The riots one year on: I was a lost gang member - but no one helped me find my way

Last summer, one in five Londoners arrested during the riots was in a gang. But in this remarkable open letter, Karl Lokko argues that the gang problem is not just their fault

Tuesday 07 August 2012 10:05
Karl Lokko, a former Brixton gang leader, is now a musician and
works with young people
Karl Lokko, a former Brixton gang leader, is now a musician and works with young people

Dear Society, my name is Karl Lokko. I'm a young man from south London. In the sight of many of you I may be considered a nobody – you may have walked past me on the Tube or been stood next to me at the bus stop and had your nose so high in the air you couldn't see me. You may not have seen me then, but lend me your attention briefly now....

Civilisation used to be under the illusion that the world was flat and lived lies accordingly. This is a notion we can all laugh at today, but once upon a time this had people absolutely terrified. At one point or another in our lives we have all believed a lie; that doesn't make us dumb or stupid, just human.

I in my past believed a lie. I believed it was kill or be killed, I believed drug dealing was an acceptable way to make a living, I believed a council estate was my territory and the end of my world; I believed there was no hope.

The moment we are born we all embark upon a journey and like any journey all it takes is for one wrong turn to leave someone in the wrong place. The alcoholic that sleeps in the park is a human being just like me and you; that cocaine addict in the shelter is a human being just like me and you – they just took a wrong turn. Since when did we penalise an individual for being lost?

That brother of mine you labelled a monster, as an adolescent he had dreams to be a fireman, or a pilot, or an architect but en route got lost. People can end up lost for various reasons. They could have asked for directions and been misguided, or they could have just followed those who, they believed, knew the way.

Some of my peers have made your headlines, your front pages, your tea-time discussions, all for the wrong reasons. And because of the places they have wound up, you feel you have the right to give them labels. You call us hoodlums. Scoundrels. Monsters. Dogs. Animals. But you only know about the incident that got them in the headlines, not the incidents that led them there.

I've heard so many take digs at the parents of these people, as if they are the beginning and end of the matter. But in most cases youths are not sat in their homes with sub-machine-guns scared that their parents are going to take their lives. Instead, fear grips them when they step outside their homes, when they walk down the courts, roads, twists and turns of their council estates.

Society is supposed to act as everyone's guardian, but society's neglect of the underprivileged has created what you now refer to as "monsters". Now Frankenstein's monster has been created, the public has turned into an angry mob with pitchforks and torches trying to kill the problem, not solve it.

I didn't come into the world with the intent to join a gang. But after being attacked on several occasions, I had a stark choice to make: either I remained a victim or took up power in my own way. I couldn't walk from my house to the corner shop without the fear of being approached for my phone or the bike I got for my birthday. That constant uncertainty troubled me greatly and, on top of that, my brother was experiencing the same thing; even my mother was intimidated.

This led me to the conclusion that I was going to take the bullet, a prospect that both scared me and intrigued me, because I had a sense of feeling unimportant and thought that being a gangster would resolve this.

From a young age I lacked self-esteem. I was bullied, which contributed to my feeling of worthlessness. I thought representing a culture that seemed to have space for me would offer me solace and a chance to form an identity; an identity which I did form and would constantly put my neck on the line time and time again. It soon spiralled out of control. But even though the position I was in wasn't a good one – it was destroying me and my peers – I felt powerless to end it. As a teenager, I lost one of my best friends to a stabbing in 2006; he was the first of my friends to be murdered. He was killed with a stab to the chest. It pierced his heart, causing the blood to shoot from his body at such a pressure, propelling the front of the top he was wearing into the air.

You'd have thought this sort of incident should have been a wake-up call, but all it did was build rage within me. I cried until there was no more water left to come out of my tear ducts; I didn't eat or drink for days. I was traumatised. His burial was also just wood for the fire, not closure, and the emotional damage it inflicted on all of us only strengthened our resolve to become more fearsome as a gang. Yes I broke the law, but society helped in the breaking of my identity and instead of taking the time to fix it sensitively and with love, all that is thrown at it are more police and more money. There is no easy solution – it is not the breakdown of a car, it is a breakdown of a human life, in a lot of cases children.

I myself was a lost child, broken and travelling a road of destruction en route to either death, lifelong incarceration or the mental institution. But I received the right directions from genuine, loving, sincere people like Pastor Mimi and Camila and her team at Kids Company. They may not have had the money that the Government has, but they have more heart for the youth than the whole House of Commons.

So next time, instead of pointing fingers of condemnation and judgement, try to use the same finger to point us in the right direction. These issues cannot be treated by incarceration or medicated by psychology. We need practical help, financial aid, safe space and an environment of love: a real helping hand every step of the way.


Karl Lokko, aged 22

The writer is a former gang leader from London who is now a Community Champion for the charity Kids Company

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