Communities in east London are urging caution after a proposal by a Lewisham MP to give courts powers to suppress online videos that “incite gang violence”.
Lewisham East MP Heidi Alexander appeared in Parliament on November 8 to move for greater powers to remove videos believed to be linked to local gangs.
This week Alexander told EastLondonLines how a constituent came to her after his son had been mugged. The man’s son had told him to search YouTube for a local gang if he wanted to find the culprits.
Alexander said: “His dad then came across a video that was filmed in a car park in Catford, of a group of young men, stood around rapping, and at one point in the video they’re waving a knife around in front of the camera.”
Alexander says she was “appalled” to find many more music videos from the same people: “Not all of them had images of knives in them but the message was very clear in terms of what they were rapping about.”
Such videos, she claims, are produced as threats and challenges by local gangs against their rivals.
In Parliament, she said they act as a “recruitment mechanism” and lead more people to carry knives.
The bill, proposed under Parliament’s ‘ten minute rule’, is unlikely to ever pass into law, but the MP says she wanted to start a debate about online action after the government’s gang strategy failed to mention the internet.
She will meet with culture minister Ed Vaizey and Google representatives in January to discuss solutions.
Janette Collins, project manager at Hackney social inclusion project The Crib, told EastLondonLines she would wholly agree with such a law.
She said: “I think that should pass in government straight away if they want to curb gang violence.
“It does encourage violence – of course it does. You’re basically threatening someone, saying my crew is a better crew, a bigger crew.”
She pointed to videos like the Forever Fellows Anthem, which features Haggerston’s Fellows Court Boys, a gang listed on website London Street Gangs. Associates of the rival London Fields Boys were convicted in May this year of the murder of Fellows Court resident Agnes Sina-Inakoju.
David Michael, a former chair of the Lewisham Police Community Consultative Group who worked with the Metropolitan Police for 30 years, is more cautious.
He said: “It’s certainly got the potential for gang members to glorify their actions and their activities, and it’s also got potential to fuel retaliation activities and fuel the postcode wars.”
But he noted that there was no empirical evidence of a causal link between videos and gang membership or greater offences.
Clapton producer Jay Bravo, who founded Lockdown Records in 2004 and published the Fellows Court video online, believes music is an essential outlet for frustration and aggression felt by young people in deprived areas.
He acknowledged rap videos are sometimes part of gang activity, but denied causal links between their appearance and gang vendettas.
He said: “Their way of getting their point across and their views across is through music – obviously they’re not living a positive life, they can’t rap about positive things that happen in their life, so they rap about selling drugs and doing what they need to do.”
Gabin Sinclair, 39, who founded music charity Rising Tide 13 years ago in Hackney, agreed politicians and judges risk confusing gang violence with artistic expression due to “fear of the unknown”.
“Especially after the August riots, a lot of politicians jump for gangs because it’s an easy win for them.”
Rising Tide runs works with young people who are at risk of offending or have finished custodial sentences to record and manage their own music.
Sinclair criticised police treatment of the rap community for blocking efforts to leave crime behind. He said: “Shows are getting closed down because one of the artists was involved in gang activity five or 10 years ago.”
Bravo said the police response to filming on Fellows Court was not “as welcoming as you would expect”.
“This is the only passion young people really have that they can do by themselves, because nobody else is going to help them to get out of the system.”
Alexander made clear she cannot prove a causal effect on crime and concedes any law will require careful thought, saying her proposed bill is not a catch-all solution.
“[But] we’re in a situation at the moment where courts have the power to block access to websites if they infringe copyright, yet they don’t have a similar power to block access to online material that is inciting gang violence,” she said.
She also claimed that local residents would feel less safe after watching threatening videos set in their own area.
“They are filmed in easily recognisable locations, in our town centres, on housing estates, in our parks.
“We know that young people say the reason why they carry a knife is often out of fear – when you look at material out there on the net like this, I can understand why.”