The truth about ‘Warthamstow’

Marlowe Road Estate resident Michelle Edwards looks behind the infamous tabloid headline about her neighbourhood

Vallentin Road

Vallentin Road in Walthamstow was described by The Sun as “the UK’s most dangerous street” (credit Penny Dampier)

I was a teeny-weeny bit grateful when I saw the bold “WARTHAMSTOW” headline in The Sun.

Broadly speaking, when a local story goes national, it forces people to care about your  community and puts pressure on politicians.

Last month a community ward forum was organised by local councillors in Wood Street to discuss gang crime and what is being done to deal with it. Most in attendance saw it for what it was – another tick-box exercise. Newsflash: No gangster is going to disarm because of a bit of brainstorming and table-based discussion.

Still, the meeting was organised in record time, just ten days after the latest killing in Walthamstow. Given the wave of violence that continues to grip the capital, it’s unlikely the death of 19-year-old Guled Farah, who was gunned down outside Alpha Preparatory School on 22nd September, was ever going to be covered with sensitivity. But the shooting will forever be linked to Vallentin Road.

It’s important to say that the people in the area were understandably peeved at the coverage
by The Sun. They woke up one Thursday morning to find out they were suddenly living in the “UK’s most dangerous street”. Except, of course, it isn’t.

According to the “exclusive” report by the tabloid, Vallentin Road “has been the scene of around 200 serious crimes – including murder, arson, and sex attacks – in the past two years”. I spoke to Sergeant Paul Branney, from the Wood Street and Hoe Street Safer Neighbourhoods Team (SNT), about these figures. He looked at the same period and found 65 crimes in total for Vallentin Road, including 15 serious crimes– “similar to other roads of that size”.

The Sun investigation had followed a news piece about the death of Guled Farah which carried the limp headline “Murder Road”. On the same day that was published, locals claim reporters and photographers descended on Vallentin Road, stopping random passers-by to ask them: “What do you think of this road?”

One resident who was quoted by The Sun said he gave a positive contribution about living in
a “tight-knit community”, but that it didn’t make the cut of the final article. Now he’s  extremely anxious that local deviants may think he assisted them with their preferred piece centred around the Mali Boys gang.

On the subject of gangs, the piece draws almost exclusively from the June 2018 report From
Postcodes to Profits compiled by London South Bank University and commissioned by  Waltham Forest Council. It seems little or no independent effort was made to understand current gang activity in the borough beyond this, and even by using such a sound report,
the UK’s best-selling newspaper still managed to publish several careless inaccuracies.

Flowers and tributes in Vallentin Road

Flowers and tributes left for shooting victim Guled Farah (credit Michelle Edwards)

Consider, for example, their opening paragraph: “It has become the bloody centre of territory controlled by a gang running a ruthless campaign of drug dealing, violence and intimidation.”

From my experience, this is pure fiction. Because of the construction site
hoardings around the Marlowe Road Estate, I’m forced to use the footpath from Vallentin Road multiple times per week. I have never seen anything even resembling the description in The Sun. Nor are the residents I know “terrified”.

Also consider, the direct quote attributed by the article to a “rival gang member we spoke to”. It was, in fact, an edited version of a quote from a young person interviewed for the London South Bank study – you can find it on page 32. So did The Sun really speak to any gang members?

Since 41-year-old Jermaine Johnson was fatally stabbed in Vallentin Road in March, I have been monitoring unsolved crime. In connection with that incident, three people were arrested and one, a 17-year-old, was charged with murder and possession of an offensive weapon. He later went on trial at the Old Bailey, but the case against him was discontinued because of “insufficient evidence”.

That decision negatively impacted on the local community, with African-Caribbean people suggesting the authorities couldn’t care less because both the alleged perpetrator and victim were black. Four months later, a shopkeeper was smashed in the head in an attempted robbery. Luckily, he suffered no permanent injury. But his family say they’ve heard nothing about the investigation since and that they continue to be harassed by the perpetrator.

The London South Bank research does suggest there are twelve gangs active in Waltham Forest, and that the Mali Boys appear to wield the most power. In a free press, it is  appropriate that newspapers have a frank discussion about serious crime and its causes. But The Sun should have taken better care to ensure their sensational headline “WARTHAMSTOW” was supported by the story itself. It was not.