INTERVIEW: David Harewood speaks out on gang crime

David Harewood photographed on Streatham High Road.

David Harewood photographed on Streatham High Road.

First published in News Exclusive by

David Harewood is no stranger urban violence. The 46-year-old actor regularly encountered punch ups between black youths and skinheads in Birmingham’s sink estates where he grew up.

He spoke to the Streatham Guardian about his views on Lambeth's endemic gang problem...

The difference back then was black teenagers were more often the victims and not the attackers, he says, and scuffles rarely resulted in death.

These days, in areas like Streatham, where the Blood Diamond star now lives with his wife and two children, stabbings and shootings seem part of everyday life.

“It is such a tough thing growing up in a big urban society like Lambeth,” he said.

“There are so many dangers out there that just weren’t there when I was growing up.

“Fights used to be settled over a bit of fisticuffs and that was about it. It’s become a more violent place.

“Weapons are more accessible and more available. It’s easier for people to turn to violence now.

"I can’t remember people stabbing each other over a pair of trainers.

“It’s very sad that we have those kind of people in the community. I don’t really understand it – it’s a very scary thing.”

Harewood, who also played Nelson Mandela in a BBC drama, is speaking out following the latest senseless murder of another teenager – 17-year-old Kwame Ofosu-Asare on the Moorlands estate in Brixton.

He says one issue is that people are still too frightened to speak to the police if they witness an attack.

“It is very difficult for members of the community to speak out,” he said.

“It is a sad set of circumstances that this sort of thing can happen in broad daylight and people will turn a blind eye.”

Harewood, who recently received an MBE for his services to acting, believes the solution to Lambeth’s endemic gang problem is to get successful entrepreneurs talking to young people who might otherwise fall into a life of crime.

Business leaders could help educate those teenagers who feel alienated from mainstream society, he thinks, replacing the emphasis on “making lives” rather than “taking lives”.

He says: “The only way these kids can get respect is to be involved in certain things and we have to try and redirect their energy in some way. Unfortunately it is proving hard to do.

“I have friends in LA and a lot of people out there are ex-gang members who are turning their attention to becoming entrepreneurs.

“That’s a fantastic thing. You can turn your back on crime and focus your attention to succeed. That is a great incentive.

“Perhaps we need more of that. Perhaps people in business could come into the community and encourage these guys to turn their attention away from taking lives to making lives.”

Harewood now splits his time between the UK and US, where he films episodes for gritty US drama series Homeland.

When he does come home, he finds it deeply troubling that instead of pursuing careers, many young black teens are killing their contemporaries.

“When I was growing up the only people you had to [look out for] were skinheads and racists," he said.

"It is sad that we now live in a place where kids not only have to look out for skinheads but people who look like themselves.

“They seem to be turning a lot of the anger in on themselves.”

He hesitates when asked whether police tactics such as stop and search are to blame for the problem.

“It’s something that needs to be looked at but we need to stop using that as an excuse for violence,” he added.

“I was stopped myself a couple of years ago and you do feel very angry about it. But kids stabbing each other is nothing to do with the police.”

But is the gang problem is now so deep-rooted it cannot be put right?

He responds that re-emphasising positive, well-educated role models, instead of money-making gangsters, would be a good start.

“I don’t think anybody is a lost cause, but families need more support without a doubt.

“Even the most borderline kids can inspire you through their endeavours. In popular culture, the role models seem to be gangsters, education doesn’t seem to be the chosen field.

“It is an epidemic and all of us are going to have to work harder to turn this around.”

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