LONDON (Reuters) - A man who led one of London’s most feared street gangs says riots in the capital and other English towns and cities this week were the inevitable result of frustration felt by Britain’s youth, not the brainchild of street gangs.
Elijah Kerr, who transformed the notorious street gang he founded into an entertainment organization aimed at helping young people, poured scorn on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion the riots were coordinated by gang leaders.
“What’s happened is the frustration, the tension, spilled over. It’s like a pressure cooker. The fire’s there, secured in a room, locked away and then someone’s opened the door and it’s spread through the house,” Kerr told Reuters in an interview.
He said the violence and looting which saw shops emptied and bystanders attacked was bound to happen in a society which excluded generations of young people.
“I’m talking about (housing) estates where I’ve grown up, where I come from, where people have no hope, have been forgotten. Lost,” Kerr, who founded and led the gang PDC.
PDC stands for the “Pil Dem Crew,” a term which has its roots in the Jamaican “peel dem,” meaning to “rip them off” or “steal from them.”
“It’s been building for years, maybe about five years or so — it was always gonna happen,” said Kerr who also goes by his street name Jaja and grew up on the sprawling Angell Town housing estate in Brixton, south London.
On Thursday, after four nights of mayhem in English inner cities and towns, Cameron declared war on street gangs which he said were “at the heart of all the violence,” flatly denying government austerity measures or poverty had played a part.
Kerr, who has witnessed inner city desperation first hand, said Cameron’s comments were completely out of touch.
Now 31, Kerr says he first got caught up in the gang scene when he was nine years old and has dealt in drugs, smoked crack cocaine and been in and out of prison.
Over the last decade, however, he has renounced violence and turned his hand to converting his “crew” into a legitimate entertainment organization centered around music and creativity.
He says he now manages 50 artists on a record label, runs a radio station and studio facility and is building other brands including a clothing arm with the goal of helping the kids around him. Aptly, Pil Dem Crew has been transformed into Poverty Driven Children.
Kerr, who doesn’t trust the government, the police or the press, decided to speak out because he says he is sickened by the government’s take on who is responsible and what he calls the misreporting and media hype surrounding the disturbances.
“They (the government) is trying to say gangs — what? That they organized the whole riot a week before to loot a Curry’s (electrical store). It’s so stupid and ridiculous...It’s just rubbish.”
“All those involved they are little kids on bikes. KIDS. Look at whose been charged — they’re not gangsters. Youths who have nothing, who have been swept up in trying to fight back against their circumstances and the police cos there’s just nowt for them.”
He also laughed at suggestions members of known street gangs had used Blackberry messaging to instigate and coordinate rioting because of its encryption capabilities — a favorite way to conduct drug deals.
“Who told you that? Gang members, hardened drug dealers don’t even communicate like that by phone, everyone knows that. You don’t use your Blackberry to move a kilo of cocaine,” he sneered.
Dr James Densley, who did years of field work on gangs for Oxford University, agreed.
“What we might have is gang-involved or gang-associated youth who are participating in the riots, but I don’t think it is necessarily organized gang activity,” he said.
“For the upper echelons of the gang they wouldn’t be interested in causing such chaos in their own communities because the gang actually needs the support of the community to continue its operations.” Densley said that gangs were economic organizations and not interested in uneconomic acts like vandalism.
Nick Mason, chairman of the Growing Against Gangs Foundation, a voluntary organization that has been battling youth crime over the last 20 years was also skeptical as to the level of involvement.
“I wouldn’t say it’s entirely gang motivated, but there are certainly a number of young people in ‘gangs’ who have been identified by police as having been involved. Whether it is serious organized crime is another matter,” he told Reuters.
“But I also think there are significant numbers who have been swept along by the looting, the mob mentality,” he said.
The growth of street gangs has been a major political and social concern in the capital for years, with regular reports of youths stabbed to death or gunned down on the street.
A website dedicated to illuminating the gang phenomenon, called www.londonstreetgangs.com, estimates there are currently 205 gangs in London sub-divided into many more cliques and subsets, with some 15,000 members, though those numbers are disputed by experts and well-known gang members themselves.
London’s Metropolitan police has in the past said gangs and gang-related violence accounted for more than a fifth of the youth crime committed in the capital, with African-Caribbean gangs seen as the largest followed by south Asian and white gangs.
Many charities and government-sponsored organizations conclude a lack of role models, the breakup of the family home and a lack of sense of worth and identity has pushed young people into joining gangs.
Densley said the riots might have been an opportunity for those aspiring to be in gangs or at the lower level of a gang to build a reputation and bolster their criminal credentials.
“On the streets this kind of thing is very, very important. It’s about building ratings and getting respect on the street through violence,” he said.
Asked if he condemned the disorder, Kerr chose his words carefully. “What I don’t condone is people smashing, stuffing up in their own area and small businesses on their turf. That’s not hurting the police or authorities, that’s hurting ourselves.
“But I’m not a fan of the government. I’m not totally a peaceful protest kind of guy. I’ve been through trouble and I’ve seen what it can do to someone. It can shatter your whole life,” he added.
Kerr says what the government needs to do quickly is sow hope back into communities. “What they (kids) really need is leadership programmes, mentoring. All they need is guidance.”
And he has one simple message for Cameron, who said the rioters would pay for their actions:
“Simply locking everyone up, curfews and all the harsh words and actions it’s not going to change anything. It’s just going to make things worse.