As part of the ELL series on gang crime, Annie Gouk speaks to Noël Williams; an ex-gang leader who now uses his experiences to inspire others.
Noël Williams, Wandsworth
Noël Williams was just 11 years old when he first became involved with the Tooting Trap Stars gang in 2001. A “looked after” child with absent parents that were getting into trouble with the law themselves, Noël spent a lot of time in youth clubs with other young black men from his predominately Asian school.
It was here that Noël met older boys that he looked up to: 18 year olds in the gang that had the latest clothes, flashy cars and money to burn, who introduced him to a life of crime. “From year seven we started doing little things, petty things like graffiti and criminal damage,” he says.
However, Noël and his friends didn’t stick to petty crime for long. He dubs 2002 as the “turning point”, when gang crime in London started rising quickly – something he puts down to social deprivation. At that point, “it became not just criminality that we were doing for ourselves; we were fighting for drug territory, we were robbing drug dealers, and violence was obviously happening around that.”
It wasn’t long before Noël began getting in serious trouble with the law:
However, getting arrested was just part and parcel of being involved in a gang, and it didn’t faze Noël. “When I first got arrested, that was fine – it was all part of the plan at that time. I was fully prepared, because people had told me that was going to go on. The older kids would tell you, ‘Oh I went to prison the other day. It was all right man, don’t worry about it.’ You get nicked, that’s what happens. You say no comment, you get bail, and sometimes you might have to go to jail – as long as you don’t snitch you’ll come out and you’ll be all right.”
It was this mentality that led to Noël being convicted for five years in 2002 for his part in a burglary involving firearms. It wasn’t that he was scared of the older gang members – he just wanted to earn their respect. He says he was “excited” when he got arrested: “I thought you know what, if I keep my mouth shut and say not guilty, they’re going to love me. I ended up getting about two years longer than I needed to because of that.”
While in prison, Noël says his gang involvement became far more “rife”. He would have fights with people he didn’t even know on behalf of the gang, and made sure he kept his mouth shut. “I knew, when I got out of there, the gang was what I was going back to – it was what I was about,” he says. When he left prison at the age of 17, Noël says his respect levels within the gang were “unreal”, and it was from this point that things became “very bad”.
Over the next four years, Noël went back to prison five times, mostly for gang related crimes, and it seemed like he was set on this path for life. “By the time you get to about 21, we all call that the breaking point – if you go to prison at 21 there’s not a lot of ways back for you,” he says.
Luckily, while at that breaking point, a pivotal event changed Noël’s life forever – but it didn’t seem that lucky at the time. “In 2011, one of my friends was murdered right next to me, and I was shot in my chest,” he explains. Badly injured, he ran to a residential area to get help, and Ursula, a middle-aged white woman, answered his knock on her door. “I thought she was going to be scared, but if anything I was more scared than her! She welcomed me into her house, and stayed with me until the ambulance came.”
Noël gave Ursula his number, but he thought that would be the end of it – he didn’t want to bring her any trouble. Six days later, he met up with several of his friends. “We were sitting in the house, about five of us, and we had loads of machine guns on the table. We made a decision that we were going to kill the people that killed our friend.”
It was that day that Ursula decided to give him a call. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was five o’clock – she asked me what I was doing that day and I said ‘I’m not going to lie to you, I’m looking for revenge’”. Ursula invited him over for dinner so they could talk: “I was in the local area, so I thought why not?”
Ursula and her husband ended up inviting Noël to live with them. “They said they were going help me go back to college and get the A levels I needed to get into university. They said they would help me with clothing, and they would help me with travel so I didn’t have to sell drugs. All they wanted me to do was just get out of a gang and not do it any more.”
That day “completely changed” Noël’s life. He ended up staying with Ursula and her family for 21 months. “They gave me a sense of family, of belonging,” he says. As well as helping him with his studies and living expenses, the family took him out on trips to places like the theatre, Box Hill and Formula One events. “They showed me a different side of life,” he says.
When Ursula believed the time was right for Noël to step out on his own, she got him in touch with Action West London, a local charity that helps disadvantage people with education, training and employment. As well as giving him valuable skills, they helped him get the counselling he needed to overcome the post-traumatic stress and anxiety he had from his time in the gang.
Noël – now 25, and the father of a young son – is studying sociology, politics and government at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, and he works as a freelance consultant, offering techniques and strategies to help professionals deal with people who are in gangs. He also mentors young people who are involved in gangs in Wandsworth, and is active in a lot of political campaigning – with the joint enterprise campaign group JENGbA, for example. He still sees Ursula every Friday.
Not everyone is lucky enough to meet someone like Ursula, and Noël believes more could be done to help young people in his situation. “[Gang life is] very easy to get in to and hard to get out of,” he says. He calls for more police and school involvement, better access to higher education, and prison reform – although he knows that’s all easier said than done.
Ultimately, Noël believes that the biggest barrier to progress is that people don’t try and understand the young men and women behind the statistics of gang crime. He explains why joining a gang can seem like an attractive idea:
Reporting team: Tara Dein, Annie Gouk, Henry Longden, and Marianna Manson
Read the other articles in this series here: