Leon Francis was just 24 years old when he was fatally stabbed in December last year. He was a bright young man, adored by his family and treasured by his friends. Yet life had not been easy for Leon. He was excluded from his Birmingham school aged 15, and without proper help he drifted into crime and then a prison sentence. On release, Leon was determined to turn his life around and plan a future away from crime. But every effort Leon made to do this was met with failure or contempt by the very bodies that were supposed to help him. Following Leon’s death some of the press chose to demonise him. This week Jackie Ranger, Leon’s mother, speaks to Socialist Worker to set the story straight.
Leon Francis was just 24 years old when he was fatally stabbed in December last year.
He was a bright young man, adored by his family and treasured by his friends.
Yet life had not been easy for Leon.
He was excluded from his Birmingham school aged 15, and without proper help he drifted into crime and then a prison sentence.
On release, Leon was determined to turn his life around and plan a future away from crime.
But every effort Leon made to do this was met with failure or contempt by the very bodies that were supposed to help him.
Following Leon’s death some of the press chose to demonise him.
This week Jackie Ranger, Leon’s mother, speaks to Socialist Worker to set the story straight.
My eldest child Leon was only 24 when he was stabbed to death in December last year. Our family and friends are still devastated at his untimely death, but we are campaigning for justice for Leon, and to make sure that his name is not discredited.
We want him to be remembered for the person he was. Sadly Leon’s story is indicative of the destructive paths that some of our young people find themselves trapped on.
My son was no angel. He made some mistakes throughout his short life, but it is important to know that 2007 had been a year of reflection and transition for him.
He realised that he had to change and he kept trying to turn his life around right until the day that he died.
Leon brought joy and laughter throughout his life and was a popular young man with a potentially bright future ahead of him.
He was extremely loyal to his family and friends and greatly valued his close relationships. His troubles began when he was permanently excluded from school aged 15. Sadly it was a downward spiral from there.
Inadequate post exclusion support contributed to the choices that Leon made. He blindly entered a life of crime and went to prison for five years for attempted armed robbery.
To this day I question if Leon really understood the seriousness of the offence that he committed and the consequences it would have on his life – he was after all still a child at the time.
Leon’s imprisonment was an extremely traumatic period for all his family, but more so for Leon himself.
He often tried to mask the pain of the injustice he felt at being excluded from school, and subsequently excluded from society.
As a parent it was important that I did not allow him to minimise his responsibility for what he had done, while acknowledging the way social factors contributed to his predicament.
Leon himself understood he had done wrong and was remorseful. During his sentence Leon was transferred between prisons more than 15 times.
He was also placed in some difficult situations – a poignant and most insensitive ordeal was being jailed on the same wing as the man who killed his fiancée’s brother.
Nonetheless, Leon remained extremely resilient, striving to remain positive about the future.
While incarcerated he gained some qualifications and was determined to lead a more productive life after his release in 2006.
Due to the nature of his offence, and the political climate around “gangs” at the time, Leon was released with extremely strict conditions about where he could go and what he could do which impacted on his human rights.
In April 2007 he was wounded after being shot in the head while in his “exclusion zone”.
He reluctantly offered the police information about the incident and was assured he would be treated like a victim, but instead he was sent back to prison.
This led to an irretrievable loss of trust in the police. When he was released again in August 2007, Leon fought to maintain his focus of rehabilitation.
He was on the verge of beginning a new life outside Birmingham and had secured a place on a BTEC music technology course.
Leon was excited about his fiancée’s pregnancy and the thought of becoming a father. He was looking forward to 2008 with an increasing sense of maturity – he had everything to live for!
However he became increasingly concerned that his efforts appeared not to be taken seriously by those responsible for assisting his rehabilitation.
He was sick of the differential treatment and outcomes for people of African heritage in education and the criminal justice system.
A series of incidents in October last year meant Leon was in breach of his residency conditions, and as a result he went on the run.
His family urged him to give himself up, but Leon was adamant that he would never go back to prison.
On 27 December 2007 Leon was fatally stabbed.
Quite rightly there is national uproar when the victims of knife crime are innocent. However, when the victim is involved in a gang or caught up in violence it is a different story.
The press demonises them, and their families are further victimised, humiliated and treated with disrespect.
There is no opportunity to present an accurate picture of their loved one.
Yet my pain is no less than the mothers of “innocent” victims. My son is also dead. My family have the same feelings of grief, sorrow, regret and frustration that the family of all other victims share.
Leon was also somebody’s son, somebody’s fiancé, somebody’s father, somebody’s brother and somebody’s friend.
He was my child and I love him and miss him dearly. He was my friend, my confidant, and my heartbeat.
Statistics about exclusions, violence and black deaths belie human tragedies, and Leon is yet another tragic victim that can all too easily be forgotten.
However, both his life and his death emphasise the drastic and urgent need for more preventative, innovative and timely measures to be developed for all young people who have been excluded from school or who are subject to anti-social behaviour measures.
We should not fall for the myths of poor parenting, absent fathers, family breakdown or demonise our youth like the media often does.
Instead we must try to understand the complex reality of young people’s struggles and provide them with proactive support and an earned second chance. That is their right!
I want to reach out to all the families, and especially the mothers, who have lost someone to gun, gang or knife crime – particularly those who have been made to feel ashamed that their child was involved in a gang, and it is said that they only ever did terrible things.
Now our children are dead, and there is little sensitivity towards us. We have to stop demonising people and look behind the myths that stop us from acting to change things.
Leon left us with a beacon of hope, his beautiful daughter Princess who was born five months after his death. She symbolises life, youth, opportunity, hope and light.
Jackie Ranger is an educationalist, community activist and trade unionist