Give gang and brand loyalty the boot

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Boxing Day attacks knocked me sideways, writes Di Beddow

On Boxing Day 2010, I took my son to Foot Locker on Oxford Street to queue for the release of a pair of LeBron 8 South Beach trainers. Bill plays basketball in North Carolina, while he studies at university. He has loved the game since he was a small boy and it was always his dream to gain a scholarship and play American varsity basketball. We drove down to the West End at some ludicrous hour of the morning and I parked behind Selfridges, leaving him to queue outside in the darkness.

When I received his text saying that he was successful and had become a proud owner of said trainers, I walked down to meet him. He told me it was very crowded in the store so I should wait outside and he would come to meet me. I shall never forget my fear and sadness when I witnessed store bouncers "lift" a young man and throw him out of the shop with a gang of youths following him.

The young man stood just by me against the window, spitting out blood and coughing, while he checked his jaw to see if his teeth were still in place. Fellow Asian youths gathered nearby and checked him carefully, while a crowd of black boys gradually dispersed along Oxford Street. Bill told me that Twitter was alive with gang alerts, calling youths to gather in Oxford Street.

Boxing Day 2011 and the news announces that 18-year-old Seydou Diarrassouba has been knifed and killed outside the same store, in the same street, on the same day. My heart is chilled that what I saw the year before has now developed into a loss of life. Of course I can make no assumptions; we do not know if the incident was caused by gang violence or, as some of the press reported, an argument about trainers. However, after Bill's description of the scrum in the shop to get a pair of must-have basketball boots, and the bloody aftermath I witnessed, my imagination easily fills in the gaps.

Although the media are speculating over the reasons behind the killing, all I can see in Seydou's broad-faced smile, looking at me from the newspapers, is an 18-year-old boy, whose mother no longer has her son with her. I do not know the circumstances of the family, or the young victim, but I empathise with a mother whose son went out on a shopping trip, never to come home alive. My son Bill is not a member of a gang, he comes from a middle-class background and has had a good academic and sporting education, relatively free from peer pressure and the drawbacks of urban deprivation. He attended a basketball academy where he was taught that leadership and responsibility and respect were as important as individual honour and skill. Yet the importance of kudos and admiration surrounding a pair of man-made footwear cannot be denied.

The government has released Statutory Guidance: Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence, in which it attempts to decode the membership symbolism of gangs and ban the "name, emblem or colour" that identifies one group from another. But with such strong affinities to named brands and celebrity-supported clothing, how is it possible to limit the significance of a particular item of clothing, or explode the mythology around the invulnerability of those who have a particular brand of boot? Seydou may not have died for a gang-related reason, or an argument over trainers, but what is certain is that we cannot afford to lose any more of our proud young men, full of hope and promise, to the destructive allure of commercial or gang-related loyalty.

Di Beddow is a deputy head in Cambridgeshire.

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