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Ex-gang member explains why knife crime is on the rise in Barking and Dagenham

PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:40 01 February 2018

Former gang member Jermaine Lawlor holds workshops highlighting the dangers of carrying knives. Picture: Emma Youle

Former gang member Jermaine Lawlor holds workshops highlighting the dangers of carrying knives. Picture: Emma Youle

Archant

A former-gang member who was stabbed as a teenager and went on to transform his life explains why knife crime is on the rise in Barking and Dagenham and across London.

“How many people have got to keep dying before something happens?” asks youth worker Jermaine Lawlor, as he stands by police cordon tape just minutes from his home.

On the day the Post meets the 26-year-old he is angry that a man has been viciously beaten to death just a few streets from where he lives.

He is not shocked by the bloodshed - only that it happened so close to home.

“As sad as it is and as terrifying as it is, it’s the norm,” says Jermaine. “I wasn’t surprised. This happens all the time, so you become de-sensitised. We don’t value lives.”

He has spoken frankly about the devastating impact of youth and gang violence in east London, as Jermaine and other former gang members told the Post:

* The lure of earning £1,000 to £2,000 a day is encouraging young people from deprived estates into drug dealing.

Knife attacks on under-25s in Barking and Dagenham have increased by 178 per cent in five years, one of the steepest rises in the capital. Picture: PA ArchiveKnife attacks on under-25s in Barking and Dagenham have increased by 178 per cent in five years, one of the steepest rises in the capital. Picture: PA Archive

* Once involved in gangs, carrying a weapon is a must and youngsters are willing to use them.

* Many teenagers are unaware of the automatic prison sentences if they are caught carrying a knife twice.

Youth knife crime in London has soared and a Post investigation has shown knife attacks on under-25s in Barking and Dagenham have increased by 178 per cent in five years, one of the steepest rises in the capital.

“There’s a huge amount of pressure to carry weapons to protect yourself,” says Jermaine, explaining the reality for some young people.

“What you have to understand is that these young men and women are in a war, and the whole aim of war is to survive. They have enemies that want to take their lives and will take their lives given the opportunity.

“So carrying a knife is an essential item if you’re caught up in street and gang violence.”

Jermaine Lawlor says some young people from estates are being groomed into joining gangs and dealing drugs. Picture: Emma YouleJermaine Lawlor says some young people from estates are being groomed into joining gangs and dealing drugs. Picture: Emma Youle

Jermaine says the illusion of a luxury lifestyle of fancy cars and nice clothes associated with gangs can tempt some teenagers into dealing drugs or they can be pressurised into joining gangs.

Once involved, earnings can range from £50-£100 a day to £1,000-£2,000 a day - the equivalent of more than £300,000 a year - depending on a dealer’s place in the hierarchy.

“Young people are being groomed and manipulated into joining gangs, thinking there’s going to be a better outcome than there would be if they went to university or college, or studied hard at school, took GCSEs, so you can progress and make a career for yourself,” says Jermaine.

“The alternatives to that lifestyle are just not strong enough at the moment. There’s a lack of opportunity, there’s a lack of people caring, there’s a lack of government listening.”

He has long since stepped away from that life and now carries out youth mentoring through his organisation Voice 4 Youth Against Violence, to educate teenagers on the risks of knife crime.

He has done a lot of work at schools and colleges, and on the Gascoigne estate in Barking, and says his driving passion for mentoring work comes from own tough childhood in Newham.

Jermaine survived being stabbed as a teenager. Picture: Supplied by Jermaine LawlorJermaine survived being stabbed as a teenager. Picture: Supplied by Jermaine Lawlor

“It’s coming from a real place of experience and being stabbed myself,” he says. “Being in a gang, being arrested at 11 years old, friends dying by 13, homeless by 15 and in a hospital by 16, I’ve seen a lot of bad things on the streets. I’ve seen a lot of harm done to people.”

During the workshops, paramedics give live demonstrations of the amount of blood lost when someone is stabbed using bottles of fake blood.

Young people are also taught there is no safe place to stab someone without potentially hitting a major artery and killing them.

The sessions have a real impact.

“The young people are very receptive,” explains Jermaine. “Some of them leave, some of them cry, some of them feel sick, because someone they know or have gone to school with has been stabbed. So it really just brings a reality to the situation.”

He also highlights the horrific, life-long injuries that can be inflicted with knives, such as stab victims living with colostomy bags because their bowels are perforated.

'Theres a huge amount of pressure to carry weapons to protect yourself,' says Jermaine. Picture: PA/Katie Collins'Theres a huge amount of pressure to carry weapons to protect yourself,' says Jermaine. Picture: PA/Katie Collins

Jermaine believes sport, art and music can be powerful tools to help teenagers find an outlet for their anger and build self-esteem and confidence, and his organisation makes use of outreach activities to nurture talent.

The youth worker says many young people feel society has given up on them - with frequent cuts to youth sectors, the closing down of youth centres, “extortionate rates” to go to university and the lack of jobs.

He called for a deeper look at the social problems driving youth violence as a first step to tackling the issues.

“The government are not doing enough and don’t care about the people that come from these communities,” he said. “If you care where is the evidence? Where’s the resources, where’s the love, where’s the outreach work.

“How many politicians have you seen on these estates talking to young people and encouraging and inspiring young people? They don’t meet the people from these communities to understand what is happening.”

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Barking and Dagenham Council leader Darren Rodwell has called for more powers for local authorities to penalise knife carriers. Picture: Ellie HoskinsBarking and Dagenham Council leader Darren Rodwell has called for more powers for local authorities to penalise knife carriers. Picture: Ellie Hoskins

Barking and Dagenham Council leader says it times to get tough on knife carriers

The leader of the council has called for more powers for local authorities to penalise people who carry knives.

Cllr Darren Rodwell said Barking and Dagenham Council is working hard to educate young people about the dangers of carrying knives, but called for greater freedom to take tough action against those who do.

“We will continue to make a case for the government to give local councils more powers to address persistent offenders,” he said. “For example, where they are council tenants, we should be able to evict them from our estates.”

He said the council is working hard to prevent youth stabbings.

“We continue to educate our young people about the dangers of carrying knives,” said Cllr Rodwell. “As parents and a community we must put a stop to it. Our trading standards officers work with the police to carry out test purchases and also on Operation Sceptre – a London-wide initiative to tackle knife crime. In addition to that, we also support work with young people to enable them to engage in projects which help to steer them away from offending and knife crime – including music, sport, drama and dance, so that they are engaged in positive activities in the borough.”

Margaret Hodge MP says she is 'deeply concerned' by the sharp increase in knife crime. Picture: Paul BennettMargaret Hodge MP says she is 'deeply concerned' by the sharp increase in knife crime. Picture: Paul Bennett

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What are local MPs doing to prevent rising knife crime?

We asked local MPs what priority they place on campaigning for action to tackle knife crime, and the importance of reducing youth stabbings in Barking and Dagenham.

Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking (Labour)

“I am deeply concerned by the sharp increase in knife crime, particularly among our young people in Barking and Dagenham. No parent should lose their child and no young person should suffer life-changing injuries from a knife attack. Tackling crime in this borough is one of my absolute priorities in the work I do. That’s why I recently wrote to Sophie Linden, the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, to ask her to come down to Barking and Dagenham and listen to residents about their experiences and concerns around crime in our borough.

“I am pleased to say that Sophie has accepted my invitation and we are currently finalising a date for this public meeting. I will continue to do all I can, working with residents and police, to tackle violent crime on our streets.”

MP Jon Cruddas said knife crime is fast becoming the number one issue in Barking and Dagenham alongside moped-related crime. Picture: Andrew AchilleosMP Jon Cruddas said knife crime is fast becoming the number one issue in Barking and Dagenham alongside moped-related crime. Picture: Andrew Achilleos

Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham (Labour)

“Knife crime is fast becoming the number one issue alongside moped related crime in our area. I regularly meet with the tri-borough commander and have assurances that our local police are dealing with these crimes as a priority.

“There is a clear need to step up campaigns that seek to tackle knife crime locally. I was encouraged to hear last week that the Mayor of London is directing £15m of a £49m total police investment into combating knife crime across the capital.

“The mayor and the GLA are also exploring options to provide support for projects assisting young people, which will play a part in tackling knife crime and addressing mental health problems.”

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Do you have a story for the investigations unit? Contact reporter Emma Youle on 020 7433 0122 or email emma.youle@archant.co.uk

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