When Gavin McKenna heard about the riots that erupted across England, it came as no surprise to the 21-year-old former gang member from east London.
“Where we live, it’s a rough place. Around here people get stabbed daily, shot daily, there’s gang violence every day. You see it. It’s not a shock because I live around a warzone anyway,” he said.
But he is angry at the British government, which he says is only now trying to deal with gang violence because shops and businesses were burned down, when dozens of deaths on the streets each year failed to move them to action.
“Young kids die every day. There’s one riot that blows up a business and might affect the government and then they care. They don’t care about us,” he said.
Mr McKenna joined a gang in Newham, a deprived borough of east London, when he was 14. Although he describes it more as a group of school friends than an organised gang, he admits crime was a large part of what they did.
“I’d rob people, burgle houses, fight people, hold guns, knives, attempt to stab. But I’m not proud of any of this,” he said.
Mr McKenna left that life behind him about 18 months ago after developing a strong Christian faith and being shown how he could make something of his life, despite a childhood that most would struggle to recover from.
“My dad was very abusive to my mother, he beat her in front of me, he beat me and by the time I was six he had put a gun in my face, threatened to kill me,” he recalls, without emotion.
“You can imagine that at such a young age, dealing with all of that, it was quite traumatising.”
He spent some time living in various refuges for women with his mother and sisters, where he said he had no friends, no relatives and no moral guide.
“Through the years it festered within me, I started having dreams. Then when I was about 14, I just flipped out. I starting smoking weed, starting going out,” he said.
Money was tight, “so I started to fend for myself, by robbing to eat food, then I started to get a name for myself. Then I started fighting”.
At that point, he drifted into a gang of schoolfriends and others from around Newham, which he described as a “family”.
Although he says they were not as bad as other gangs, things escalated.
“I always had knives, I even held a gun once. It was getting to that serious level, I almost died numerous times. People tried to stab me in front of my mum, someone came to my house with a gun looking for me,” he said.
“I had friends who got stabbed, a friend of a friend who died. One of my friends hung himself due to drugs. A couple of my friends have been stabbed, a couple were jailed, I lost them in different ways for different reasons.”
He told himself that “that’s what comes with the package”.
“Every time someone died, or went to jail I would say I don’t want this, I don’t want this for myself, I’m scared. But that was all I knew, there was no other way out,” he said.
However, Mr McKenna wandered into church one day, and heard the pastor talk about the importance of focusing on the positive, not the negative. “I broke down a bit, literally I cried. And I thought, come on, this ain’t cool.”
But he went back again, “and the pastor said there’s hope for you, and I burst into tears and said, you know what, I need this”.
At church he met Sheldon Thomas, a former gang member himself who now mentors young people to help them choose a different path.
“He said, you’re not that boy no more. And he showed me how to be a man. That’s how I changed, just working with Sheldon and being a Christian, that kept me away from that lifestyle.”
Mr McKenna still sees the other members of his gang, who he says respect that he has made a new life for himself. He is now in his second year at university studying sports science, although he wants to go back to work in his community.
“No one believed I’d be here now. So given a second chance I’m willing to go out and do what it takes to change the world,” he said.
Mr McKenna also has a son, aged three, and is determined that history will not repeat itself.
“Three years of his life and he’s already had more love than I ever had.”
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