News of Rhys Jones's shooting first began to unfold on Merseyside's local radio stations' news bulletins on Wednesday evening. The inferences were clear. Croxteth. Gun slaying. Pub car park. The only variance – and the thing that had the phone-ins humming with indignation – was the age of the victim. "What must the parents be thinking of?" came the resounding message. "Letting a kid of 11 join a gang – they should go on trial, too." Hard on the heels of 47-year-old Gary Newlove being kicked to death by a teen gang in nearby Warrington, the moral majority were queuing up to have their say: the youth of this country are out of control. The gun kids of Liverpool are now no different from those in City of God. How long before we have a nine or eight-year-old victim?
For the past couple of years, young street gangs from Croxteth – the Crockyheads – have fought a bloody turf war with the Strand Crew from neighbouring Norris Green (Nogzy). Exactly a year previously from the night of Rhys's murder, one of the Strand Crew's alleged leaders – Liam "Smigger" Smith – was gunned down outside Altcar Prison, where he'd been visiting another gang member. Those accused of his murder have been standing trial, and the verdict was due that same day.
One contributor to an Everton supporters' website speculated that Rhys was a key witness in the Smigger Smith murder trial. Another stated that the membership of ruthless young gun gangs involves an initiation ritual. Then one eloquent posting, from Rhys's uncle, silenced the gossips and turned the tide in favour of the heartbroken Jones family. His tone was restrained, trenchant, reasonable and yet utterly bewildered. He began: "Just to clear up any misunderstanding, this child had no possible need to be involved in gang culture as he had a loving family and unlimited access to his first and greatest love, which was to kick a football."
The cyber gangstas ceased with their theories. By Thursday morning, to the surprise and in some cases palpable disappointment of the media, we were not in Dodge City after all, but affluent Croxteth Park. When Rhys's father and mother, Stephen and Melanie, spoke of their grief, it was clear that we were watching and listening to decent, utterly devoted parents whose world had just been blown apart. The slant on the reportage of this tragedy changed.
Now the accent was on the horrors of gang culture. How has society in the UK descended to such levels of inhumanity – and why is this part of Liverpool so badly hit? To even get near to the nub of reality in these estates, you'd have to know them as they are now, and as they once were.
My mother moved to Norris Green as a small child and remembers it as a happy estate with plenty of green space. Every major conurbation has a Norris Green, built between the wars. These are the estates which, if you look at them on any map, have streets laid out in concentric circles, with a series of boulevards and crescents leading off. When Mum lived there, there was one bad family in their street, and nobody spoke to them. There was a central parade of shops in Scargreen Avenue, serving the community with all the essentials – a baker's, a grocer's, a butcher's, a chandler's. Last September, all the shops on that same parade were closed for the day of Liam Smith's funeral. Local youths had visited them and asked them to stay shut as a mark of respect. Fear of reprisals made sure they did so. A huge floral tribute was erected, reading "Smigger – Soldier". The city council, on police advice, did not remove the tribute from Scargreen Avenue for some weeks after the funeral.
Go down Scargreen Ave today and you'll be struck, pretty quickly, by how many young lads there are hanging around. They're all "Lowey'd up" – the uniform is black Lowe Alpine trappers hats and black Lowe Alpine jacket, worn with the hood up over the peak of the hat for added anonymity. Hands are shoved down the front of black trousers, unless otherwise occupied with the restraint of vicious dogs. A fighting dog such as a Staff (Staffordshire bull terrier) is as much a part of the look, and the mentality, as the scowling faces, challenging you to catch their eye. Yet, contrary to urban myth, they don't all carry guns. Whenever one is needed they can be hired for £50 an hour from an underworld figure called the Librarian.
I don't know these lads personally, but I meet plenty of them at the football. They act tough – they are tough – but so much of that posturing is integral to a lifestyle that has chosen them. Theirs is the first generation of kids born to Thatcher's Other Children. Much was made of her creation of a generation of youthful millionaires, but her government's accent on the individual to the detriment of the community meant that the close-knit spirit of areas like Norris Green was gradually, if not systematically, eroded. Young men and women who traditionally would have found apprenticeships from Merseyside's huge shipping and manufacturing base found those industries de-nationalised, de-unionised and fighting for survival. Between May 1979 and the next general election in June 1983, unemployment rose from 1.4 million to more than three million – the majority of new claimants aged between 16 and 24. Whereas once, there was one bad family in an entire community, whole tribes of school leavers were turning to drugs to fight boredom, and crime to feed the habit. These same kids are the parents of today's teen gangs. If it is the case that parents like these care little what their children are up to, then it's equally the case that they stopped caring about themselves some time ago.
Yesterday, Everton and Blackburn fans and players joined together to pay tribute to a dead child. Someone else's son took Rhys Jones away from his distraught family. If we are to break this cycle of despair, we need to rebuild communities rather than, as initially happened here, leaping to demonise their inhabitants.
Kevin Sampson is the author of 'Outlaws' and 'Stars Are Stars'
Further reading: 'Powder Wars' by Graham Johnson, Mainstream Publishing, £7.99Reuse content