Narratives of redemption are rarely straightforward.  In the short film of Hezron recently released  by ConnectFutures, we hear of his journey from a gruelling, brutal childhood, through homelessness, a criminal record, to gang membership and violence and finally to his current role as ambassador for the Prince’s Trust and mentoring young people.

It is not all grim.  There were people along the way who stalled his absolute decline – the mother of a friend who took him in when his mother kicked him out for the umpteenth time; the teacher who spotted his dirty torn clothes; the person in the Neighborhood Office who found accommodation, and the woman who wrote a glowing pre-sentencing report that prevented him going to prison.  But during his adolescence he was still angry, and wanting ‘to be the biggest, baddest person…the person that no-one picks on any more’.  He got to college, but his new ‘friends’ there meant he ‘transitioned’ into their gang and was in relentless conflict with rival gangs, enduring constant threats of kidnap and violence, as well as instigating it.  ‘We had to build a name for ourselves’.  He was kicked out of college.

But Hezron relates a conversation with another gang member when he ponders ‘Why are we doing this?’  His friend explains ‘We’re doing it for the area, the postcode’.  Hezron says ‘But it’s not even my postcode!’.  He begins to question loyalty to the gang.  ‘I started to realise that there were people trying to get me in situations I didn’t need to be in’.   As in journeys of deradicalization, it is about realising who you can trust and who is simply using you for their own dubious ends.

So Hezron experimented with change – first of all with a simple change of clothes.  Switching to light colours from his usual sinister all black outfit meant -somewhat to his surprise –  that ordinary people such a woman at a bus stop would talk to him. He was experiencing normalisation and letting down of his guard.

Is carrying a knife a matter of choice?

Yet the messages in the film are complex and perhaps contentious.  First, whether to carry a knife is not a simple ‘choice’.  It might be for some, but  ‘(t)here are also people who don’t have a choice.  I had to carry a knife because people were out to get me’.  The message would be more about not getting into a gang in the first place, where your vulnerability increases hundredfold because of turf wars and high stakes drug running.  Hezron’s repeated phrase is ‘being where you don’t need to be’.

More police on the streets?

Then there is the question of the police.  Hezron does not think having more police on the streets is the only answer to stabbings and violence, as they cannot be everywhere.  He had bad experiences with the police and they would perhaps not automatically be his first port of call if threatened or worried about someone else (Similarly, our workshops with communities and young people around tackling extremism demonstrates the wariness factor towards the police being a similar issue).

Who to trust?

Yet Hezron does counsel talking to someone about fears, worries and adverse situations you find yourself in.  But who? Friends and family are not necessarily benign:  ‘Some of these guys I thought were my family were actually a burden to me’.  Family members may have been part of sliding into trouble in the first place.  From his experience, this talk has to be with ‘someone who has your best interests at heart’– a teacher, or a safeguarding lead, or he admits, the police.

So, for Hezron the answer to the cycles of violence is in preventative education about the realities, warning young people of the dangers of being groomed and enticed ‘before you know it’ – and Hezron confirms that being groomed into gang membership and extremism can follow similar routes.  The subsequent message is that if you do find yourself in a compromising position, in a gang or movement, if you do find yourself assuming violence is inevitable, then change and exit is possible.  As always, it is about questioning what you are told and about experimenting with alternative persona.   Choices are not simple, but if you can open up to impartial but caring others about decisions, this may help the process.

What can we do?

At ConnectFutures we think simple one-sided negative messaging (don’t use knives, don’t join gangs, don’t binge on social media) doesn’t help.  Preventative education is about identifying any positive pathways through the morass of competing pressures on young people, and involves a wide range of people and places – youth workers, mentors, employers and those creating local spaces for young people. We agree that policing has a role, but it shouldn’t be the only “solution” when casualties around knife crime continue to rise.  A complex education for resilience is the key building block: not learning to be the biggest and baddest, but learning to survive.

** In 2018/19 we delivered our Building Resilience against Violence and Extremism (BRAVE) workshops in partnership with St Giles Trust to over 20,000 students in primary, secondary, college and PRU settings.

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