This blog is all that remains from the former website which was closed after 8 years of providing a 'wiki' of urban street gangs in London.

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Tuesday, 21 May 1991

Last exit to nowhere: Two black men have been murdered in Thamesmead - by racists, some say. Today the British National Party is marching through the

The Guardian (London)

May 25, 1991

Last exit to nowhere: Two black men have been murdered in Thamesmead - by racists, some say. Today the British National Party is marching through the new town on a 'Wogs Out' campaign. More trouble is in store. Jocelyn Targett meets the whites and the gangs of London's loneliest estate


LENGTH: 3793 words

IT IS Saturday evening in Thamesmead, a concrete-and-canals new town in south-east London. Ladding around on the walkway in front of the Wildfowler pub and a row of shops - the Civic Piazza, if you believe the town planners - are eight or ten young men from the Stage Three housing estate. 

They sit on walls constellating the paving beneath them with spit, and think they're as hard as pit bulls. In fact they're just grown-up waifs. Their hair is short and confrontational - spiky, but not skinhead enough to be truly vicious. All have pizza faces, disfigured by the unruly hormones and routine abuses of adolescence.

Out-of-towners and the local free newspaper call them 'youths' and 'yobs', meaning those weakling working class teenagers who are always in and out of needless trouble. The police still call this Stage Three lot the Goldfish Gang, though most of that old shoal are now in their twenties with kids or prison sentences.

More recently they've gone by the acronym the NTO, the Natty Turn Outs - but that name too is on the wane. These days, they just call themselves the Firm - not a gang, they say, but a loose association of like-aged, like-simple-minded, like-under-privileged cohabitees of their estate. 

They are doing what they do every Saturday night and every other night of the week. In fact they are doing what they do all day, every day - they are waiting for something to happen.

Much later, Gaffee strides over with some big news. Taller than the others, a year or two older (and, if it's possible, ganglier and spottier), his entire body is a circus act of ticks and twitches. As a youngster, Gaffee was one of the Tadpoles, a Tad-Lad. Then the Tads merged with the Ruds, the Carp and the Gudgeon to found the Goldfish Gang. At 20, he's now one of the senior NTO, one of the faces of Stage Three.

He barks that 'a thousand fucking niggers' are on their way to 'our manor'. He heard it, he bellows, from his mum's friend who works at Scotland Yard.

The Firm debate this boisterously. 'Mums are always trying to scare us,' says Kruger, a hardened NTO with a pit bull terrier tattooed to his bicep. Like Gaffee, he is often to be found in a policemen's full-Nelson. 'You can't trust mums.'

While they talk, one of the others practises drawing his 'Rambo knife' from its hiding place in a bush. The blade is eight inches long. Another takes a bicycle chain from his jacket pocket and coils it up like a cobra where no one will see it.

THEY WAIT. They stand in the yellow light outside the chippy, Fishygills. They chew and smoke and drink. Sure enough, nobody comes. Sure enough, nothing at all happens. At gone-eleven they split off into the underpasses and short-cuts to go and find videos to nick and little drugs deals to score.

THIS WAS Thamesmead last Saturday. In all but the details, it is exactly what happened three months ago, on 21 February. That night, the Firm had word that the Woolwich Mafia, the gang from the neighbouring town, was going to turn up to avenge a small defeat it had suffered the night before. The Firm duly stashed their tools - baseball bats, flick-knives, machetes and ammonia, weapons the rival gangs had used on each other countless times before - and waited for the fight outside Fishygills and the 'Fowler.

For a long time, nothing happened. But away at the Hawksmoor Youth Club up at the other end of Stage Three, a tangle between two white boys had flared up and was considered serious enough by the youth leaders, Anne Brewster and Christine Rogers, for them to close the club early. At 9.30pm, they sent everyone home.

This was disappointing news for two new boys at the club that night, Rolan and Nathan Adams, who'd walked over the dual carriageway from Abbey Wood to play table-tennis and to swap records with a schoolfriend.

Chrissy Rogers was concerned the boys got off Stage Three safely. She offered the brothers a lift back to the bus stop, but the boys refused it. They wanted to walk.
On their way, they passed the Wildfowler pub. The Firm, seeing faces from outside their manor, seeing, moreover, young black faces from outside Thamesmead who, for all the world, could be recruits of the Woolwich Mafia, chased the two boys with chains and taunts.

Nathan managed to get away - Rolan, at 15 the older of the two, didn't. There was a scuffle. But the precise details of what followed is for the courts to decide.
Rolan ran off to the 272 bus-stop. By the time the 10.20 bus came, he was dead, still clutching his table-tennis bat. His jugular vein had been opened by a single strike.
THE NEXT morning the police charged one of the Firm with the murder, and eight more with causing violent disorder. One of the young men arrested is black.

This progress did not satisfy the staff of the local anti-racism lobby, Gacara (the Greewich Action Committee Against Racial Attacks). They were appalled that the police regarded Rolan's death as a mistake in a gang war and not a racist killing at all.

Gacara was convinced that the police were protecting the interests of white murderers at the expense of innocent blacks. It began a campaign, backed by the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party and the National Black Caucus, to draw attention to the racist stabbing of Rolan Adams, and to what it regards as other racial attacks by the gang on Thamesmead's Stage Three estate. Gacara ignore as irrelevant the fact that numerous black boys are with the Firm and insist that NTO stands for Nazi Turn Outs.

Black families came forward to say they feared that Rolan's fate would befall their teenaged sons too. Several of these boys had already been involved in skirmishes with the Firm. Gacara, of course, said this was because they are black, but the police maintained that it was because they sided with the Woolwich Mafia.

In any event, nine black families were rehoused off Thamesmead for their own safety. One of the first to go was Anne Brewster, the youth leader who for months had been one of the most strident anti-racist and anti-Firm campaigners. Another woman, whose family was moved miles away to an untraceable address in Shooters Hill, had to move a second time when four car-loads of white racists drew up outside. She is living out of bin liners now, on the run.

Why, asks Rolan's father Richard Adams, should black bystanders be forced to flee their homes, hounded by racists wherever they go in the borough, while white bigots continue to live in Thamesmead? The house of the alleged murderer, however, has been empty for some time - the windows, having been smashed, are boarded up. That family is on the run too, from racists of a different hue.

AT THE end of April, Gacara imported the Reverend Al Sharpton, the loud-mouthed American preacher, to march through Thamesmead advertising the fact that Rolan Adams was dead. The scam yielded national media coverage and instant results: the murder is now included in the police list of racial assaults in Thamesmead this year, which at the moment totals 11.

Rolan Adams was murdered by racists. Officially at least, this is now the police line. But the officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Superintendent Mickey Banks, still doesn't agree.

He believes the stabbing and most of the other close-calls on Stage Three are down to the 'home team defending their patch'. He complains that the defendants in the case are being 'given a tough time' by militant blacks from outside Thamesmead. 'The protesters, mostly women, I find purely confrontational,' says Banks. 'There's no voice of reason. They're as bad in their way as the British National Party.'

He cites a preliminary court hearing at which the father of a black boy charged with causing violent disorder had to be protected from the supporters of Gacara and the SWP. They called him a Bluey, prisoner slang for a white. His front door has been daubed with graffiti. His home too has had its windows shattered.

GACARA and the National Black Caucus hold frequent meetings intended to mobilise the blacks on Stage Three in Thamesmead's brick-built starter-home ecumenical church. White anti-racists from Thamesmead go along, but are not encouraged. 'Seeing your white face sends a shiver through me,' said one woman who came on the NBC mini-bus from Tower Hamlets, north of the river.

For some of the NBC the justice of the courts won't come quickly enough. They want rapid retribution against the whites of Thamesmead. Specifically, they want the police to round up the Firm. One man said that if the three ringleaders of the gang were 'done away with' the rest would soon jump into line.

GACARA and the NBC had their hostility to the police refreshed two weeks ago when another young black man was murdered by a white on Stage Three. Again they've pilloried the police for not treating this stabbing as a racially-motivated killing. This time, though, the police are not going to change their minds. Orville Blair did not die because he was black. Blair was stabbed seven times standing on the doorstep of his mother's home. The eighth cut killed him. The man charged with the murder was a friend of Orville's.

Orville had been one of the Firm, with more white friends than black. He was a founding Rud, then a long-serving Goldfish. All the racist-looking lads outside the 'Fowler knew and liked him.

Gaffee was very close to Orville and is furiously upset that 'the blacks are trying to take him over. He wasn't their friend,' he shouts, 'he was mine.'

THE FOOT-soldiers of Gacara on Thamesmead are two white SWP members, Anna and Tim. They fly-poster the lifts and long corridors of Stage Three and have a running battle with members of the British National Party who have also started bill-sticking on the estate now they've heard Gacara saying there are racists about.

Two weeks ago, the SWP and the BNP gathered outside Waterfield Comprehensive, Orville's old school, to press their convictions upon the 11 and 12-year-olds. The BNP gave everyone leaflets proclaiming 'it is our country'. The SWP picked out a black girl walking home with a group of white friends.

What experience, they wondered, did she have of the Nazis on the estate? None, she said, imagining perhaps tin-helmeted Germans in boots and dark uniforms. Anna and Tim told her about blacks being stabbed and they pressured her for details of the racial harassment she'd had to suffer. She had none she said and her white friends told the SWP to leave her alone. 'They were extremely abusive,' says Anna. 'It was a Nazi-style response.'

At school the following day the black girl was in tears about the incident. Anna is not remorseful: 'Black people have got to be confronted.'

THE BRITISH National Party's headquarters is three miles from Thamesmead in Welling, but until Al Sharpton's rally, Richard Edmonds, the party's deputy leader, was unaware that he had a band of murdering white racists on his doorstep. Now he sends party workers, men in ill-fitting suits with a few skinheads for protection, to the new town as often as possible, trying to find them.

Edmonds, who regards Hitler as a 'genius and hero' and the Holocaust as 'a lie', describes himself as 'ideologically pure, in the sense that I spend all day reading books'. To look at, though, he falls some way short of Aryan perfection. He is over-tall and gawky and his coordination is unwilling. His feet are as long as the average forearm. His mouth is big and elastic, like a giant gelatine clam.

He says he'll deny that he approves of violence towards blacks - 'but only because it keeps the police off my back'. And he doesn't worry that few of his supporters are as proud of their reading habits as he is of his; 'They're lads full of testosterone! What I say is this: the energy's there, the cause has got to be served! All their feelings are correct and good.'
Edmonds is in full agreement with Gacara when it asserts that Rolan Adams was the victim of a racial attack. Only his perspective differs. 'What's happening in Thamesmead proves every point we've ever made,' he says; 'A multi-racial community will never work.'
He is not pleased that black families are being moved off Thamesmead. Instead, he demands their 'humane repatriation'.

'They were dumped here,' he says, leaning forward and jabbing his finger at a photograph of the Rev Al Sharpton, 'at our cost. We house them, we school their offspring, we give them dole money and hospital beds.' He is still prodding at the photograph, a rapid S-O-S with every clause. 'Now law and order has collapsed as a spin-off of immigration. The British people have had enough. They are suffering.'

He objects less to white immigration. 'What does it matter if you've got a few Poles and Huguenots. They are the same race and culture as us. All you get at the end is an odd surname.'

OUTSIDE the 'Fowler, the young men of the Firm claim they know little about the BNP. 'We didn't even know it existed till recently,' says Mad Murdoch. 'We thought there was only the National Front.'

Around Stage Three there is fresh graffiti: 'NTO = BNP', and 'White Man's Manor'. 'We didn't do that,' says Little Hitler, his top lip stiff with aggression. 'What do you think my name is? Uncle Cunt?' He speculates that the BNP put up that k ind of graffito to aggravate the estate.

On other walls there is anti-NTO writing. 'NTO are wankers, murderers, shitheads, cunts, tosspots, dickheads, bastards, cuntheads, and so are their mums.' The Firm imagines this is the late-night work of the Woolwich Mafia, to fuel the inter-gang war.

RICHARD Edmonds claims that 'the people of Thamesmead' have asked the BNP to organise a march on the same route as Rev Al Sharpton's. 'They just want to see the flag.'
Gacara and the NBC wouldn't put that past the whites of Thamesmead. Dev Barrah, Gacara's co-ordinator, went into the 'Fowler to ask if he could leave a collection box for Rolan Adams and was refused. He was told to buy a drink or leave.

Then again, he also went round to Orville Blair's mother to enlist her support in the anti-racist cause. And she told him to leave too.

THE FIRM want nothing to do with the BNP rally. Gaffee says that he's not in favour of further immigration, but that 'you can't just get rid of the ones that are here. They've been here too long.'

'Anyone who goes on that march,' says Changa, a black member of the gang, 'gets a kicking.'

The march has been given the go-ahead for this afternoon. It will start at the Hawksmoor Youth Club, go right through Stage Three and on up to Abbey Wood, where Rolan Adams' parents live. Gacara, the NBC and the SWP intend to bring in a large contingent to rival the BNP marchers.

'I'm taking my kids and I'm getting out,' says a former youth worker at the Hawksmoor who lives on Stage Three. 'These outsiders are going to make trouble and I don't want any of my kids to witness it.'

WHEN, in the mid-Sixties, the GLC decided to build a new town on the the south bank of the Thames, the idea was laudable. Only in time did it become a sorry mistake.
Thamesmead was designed to provide housing and employment for 60,000 people. It would have an underground link with the centre of London 12 miles away, and would be the south-bank site for the Thames' most ambitious down-river bridge. The first residents moved in in 1969.

Twenty-odd years later the underground still hasn't surfaced and the bridge never got off the blueprints. There are now 30,000 inhabitants but fewer than 3,000 Thamesmead jobs between them.

Thamesmead was abandoned half-finished. The people who live there, imprisoned by the ring-roads and the roundabouts with exits that lead nowhere, can't easily escape. They say they live on Thamesmead, not in it, as if it's an island, a penal colony.

The Town Centre, clearly marked on sign-posts, is cynically named. Actually it's just a few acres of Safeway on the very edge of town, a skerry incapable of supporting human life, torn from the nearest flats by a main road, and more than two miles from Thamesmead's middle. In the late Eighties a gabled clock tower was added so that, from the river, it looks like an old market town. The clock stopped at twenty past two some time ago.
In 1986, Greenwich and Bexley boroughs, which had inherited Thamesmead from the GLC, got shot of the entire development to a new company, Thamesmead Town Ltd, which now administers the housing and the public areas. One of the things it's done is open up Fishygills, the fish 'n' chip shop, which it did in 1988. There are three tables inside. Nowhere else on Thamesmead can a cup of tea be bought or a meal eaten.

There is no laundrette in Thamesmead, no bank, no cinema and no train station. Terylene shell suits and pit bull harnesses are available at weekly markets. There is one bus route, and it's half an hour and pounds 1.20 return to Woolwich which is where Thamesmead's 10,000 unemployed must go to sign on.

Of course, TTL has big plans for a bold new town centre, even further out than the present one. This, it's envisaged, will give the residents a choice of fastfood and the opportunity to shop in one of the biggest Sainsbury's in Britain. The programme, however, has been blocked at the glossy brochure stage. Completion is a decade away.

The nearest the town has to a landmark is the aluminium twin-towered boiler house. Thamesmead's only famous child is Suzanne Mizzi, for a while the Daily Mirror's pet pin-up. She got off Thamesmead as soon as she could, saying she hated it.

It's not all bad on Thamesmead. Herons and kingfishers are a common sight in the backyards and down by the waterways. There is not a single playground with swings and a slide, but there are broad green verges and many leafy greens.

Breathing, however, is a faintly nauseating activity because of the proximity of the Crossness Sewage Works, the biggest of its kind in London. When the wind blows, no houses get sold.

HALF THE population of Thamesmead is under 25, and half the adult population is unemployed. Sixty per cent of households haven't got a car.

Maggie Young, the press officer for Thamesmead Town Ltd who used to market Nescafe, 'gets a bit annoyed' when people say that there is nothing for teenagers to do. She talks about the football teams, the boxing club, the gym, and the Scottish dancing. She introduces George ('he's got an OBE you know') who pushes out a dozen dingies on the lake every Saturday morning.

This doesn't impress the Firm. 'If you walk round this place you just hit a black path, a road, a few trees,' says Gaffee. 'It's all right if you want to play football for 24 hours.'
For the kids of Stage Three, Thamesmead is a fortress of inescapable tedium. They get into trouble because there's nothing better to get into - crime on Thamesmead is often as innocent as that. Mad Murdoch, whose simplicity amuses the other boys, used to go to the Hawksmoor Youth Club. 'There was nothing to do but sit around. That's why we vandalised it.'

One night last week, two of the younger lads (Gaffee and Kruger call them the Little Firm) went round to a friend's house and got drunk. When the friend fell asleep the two boys walked off with his TV and video.

'How could you do that to one of your own?' says Kruger, his voice whining with distaste. The two boys apologise to their elders and sulk, smirking a bit now and then because they can't help it.

'What you going to do about it?' asks Gaffee.

'Get him another vid'.'

'Well, you get one warning, and one warning only.'

EIGHTEEN months or so ago, a black boy who used to run with the NTO moved to Woolwich with his family, and started to hang around with the Woolwich Mafia by the 272 bus-stop outside the Woolwich Equitable. When he took the loyalty of his closest Stage Three friends with him, the feud between the two gangs began.

Last summer, one of the Firm, Paul Utting, was attacked down in the garages by five or six blacks from the Mafia. He was clubbed on the head, and stabbed repeatedly, five times with knives, once with a screwdriver. He was left for dead, but was found by a passer-by and taken to hospital.

He knows three of those who assaulted him, and he is willing to tell anyone except the police. He shows off the scars, dark red lumps under the skin dotted around his chest and shoulders like half a dozen plump chrysalises.

A month after that the Woolwich Mafia returned. With them were one or two black teenagers from Stage Three, including the son of Anne Brewster, the youth worker. This time, one of the Firm did the stabbing. He was caught and convicted.

After that, Mrs Brewster banned all the Firm from her club and from the swimming pool in the town centre ('cos she said we was blocking up the slide'). Of course, that didn't stop the trouble.

The boys in the Firm become very agitated when they are accused of being racist.
They don't accept that calling the Mafia 'niggers' is wrong. 'When they call us white scum, that's just as bad. It's all just names to get people going.' Racism is not, they insist, the reason for the inter-gang rivalry, just its rhetoric.

'We don't give it for nothing,' says one of the Younger Firm. 'We beat them up cos they're coming down here, not cos they're black.'

The members of the Firm are the oldest home-bred Thamesmeadians. They've every right to want to tear the forsaken place apart, but they don't to any great extent - they fight, instead, in the name of their manor.

They can't explain, however, why someone has written on a 272 bus, 'Whites 2 - Blacks 0', and 'RMA (Rolan Michael Adams) ha! ha! ha!'

EDWARD is 21, black and has lived on Thamesmead for five years. He is part of no gang and has never been taunted or abused by the young whites outside the 'Fowler. Even so, he has become nervous of them because of what he reads in the papers and what people say.
His seven-year-old sister wasn't allowed to go to school the other week because the playground, which was where the Sharpton march was due to begin, had been daubed 'Wogs Out' by the BNP and her mother didn't want her to see it. His younger brother has taken to coming home from college half an hour before he should because he's frightened in the dark.

Edward indicates some pavement graffiti that he's walked over on his way to and from work every day for a year: 'NTO Firm Kicks To Kill'. It looks, he says, like a child's writing and he wasn't bothered by it until he heard all the talk.

Now he wonders whether it's aimed at him, and whether perhaps he'll be the next to die in the town where nothing ever happens. G