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Culture

From gangs to Westminster: One man’s journey out of London’s brutal street wars

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Noël Williams was just 13 years old when he was first locked up for gang-related crimes, but now he is brushing shoulders with the UK's political elite and is a prominent voice in the youth justice system

Anna Freeman

06 Abril 2018 14:39

The streets of London are a warzone for those involved in gang crime. With the backdrop of high-rise, glass-plated skyscrapers that provide the infrastructure for one of the world’s largest economies, violent territorial conflicts among some of the city’s most deprived areas continues to thrive. Knife crime across the UK generally has risen by over 20% in one year, with the sharpest increase in the capital. ‘The gang epidemic is all about aspirations and what you believe you can be,’ says 28-year-old Noël Williams, from Tooting, South London, ‘For me, it was either join a gang or nothing.’

Williams was only 11 when he became involved in criminal activities while attending Ernest Bevin College, the same school London’s mayor Sadiq Khan attended. Just before his thirteenth birthday, he was locked up in a juvenile detention centre for five years for his involvement in an armed robbery. After his release on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Williams joined the Tooting Trap Stars, a notorious gang in London’s Wandsworth borough, and worked his way up the ranks to controls of weaponry.

His coming-of-age journey - marred by war-like brutality, paranoia and numerous brushes with death - speaks to a wider problem in the UK with equal opportunities and cultural conflict. Although London is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities on the planet, it is still a metropolis built upon white hegemony. As Williams points out, gang members are overwhelmingly of black or non-white heritage.

Noël Williams grew up knowing the system was against him

Of the six stays Williams did in prisons across London for gang-related crimes and violent defence of drug territory, almost everyone he encountered was of non-white heritage. ‘Going to prison is now part of a young black man’s life,’ he tells me. Although this won’t come as a shock given the disproportionate rates of black incarceration in the UK, and the US, too often the issue is explored without nuanced examination of the social norms that have created this problem. For example, a crisis of masculinity and a lack of male role models is one of the biggest driving forces for gang recruitment.

A pattern of absentee fathers in black communities leaves vulnerable young men yearning for a sense of belonging and leadership, says Williams. In a way, the hierarchy of gang culture provides an almost familial environment. Loyalty is treasured above nearly everything else, and is one of the reasons it is so hard to leave the life behind. Williams' strength - or downfall - was that he was so loyal, and didn't 'snitch', therefore he quickly became popular within the Tooting Trapstars.

Williams explains that he was essentially exploited when he first joined the Tooting Trapstars because he was willing to do anything for the older members. Like many others, he grew up without a strong father figure in his life. Coming out of prison, Williams had no money, no other means of survival, and was bought clothes, phones, material goods, in exchange for unwavering commitment to the gang: ‘Older members are basically paying for your loyalty.’ It’s not hard to see how this warped feeling of being nurtured and ‘looked after’ is attractive for those on the fringes of society.

Williams is now brushing shoulders with the political elite

In a wider cultural context, as well, Williams says young black men hardly see anyone they can aspire to. Generally, influential role models come from sport and music. And music in the black community is often about guns, drugs, sex and crime, according to Williams. Gangs in London often heavily associate themselves with the capital’s grime music scene. ‘Hoody’ culture in London was built upon wearing your postcode like a badge of honour; a means of identification. With grime, gang members have a platform to shout about their struggles, conflicts and royalties to a wider audience, with sometimes morbid ramifications like more shootings, more stabbings and more deaths. YouTube has been criticised for failing to tackle the use of its platform to glamourise gang life. Like with the hip hop scene in the US, it’s a life-imitates-art representation of the glaring disparity in opportunity between black and white communities.

Another important issue that is given little attention is the convergence of gang culture and mental health. Living with paranoia, threats of violence and death, and multiple incarcerations has a profound effect on mental wellbeing. As the clashes between the Tooting Trapstars and their rival gang heightened, Williams’ prison stays became more traumatic. He saw people using knives to attack each other, pouring boiling water over each other, peeling people’s faces off. And life outside prison was even more dangerous: ‘I think the problem is you walk around with the ability to kill or be killed. It is a way to survive. But who wants an 18-year-old thinking they need to kill so they don't get killed?’

Williams and UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

Williams has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since leaving gang life behind six years ago. Extreme levels of hostility and threat of violence is a huge reason that many gang members struggle with mental health issues long after leaving (if they choose to, or make it out alive). Williams has witnessed his close friend being stabbed to death as the result of an in-gang feud over £100.

He has himself been stabbed multiple times and been shot at. This is more than most people will ever experience in a lifetime. Williams sees it as no coincidence that in particular young black men who are connected to gang crime in some way suffer with paranoia, PTSD, and even schizophrenia. And given the importance placed on performances of aggressive masculinity in gangs, the subject of mental health is taboo.

A typical inner-city London estate

Williams left the Tooting Trapstars in pursuit of education and a career in politics, and is now brushing shoulders with the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn and even the Queen of England. But his scars - both physical and psychological - are never far away. He works at a think tank, The Centre for Social Justice, and sits on five boards for social justice causes to keep young people off the streets. Williams was invited to Buckingham Palace to accept an award for his outstanding contributions to society. He also hopes to become the Labour Party justice minister one day. Hopefully his story can act as inspiration for other young people involved in gang crime, or for those vulnerable to it.

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