Caught in a gang war on the school run

Caught in a gang war on the school runOne mother’s terrifying account of why her middle-class neighbourhood suddenly doesn’t feel so safe any more…

Walking home from school, my two eldest sons, then aged four and five, were chomping their way through Rice Krispie cakes bought at a school sale, while I pushed their baby brother in a pram beside them.

Typically for 3.30pm in the part of North-West London where we live, the pavements were awash with children and pushchairs. This area, with its wide tree-lined avenues, smart family homes and good schools, is hugely popular with young families.

We were almost home when four-year-old Zach pleaded to be allowed to put the rest of his cake money towards his favourite Fireman Sam magazine.

Shaken: Lisa with her boys (from left) Rocco, Mallik and Zach

Shaken: Lisa with her boys (from left) Rocco, Mallik and Zach

We’d just left our local newsagent’s, magazine firmly in my little son’s hand, when we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a 12-strong gang of hooded youths who were chasing a girl who looked no older than 14.

One grabbed her and started battering her with an umbrella, but she managed to get away. Then the youths gave chase, throwing bottles and shouting obscenities. It looked as though they meant to kill her.

As members of a rival gang appeared from nowhere, bottles rained down all around us. When one ricocheted off the pram canopy — waking my one-year-old with a start — I froze.

A bottle skimmed Zach’s head, missing him by millimetres, glass smashing around his feet – later I found shards in his shoes

As a journalist, I’d devoted years to
infiltrating London’s violent teenage gangs, and filmed two TV
documentaries on the subject. Slowly
gaining their confidence, I got close to several of the hardest gang
members, entering drug dealer-controlled ‘no-go’ zones where even the
police wouldn’t venture.

I’d wanted to understand what triggered their anti-social behaviour and to help them articulate their feelings without resorting to violence. But as a mother of three vulnerable children terrified by this pack of youths, my overwhelming instinct was to protect my offspring.

Grabbing my sons and frantically pushing the pram with one hand, I rushed to get them home as quickly as possible. Then to my horror, Zach broke free of my grip and blindly ran back into what was now a full-on turf war.

In recent years, Lisa says there has been a spate of stabbings within a half-mile radius of her home in Maida Vale (stock picture)

In recent years, Lisa says there has been a spate of stabbings within a half-mile radius of her home in Maida Vale (stock picture)

Police estimate that almost 5,000 people are involved in 250 gangs in London

Police estimate that almost 5,000 people are involved in 250 gangs in London

He’d dropped his magazine, which had
been trampled underfoot, its pages scattered across the pavement.
Oblivious to the mayhem, he attempted to gather it up as tears rolled
down his cheeks. Terrified for
him, I pulled the pram and my five-year-old back towards where Zach now
stood rooted to the spot as more gang members came tearing up a side
street.

I heard myself scream as a bottle skimmed Zach’s head, missing him by millimetres, glass smashing around his feet — later I found shards in his shoes. Then I did something I never thought I’d do: I ran, clutching my terrified children. In my panic, I lost control of the pram which swerved precariously and almost overturned twice.

Our cakes spilled out over the pavement. It was the wrong thing to do, of course. I’d drawn attention to my fleeing family, and a splinter group gave chase after us, calling out ‘get the whities’. Seeing this terrifying drama unfold before them, passers-by and locals sped up steps, pounded on front doors or sought protection in porches.

We reached our home and I released my screaming baby from his pram, which I left abandoned with our bags outside, and practically threw my boys inside the front door, locking it behind us — my legs had turned to jelly and breathlessness and searing chest pain convinced me I was having a heart attack.

Last summer, a young mother was shot at just two blocks from our home, while holding her young baby…

I called the police, but other than
recalling the fear etched in the features of the young girl who was
being hunted down like a dog — her repeated, helpless yells of ‘I don’t
have it, I don’t have it’, echoing round my head — I realised that I was
a useless witness.

I was unable to give a description of any one of the perpetrators. My focus had been fixed firmly on my children. In the safety of our home, I was still trembling as I picked tiny glass fragments out of Zach’s socks and tried to calm my three sobbing boys. I could only thank God that none of us had been seriously hurt.

If those youths had been carrying knives or guns, the outcome could have been so much worse. Recently, the Metropolitan Police has announced a crackdown on London’s gangs — and it has come not a minute too soon.

Police estimate that almost 5,000 people are involved in 250 gangs in the capital.

This pernicious gang culture is embedding itself into all of Britain’s major cities. It exposes our children not just to danger but to a distorted view of young adulthood that is more like the crime-ridden pockets in New York’s notorious Bronx neighbourhood. In recent years, there has been a spate of stabbings within a half-mile radius of our home in Maida Vale. A 14-year-old pupil from our local secondary school died of a stab wound to his neck.

Another pupil at the same school was stabbed four times in the stomach in the street just opposite ours. Then, last summer, a young mother was shot at just two blocks from our home, while holding her young baby. However, bottles seem to be the weapon of choice for many of these thugs — ‘bottling’ a person carries a lesser sentence than a knife attack.

The Brinkworths have now decided to move out to the countryside

The Brinkworths have now decided to move out to the countryside

Ironically, we moved to this area six years ago because it seemed safer than our previous address in West London where my husband was knocked unconscious and had his jaw shattered in a vicious, unprovoked assault by youths. But now it seems nowhere in our cities is immune to the gang rivalry spilling over from neighbouring districts.

Our street no longer feels safe — groups of hooded, spliff-smoking youths patrol the pavements as though they own them. Just weeks ago, when late for school pick-up, I challenged a group of teenagers to make way for my pram, asking them if they really expected me to push my child into the busy road.

They turned on me, becoming verbally abusive and threatening. Determined not to be a victim for a second time, I pushed my way through them. And then a bottle was thrown in my direction — it smashed into a parked car nearby.

Now, when my children are with me, I’ve decided such bravado is foolhardy. If I see a group of youths in our street, we circle the block before approaching our flat, or go to a nearby restaurant and call my husband to come and collect us. There is not a night that I don’t hear a siren close by.

More than once I have awoken to see the end of our road cordoned off by police after yet another gang-related crime. A year on, my two elder sons still have nightmares. Our walk home from school is once again filled with laughter and stories, but as we turn into our street, one of the boys will usually ask: ‘Are the baddies here today, Mummy’

We’ve now decided to move out to the countryside, albeit close enough to the city so that the boys can still go to the same excellent schools. But thousands of other families don’t have that choice. I just hope the police crackdown will enable them to finally sleep soundly in their beds.