sunday the first time that Westwood had been subject to violence. Weeks earlier the DJ, whose programmes attract up to a million listeners, had been attacked in a south London club. "He was told in no uncertain terms not to play again in south London," a friend said.

"Unfortunately he has attracted a thuggish element. I don't think it was a case of mistaken identity. He has been a victim of harassment because he is a successful white man in a black man's world. I would say this is a territorial thing involving young kids with guns."

It was a combination of Westwood's links to rap, which celebrates the violence typical of Yardie culture, and the method used by the gunmen which mirrored Yardie-style gangland hits, that prompted the question: has Britain fallen victim to a Yardie shooting spree? For the assault on Westwood follows a saga of killings and gun attacks. So far 13 people have been killed in London this year in incidents which appear to be connected to Yardie warfare.

Guns are not a new feature on the British crime scene, with their earlier concerted use peaking during the 1950s and 1960s in high-profile armed robberies. But the foundations of the real, everyday gun culture with which Britain is now coming to terms had already been laid in the 1980s. Its roots lay in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, and it eventually flourished in the predominantly black areas of London.

The Yardies, as they became known here, were never a mafia run by powerful "dons". Instead their activities were characterised by the phrase "disorganised organised crime", where small groups would import small amounts of powder cocaine, "cook" it into crack and sell

it on the streets. By the end of the 1980s they virtually controlled the crack market. More significant than the new drug, however, was the guns and capacity for extreme violence which they brought with them. Stories began to emerge of open shoot-outs, torture and execution-style killings, and the authorities did start to take notice.

First the Metropolitan Police and then other forces tried to balance the need for robust action against demands for racial sensitivity. What resulted was a series of initiatives set up and then disbanded at the earliest opportunity to avoid the accusation that a certain section of society was being unfairly targeted. The tendency was to see the issue as a short-term problem that could be "solved" and then ignored, while all the time the influence of the gun grew stronger.

Probably the most significant development of recent years has been the adoption of the Yardie style by local, British-born black youths. Working first with and then competing against the genuine Jamaican "gangstas", these dispossessed ghetto boys saw a route to quick riches and all-important "respect", and wholeheartedly embraced the gun culture.

Now we have something approaching an endemic culture of violence in certain areas, celebrated in gangsta-rap music and expressed in gun salutes fired in appreciation of that music. Where disputes were once settled with fists, knives or baseball bats, the gun is now a weapon of first resort. And for anyone wanting to operate in this world it has become a necessary means of protection as well as an essential style accessory.

Dick Hobbs, a criminologist at Durham University, says it is wrong to blame the black community for resorting to gun violence. Guns are being used today by gangs involved in drugs, but many of their leaders are white. "The drug trade is regulated by violence and there is an awful lot of competition," he said.

On the streets of south London last week, talk was of the Westwood shooting, and people concurred with Dick Hobbs. Yvonne Beckford, out walking along Coldharbour Lane, the Brixton "front line" said: "The black community is being tarred with the same brush because these scumbags are using their colour and nationality to carry out their brutal murders. We have got to support the police on getting them thrown in jail."

Nor, according to Mr Hobbs, is the use of guns limited to drug dealers. They are being used in domestic incidents too. This year, the victims include three people shot in their home in Essex, a Lancashire divorce killed with a single bullet to his chest, a pump-action shotgun used on the streets of Stanley, Co Durham, and quarrels one night in Birmingham which culminated in a fatal shooting outside a night-club.

There are 400,000 weapons owned illegally in this country, according to official estimates by Metropolitan Police firearms officers. Unofficially, the estimate is closer to one million. The weapons come from illicit arms factories in eastern Europe and from America. Customs & Excise say gun seizures have risen from 500 in 1994-95 to 1,213 between 1997-98.

The use of guns is not limited to London; they are becoming increasingly prevalent in northern cities. Offences reported to the police, involving firearms across England and Wales, rose from 9,002 in 1987 to 11,436 in 1997. These included robbery, burglary and domestic disputes. According to Det Supt Roger Vickers, of South Yorkshire police, firearms have become essential accessories for street criminals.

"Guns are for street credibility," said Det Supt Vickers. "The going price is pounds 150 for a pistol and 20 rounds. There's no longer any escalation of a quarrel; it goes straight to violence."

One police force has had the chance to reflect on gun crime. In the spring of 1995, the co-existence of two drug-dealing gangs - one white, one black - in Liverpool's south end led to eight months of shootings. At its height, firearm offences were being committed every nine hours. Curtis Warren, the master drug-runner, was so frightened he got out of town, and police armed with machine-guns patrolled the streets.

But since then, gun-related crime has halved. Detectives and underworld figures agree the shootings ended because of intensive policing mounted by Operation Pivot. "Pivot uses every police resource," said a Liverpool superintendent. "It includes covert operations and overt policing.

"You press informants for every scrap of information, undercover officers target them, with a strong presence on the streets. You give them no rest until they realise that, until they stop shooting one another, they'll get no peace. You show them no respect."

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