Tackle all the taboos on drugs, race and crime

'The only reason I can think of for a person to be carrying a loaded gun is the obvious one: you might want to shoot somebody'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What on earth can the barrister defending 19-year-old Ashley Walters, who was refused bail this week after pleading guilty to possessing a prohibited firearm, have been thinking of? He insisted that there were "serious reasons" and "unusual and extenuating circumstances" why his client was carrying a loaded gun, and said they would be revealed when Mr Walters is sentenced later this month.

But the only serious reason I can think of for a person to be carrying a gun on the streets of London, is the obvious one – you might want to shoot somebody. Which as I understand it, is the very serious reason why possessing a prohibited firearm is a significant crime in the first place.

Ashley Walters clearly lives in a parallel universe, a most unpleasant one which has been celebrated in the lyrics of So Solid Crew, the music collective of which he is a member. The 30-strong garage band have been criticised for their glamorous depictions of drug dealing, violence and shootings, not only in their lyrics but in their off-stage activities as well. To add to the general vibe, fans of So Solid Crew have signalled their sense of comfort with the subject matter by shooting, stabbing and beating each other to death.

Mainstream approval for such activities was signalled by the award of Best Video to So Solid Crew at the Brit Awards. These awards, it is worth remembering, have been notable in recent years for the extreme enthusiasm with which New Labour politicians and senior media figures have turned up hoping that "urban cool" will be granted by osmosis. For a long time now, this aspect of black British culture has been played down, even accepted, alongside the enthusiastic adoption of the vibrancy of wider black British street culture.

Gradually though, it is becoming apparent that one man's urban cool is another man's lawless nihilism. Mr Walters, it was reported, showed cracks in his urban cool when in the glass-walled dock. Mr Walters "looked stunned" when a continuation of his £10,000 bail was refused, and Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC warned that "a substantial custodial sentence is inevitable". His friends and family wept, and his girlfriend, Natalie Williams, had to be helped from court. They are all clearly living in the parallel universe too. The impingement of a real world, with more civilised rules than those disseminated by the rappers, had clearly caught them all unawares.

And no wonder. Nemesis had come, after all, in the form of a traffic warden. Olufemi Onafeko had been so shaken by the threats he said he received when challenging Mr Walters to buy a parking ticket or move his car that he had reported the incident to the police. With almost psychic wisdom, they had sent out an armed response squad, who found the gun inside a sock in Ms Williams' handbag.

The fact that Mr Walters did not feel obliged to keep his aggression to himself while in possession of an illegal handgun suggests that he felt not wary and cagey about the weapon but arrogant and empowered by it. The fact that he appears amazed that the courts are making such a big deal about it suggests that he feels his own arrogance and empowerment to be of global importance.

It is the sheer sense of entitlement to pursue their chosen lifestyle, the clear inability to see why others should find their values unacceptable, which is most striking on the rare occasions when the core of young black drugs-and-guns culture is glimpsed outside its own self-perpetuating remit.

Here is the place where multi-culturalism has gone stark raving bonkers, the intersection where the drive to promote acceptance of difference has been adopted as an excuse for being different enough for no rules to pertain – except the rule that however outrageous the behaviour, racism is somehow at the root of its condemnation.

It's fairly certain that Mr Walters himself, or at least his family and friends, will now be labouring under the misapprehension that he is being discriminated against, or made an example of by institutionally racist Britain. Instead, the attitudes made plain in this case are the ones most immediately damaging to Britain's progress as a pluralist nation.

It is at this intersection as well that the full, sad, dead weight of the intractability of the situation is felt. Because it is the guns and drugs mob, with their commitment to violence and their disregard for any normative standards, who are the people doing the most to keep racist attitudes alive. Paradoxically too, it is racism disguised as a hatred of political correctness that has turned the issues around this blight into political rather than practical ones.

The violence has become too great now, and has spilled out too far for the uncomfortable conspiracy of silence that has grown up to be tenable any longer. This, surely, is the reason why Mike Best, the editor of black newspaper The Voice, has felt the need to speak out in favour of increased stop and search by the police. His message is unequivocal: "Truly the black community faces a national crisis. We have to accept that a number of our young people are very, very violent and it is time for us to take stock."

Mr Best's concern is the huge degree to which the vast majority of decent and hard-working black Britons are being damaged and injured by the extremes of behaviour that have developed at the lawless fringes of the black community. Naturally his view is seen as controversial, most significantly by the National Black Police Association, which is against a return to measures widely seen as draconian.

And it is indeed sad to recognise that a technique that in the past has been so divisive and damaging could now be welcomed by many black citizens. Mr Best is at pains to emphasise that a revival of stop and search should not be seen to be targeted particularly at young black men. But he must see that if the strategy is to be revived with the particular problem of black gun culture in mind, then no amount of window dressing can ultimately bury the relationship of cause and effect he is advocating.

If nothing else, Mr Best's comments will surely be seen as a turning point in honest debate about the problems caused by a disproportionate number of young black men. Prominent spokespeople for the black community have had plenty to say in the past about the reasons why sections of black youth culture can seem so toxic.

Hackney MP Diane Abbott points to educational underachievement among back schoolboys, but refuses to conclude that this is a cultural rather than an institutional problem. Academic Tony Sewell is more outspoken, and points to a starkly shallow materialist culture where trainers and designer labels are massively important indicators of status.

The race advisor to Ken Livingstone, Lee Jasper, ties himself in knots as he acknowledges a specific problem with drugs and guns in the black community, but fears at the same time that his condemnations will be seized upon as fodder for racist agendas. Mr Jasper's position is indeed an awkward one. His engagement with the problem demands that he must admit to the truth of the nastiest of stereotypes for a tiny minority of those he has appointed himself to speak for. At the same time he is at pains to remind us that there is a specific historical background to the development of the stereotype. These are theoretically legitimate but practically difficult positions to straddle.

Maybe the best that can be done is for political correctness to be dropped in favour of real, widespread acknowledgement that while past racism has fuelled present difficulties, all the present difficulties are doing is fuelling future racism. Maybe then it will be possible to draw a line under the history and start taking pragmatic steps towards a better future. I'd need a lot of persuading that random stop and search is part of that future.

Mr Best is to be admired for tackling a taboo. For many his suggestion is unthinkable. But in this dreadful situation nothing should be either unthinkable or unsayable. That has been the case for too long.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments