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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Michael Dosunmu, Billy Cox, Jesse James, James Smarrt Ford and Adam Regis are just some of the names of young black men who have lost their lives

Michael Dosunmu, Billy Cox, Jesse James, James Smarrt Ford and Adam Regis are just some of the names of young black men who have lost their lives to the wave of escalating gun and knife crime in the UK. And in many cases, their attackers have also been young black men. Most of us who have seen these headlines have been shocked and concerned. For one woman the issue of gun violence became frighteningly real. But Manchester resident Erinma Bell’s brush with cold blooded gunmen was an experience that turned her into a crusader, determined to take on ruthless criminals. In December 1999, Bell from the city’s Moss Side area was returning home from a works Christmas party with her husband and a friend.
The happy talkative group were on their way to a house party to continue the festivities when Erinma noticed a group of men hanging around in an alleyway near where the party was taking place. “Even though it happened in December 1999, it’s as though it happened yesterday,” Bell recalls. “Every time I hear of another shooting, it brings back the memories, the sounds, the sights, the smell of the gun.
“As we were going to the party, I noticed three people in an alleyway. It was quite dark and after midnight. I just didn’t like the look of them. Call it women’s intuition, I just knew that something wasn’t right.”
She suspected that one of them was carrying a gun and she told her husband so. But she dismissed her fears and told her not to be so suspicious.
Not long after, the group got in the car to protect themselves from a sudden downpour of rain. But as they got in the car, Bell was still troubled. “We must have been inside the car a good ten or fifteen minutes but I hadn’t noticed that the three men had moved from the alleyway,” she remembered.
“After the rain had stopped, we got out of the car and I suddenly realised that the three men were stood outside of the door of the house we were supposed to be going into.” What happened next changed her life forever. “There were six of us in our group. The first of the two couples went into the house. Then as my friend was about to step in, one of the suspicious looking men tapped him on the shoulder.
“He took off his hood to look at this stranger and as he did this, all three of them opened fire and started shooting him. I was that shocked I stood still. I couldn’t move. “I went through a whole load of emotions and the one thought I remember going through my mind was ‘Is this really happening? Are they shooting guns? What’s happening here, what’s going on? Why are they doing this?’
“I remember my husband picked me up and ran across the road to guide me to safety. But then the reality of the situation hit me, it was our friend that they were shooting.
“I began shouting and screaming at them ‘Why are you doing this? You’re going to kill him! I’m going to call the police’. When I started running towards them, I didn’t think ‘I’m going to be brave’. I think it was just the adrenalin pumping and ethically it was the right thing to do. “It must be an instinctive thing to do because you want to stop them from hurting your friend. The shocking thing was that when they finished, they just calmly walked off. They didn’t run , they didn’t push anybody out of the way, they just walked off.” Thankfully, her friend (whose identity Bell wants to protect) survived the near fatal shooting. But her initial shock at what had just taken place followed by relief that he was still alive gave way to anger. “We administered first aid to him on the spot which helped to save his life. But we had to wait 45 minutes for the ambulance to come. “I’m still angry about that because I made that 999 call whilst they were still shooting. When they took him to hospital, they counted eleven bullet wounds, so it’s a miracle that he survived.
“That’s when gun crime became a reality in my life. Before then, it was something that I read about in the papers, or heard on the news. I can never forget the screams, the shouting, the mayhem. It was absolutely awful. “When you go home you relive all of that you have nightmares and it wasn’t even me that got shot so you can imagine what he was going through.” Following the incident, she decided that the best way to deal with her nightmares was to do something that would ensure that what she witnessed would never happen again in her neighbourhood. She needed a channel for her anger. Three years later, in 2002, she was instrumental in the creation of CARISMA (Community Alliance for Renewal, Inner South Manchester Area). The group was born out of Bell meeting with local people in Moss Side and the neighbouring Longsight area, who had enough of the area’s reputation as a haven for drugs, gangs and street violence. CARISMA’s statement of purpose is ‘creating life chances for young people in the community.’ And since it’s creation, the organisation has had quite an impact. It initiated an event called Peace Week. Now in it’s sixth year, Peace Week is a series of events that attracts thousands of people from all over the city for a series of events aimed at expressing the desire of local people for peace. The success of Peace Week has led to the creation of Peace FM. Initially a community radio station, operating on a month long restricted service licence, it was last month granted a five year licence by Ofcom, giving the community a permanent voice on the airwaves.
Bell was one of the individuals recently profiled in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s book ‘Britain’s Everyday Heroes’ in which he celebrates the ability of ordinary people to make a difference to their communities.
The Prime Minister praised Bell for her ability to channel her anger into helping her community. But the road to CARISMA’s success was not an easy one as Bell recalls. “Soon after the shooting, I started to try and get something done about the problem of gun crime in the area. And then my son was stopped in the street and questioned by some guys. He was asked ‘What are your parents saying to the police?’ and was told ‘Tell them not to speak to the police’ and that’s when I really started to fear. “It was like they were threatening me through my children and my children were not part of this. So I was going through all these emotions. But I was determined to do something and I said to everyone ‘I have a higher force that protects me’.
“I was brought up in the neighbourhood and I was not going to be run out from the neighbourhood. I did the drastic thing of sending my children abroad to be safe and away from the environment. It was a hard decision to make because I love my children but in the end I had to think about their future and their life.” CARISMA has gone from strength to strength. However, you won’t catch Bell resting on her laurels or being complacent. She is as passionate as ever about the need for an organisation like CARISMA. “We have young people today who feel the need to walk around with a deadly weapon. And that is definitely one of the things we have to communicate to our young people, that you don’t need to communicate using a deadly weapon. “Mistakes happen but if you shoot the wrong person, that person you have mistaken can’t come back. How many times are you going to say sorry when you realise you’ve got the wrong person? “These people need to understand that when you shoot someone, that bullet doesn’t stop at the body of the person you’ve aimed the gun at.
“It travels through the mother, the father, their brothers and sisters, their children. It keeps going throughout the whole of that person’s family. None of us has the right to take away a person’s life. “Life is a gift and we need to advocate to our young people that life is a gift to be grateful for. We who live in this society have to change it for the better instead of sitting on the fence and letting it happen.”



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