One Mile Away
ONE MILE AWAY (2012)
The background to this is that in most our cities young men from impoverished backgrounds fight each other - for them the city is a battle zone with front lines that our invisible to the rest of us.
1 Day was released in April 2010 and in the October I got a phone call from Shabba – the Johnson I had remained friendly with after filming I Day on the Burger side. I was standing in my kitchen when Shabba told me he had decided to pull up by the One Stop Shop on the Fiveways roundabout in Birmingham City Centre to buy himself a bottle of brandy. This was not a safe area for a Johnson but he figured it was late and he’d take the risk. He bought his drink and when he turned to leave he was confronted by a group of Burgers. One of the youngers recognized the opportunity to get a stripe by fucking up a senior Johnson and swaggered towards him reaching for something in his jacket. Shabba had an epiphany. He looked straight at the youth and said, “I didn’t wake up this morning wanting to kill you. You didn’t wake up wanting to kill me. I don’t know you. If I’ve done something to you then do your t’ing. Otherwise let it go.” The youth was temporarily stumped. There was an elder Burger there too and he and Shabba had been on the same wing in jail at one time and been cool with each other so he gave the nod to let Shabba go. Shabba left with his brandy, he had been given a pass, allowed to go on his way without being troubled.
“So if I can get a pass, maybe everyone can get a pass. Maybe it’s time to stop the beef." Shabba paused. " And I thought, Penny, you know some of dem geezers so will you help me?” (Johnsons called Burgers ‘geezers’ and Burgers called them ‘the boy dem’.)
I said yes without hesitating. Dylan and I had briefly tried for a truce before filming I Day to allow both sides to take part but our attempts were shut down immediately. I was grateful that Shabba was offering me the opportunity to potentially stop young men dying for no reason. Or at least no reason I could understand.
To go back a bit here – what are these small inner city wars about? What does it even mean to say someone is in a gang? First of all here is what it is not. It is not an organized group that you apply to join and go through some kind of ritual in order to be accepted as a member. If you are a young man from a certain community, born in a certain area you are affiliated to that gang whether you choose it or not. It will not be safe for you to wander into so-called enemy territory under any circumstance, not even to visit relatives or go shopping. Children under 11 or 12 can move freely and often attend the same primary schools. Girls can usually move about without being bothered. Big people – grown ups – can go where they want without being noticed. But if you are a male between twelve and about forty you take your life into your hands by leaving your area, even if you have never picked up a weapon, ever said anything provocative and don’t want to be involved with the beef. If you are in the wrong place and your face doesn’t fit you will have to take the consequences. Our cities are carved up into little warzones and the rest of are oblivious as we walk across frontlines that are deadly for these boys.
Some of them are heavily involved, they identify as soldiers in a war, they carry weapons to defend themselves and attack others and they make provocative music videos insulting the other side and crowing about damage they have done. Their enemies are boys exactly like them, from the same community, sometimes they are actually related. How these individual gangs are formed is always a bit blurry but sparked off by an incident few can still remember. The most reliable story I heard about the Burgers and Johnsons was that they had all been friends in their teens, but the Burgers mostly hung around by a Burger Bar at the top of the Soho Road and the Johnsons would meet outside Johnson’s Fish Bar. Then two men, Captain and Soldier, fought over a woman and one of them was killed. And that’s how it started but as the death toll mounted nobody remembered the first death because they were and still are, busy avenging the next one. At a deeper level these wars give people meaning – as Dylan says “if you take their gun or their knife away they are nothing.” And that seems to be at the heart of it. The boys fighting are poor, uneducated (certainly not unintelligent) and they want to be somebody and have the things they think will make them happy. I sometimes think that looking at what happens on the edges is like holding up a mirror to what happens at the centre. In both there is a blind worship for money and conspicuous consumption (yachts or cars, gold chains and diamonds) and a callous disregard for the effect on others. These boys learn from us.
To go back to the phone call. Having blithely agreed to step into something I knew absolutely nothing about – conflict resolution – I quickly found myself completely out of my depth. I also realized that I was just as likely to get people killed as save their lives. Shabba and Dylan were both in danger for daring to suggest there could be a truce. Some people were angry, they had friends or brothers killed or doing long stretches in jail so how dare we suggest that it was all for nothing. There were a lot of genuinely scary moments – mostly for Dylan and Shabba but also for me and Bex who was working with me. There was an evening in a lonely park with four angry armed men where I thought we were all going to die. I had a vision of our bodies lying there. We were very lucky that the mood turned and we lived to breathe another day.
We hung around for months. At one point an influential young man everyone was afraid of decided that I was in the Illuminati and tried to run me over. Shabba sat in the man's car and swore on his daughter’s life that I was not a snitch. Then I lost my temper and started yelling at a group of armed young men who accused me of exploiting them – I was stressed out and not being paid - and Bex who was watching from a few feet away was convinced I was going to get both of us killed. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because it was a hot day and I was wearing a flowery dress, sandals and a silly hat and I looked ridiculous. I remember going home that Easter and deciding to stop it. I could accept catching a stray bullet or even being shot for what I believe in but being killed because someone actually believed I was a shape-shifting lizard from another planet just seemed stupid. I didn’t want to die like that. But in the end I couldn’t stay away while there was still even the slimmest chance that it could work. Bex and I returned.
But what happened gradually is that the argument about how dumb, how mad and how stupid we were to be suggesting a truce drew a lot of heat from the action. Even though every time we started filming someone came along and stopped us this would be followed by hours of yelling. And yelling is better than shooting.
In the end the great big meeting with all sides shaking hands didn’t happen but what did happen was that friendships were formed through the arguing. People met in Urban Monk’s music studio to make a soundtrack for the film and were surprised to enjoy each other’s company. And then guys started meeting at the same club and trouble didn’t kick off. Getting Zimbo onside was a huge coup – he was the spokesman for the Johnsons and a talented rapper and I was all over him like a rash for a long time until he decided to be part of One Mile Away. Getting an instigator was the whole point – so when I was getting mysterious phone calls from the West Midlands Police accusing me of ‘talking to gangsters’ it just made me laugh. If you want to stop a gang war you have to talk to gangsters! I certainly didn’t want anything to do with them when they offered to ‘help’ me and that eventually caused a lot of trouble. I already intensely disliked them because of what they had done to shut down 1 Day, one of the most corrupt forces in the country.
Filming was stressful because Shabba had said from the start that we needed to document what they were doing. In every other filmmaking experience the film is paramount. In this case I felt the truce was paramount and then I didn’t know who I was any more – a completely unqualified mediator or a filmmaker who was mostly unable to film anything? In this film I picked up the camera and filmed it and Bex who had broken her leg and could only limp was the boom swinger. We were a very shambolic, female crew in a hyper-masculine environment.
Both Dylan and Shabba were affiliated to the most influential Burgers or Johnsons but neither of them were actually feared or in positions of authority. Nobody was afraid of me either. It’s hard to say whether it would have been better if we had been more significant figures or whether the fact that we were easy to argue with actually strung out the process in a good way until it started working. But we were the only people who turned up to do the job so I suppose we must have been the right ones.
James Purnell and Britdoc (now Doc Society) supported me by raising bits of money from all over the place, the Sisters of Mercy in Handsworth gave us free accommodation because they believed in what we were trying to do and eventually Channel 4 came in with the rest of the money. This film did well with critics and audiences and also made real change in the world by putting it to work. There was now a strong counter-narrative in the community. Britdoc helped us get the film out into communities as well as the television broadcast.
The Boston Consulting Group conducted an independent survey that showed that violent crime dropped by an astonishing 50%. The gang unit was disbanded for a period because the gang war stopped – there was an unprecedented eighteen months without a single firearms incident. Zimbo even drove around apologizing to people who were alarmed when he pulled up next to them.
Our biggest problem at that time were the West Midlands Police who raided our photoshoot, arrested Zimbo, went after me with a production order to seize my rushes, contacted schools and prevented our One Mile Away guys from delivering powerful sessions and so on and on. Zimbo and Tobeijah – who had actually confronted each other a year earlier – became friends and when they turned up together it had a powerful effect on pupils who knew them both were from their Youtube videos. All I can think of is that it is in the police’s interests to keep these crime levels up because after all their livelihood depends on it. One of the officers from the Gang Unit told Zimbo and myself, “Some of us love what you are doing but you should know there is a conspiracy against you in the West Midland Police. Don’t let anybody know what your plans are because we will step in and disrupt it. I am warning you but if you go public I will deny it.”
That happened. I am not a conspiracy theorist but sometimes I wonder…
In the last year or so the violence has kicked off again and escalated. The younger ones have formed lots of little gangs and they are rampant. Zimbo says it’s because we stopped making a noise. You have to keep these things going so we have started up again, creating DatsTV, a Youtube channel which we hope can introduce another powerful story to counter the violence.
We know it can work.
Watch this space.