Over 3,000 miles and more than 40 years in age separate Bilal Qayyum and Noel Williams; yet each advocates a similar [approach] to countering violence among youth and young adults living in low-income communities.
Qayyum, 69, lives in Philadelphia. Williams, 25, lives in London. [In both cities, authorities have grappled with gang violence, shootings and conflicts with law enforcement.]
But the two men, interviewed separately for a project examining violence-intervention efforts, say authorities are avoiding the roots of the problem: the lack of jobs.
“In all my years of working to reduce violence, it’s very clear to me that jobs are a major solution to reducing violence in low-income communities,” said Qayyum, who began working in gang intervention programs in Philadelphia in the 1970s.
“Jobs, well-paying ones, give people a strong feeling of worth. Poverty breeds violence.”
Sadly, Williams and Qayyum each see the same roadblock on the path to violence reduction: The persistent failure of public-sector authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to fully engage community-based persons with the front-line experiences required to effectively resolve the “violence problem” that the authorities claim they want to solve.
Williams, an ex-gang leader in southwest London who is now a university student, complained that he is rarely asked for advice.
“I know gangs,” he said. “I know how it feels to be shot and how it feels to walk down the road feeling oppression from police.”
[Williams complained that in the UK authorities often fail to use ex-offenders or former gang members to lead violence-reduction initiatives. ]
“Yes, you need academics and people with college degrees, but you also need people who understand,” said Williams, who works with at-risk youth while attending a university outside of London.
“Authorities are polite at meetings, but they just don’t listen to us when it comes to [their] policies and programs.”
[But if they were asked for such advice, both Williams and Qayyum say they would give similar answers: involve the private sector in efforts to reverse the crisis in unemployment among youth and young adults in each city.]
“Corporations have to buy into solving the jobs problem,” Qayyum said.
Connections between London and Philadelphia extend beyond William Penn, the London native who founded the American city in 1682.
Philadelphia has the highest level of poverty among America’s ten largest cities. The city’s poverty rate of 26.9 percent is statistically the same as in London, where 27 percent of the residents of that rapidly gentrifying city live in poverty.
In London, unemployment among 16-24 year olds is 2.5 times higher than among persons aged 25-64, according to the “London Poverty Profile” released in October 2015. In Philadelphia unemployment among 16-24 years olds is slightly less than twice that of persons aged 25-64.
Investigators often cite youth unemployment as a major factor underlying the August 2011 riots that rocked London and nearly a dozen other cities around England. That outburst followed the fatal police shooting of a young black man in the impoverished Tottenham section of North London.
A 2012 report from North London Citizens, an alliance of 40 civic institutions in the Tottenham area, found that 53.1 percent of the 700 people interviewed listed unemployment as the “key cause” of rioting in Tottenham.
…An inquiry into the 2011 riots commissioned by the British government also listed unemployment and poverty as underlying issues. But the government’s written response to its own inquiry declared: “It is not acceptable that poverty, race and the challenging economy were used as excuses for the appalling behavior we saw on our streets in August 2011.”
Dr. Jacob Whittingham, who operates a youth program in London that emphasizes education and entrepreneurship, said Britain’s national government, after the 2011 riots, seemingly focused on stiff imprisonment for rioters and budget cuts, including funding reductions for youth programs.
“Basically people give lip service. There was no attempt by the central government to understand why the riots happened,” Whittingham said. “There was no urgency to do something because people don’t listen.”
…Veteran Tottenham civil rights activist Stafford Scott said [Britain’s reluctance] to address unemployment and poverty among non-whites is rooted in racism. That Broadwater report from three decades ago cites testimony Scott gave to the inquiry.
“White Britain does not accept racism in real time,” Scott said during a recent interview, “now there is an admission that racism existed in the 1980s. But back then, when we raised the issue of racism, they told us to f – – k off.”
While Noel Williams and Bilal Qayyum have never met one another, they have had experiences with each other’s home town.
Williams visited Philadelphia in 2012, when he spent time in North Philadelphia, an impoverished area riddled with crime that is similar in some ways to his London community of Wandsworth.
“One big similarity I saw was we are all broke. We have no money,” Williams said.
“In North Philadelphia there were no places for youth to socialize…there were few [recreation centers]. They are shutting down the [recreation centers] here due to government austerity and that puts young people out on the streets where they don’t need to be.”
Qayyum has never traveled to London but he vividly remembers a meeting with a group of young people from London years ago. Some in that interracial group that Qayyum met with had participated in gang activities.
“They all talked about the lack of opportunities and getting work,” Qayyum said. “They talked about dropping out of school and living in neighborhoods with high numbers of folks using drugs. Sounded like Philly.”
London activist Temi Mwale, 20, became engaged in anti-violence activities after the murder of a close friend five years ago.
“There is no chance to solve violence without ending the ‘state violence’ of poverty, hopelessness and police brutality,” Mwale said, criticizing government officials at local and national levels for failing to see the sources that create violence.
Government officials, Mwale said, “don’t want to hear the deep story on youth violence. All they see is gangs as the problem, not the poverty that contributes to gang activity.
“One of my frustrations in dealing with government officials is they ask the same questions over and over. That shows they are not listening.”
Linn Washington Jr is a freelance journalist and a professor of journalism at Temple University. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article published recently in the This Can’t Be Happening website, written as part of his fellowship project as a 2015-2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Violence Reporting Fellow. The full version can be accessed HERE. He welcomes readers’ comments.