If it’s Tuesday, this must be London

On Sunday I arrived in London from Manchester by train (interestingly run by Virgin, the CD music and film store), having passed through green fields with livestock, small towns, brick-walled train stations—picturesque and tranquil. It took around two hours. London is a massive city—my host says there are 15 million people here. I’ve been here twice before, but it seems new and unfamiliar. It’s been years and perhaps this is due to the many changes since my last visit in the late 1990s. I must say I miss Manchester already, having had a short stay but with powerful events. I want to thank professors Brian Ward and Eithne Quinn for the support they gave us at the University of Manchester. Eithne was also kind enough to give me a copy of her book from Columbia University Press/New York called “Nuthin’ but a ‘g’ thang: The culture and commerce of gangsta rap,” a heavily researched and powerful study of the phenomena. In London, I’m staying at a hotel in the center of everything, near the famous Tower of London. We obtained a weekly “tube” pass—the “tube” or underground is the city’s elaborate and efficient subway system. The weather is great—normally London can be gloomy, rainy, but everyone’s talking about the spate of good hot weather they’re having. Somebody said we brought this over from California. On Monday, we had a talk to inner-city high school students at City and Islington Sixth Form. About fifty students attended, most of who were the equivalent of high school juniors and seniors in the US. They were a racially mixed group and extremely attentive to what Barbara and I had to say. Teachers told us this was rare, since they were generally boisterous and bored. But the subject matter, and the way Barbara and I presented this, was engaging—gang life in the US, it’s impact on England, and insights on how to change this. Afterwards, students bought books & CDs and many stood around a while longer talking to Barbara and me. Someone filmed a good exchange I had with a number of students asking strong questions. In fact, the questions from the floor and afterwards were astute, intelligent, and challenging. I love that about young people. Later, we went to the “Home Office.” I’m guessing this is the equivalent of Homeland Security. The building held offices dealing with all aspects of criminal and juvenile justice, including with prisons, police, terrorism, and more. This was an added last minute meeting due to the word about our presence. While we’ve been here in England, a number of stabbings and beatings involving suspected gang youth have been going on (one person thought this may be related to the weather). I must say I found these talks—we’ve had two at the Home Office on Monday and today—positive and worthwhile. We had officials who dealt with juvenile justice, gangs, guns, and some from law enforcement, among others. Barbara and I talked about what didn’t work in the US—more prisons and just putting youth offenders behind bars. We also talked about what worked, based on what’s called best or promising practices—real rehabilitation, education, mentoring, cultural and spiritual resources, jobs, and collaborations between agencies and government bodies. We also addressed the value of drawing on the immense capacity young people have to do amazing things, the same capacity that gangs and others draw from for often destructive things. And that no young person should be solely judged on their worst acts—they need redemption and change built into any process to address gang violence. In addition, we both emphasized the need to have former gang members and prisoners with credibility in their stories, but also in their change, to assist in the peacemaking process. Given training and other tools, these young men and women can help broker peace and address alternatives to violence better than most people without these experiences (without diminishing the roles of those without these experiences). Again, these were very fruitful engagements, and both Barbara and I felt people were genuinely taking to heart what we had to say. I want to thank Danny Lafayette of the Violent Crime Unit of the Home Office for making these talks possible. Today’s meeting also had Twilight Bey in attendance, a former gang member from Los Angeles and a gang peace leader who now makes his home in England and continues to work in helping stop the growing gang violence there. Earlier, Barbara also spoke at the offices of “Reprieve,” an international anti-death penalty organization with ties to the US and other countries. Accompanying us this whole time in England has been Joanne Berlin, a long-time friend of Barbara’s and a leader in the anti-death penalty movement back home. Joanne also addressed the community leaders, lawyers, and others who showed up at the Reprieve offices about the state of the anti-death penalty movement and strategies in how to move forward. Last night, I also had dinner in Brixton, the colorful mostly Jamaican community. It was at an outdoor spot with Jerk Chicken and other Jamaican tropical staples in the market district. My hosts were formerly from the United States (although the husband was born and raised in England) who worked in mental health and in community advocacy for London’s refugee communities. I will add—I’m getting around quite well on the Tube. One of my favorite things in most major cities is to ride around on whatever subway or upground system they may have. London’s is one of the best. c/s

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