Making men of our boys.

By Andre Mathurine

So where to begin? I just feel like I need to write. There is so much going through my mind right now. The current political climate has raised in me so many emotions. I watch every day on social media as people cast their judgments and aspersions about the problem with knife crime. I listen to the tabloids and to conversations on the train during my daily commute into North London about how these young people are bad, evil, hopeless etc. I hear people speak about the need for harsher punishments, an increase in stop and search, and how bad parenting is to blame.

I don’t know, I just feel so sad when I hear all of this.

I work in North London as an assistant psychologist / youth worker, working with young men labeled by society as gang members. I am hesitant however as to whether I should even refer to them as young ‘men’, in that I mean the accepted discourse of describing a male aged between 16 to 24 is as a ‘young person’, but I don’t know, I just feel that describing them as ‘young people’ in some way does them a disservice. On so many levels, society expects ‘young people’ to behave like ‘men’, and I see a need for them to; in order for them to survive within this society; to be able to assimilate themselves into the role of the man as soon as possible.

But these young men are children on so many levels. I mean, what makes a man? Should a man be judged to be a man based solely on the numerical value of his accumulated years on this earth? I work with twenty seven year old males who on so many levels, function in ways becoming of children; intellectually, emotionally and dare I say it, spiritually.

I would use the term ‘young men’ not out of desire to do so, but instead out of what I feel is necessity, but believe me when I say that I do feel that it is wrong. For me, for now, the term ‘young people’ best describes the neglected, misunderstood and vilified period between childhood and adulthood that our most excluded boys are forced to navigate alone.

You know what one of the problems with being socially excluded is, it is that when society eventually deems it necessary to intervene with the excluded group, the voices of those affected are not heard. I hear their voices because I am fortunate enough to speak to them on a daily basis, but for those who do not get the opportunity as I do, there are other ways to hear what those involved in serious youth violence want to communicate. You can hear it in the drill music that is being created. That music that seems to glamourise serious youth violence I feel says so much more about what they are experiencing, feeling and their world view. It's not about listening to the words, it's about using your own knowledge of the needs of all humans to hear what is being communicated through the words. When you listen to the music, ask yourself, would you want to be living that life? If not, then why would they? They don’t! They do because they have no choice!!

When I sat in front of this screen I really had no idea what words would flow out of me, I still do not know. Do I speak about myself, my own experiences as a young black male growing up in East London? Do I share with you the reader my limited exposure to the criminal justice system or my vast exposure to violence? Or perhaps I am just writing this for me, a kind of cathartic expulsion of the rage and frustration that for so long seems to have been building up inside of me

Perspective

I always remember, one day at work a young person asked me whether I had ever been to prison. Reflecting on that question at the time I knew that the young person was trying to make an assessment on whether I was someone who would ever be able to truly understand his struggle. I responded that I had not, but that was because I merely had been fortunate to never have been caught.

From a young age I was exposed to violence. I am a fighter, always have been, still I am excited by it; Mixed Martial Arts, boxing; anything where the underdog has an opportunity to fight his oppressor gets me going, it really does! But hey, I think my reason for mentioning this is because I feel that it is this attribute that has allowed me to get to where I am today. A dogged refusal to ever be controlled by anyone or anything. I see this in our young people. The ones with whom I work, on a daily basis I observe them in this never ending battle to survive. I see them resorting to the sale of drugs in response to marginalisation. They fight social exclusion through the creation of their own new society, one that is ruthless yes, yet is accepting, and loving.

They carry knives to increase the odds of their own survival, not just on the streets, but in life. The odds are stacked against them; young, black, male, from a postcode on the wrong side of the borough, from a deprived area, born into a war they did not start and statistically more likely to end up excluded from school, in prison or detained under the mental health act. These children, our children, our 28, 29, 30 year old children do not want the life that they find themselves living. They do so because they have no choice. I know there will be those of you reading this who will say, “Well of course they have a choice.” I would argue that the existence of a choice, of opportunity, is very much dependent on one's own ability to recognise its existence. If I am unable to recognise that I have opportunity, then the opportunity for me does not exist. It exists within a socially constructed framework that excludes the very people that I am talking about, but not for each of them on an individual level.

We as a society need to create for our children, choice.

This is not an easy thing to achieve. I hear on a daily basis that the issues and solutions are complex in nature and with those sharing this assessment, I must agree. I do believe however that the first steps need to be that we as a society must be honest with our role in the creation of the problem.

I am going to say it now because I don’t want to forget later, but these young people, labelled as and expected to act as men, who we refer to as drug dealers, as criminals, as scum, murderers, no hopers and people to be feared, I have seen to be some of the most wonderful, loving and caring individuals I have ever come into contact with. I have witnessed love, joy and affection emerge organically from these people when just given an opportunity to do so. I mean, children just being children, being there for each other, laughing and playing together without fear in their place of safety. It really is amazing what having a safe and secure place can do for a person’s development. I urge you the reader to Google and have a read of Bowlby’s 1990 paper on Attachment Theory if you are not already familiar with it.

Paternity

I am father to a sixteen year old at the time of writing this, in whose upbringing I have not been involved half as much as I would have liked to be. That, I would have to say, has been my hardest fight. Constantly fighting his mother to have access to him, fighting a family court system that in my opinion operates from a position of fear. Somewhere down the line, society seemed to accept that the role of the father within his child's life could become obsolete. I don’t know if this is ok to say, or even if I am saying it correctly, but what I mean is that, in my personal case, all I ever wanted was to be a father to my son. If you were to ask him now, he would say that he knew that I loved him unconditionally and that he felt fortunate to have me as a part of his life. The problem is however that I received no support from the system to be a part of his life. I had to fight, have cried endless tears, just to get to see him and all because his mother quite frankly, had her own issues of which I won't go into. My point is, sons need their fathers and we as a society should always strive to encourage the paternal relationship and not just sit back and accept its demise.

It is important to realise, that the only reason I even felt able to fight to be a part of my son’s life was because I had a mother and support network around me to pick me up during those times when it all became too much. My father left the family home when I was thirteen and has not really been a part of my life since then. When it did not work out with my son’s mum, I was fearful of repeating the pattern of my own parent. Believe me when I say that it would have been a hell of a lot easier to have walked away from all of the pain and hurt but as I said, I am a fighter!!

I didn’t want to be another statistic, another black man who did not know his son. To be honest, I don’t think any black man wants to be that statistic. Even those that have several children by multiple mothers, I just don’t think that it is something that they would have chosen knowingly. That ‘choice’ is made because they do not have the strength to fight. We as a society need to resource our fathers to be able to fight. How is a man that never had a father supposed to know how to be a father? We as a society need to encourage the paternal relationship. The family courts have at the basis of their decision-making, what is best for the child. They need to recognise the important part that a father plays not only in the raising of a child but in the maintenance of a community.

Pressure!

There is so much pressure on people these days. Families that have both parents present find it hard enough and so can you imagine how hard it must be for a single mother? In my case, I assumed the role of father to my siblings at the age of thirteen. For many of the young children/men with whom I work, that responsibility would have been imposed on them at a much younger age.

Children need to be allowed to be children. We as a society are too fast to turn our children into adults. Children are put under so much pressure at school to achieve. Given endless assessments from such an early age that are designed to separate the ‘prospects’ from the ‘prospect-less’. Teachers are placed under so much pressure, and are so underappreciated within our society. How can we live in a society where a teacher gets paid close to minimum wage when you consider the amount of time that they have to work outside of teaching hours? I don’t know about you, but I feel it is important to have healthy minds raising and educating our children yet society, the same society that is grappling with a mental health crisis, makes it so difficult to have a healthy mind.

People to identify with, to look up to

I just feel that it is unhelpful to blame, to blame an individual, to blame the police, to blame the parents etc. We instead need to, as I said earlier, understand that the solution to the problem is complex in nature as there are so many factors at work. We need to move away from this culture of blaming; well at least I think we do.

Looking back on my life, I was able to identify a pattern whereby I was constantly searching for that paternal figure in my life. I tried to find it in older cousins, uncles, friends, friends of family, whomever really. I never found it! Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t walking around calling everyone dad, I just mean, it was easy for me to put people before me, to attribute more importance or validity to the words that these older men in my life spoke. I eventually asked the question, why is it that in so many cases a white child raised by a single parent within this society is able to excel? I concluded that it was because the white boy, born within this society, has access to role models with whom he can identify everywhere he looks. I have asked so many of the young people with whom I work who their role models are, and all they name are musicians and sports stars. The musicians that they name have generally made it to where they are after an early life of criminality, the 50 Cents, the Jay Z’s etc. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that these men should not be role models; I wholeheartedly respect what they have achieved. It’s just that I feel it is important for our young black boys and girls to have images/representations of themselves that span a variety of professions.

It is not that the role models are not out there, it's just that they are not getting the recognition they deserve. The young children, young men, young people, need to have access to role models not only in the media, but when they walk down the street.

The black community is a black community only in spirit. We have no ownership over our community. There are no black owned businesses, or should I say instead that there are no areas that predominantly black owned.

As an Asian child, there are areas of London that are entirely Asian owned. Asian, restaurants, Asian banks, Asian barbers, Asian schools, Asian supermarkets, Asian mortgage brokers the list goes on. It is the same when you look within the Chinese community, the Turkish community or the Jewish community, the list goes on. This sense of community is something to be celebrated. The black community does not have this. We as a community possess the leasehold to an area, but not the freehold.

Personally, I feel that this is a massive contributory factor as to why a child, a young black boy, would hold a knife or gun.

I don’t believe that they choose to pick up weapons, I believe that society puts these weapons in their hands. In the same way that you do not choose to have that iPhone or Samsung, or chose to visit McDonalds or KFC, society makes you do it. It’s psychology shit!!! That’s why companies spend so much on advertising, it’s because it works!!!

These young people are scared, that is why they carry knives. They are scared to walk the street alone, they are scared to be a part of this society that has for as long as they can remember, turned its back on them. They pick up weapons and stab and shoot each other because they want out. They see this as their root out believe it or not. How can this be you ask? Well think of it this way, they created this micro society, in which drugs and violence is the norm. Well why wouldn’t they? The people they identify as their role models all came from environments such as this. They all say they want something better for themselves, to break free of that life. In their mind, what is holding them back is their rivals. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are able to identify that it is society that has royally f**ked them, but the reality is that there is nothing that they can do to ‘society’ as they are no longer a part of it. They are breaking free in the only way they know how, by fighting, by killing, by being the ‘men’ that they think they have to be in order to be the ‘man’ that society wants them to be.

I really don’t know why I’m writing this. I guess it’s because not only have I been deeply affected by one of the recent murders in North London, I have found that every single killing and stabbing that takes place in London seems to just hit me harder and harder. My worry is that, this situation will not be handled properly. We will look to blame those that are the perpetrators of this violence. We will punish them, further exclude them, we will dehumanize them in an attempt to try and make sense of what is happening. I expect that none of this will work, society will make this issue worse because by us as a society not admitting our part in the creation of this problem. We will not acknowledge a need for reform. True social reform is complicated, inconvenient, exposing, challenging and deemed expensive.

I don’t know who this letter is for in all honesty. I feel like I want it to be for my brothers and sisters within my black community with the hope of us finally mobilising together to look after our own.

Do I want it to be for everyone else?

Well, when things happen within the black community, it’s broadcast for all to see. Is this the same for other communities? I sense not.

Who is this paper for? I think it’s for the others. It’s for my old line manager, it’s for the old English, it’s for all of the ones who are happy to just judge and condemn the “little f**king animals” being shown day in day out on the channel 5 news.

I don’t know if this has all just come off as a massive rant, I didn’t want it to be that. I don’t even know if it is written particularly well or if it makes much sense, I’m not some A-star student, never have been. I don’t know, I just feel like I must say something. I feel as if it’s kind of my duty to as a human, as a man, as a black man, as a father, as part of the problem to, just speak and share my thoughts. Perhaps it means the dialogue around this issue might start to helpfully change.

I know I don’t have the answers, but I do have an idea of what will not work, and that is by us doing what we continue to do.

You know something, I was in a primary school a few weeks back asking pupils in years 3,4,5 and 6 why they felt some young people carried knives. When one of the year 4 kids said, “Well sir, it's because of the conditions in our prisons, everyone should get their own cell if they want and should be treated better”. I asked myself, how it was that someone as young him would give such an answer. I then realized that it was because he was already becoming a man at such an early age.

We, as a community, as a society need to work together to make men of our boys, but not before their time.

Most politicians start their career setting out to achieve social change, then end up in a system whose main focus is money. Most journalists start their career with a drive to shed light on inequality and injustice to ‘provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,’ but we have ended up with reporting that condemned young black men as senseless murderers, with no reporting of context or cause. When did the news and politics become entertainment at the expense of excluded communities? This issue doesn’t only affect the black community it affects all people. This is a class problem and a political problem. That means it is your problem too.

A question for each of us to ask ourselves. What has my part in creating this society been?

Thanks for taking the time to read this!!