Canning Town priest speaks out about gang violence, organised crime and community fragmentation in Newham

PUBLISHED: 09:28 18 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:34 18 April 2018

Ben Atkins from St Matthias Church who is organising the peace protest

Ben Atkins from St Matthias Church who is organising the peace protest


A Canning Town priest has said it’s time to get angry about youth gang violence.

Ben Atkins from St Matthias Church spent a year working with teen gang members in Peckham.

He moved from Tower Hamlets two years ago and has seen organised crime rise steadily since.

“I’m furious that this stuff goes on,” he said.

“Anger’s a response to things you care about – you get angry about something you value coming under threat. It’s right to be angry, not at the people, but angry that it happens.”

Ben believes the blame narrative promoted by politicians contributes to an alienisation of young people, and ultimately, pushes them further into gang violence.

“When I was 15, before I was a Christian, I got beaten up by a gang,” he said.

“I carried the pain for a long time. When I discovered Jesus’s words saying love your enemy, I thought, I’ve got to find a way to show love and kindness for those boys who had it in for me.

“It instilled this sense that other people aren’t the enemy. I realised, we need to not demonise gangs.”

Young boys get pushed into gangs because they can’t see another future, according to Ben.

“It’s nearly impossible to get out of gangs once you’re in them,” he said.

“I used to work with 6-11-year-olds, many of whom were at risk because the gangs were on the estates they lived.

“It’s about being able to imagine that a different future is possible. Let’s say you want to get out of your job, you have to have the capacity to imagine another job was possible. You’d have to value yourself enough to know that it’s worth the effort and the risk.”

Ben admitted, while stop and search is useful for identifying suspects, it does little to tackle root causes.

He said: “You talk about prevention and relief in a systemic issue like this. You can save lives in the moment by relief, by taking guns and knives off the street one person at a time. But it’s like a river, you have to stem it at the spring. That spring is organised crime.”

Changing the environment in which young people grow up is the key to making lasting change, the 27-year-old added.

“Changing the landscape is about saying, this is the kind of life I want to live,” he said.

“The weapon is just a prop, it’s a part of the landscape. You have to change the whole environment - yes it’s about work, yes it’s about family, yes it’s about opportunities, but it’s primarily about narrative. Our environment shapes the decisions we make.”

Ben conceded there’ll always be violence and weapons, but what needn’t remain is the fragmentation of communities – older generations who are afraid of younger, or teenagers lacking role models.

He said: “Young men have always gone around in groups. Throughout history, there’s always been violence. So what makes what’s going on now so much more toxic? It’s a disconnectedness between generations.

“In generations past, communities were more cohesive, so there were more visible role models and accountability. You’d have a sense of, if I do this, I’m going to be pulled up on it.

“As a church we’re going to set up events where older people can serve the younger people. It’s about reconnecting.”

Ben will be hosting a peace protest on April 29, where he’ll walk from Forest Gate station to North Woolwich, carrying a backpack full of stones to represent the young people who’ve lost their lives this year.

“This is not about one group of people coming up with one solution for one part of the picture,” he said.

“This is an issue of landscape. With all the right groups involved and taking responsibility for their part of the picture, in five years time we can have a year without gang related murders. I want to hold Newham to that.”

Those wanting to join the march should meet at Forest Gate station at 2.30pm.

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