Last Thursday, driving home from Liverpool Lime Street station, we pulled the car sharply to the side of the road to avoid an ambulance, sirens at full blare.
A few minutes later, we did the same when the ambulance was followed by a police car, red-and-blue lights outstripping the Christmas glow in the city centre. Unbeknown to us, we’d just driven past the place where Ava White was lying on the ground, fighting for her life. Her alleged attacker is 14. She was 12.
Some 14 years ago, it was schoolboy Rhys Jones who lay dead after an innocent evening: in his case, he was walking home from football practice in the summer sunshine when he walked into the path of a weapon – a gun.
He was 11, his killer 16. A national debate about gangs and gun violence was ignited. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, the same debate is raging about knife crime.
Liverpool is a city that is aware of its undeserved reputation. When I was 11, heading to Ampleforth on our end-of-primary-school trip, one teacher told us we all needed to behave. “They’ll expect you to steal, because you’re from Liverpool, and a lot of people don’t like you,” he said, bluntly.
But there is a sense of distrust, to put it mildly, that lingers between the city and the police. Ghosts of the Toxteth riots and Hillsborough hang over us. In a way, it increases the sense of community, the way people band together for protection.
It’s not insular – Liverpool welcomes you in. But it’s protective; on guard for any potential threat from what is perceived as a more privileged, less understanding world. I tried to explain this to a friend the other week: “People like to take care of things themselves.”
Liverpool also struggles with the idea of cooperating with those long thought of as an “enemy”. In Little Boy Blue, the acclaimed ITV dramatisation of Rhys Jones’s murder, one anonymous tipper warns the well-meaning police of how futile their efforts may be to engage witnesses: “People round here never grass! They’d be seen as as bad as the lad that did it!”
There is a gulf of understanding that can be hard to cross, even for someone who grew up in Liverpool. I was one of the lucky ones, who grew up in the nicest areas, who was protected by the colour of my skin. I always knew the police were there to protect me, not harm me.
It is difficult for me to access the levels of mistrust inherent for previous generations. It must be more difficult still for people from the Whitehall perspective to understand, brought up and educated and working in even more privileged surroundings.
At the time of Rhys’s murder, the phrase “Broken Britain” was bandied about, in a summer that seemed rife with crime: Garry Newlove, Sophie Lancaster, Baby P. Now, it’s “levelling up”. There seems to be a comfortable anticipation of success, an assumption that northerners will simply fall over themselves to accept an olive branch after being demonised for so long.
But for some, it feels more like a pat on the head from a world that seems to think that simply reminding children over and over to stay away from gangs and violence and the darker, nastier world (that remains mostly fictional) will be enough to do the trick.
This isn’t confined to the north – it’s prevalent in the attitude to the wave of knife crime in the capital, too; as though it’s easy enough for children to just turn their backs, stick to the rules and walk away from a world that may surround them from the moment they’re born.
Even I, who was more protected and cosseted than most children could dream of, caught glimpses of that world. What chance do children have who are born into it? It stains their walks home from school, their weekends kicking around an estate with nothing to do.
“This lad’s on the fringes of that world,” says Dave Kelly in Little Boy Blue, referring to a prosecution witness. “Inevitably it seeps into his own.” A wagging finger and ruffle of the hair from well-meaning authority figures for whom life goes on elsewhere isn’t nearly enough to hold back the tide. A more nuanced understanding is needed.
However, this isn’t to say people aren’t responsible for their own actions, or to ascribe the guilt for these crimes to some vague notion of “society”. Ava White’s unnamed alleged killer is a monster if guilty – unquestionably. But it’s the height of patronising to suggest that having a deprived background in turn deprives someone of any sense of right and wrong.
Indeed, in Liverpool, that sense of right and wrong runs so strong that in cases like Ava’s, Rhys’s, James Bulger’s and Francesca Bimpson’s, it has prompted the city to work proactively with the police (it was thanks to witnesses being willing to come forward and the police effort to engage the community – understanding forming on both sides – that the Bulger killers were caught).
Someone committing murder makes them monstrous, and a few nice words like “levelling up” won’t eradicate the environment that all too often engenders acts like this. But it’s nonsensical to act as if those who commit these crimes have no choice but to go down that path, and to assume that kids from certain backgrounds are somehow less capable of making the right choice.
There is always a choice. It’s engagement that’s needed – not excuses.
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Ava and Rhys were victims of violence. Their faces, held in that sweet awkwardness between childhood and the teenage years, have ended up frozen in time; forever on the precipice of adolescence. A video that was recently released online shows Ava half an hour before the attack. She’s listening to buskers playing among a group of other kids, Christmas lights glowing.
Two hours later, she was dead – a story on the news, another name that will always be murmured in dinner-time conversations over “the state of society”.
But before that, she was just smiling, giggling with her friends, looking forward to Christmas. Just a 12-year-old girl, dancing, like any other.
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