Story: Douglas Johnson
“One of the most powerful and consistent voices in British racial politics”, as he has been called, Professor Gus John spoke to members of the Burngreave community at Verdon Recreation Centre on Saturday 24th November. Powerful his speech certainly was – a most impressive and engaging speaker even without considering the content.
Gus John – who mentioned his time in Sheffield many years ago, working with young black people and their own drive for self-empowerment – spoke in the aftermath of the shooting of Jonathon Matondo about the challenges and crises facing young black people today. He talked of gun crime, the “growing scourge within communities”, and the crass comments by some – Tony Blair in particular – that gun crime was a black-on-black issue to be sorted out only by the Black Community. “It was the worst kind of society burying its head in the sand,” he said.
He described how he had attended the funeral of Jesse James in Manchester, along with 1800 mainly young people. Later he had attended a public meeting to address the issues, with the council’s chief executive, representatives from the police, education etc – it only attracted 60 people. The challenge was how to get input from those young people who attended the funeral.
Speaking of the historical perspective – which he said was vital to understand the present day predicament – he referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee report from 1969 called “the problem of coloured school-leavers”, again noting how society was quick to blame the youth rather than the situation they found themselves in. This report contained the view that the expectations of Black parents about their children were “unrealistic” because they thought they could achieve more than menial work. He asked, “why is it that three generations later, black children are still having that same experience of schooling?”
To describe the levels of despair and exclusion he was talking about, he talked of research with a class of black boys aged 11 -1 5. He had asked them to write down ten positive things about themselves. He said that over half couldn’t think of five things; one could think of only one positive thing before bursting into tears. By contrast, all the group could list their fears: dying, death, being murdered, being in prison, stabbing or being stabbed, losing family members or loved ones, not being able to afford what they wanted, not being allowed the opportunities to do things, and so on.
Tragic though this may be, why did he think this was relevant? The answer: because “there is no evidence of any of this on the school agenda.”
“We need to look behind these incidents and look at the condition of being young and black in British society”, he said.
But what could be done for children and young people excluded from school? On activities for excluded pupils, he said “The suggestion that rap is an alternative to higher aspirations is frankly stupid.” He called for strong role models to give real examples of what is possible: “the best role models for young people are those in the same household.”
He then talked of how communities cover up for young people. After talking about community members such as respected grandmothers who go to church, hiding guns in their attics for younger family members, he stated, “no-one can tell me that people in these communities do not have capacity to deal with guns.” He called for ordinary people to shun those who played at being in gangs and of the difference between the tough “gang” image and the reality of cowardliness. He called on the grandmothers hiding guns to drop the pretence.
For Gus John, the community deserve better than being plagued by gangs: “we have no right to be paralysed by fear of these cowardly men.”