The Guardian 27 August 2008
They were dubbed the Malevolent Seven. At the height of asbomania, a group of youths earned what is thought to be the first mass antisocial behaviour order for terrorising their local area, urinating on doorsteps and stealing. The media leapt on the story, keen to reprint tales of these “monsters” who had racked up more than 100 convictions between them, and the new “get tough” powers of the police. Asbos, it was hoped, would stop the criminals of tomorrow falling deeper into crime.
In 2003, the so-called Press Road Crew was excluded from an area larger than that of any asbo previously issued. The boys and men, aged 15 to 27, could not associate with each other and 16 others. They were banned from swearing, spitting and shouting. Any breach could result in prison.
Controversially, the police distributed thousands of leaflets to homes and businesses in the area with photos of the boys and men. Seven faces stare out of the leaflet that lists their crimes and shows a map of the exclusion zones in north-west London’s Neasden and Chalkhill. The action was hailed a success as police reported an immediate 25% drop in crime in the area.
Five years on, the order will next month expire for six of the men. Onochie Madekwe, 27 at the time of the asbo, and considered by police as the leader of the gang, keeps his for life.
Chief Inspector Nicola Dale reflects on the case that took up almost two years of her career. “In some ways, if I find out they are all inside, I’ll think, ‘Yep, I got the right people, they’re all bad people.’ But the best result [would be] that they’re all now in jobs and living happily ever after. Sadly, I don’t think you’re going to find that, certainly [not] about all of them.”
Dale arrived as community inspector for Chalkhill in 2002 to find what she describes as the highest level of antisocial behaviour she has ever encountered. Behaviour, she says, that progresses to full-blown crime.
According to the police and residents’ complaints, every night a group of around 20 or 50 youths, which included the seven, would gather outside Brill House, a two-storey block close to the notorious Chalkhill estate.
The youths were accused of abusing and threatening residents, assault, smoking drugs, and starting fires in communal areas. On one occasion they apparently removed all the block’s electrical fuses, plunging residents into darkness. Dale describes it as a “classic terror city”.
Samuel Brenya was 19 when the asbo against him was issued. Now 24, he accepts that the group may have been intimidating, but argues that they were only on the streets because there was nothing else to do.
Dale sighs. “If I were to go back to being a section inspector now, I’d like to think I could pre-empt these things earlier. The money needs to be spent on getting the kids off the streets and [preventing them] forming the gangs to start with.”
As it was, she says the situation had gone too far for community-based projects. Her priority at the time was to protect the residents of Brill House.
Initially, she tried using another tool in the police arsenal, the “acceptable behaviour contract”. This meant inviting the youths to the police station to talk about their behaviour and warn them of the consequences of it, but only a few turned up, and the bad behaviour continued. “I believe the asbos were the right point for this situation,” she says. “Just the fact that we did disperse the gang.”
She hoped that the order could also benefit the young people involved, as it would force them away from a destructive group of friends. “We gave them an opportunity to find a new way in life. Because we’re not sending them to prison; it’s an asbo, it’s got an expiry date.”
But with such low barriers for breach, it was almost inevitable that they would serve time for the asbo.
Brenya was arrested several times and imprisoned as a result of breaching the order – once for “crossing the road” on his way to college (ie being in the exclusion zone) and for contempt of court: “I was arrested for talking in court, and all these times I did jail sentences for them because we were on the asbo.”
He says: “[Prison] didn’t teach me nothing, it didn’t resolve nothing. I just hung out with people who did crimes, who could explain to me how to do that crime.”
One thing it clearly failed to do was discourage him from breaking the asbo. “At that time I was angry, like, ‘How are you putting an asbo on me?’ I know I’ve done things but I’ve been convicted of them, [and punished] whether I’ve done probation, whether I’ve done community service. The asbo is like another conviction on top of those.
“If it’s a crime, it’s a crime; if it’s not, then you’re taking away people’s rights.”
This is the main complaint against asbos. Based on hearsay evidence, much of it anonymous, they ignore important safeguards written into the criminal justice system, say critics.
Alex Gask, a former legal officer at the human rights group Liberty, says: “The police admitted during the case that the reason they had gone for an asbo was that they didn’t have sufficient evidence to pursue [the youths] criminally. To get the asbo all they had to do is prove, using hearsay evidence, that the youths were acting in a way that caused alarm or distress; then they could pursue them for breach of an asbo. This could be something as minor as shouting, crossing the wrong street or speaking to the wrong person.”
Liberty backed three of the boys’ complaints that the subsequent publicity carried out by the police and Brent council breached their right to privacy under the Human Rights Act. “We were acting with the backdrop of asbos as a way of getting round the criminal justice system,” says Gask.
For Dale, the human rights’ issues must be weighed up against the human rights of the public who were being terrorised.
In 2004, the high court dismissed the youths’ appeal. The government is now considering recommendations in a Cabinet Office report that courts should engage more in the “naming and shaming” of offenders.
For Brenya, at least, the leaflet distributed by Brent council was damaging. “How can I get a job if you send that all around the area?” he asks. “There’s no hope for me is there? It just made me an outlaw in my area.” He eventually moved away, and now lives with his girlfriend and daughter.
“What’s the point of living there if you can’t get a job, even if you wanted to change? What’s the point of living in an area where, if I go across the road, I’m already labelled as something?”
Brenya does not accept that the asbo helped him curb his behaviour. That came from himself and the people around him, he says. Other members of the Press Road Crew certainly appear to have slipped further into crime over the past five years.
William Marshall, 21, is now serving a long sentence for “possession of a firearm and some crazy shit”, according to Brenya. Martin Kelly, 23, has served time for possession of a firearm. Madekwe, 32, was recently released from prison. Jovan Stanley, 15 when the asbo was issued, has been sentenced to 11 months for using and possessing counterfeit money.
Stanley sums up why he ends up getting into trouble: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. You’ve got people around you, you see what they do, and you do what they do.”
There is a depressing inevitability about the way these boys’ lives have turned out. Brenya and his five brothers and two sisters were brought up in a four-bedroom council flat on the Chalkhill estate. Like most of his friends, his father was absent and failed to provide for the family.
In this climate of extreme poverty, says Brenya, it was impossible to succeed at school. “You need stuff to learn, you need people behind you. You go fucking home and you got no lights, the electric’s been cut off. You going to learn in the dark?”
The decisions he then made were largely pragmatic. “I never did [crime] for no joke thing, I never did it for fun. Certain people I have made an offence against, I feel sorry for them too, because I wouldn’t want it to happen to my sister. I wouldn’t want my sister to get robbed. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want my sister to starve to death.
“We’re not animals, we’re not predators. We’re just humans, trying to live life just like anybody else.”
Nobody was surprised that he turned to crime, says Brenya. Expectations for young men were so low that people in the area were shocked when someone got a proper job, rather than earning by drug dealing, robbery, or fraud.
Desensitisation happens from a young age. Brenya describes seeing people chopped up with machetes on the estate when he was a boy. “If a kid grows up like that, how do you expect him to know anything else?”
Brenya, at least, is trying to turn his back on crime. Prison, he says, is not an option now that he has a daughter and another baby on the way. A long string of previous convictions, however, limits his options. And his situation has been further complicated as the housing slump affects the construction industry where he previously found work.
Brenya is now signing on, but has his sights on the music industry. He, his brother and a cousin have set up a music production company, creating music, signing acts and recording videos.
“Me personally, it’s a better way of expressing myself than going out there and robbing someone,” says Brenya. “I’m trying to show the world my anger through that.” His goal is to make enough money to do something to help disadvantaged young people.
Perhaps the venture is already going some way towards that. Groups of teenagers gather as Brenya and his friends film videos; they are off the streets and out of trouble for large parts of the weekend.
An older, wiser Brenya surveys the scene happily. “This is what we do. Would’ve done it sooner, but never had the money, or the wisdom.”