Ten boys are being locked up for offences they didn’t all commit

Prison corridor
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This article was updated on 27 May 17:00. The article previously stated that one of the boys involved in the case had caused GBH. It has now been updated to clarify the fact that he was merely present at the incident.

On 17 May, ten boys appeared at Manchester Crown Court in a conspiracy case. They didn’t kill anyone. But the jury found four boys to be guilty of conspiracy to murder, and six to be guilty of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). As this was a conspiracy case, the prosecution didn’t need to convince the jury that violence had taken place, just that the boys had conspired to cause violence.

This discussion revolved around several incidents. Three boys involved in this case were found at violent incidents. This includes one boy who was present at a violent incident with three people who are not involved in this case.

In a statement on the trial ahead of the verdict, Kids of Colour – a group that supports marginalised young people in Manchester – explained:

There has been no murder. There has been harm committed by a small minority, which has been admitted to. There is no victim at the centre of this case. While we do not seek to minimise the harm caused, as defence teams have argued, there was no intention or agreement to murder, and that has been denied by all.

Evidence used against the boys in court included text messages, song lyrics, and expressions of grief following the death of their childhood friend. This is a heartbreaking case in which marginalised young people who should have been met with support and safety have instead been traumatised, criminalised, and imprisoned by the state. They are due for sentencing on 30 June. Given the severity of these charges, they will likely face a long time behind bars.

Guilty by association

Manchester Evening News coverage of this case incorrectly framed the group of boys as a ‘gang’ which conspired to avenge their friend’s death. However, according to Kids of Colour founder Roxy Legane, this group of boys are connected by a Telegram group chat created following the death of their friend who they all ‘knew in different ways’. Some knew each other through a music group called M40, which Manchester Evening News has framed as a ‘gang’. Some were school friends or local acquaintances.

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Following the verdict, Legane told The Canary:

The outcome of this trial, in which 10 black boys have been found guilty on conspiracy charges, is heart breaking. For the boys, for families, for friends, for all who knew these boys for who they are, and not what they’ve been constructed to be. Knowing four of the boys, myself and others who love and work with them, know full well they are not gang members: as all of these boys have stated throughout the trial.

She added:

But these boys have been found guilty by association. Their interests, emotions or friendships criminalised. And now they are in prison for violence they did not commit.

Joint enterprise

Although the boys were not tried under the controversial joint enterprise doctrine, it follows the same principle of guilt by association and reflects many joint enterprise cases. Joint enterprise enables a court to jointly convict individuals for something they didn’t all do if they were aware that it would take place.

Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association (JENGba), a grassroots group fighting against the unjust doctrine explains:

With help from the media, there is a shared incorrect narrative that the Joint Enterprise doctrine is about gangs, broken Britain and the ‘alleged’ feral youth that needs to be served justice.

JENGba adds:

This doctrine is a tool used by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to imprison people to mandatory life sentences for crimes committed by others. People can be wrongly charged and convicted when they have been within close proximity of a crime, have a random connection with the actual perpetrator or via text or mistaken phone call or they might not even have been at the scene of the crime.

A 2016 Supreme Court case found that judges had wrongly interpreted the joint enterprise doctrine for 30 years. In spite of this landmark ruling, Manchester Crown Court convicted 11 Black and mixed-race children and young people of murder of manslaughter in 2017 after just one of them fatally stabbed Abdul Wahab Hafidah in a spontaneous attack. JENGba is campaigning for a public inquiry to review all joint enterprise cases in the wake of the 2016 judgement.

This 2022 case reflects the discriminatory nature of guilty by association convictions. Working-class racialised young people bear the brunt of this flawed principle.

Racist and unfounded ‘gang’ narratives

Legane documented the entire trial. Following the verdict, she told The Canary:

the prosecution have been smart here. Choosing conspiracy has meant that that is the offence, not the violence. For many, they manipulated moments of grief and social media connections to form a racist gang narrative, and widen their net of criminalisation. It cannot stand.

This was one of the first cases to take place in Manchester’s new ‘super courtroom‘, a space specifically designed to host large-scale ‘gangs’ trials.

A youth worker who witnessed the trial from the court’s public gallery told Kids of Colour:

I question if it was ever possible for these boys to have a fair trial under conspiracy charges. I don’t believe they have had one – portrayed as a gang for listening to drill music and having nick names is ridiculous. Put black boys together on a stand and call them a gang – they don’t have a chance at disputing that narrative.

According to Legane and other witnesses, the prosecution falsely constructed this group of young musicians, school friends and acquaintances as a criminal ‘gang’ throughout the trial. The reliance on drill rap lyrics, videos and the boys’ general interest in rap, drill, and grime music as evidence in court demonstrates that this case is an out-and-out war against working-class Black British culture.

‘The odds felt stacked against them’

JENGba witnessed the trial. The group told Kids of Colour:

We lost track of the amount of times these young people called themselves a music group and not a gang. Yet the accusation of them being a gang was repeated over and over again. These young people appear to have been on trial for their taste in music. For the words used as lyrics, emotional outbursts on Snapchat when they were clearly grieving the death of a friend.

According to Legane, much of the ‘evidence’ used against the boys in court was weak, inaccurate, at times even laughable. For example, she states that during their attempt to frame the boys as a ‘criminal gang’, an officer misinterpreted the slang quoted in one boy’s text. One piece of evidence submitted was a photo of a supposed ‘opposing gang’ in nearby Rochdale. This turned out to be an image of a London-based music group with the capital’s skyscrapers in the background.

Legane recounts that on one of the trial days, an officer mistook a message that one of the boys received about slain American rappers Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur to be about Manchester gang members. The utter ridiculousness of slip ups like this may well have been lost on the judge, jury and prosecution of predominantly white, middle-class adults who decided the fate of these Black and brown boys.

A University of Manchester academic who witnessed the trial noted:

Watching the boys in court surrounded almost exclusively by white middle class men in wigs, the odds felt stacked against them, such were the visible power inequalities at play.

Black boys can’t grieve

Most of the boys involved in this case have been criminalised for simply expressing their pain and anguish following the traumatic death of their childhood friend. As Kids of Colour stated:

most have done nothing, it is words being used against them, words framed as a desire for ‘revenge’.

Expanding on this in a sensitive portrayal of the boys involved in the case, Legane said:

If someone killed someone we knew, every single one of us would have immediate feelings of anger, and a want for harm. We would share these feelings with people, undoubtedly, maybe regretting them later. One person’s intentions with those feelings are not another person’s, even if those feelings occur in the same sphere (a key thing connecting boys here, being social media). But sadly, when it’s the racist framing of black young people as ‘gangs’, they are all the same.

During the trial, Legane shared that “[t]his case sets a concerning precedent for the policing of grief”. Indeed, the prosecution used messages the boys sent in a group chat shortly after their friend’s death as evidence against them. This was the only evidence used against some of the boys who are now behind bars.

Regarding a message that one of the boys sent following the death of his friend, Legane tweeted:

he’s on trial for that moment of grief, because black boys aren’t allowed to grieve.

Not an isolated case

Writing a Kids of Colour blog post in May 2021, one of the boys involved in the case shared:

The system has not only labelled me, which has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but made me feel as though it was set up to fail people like me.

Indeed, the state criminalises young people like him by design. Research by Manchester Metropolitan University academics Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke found that Black people are overwhelmingly overrepresented in joint enterprise convictions. Further, they found that prosecutors had described 78.9% of racially minoritised people imprisoned under joint enterprise as gang members, compared to only 38.5% of white people.

Meanwhile, police target working-class Black and brown boys and young men through stop and search, the gangs matrix and Knife Crime Prevention Orders. These are all rooted in racist, classist, and inaccurate ‘gangs’ narratives which seek to control and suppress marginalised young people.

Missed opportunities

Legane’s account of the trial highlights harrowing cases of systemic state neglect. For example, having been excluded from school and unable to find a job during the pandemic, one of the boys was pushed into homelessness. This extremely vulnerable young person was exploited by an adult to sell drugs so that he could feed himself and sleep with a roof over his head.

At every turn, this boy should have been provided with the support and safety he needed. Instead, he was left to fend for himself and pushed further to the margins of society. In court, his exploitation was used as evidence of ‘gang’ membership. This is a clear and familiar example of how the UK’s school-to-prison pipeline works.

According to Legane, the two boys who caused GBH in this case had already attempted to hurt someone at college. Instead of seeking routes to support and accountability, the college excluded them. This clearly represents a missed opportunity to prevent further harm from occurring.

We need support systems, not punishment

This case is so deeply unjust. While these boys will likely face years in prison for expressing their grief, the state and its institutions are emboldened in their deliberate neglect of vulnerable young people. The immediate reaction to this case should have been to surround them with love, care, and support. We should be seeing immediate investment in specialised youth services and safe spaces where young people can express and process their confusing thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Regarding the two boys who pleaded guilty to causing GBH – locking them up and throwing away the key is no route to justice or accountability. We will only see an end to the complex social issues that plague the lives of our young people through community-based restorative justice approaches that enable healing and growth. It is our collective responsibility to tackle youth violence at its root and to prevent further harm from occurring. Prisons and police do not and cannot facilitate this.

The government’s draconian ‘tough on crime‘ approach coupled with its exacerbation of the cost of living crisis is set against the backdrop of a decade of cuts to social services. As a result, we will no doubt see more and more vulnerable, racialised and working-class people pushed into the criminal justice system.

We must urgently work towards a society in which every child and young person is unconditionally nurtured and supported. We can achieve this through community-centred approaches, food and housing justice, a transformed education system, and real opportunities for young people to pursue their passions and talents.

Now is the time to stand in solidarity with these boys and their loved ones, and raise our collective voice to say that we do not accept this indefensible mass conviction.

Featured image via Tom Blackout/Unsplash 770 x 403px

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Get involved

Kids of Colour and the boys’ parents are asking people to contact Manchester MP Andy Burnham as well as Black MPs to raise concerns about this miscarriage of justice. The group is urging people to join a demonstration in solidarity with the boys on 28 May, and to bear witness to their sentencing at Manchester Crown Court on 30 June. People can learn more about the case through the Surviving Society podcast, and donate to Kids Of Colour’s radical work supporting marginalised young people via JustGiving.

Find out more about the joint enterprise doctrine and donate to support JENGba’s work on their website. Supporters can also sign their petition calling for a public inquiry to review all joint enterprise cases in thew wake of the 2016 Supreme Court ruling.

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  • Show Comments
    1. Meanwhile, on Champions League Final, TV commentator ex footballer, sitting next to Thierry Henry on international television PRAISED the liverpool fans for ruckus and riot created at entry gates for passing of fake tickets. That violence is white. Ergo condoned, blessed. A sign of charm…character even. Nice lads.

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