No jobs, no hope, gunfights at your door – the tough streets that claimed Myron Yarde’s life

The stabbing to death of the aspiring 17-year-old rapper also known as MDot focused attention on the gang culture of south-east London, but others in the area are trying to offer frightened teenagers a brighter future

In one of the most violent corners of south-east London, they call it the “two-sock rule”. When crossing Deptford youths might stop a stranger and ask them to show their ankles. If they are not wearing two pairs of socks, it will confirm they are not local.

“In that case, they’ll punch you in the face and tell you to fuck off or they might take your phone, not to use it, but because they can – for power,” said Michael Harris, 22, who runs a boxing club in the centre of New Cross, Lewisham.

Not everyone is subject to the two-sock rule. Only individuals who are black, male and below the age of 20 are liable to be confronted.

Numerous diktats and codes govern the streets of New Cross and the behaviour of its young people, but the main driver of violence on the streets of south-east London remains the postcode.

In this district of the capital, where deprivation levels are among the highest in the country, Lewisham (SE13) and New Cross (SE14) are known locally as “the ghetto”. Peckham (SE15) is dubbed “Pecknam” after the Vietnam war.

Woven into the postcode rivalry are themes of respect and retribution, with hostilities – according to Harris – often inherited from fathers and uncles. But the overriding issue is the widespread carrying of knives.

Myron Issac Yarde, known as MDot, was stabbed to death during an altercation in New Cross, south-east London.
Myron Issac Yarde, known as MDot, was stabbed to death during an altercation in New Cross, south-east London. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA

The streets of Lewisham, where the murder rate is twice the national average, have been classified as the “least peaceful” in England and Wales in an index by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Last weekend the streets registered their latest victim, 17-year-old upcoming rapper Myron Yarde, who was fatally stabbed during an altercation involving at least 10 male youths.

Harris runs the Double Jab Boxing Club in New Cross, where Myron, known as MDot, regularly worked out in the weights room over the past two years, and where his “godbrother”, Courtney Bennett, 20, fought his way from an uncompromising background to become a champion boxer.

The Double Jab lies 250 metres from the backstreet where Myron was found by police on Sunday, lying in a pool of blood. He had been stabbed in the leg, the knife severing an artery. A 15-year-old boy appeared at Bromley Youth Court, south London on Saturday charged with Myron’s murder. The defendant, who cannot be named for legal reasons, rose only to give his name, age and address.

Immediately outside the Double Jab’s imposing metal door lies Fordham Park, a recently renovated urban space close to the SE14 and SE13 border from where stabbings and shootings are frequently reported to Harris. His father Patrick, 52, who founded Double Jab four years ago, is concerned the area is becoming desensitised to the violence. Half the initial intake had either been in prison or shot.

“We’ve had gunfights outside the door, knife attacks in the park. It’s terrible out there. New Cross is becoming a war zone, the things that happen at night, the things you don’t see,” Patrick said. He estimates up to 80% of New Cross residents aged between 12 and 18 have been threatened with a knife.

Almost next door to the club is Deptford Green secondary school, where Myron studied, and where many of its 1,100 pupils are considered fair game by those from rival schools – another sub-category of attacker and victim.

According to Michael Harris, Deptford Green pupils have a long-standing rivalry with those attending Addey and Stanhope across New Cross Road and the two Peckham academies, Walworth and Harris. Patrick said the club occasionally served as a “sanctuary” to teenagers fleeing violence.

Michael added: “We had three kids from the school running in here screaming, ‘They’ve taken my phone and pulled a knife on me.’ Then we had a girl from Deptford Green who was beaten up across the park and ran in here. They come for protection.”

Michael Harris said that, to understand the psychology of New Cross, it is essential to accept that many of its teenagers feel genuinely terrified on its streets. “They carry knives because they think they are in danger. Half of them don’t want to fight; they carry them because they feel insecure and don’t want to be considered a target.”

Harris, from the Aylesbury estate in Walworth, added: “If you don’t lash out, someone will lash out at you, so they lash out to prove they are not a target. If they don’t, they might get ‘rolled up’ and so they overreact and someone ends up dying.” Four teenagers have been arrested over Myron’s death: two 15-year-olds and two 16-year-olds.

Marnie Swindells, 21, who coaches at the Double Jab in between training to be a barrister, said: “The kids around here live in fear – fear of getting robbed, bullied, picked on or beaten up. They are scared, so they carry a knife.”

Harris recounts conversations with some of the club’s 150 members, including one who – with knife-carrying being so routine – mentioned in a matter-of-fact way that he had stabbed three people. At least another two, he added, had been involved in shootings, with a further dozen recounting knife-related incidents, including stabbings or threats.

In one month last year, 10 people were stabbed, including one fatality, in Lewisham and Greenwich, although many incidents are not reported. Last month the Metropolitan police recorded 676 violent crimes in Lewisham, including a man stabbed in his home in New Cross Road. In New Cross in January, Scotland Yard recorded 60 violent incidents.

The area’s reputation can intimidate the young offenders who are sometimes sent to Double Jab to learn discipline and a positive way of channelling aggression. “Some will actually be scared of coming here, scared of being knifed. Sometimes I have to meet them off the bus and walk them to the club,” said Harris.

“Even if you are not in a gang, you will be attacked because you are from [another] area. You will know gang members because you grew up with them at school or they lived nearby. You are attacked because they think you might be [in a gang].”

Myron was not a member of any gang and was considered kind, funny and decent by his peers. Those who work with the teenagers of New Cross have little faith in attempts by the authorities to break up long-standing gang structures. Harris believes the police often fail to grasp the nuances of gang culture, underestimating its role in providing opportunity, solidarity and income in an area defined by deprivation, an anti-education culture and where a quarter of young people live in families claiming tax credits.

“The police are fighting a losing battle. Gangs don’t work like an organisation,” he said. “Gang leaders become father figures, mentors and teachers who can provide an income, solidarity and security in an unsafe area. They teach them how to make money and they keep them safe.

“You have children with no job, no means of making money and then they are asked if they can store some stuff at their house and get paid £5,000 for that.”

The team at Double Jab witness many teenagers who consider themselves on the scrapheap before they have even finished school. “One problem is that they get labelled as a problem early on and this always leads to them becoming a bigger problem,” said Patrick.

Michael Harris added that many felt categorised as “wasters” by teachers and quickly stopped trying to achieve at school before drifting into criminality as a means of ensuring safety in an unsafe area. Many had never even tried getting a job, mainly because they never expected to get one. “They think they’ll never get a job. They have no CV or anything because they think they’ll just get rejected,” said Harris.

Myron was considered one of Deptford’s bright hopes, an inspiration among his friends and peers with his musicianship and rapping prompting predictions of fame. His popularity was demonstrated by the instant success of a fundraising page to pay for the his funeral – his mother, Marcelle, died of cancer last year. It rapidly raised twice the £7,000 target.

Among the many tributes is one from fellow south London rapper Giggs, who suggests that a new New Cross generation believes there is a future beyond the turf wars and knives. In an Instagram post, Giggs wrote: “There’s loads of opportunity out there for us street dudes now – music, working a camera, being a comedian. These are things we never knew we had access to before, so now that we know we can make big things happen and we’ve got options.”

A sense of being able to escape criminality is also becoming evident among the Double Jab regulars. When the manager at a local William Hill branch asked Harris to push forward some candidates for a job, with the promise that he would ignore criminal records, the results were spectacular. Of 14 individuals, nine are currently working full-time. “It just shows what you can do if you give people belief and an opportunity,” Harris said.

Myron has gone, but in this toughest of neighbourhoods, people like Michael Harris are determined that his legacy of pursuing a dream lives on.


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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