Seeking an end to Birmingham’s postcode war with two rival gang affiliates
Just over ten years ago, teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare were shot dead outside a new-year party at a hair salon in Aston, Birmingham. The tragic event, a result of the conflict between rival gangs the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, captured national attention due to the bloodshed being inflicted on young women. But the gang warfare between the B21 and B6 postcodes reaches far beyond that. In the annals of the 30-year conflict, the deaths of Ellis and Shakespeare stand among countless others, young people whose lives were cut short in the name of what, exactly?
Paranoia is palpable when entering the Handsworth and Aston areas, just north of Birmingham city centre. It’s an atmosphere echoed in poverty-stricken areas all over the country, and with cuts going deeper, police on their post-riot guard and anger mounting, it is difficult to see how the tension could be alleviated. Nevertheless, two men, Dylan Duffus and Shabba, of the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew respectively, are making strides to improve their immediate surroundings. As shown in One Mile Away, a new documentary by Penny Woolcock, the two men have reconciled their differences in the name of putting an end to one of Britain’s longest standing gangwars. Here they talk guns, girls and going straight, while conceding that the animosity is far from over.
Shabba (left): I knew you couldn’t have been a hothead and I was comfortable when we first met. We were on a level. Now you’re like my bro, man. I’m probably closer to you than I am to some other people around me.
Dylan Duffus: Yeah I didn’t mind meeting up with you either, I was looking forward to it. We’ve been going through this whole experience together. You’re my brother, man.
S: Yeah, I got love for you too.
DD: We’ve had highs and lows and it’s not easy, but we’ve started it and we’re going to finish it for the kids that are coming up now. Since we’ve done this, crime in the area has halved and knife and gun crime is down to a quarter of what it was, or something like that. I’m not saying we can take full credit but I think we’ve done something.
This gang culture is ingrained and some people are scared to change because their reputation is all they’ve got, and who are we to take that away from them?
S: It’s hard. I can’t tell someone to stop the violence when they might have been shot at or stabbed. I can’t tell you to not go out and seek revenge if you think that’s what’s going to help you sleep at night, but I can tell you that after you’ve done that, you’re not going to feel any better.
DD: Everything that Jonathan Powell (former Labour Party adviser who appears in One Mile Away) said came true. It’s not going to be an easy job, you have to keep on pushing.
S: You try telling someone whose mom’s gone, whose dad’s passed, who’s got no one – try telling him to get off the road and chill and put the knife down. He’s going to think, ‘I’m happier on the streets, that’s what I know. I’m probably better off in jail. I’ve got TV and food...’
DD: Also, there’s a lot of negative images in our culture. The pimp lifestyle - when I was younger I used to be like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, these images don’t effect me.’ But they do. A lot of kids don’t have a male role model. They see the drug dealers on the street and it’s reinforced by the shit they see on YouTube.
S: People talk about gangs and this and that but I see the bigger picture, I understand why this happens.
DD: Yeah. There needs to be a change in mentality. This gang stuff is culture in our environment, it’s ingrained and some people are scared to change because their reputation is all they’ve got, and who are we to take that away from them?
S: People need to have something to lose. They need to have a job, a holiday booked with their family that they don’t want to miss... We don’t have that. So it’s about building bridges and trying to encourage wealth in the community.
It’s about showing people that the world’s a lot bigger than their block... Don’t be a product of your environment; make your environment a product of you.
DD: And it’s about showing people that the world’s a lot bigger than their block. There’s only a few places you’re going to go in a gang. Probably one in 3,000 people make it. It’s not good statistics. Don’t be a product of your environment; make your environment a product of you.
S: Remember when we went to Scotland (for the One Mile Away premiere) and talked to girls who didn’t have a clue about the life we lead? They had wealthy parents, they were okay. It’s difficult for them to understand, but this situation could just go off tomorrow. Everyone is stressed out. The people who’ve got jobs are stressed and the people that don’t are stressed. And when people have money they get too comfortable, thinking, ‘I’ve got money, I’m nice.’ They’re not planning to open a shop or buy some shares... I don’t know anyone talking about the long run.
DD: These are the biggest cuts since the 30s and it’s going to be a very, very bad situation. You make mistakes when you’re young, you’re excluded from school, which eventually excludes you from society because you haven’t got the same options. So it’s either dole or starve. And what do you do when the dole’s taken away? Training course this and that... You need GCSEs for that. There are probably more dealers than people who want to buy, because everyone’s trying to survive. Then there’ll be more pressure to do drugs too and if you’re stressed, you might find the answer in some white or brown stuff. We just had Christmas and all anyone was saying was, ‘Don’t worry, don’t panic, don’t spend any money.’
S: And you pay taxes, but then when something happens and you phone the ambulance or the police... A man gets murdered and the ambulance doesn’t even come! People die here. They shouldn’t even charge us tax, they deal with it so badly.
DD: People remember New Year’s, 2003. It was a bad time, there were a lot of deaths around that time.
S: That was because it was two females.
DD: And it did a lot of damage! The witness whose identity was protected by a fake name – ‘Mark Brown’ – said that he’d seen boys polishing their guns around the corner. You think you’re polishing a gun when you’re in that headspace? You’re shaking. You’re not polishing guns, man. That kind of shit gets printed and it makes it seem
glamorous, which it isn’t, and that’s what kids read. It’s terrible if anyone gets murdered. The level of inquest into the deaths of Charlene and Letisha should have happened for all the murders in our area. Girls get involved because they have boyfriends in gangs.
I got shot in 2005, and it gives you dreams you have no control over, imagining the places where shit’s happened, thinking you’re still there.
S: Yeah, like, so-and-so’s girl might not get along with someone else’s girl because the men don’t get along. The girls follow because they’re lost – too much TV. It’s not what they’re into, it’s what they’re not into. I don’t see any powerful women trying to make change or stand up for women’s rights. They’re just happy to play second-best. Just go on with their child-benefit money. No one’s trying to rise up.
DD: Do you think about when you got shot, Shabba?
S: Yeah, and you know what, it makes you shut down. When you’ve gone through pain like that you just think that nothing else can hurt you, and you stop caring about everything. I got shot in 2005, and it gives you dreams you have no control over, imagining the places where shit’s happened, thinking you’re still there.
DD: And the paranoia doesn’t just come from the street but from the police. I’ve been handcuffed and punched when I was a kid, so they could get my details. They approach you when you haven’t done anything and they antagonise you until they can drag you back to the station and get your fingerprints and find out where you live. And you’re full of testosterone. You’re a teenager, you’re at that stage where you’re liable to explode.
S: The police come out in leather gloves and they look like gang members. DD: To the generation coming up too. Pulling up in riot vans, searching, frisking. Then there’s police with guns and dogs – and you haven’t even done anything! That happened when we were shooting the documentary. There haven’t been any problems directly from making the film apart from that.
S: The only time there might be problems is after it’s released. No one knows how anyone’s going to react. Anything you do, some people are going to be happy, some people aren’t. But I live with no regrets so I don’t really care what people think.
Photography Dan Wilton