THE constant stream of new reports, news reports and new initiatives on tackling gun and knife crime among inner-city youths seems to reflect a near state of paralysis among those charged with dealing with the problem.
‘Experts’ and stakeholders tell us what is wrong with the ‘youths of today’, their backgrounds and the root of their problems and there is truth in what they say, but rarely do we hear from the young people themselves in what appears to be a detached and top-down approach.
Admittedly it can be tricky getting them to speak openly, honestly and articulately about their lives, and, in particular, their hopes and fears they keep bottled-up inside.
But how can opinions and strategies be formed without understanding what leads these ‘feral youths’ down destructive paths?
Robyn Travis, who spent years fighting over ‘respect’ and insignificant bits of ‘turf’, believes it is not something the media or government is really interested in, preferring instead to demonise or glamourise depending on the audience.
The 27-year-old from Hackney reluctantly acknowledges his clichéd background having grown up in a poor single-parent family on a council estate in Hackney – expelled from school, part of a so-called gang, involved in gun and knife crime, time in prison and finally reformation – but doesn’t want it to define him.
But since attempting to give an accurate portrayal of the personal struggles during his perilous journey, which saw him stabbed, stab, shoot, shot and banged up, he believes the media is not interested in the nuanced reality.
Having lost none of his fighting spirit, however, he’s taken matters into his own hands and written a book, Prisoner to the Streets, to get his message out along with giving regular talks in schools, colleges and youth clubs.
He wants to shatter the myth of the ‘bad-boy’ image that many young people feel obliged to live up to by revealing the insecurities that even a ‘big man’ like him suffered as he battled with a lack of confidence and the pressures of adolescence.
Sitting outside a café in Broadway Market, close to London Fields in Hackney which the ‘gangs’ now share with middle-class hipsters, Travis explained how a silly fight between two friends changed his life forever.
“This is my childhood here and where the postcode wars began in ’99. I lived in Holly Street but went to school in London Fields so when the beef kicked off I was in the middle.”
“We came to watch a fight and one of my friends [from Holly Street] ended up in a fight with a Fields boy, but I knew them so I was saying leave it, but everyone thinks they’re a big man – a lot of us guys without fathers think we’re men because we’re forced to behave like men – but we’re only 13 or 14.”
The fight descended into an all-out brawl, but escalated into revenge attacks with knives over the following weeks. “I got stabbed by the same person I beat up. Me and him were friends, we used to walk home from school together, we weren’t enemies, but I decided to defend my friend on that side of the street. I didn’t know it was going to turn out like this.”
Despite getting stabbed as he defended his friends, he quickly learnt the depth of the relationships. “After I was stabbed I turned around and all my friends were running and I realised all this blood-brother stuff and ‘having your back’ was nonsense. That’s when I got kicked out of school and started to hang out with certain guys.”
But the foundations to his wayward life were laid years earlier as he struggled with adolescence. “I was one of the naivest zombies when I was a child, I didn’t really care about brand names or the girls. I was so football focused nothing else really mattered. The bad boy stuff just didn’t capture me.
“[Then] I noticed a programme called the Fresh prince of Bel-Air. The Fresh Prince was what every young black man wanted to be and I noticed it in myself. It was about not being on time for things, being cool, wearing your blazer inside out, having your tie tucked in and it was about not being a nerd. Carlton, who’s the nerd, he’s smart, he lives in a nice house, wears nice clothes, but he doesn’t get the girls because he’s the geek, so you aspire to be like the guy who’s not the geek.
“[But] when you’re a teenager you don’t know how to approach girls, you’re going through puberty, adolescence and have got a lot to learn, so you think by being, or perceived as being, a bad boy you’ll get respect from guys and the girls tend to like that.”
Meanwhile Travis’ dreams of becoming a footballer were cut short following a car accident taking away what he identifies as severely lacking in a lot of young people’s lives – hope.
“If my career had prevailed and I had hope I was going to achieve something in life I would have been motivated, but I got run over and thought I’ve got nothing left. I thought, I’m not smart, not academic, people would say I was smart and I would say shh.. I’m not, so I didn’t try in school. I did the Will Smith thing and pretend to be cool, pretend not to be engaged because I don’t believe I can do it so it just looks like I’m not bothered, but when exam time came I was nervous as hell.”
Travis was later diagnosed with dyslexia and dysbraxia.
He believes the lack of self-confidence was also borne out of his father’s absence. “You feel rejected, like you’re not good enough, how can someone bring you on earth and leave you behind?”
Attending four schools in four years didn’t help either, always the new boy trying to fit in. Travis moved from Tiverton, in Tottenham, to Holly Street, in Hackney, at the age of nine, and attended London Fields Primary School before being kicked out of two secondary schools and ending up in a Pupil Referral Unit.
“It’s already hard enough adapting to a new environment let alone trying to learn. Adolescence is the hardest stage of life just trying to fit in, all the attention is on the new kid, then you’re getting into girls the pressure is enough to give you a nervous breakdown.”
Fitting in also meant having the right clothes and shoes, which come at a price whether you can afford them or not.
“People used to say ‘look at your trainers’. They would have Nike or Adidas but I didn’t have any until I was 13, but kids can be cruel. At first I didn’t take it to heart but as I got to 11 I said it’s true, look at my trainers. I would say to my mum, ‘how come you give me Niks, I’ve got people telling me they don’t spell Nike’ and my mum would start laughing and I would be like ‘mum, this ain’t funny, you’ve got me wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs, it’s not cool’, but she’s a single parent, struggling; the finances weren’t there.
“I remember the ice-cream man coming and I would ask my mum and she would say no and after a while you get fed up asking, now me I wasn’t so rebellious, but my brother would just ask for one and run, and I thought that’s one way of getting it.”
Meanwhile the 24-hour images of rappers draped in girls and gold further served as a reminder of what Travis did not, and could not, have, but desired all the same.
“It’s what’s on our TVs everyday. It’s about a certain lifestyle that not all of us will acquire, but it doesn’t show the hard work that’s put in to get that lifestyle, so when a child is not in a position to have certain things they get frustrated. With my son I’m there to de-programme him from what he’s watching on TV and witnessing around him. You need to teach children the value of work ethic.”
However, he has little faith in legitimate work offering a way out for people like him who, despite just finishing a degree in Youth Justice and Criminology and with a wealth of experience, is struggling to find employment.
“If people see someone like me going to uni but can’t get a job because of my past records and CRB [Criminal Record Bureau check] even though I’ve been working in the field they think: ‘Well why should I go? I might as well stay on the street, uni’s not worth nothing.’ There’s no means to an end and you go round in circles. The system’s set up for you to fail so the journey’s not going to be easy no matter what background you’re from.”
He said: “There’s two sides of Hackney and the [worse off] want some of the other side. Why do we have to live in the council flats when there’s nice houses round the corner, why can’t we have those things? They’re creating an environment for people to be envious, they don’t want to be envious but it’s in their face.
“People say ‘shouldn’t you want to go out and achieve more’, but that’s rubbish, some people don’t believe they can get there, so you know what, there’s more than one way to cut down a tree, I’ll sell drugs.”
He says that despite their bravado, many young people are insecure and feel unable to escape the shackles of the street because of the constant labelling and messages they receive.
“By putting us in these estates, by sending us to certain schools, by labelling us being from single parent families, the stop and searches; it’s one thing believing you’re no good, but once you start getting the feeling from other places you’re telling us indirectly we’re no good.
“The stop and search labels someone and you start to believe it. If you keep telling me I’m shit at school I’m not going to try any-more, if you keep telling me I’m a criminal I’ll behave like a criminal because you don’t believe me anyway.
“Then you start feeling like you’re in a gang before you are. I was never in a gang, I was a Holly Street Boy and just defended my friends.”
He says this is where youth organisations should be stepping in. Rather than ticking boxes and trying to get kids to sign-up to workshops they should be offering an ear to listen and words of encouragement.
They should be saying “I believe in you. You know how great you are and how far you can go, what ever you want to talk about I’m at the end of the phone. You’re not better than this, you’re not even this,” he said.
He said the police don’t exactly help either. “I’ve had police officers trying to be undercover down Holly Street come over and try and stir things up. Once they said ‘you look like Kid from Kid and Play from House Party’ and I said ‘you two look like Hale and Pace’ and it just became a joke. Then they would say ‘what’s going on with the Fields lot, I heard the Fields boys are a lot badder than you’ and I would be like ‘I heard the army are a lot harder than you’.
“Then they said ‘you look familiar, you look like [Winston] Silcott’ (who was wrongly convicted of killing a police officer in Tottenham) and I said ‘yeh, I’m his son and I’m coming for revenge’ and he didn’t like that. I did it to trigger him off because he was getting me mad. In the end I said ‘I’m not, but you need to stop this now. If I was someone else you would have wound me up, what relationships are you building here, what are you trying to gain’ and they just drove off. They weren’t doing their job, they were causing division.”
He said: “In the end you take ownership of an area because you think you’ll never have anything else, so I had Holly Street; at least I could say that’s mine.”
Eventually Travis’ lifestyle caught up with him and he was sent to prison in Jamaica for attempting to smuggle drugs. He never returned to his life on the streets, but rejects the idea that prison reformed him. “Prison is not the place to rehabilitate. It might deter you. I learnt my lesson way before I got into trouble, but its being able to know something but not being able to stop it.”
He prefers not to talk about his time inside saying it’s just another inhibiting label. “Prison doesn’t define me. I don’t want to be that cliché; single parent family, kicked out of school, stabbed, prison, so I don’t talk about it. It’s the programming again, people think they have to go to prison to change their life. If you don’t go to prison you can’t change. F all of that.”
And in any case, he says, he was always in prison. “I’ve been serving time for years, those shackles of believing I’m nothing else but a Holly Street boy.” His book begins: ‘I’m no longer Robyn Travis, now I’ve become E8, it’s my prison number, E8, Holly Street Prison in Hackney.’
He said: “If you were a mate and called me and said you were in trouble lets go and do whatever, I’m not asking what did you do or why did it happen, it’s just enough that I know you. That’s not someone who weighs things up properly it’s someone who hasn’t got much to live for and would die for anything.”
Travis has clearly not lost any of his energy and spirit, but is now putting it to use fighting a new battle that could ironically be as dangerous as the last as he faces up to old enemies, but now as a man at peace with himself and the street.
“I’ve been stabbed many times, shot probably more than anyone in Hackney, but now I’m on a different path with a different mentality and hopefully I won’t die for it.”
He is not just speaking out and criticising the lives of dangerous people, but more importantly de-constructing and laying bare the ‘bad-boy’ image that the next generation aspire to.
“I’m trying to stop our communities from warring. I want Holly Street and London Fields to stop. I preach to both sides, I preach to Hackney boys and Tottenham boys. I say you know what, you need to have a football match together and they laugh, but one day I’ll make it happen.”