By Decca Aitkenhead
Following a shocking rise in violence in London in which four of his constituents died, the Tottenham MP is calling for politicians to admit the ‘war on drugs’ has failed – and that black lives matter.
‘I think we’ve come to normalise it – we think of gun and knife crime among teenagers as normal. And it is not’.
… David Lammy. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
David Lammy is one of those politicians whose public profile has never correlated with his position in his party, or converted into frontbench power, and this sort of maverick celebrity operator tends to attract suspicion. Elected to represent Tottenham 18 years ago, the 46-year-old has at various key moments –the Grenfell fire, the London riots –distinguished himself in the public’s affection by seizing individual ownership of the agenda. To some, particularly in Westminster, this highly personalised brand of political identity is opportunistic self-promotion, artfully disguised as heroism.
To me, his politics look sincere and principled, I’ve just never been entirely sure what they are. He used to joke: “I’m not Blair, I’m not Brown, I’m just black.” And he has successfully eluded all association with any ideological faction with such dexterity that he can sometimes look a bit slippery, as if his public persona is contingent on whatever strategy he has devised to please his audience.
We meet in the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on Thursday, to discuss the violent crime surge that has cost 51 lives in London this year. More than half of the victims have been young – in their 20s and younger – and poor. I am not expecting much more than for Lammy to offer carefully calibrated, bland reassurances. It takes less than five minutes to see how wrong I am.
Lammy woke up on Tuesday to a text informing him that Tanesha Melbourne-Blake, a 17-year-old girl, had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting in his constituency. This time, he decided, he would not let the murder go unnoticed.
Read more – By Following The Highlighted Links. “To be honest,” he says, “I was shocked that four weeks ago, when a moped and pillion passenger gunned down a young man standing outside the cinema in Wood Green, that there was not more national attention on that shooting.” How does he explain the apparent indifference? “Because he was black.” He delivers this with such force, his words ring out across the cafe. “Because he was black,” he repeats. “And I think we’ve got to ask ourselves, do black lives matter?”
For the next hour, Lammy barely draws breath. Only twice does he pause to consider the impact of what he is about to say. Even in private, I have never heard a politician hold forth with such utter disregard for his or her audience.
The first thing Lammy wants us to understand is the blameless ease with which a child who goes home to an empty council estate flat because his mum can’t afford childcare while she’s at work, can become a gang member.
All it takes is a gift of new trainers, he says, for which in return the child is soon asked to carry a little package round the corner, and before long, the 12-year-old is earning more in one week than his parents make in a year.
Lammy says, citing reports by Interpol and Europol, and he has seen for himself how easy it is to service because dealers in Tottenham have shown him. “People are ordering drugs on WhatsApp, Snapchat. It’s easy.”
One young constituent was caught selling cocaine in Aberdeen: dealers in London now operate what are known as “county lines”, supplying cocaine to every region of the country.
Do middle-class customers safe in neighbourhoods far away from Tottenham’s turf wars have blood on their hands? For a moment he pauses.