Damilola Taylor's tragic death
An answer to media myths about Peckham
THE TRAGIC killing of ten year old Damilola Taylor in Peckham, south London, has seen the media go into overdrive with a series of claims and arguments about the killing and the area where it happened. The media has adopted a scattergun approach, mixing up myths, contradictory claims and quite unconnected arguments. THERESA BENNETT reports from south London.
MANY OF the press claims about Damilola's killing are based on little or no evidence. So some newspapers have claimed people ran away refusing to help Damilola as he lay dying. Home secretary Jack Straw reinforced this notion, arguing in response to Damilola's death that "we have to create a society where people do not run away. Part of the blame for every crime lay with people who chose not to intervene." Yet there is no evidence that anyone knowingly walked away from a young boy bleeding to death in Peckham.
Local residents were shocked by claims that people in the area just do not care. Sue is involved in the local Southwark Parents Forum, a local voluntary group. She argued, "Everyone is saying people ran away. How do they know? People could have been going for help." It is also quite possible that anyone seeing what may have looked like a scuffle among youngsters would not have realised or appreciated the seriousness of the situation.
Alongside such myths quite contradictory claims have marked much of the press coverage of the area where Damilola was killed. So some papers have argued that the North Peckham Estate, where Damilola died, is a crime infested, poverty stricken ghetto. Other papers have argued that, whatever the problems in the area in the past, the area is rapidly improving thanks to a government-backed regeneration scheme.
The truth is far more complex. Government figures rank Southwark as the eighth most deprived borough in the country. But the area is not a ghetto. The people who live there are ordinary working class people struggling to cope. Most, like people elsewhere, somehow do manage to cope in difficult circumstances.
It is true that there has been a major regeneration scheme in the area. But just like so many other such schemes around the country, this has also gone hand in hand with the rundown of vital community facilities. As Sue from the Southwark Parents Forum argues, "There is nowhere for people to meet any more. Voluntary groups local people set up have been cut."
Ali Balli, chair of the Gloucester Grove Tenants Association which is part of the North Peckham Estate, told Socialist Worker, "The Peckham Partnership was set up in 1995 promising to improve the area. It has resulted in the removal of three of the estate's five nurseries, the closure of all five community halls, and includes plans to demolish the only two laundries for tenants on the estate."
The reality of racism
PAPERS LIKE the Daily Mail claim Damilola's death highlights racism within the black community, racism that is hidden because of "political correctness". They and others assume that those who killed Damilola, whose parents are from Nigeria, were of West Indian Afro-Caribbean origin.
When these claims were made there was no evidence that Damilola's killers were Afro-Caribbean or that their motive was hatred of African people. Reported crime figures in the Peckham area in the previous year do not include any attacks by Afro-Caribbean people against African people. In Peckham, as in other multiracial areas in Britain, people of different backgrounds, however poor, tend to get on with one another.
The main problem that black people of whatever origin face is racism from individual whites, and institutionalised racism from police and employers. What is true is that anti-African jokes have gained some currency amongst some Afro-Caribbeans. Anyone interested in unity between ordinary people would object to such stereotyping.
It is a symptom of the way those consigned to the bottom of the pile can sometimes take it out on each other rather than confronting the real enemies. Those on the right who talk today about "black on black" violence are using the issue to obscure the reality of racism directed against all black people. The general racism in society, especially among the police, was pinpointed by the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Society fails young
MUCH OF the media has argued that the problem in Peckham is a violent youth gang culture. This a gross exaggeration. People do not walk the streets of Peckham in constant fear of attack from violent gangs of youths. Some people in the area, as in many other parts of Britain, do complain about groups of young people hanging about on the streets.
But these young people are not violent criminals, and the overwhelming majority of young people on Peckham's streets are as sickened and horrified by Damilola's killing as any media commentator. That young people do hang around the streets is hardly surprising as, like so many other areas of the country, there are few facilities for them. There is a new Peckham Healthy Living Centre, but it is not widely used by local people. No wonder. The charge of 340 a year for club membership for the gym facilities is beyond the means of most.
Some papers have claimed the problem with local young people is that they are playing truant from school and the schools lack discipline. The truth is the exact opposite. Pupils are being driven from schools and left hanging around the streets as a direct result of New Labour's education policies.
The government's obsession with league tables and setting school against school in a market-style competition puts enormous pressure on individual schools and heads. But few have the resources to support or deal with children who fall behind in their work, are "difficult", or become alienated from the whole education system.
The result is that heads turn to excluding some of the most needy children in order to keep up their league table results, when what those children need is more support such as one to one teaching. So in Southwark there are huge levels of school exclusions, whether permanent or temporary.
Damilola attended Oliver Goldsmith Primary School. The head, Mark Parsons, says he has excluded over 150 children from the school for disruptive behaviour. The nearby local comprehensive school, Warwick Park, has excluded 234 children, ten times the national average.
Permanent school exclusions nationally have risen in the last ten years from 3,000 to over 11,000 a year. Black girls and boys are six times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts. Children excluded from school are far more likely to be hanging around the streets, feeling alienated from society. They are also more likely to be targeted by the police and criminalised.
Some commentators have argued that what is needed to prevent tragedies like Damilola's killing is more police on the streets. This is a view that some local people do echo. But it is misguided. No matter how many police are on the streets it is impossible to prevent individual incidents.
More police can instead simply lead to increased harassment of young people, criminalising them further. Police racism will mean this hits black and Asian youth hardest of all.