It was late at night when Patsy McKie heard the knock at her front door. Thinking it was her brother returning home, she opened the door, to be confronted by a young man brandishing a gun.
“Where is he?” he shouted. McKie didn’t have a clue what he meant. Eventually the youth worked out that he had come to the wrong house and stormed off.
That was 1998 and McKie’s first encounter with the gun violence that was to change her life.
In August 1999, her youngest son Junior, a boy with a broad beam of a smile, would be gunned down, just 15 minutes’ walk away from her house in Hulme, South Manchester.
He had been on his way to a game of basketball; he was just 20 years old. The police said it was a case of mistaken identity.
Junior had become a statistic, another innocent victim of gang warfare. The week that Junior was killed, two other young men in Manchester were shot dead.
Patsy McKie is an elegant grandmother. Her life had previously centred on her church, her job as a social worker and her family. A devout Pentecostal Christian, she channelled her sorrow. She wanted to know why her son had been murdered.
A friend suggested that she join the Manchester branch of Mothers Against Violence, a support group originally founded in America and dedicated to helping the families of young men killed by gangs.
“The mothers decided it was time to do something,” says McKie. She is sitting on a green velvet sofa in the living room; she turns her face away as she speaks of her son.
Mothers Against Violence is challenging society to recognise the terrifying scale of the gang culture that is leading young men and women — especially in the black community into a brotherhood built on drugs and guns.
A police report published in 2002 estimated that the total cost of gun violence to Manchester’s economy is around £5 million a year.
In the last four years, McKie has met the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and, more recently, the new Leader of the Opposition.
The mothers are taking an increasingly active role in formulating policy on gang violence. They have fought for tighter control of gun sales and tougher sentences for carrying guns. They are confident and gutsy; politicians and police officers defer to them.
“There will now be a five-year minimum sentence for gun possession,” says McKie. “We wanted it to be ten. We are expecting changes all round.
“The Government is becoming more switched on — because they have to deal with people like me who are in their face.
“This is where God’s promises have come to pass in my life. We have sat with the Prime Minister and we have made him aware of the issues. Mr Blunkett had heard what was going on, but we gave him some inside details.” Now the chair of the Manchester branch of Mothers Against Violence, McKie recently travelled to Boston to meet her American counterparts. She was impressed by the collaboration there between the Church and the police.
In many American cities, priests and pastors act as intermediaries, negotiating between gang members and the police. There is a strong religious theme to this work: some pastors even think of themselves as missionaries. “At the end of the meetings at the police station, everyone held hands and prayed together,” says McKie.
According to the mothers, drugs are at the root of gang violence. “Drug dealers get a gun to protect themselves from theft,” explains McKie.
But an even more important factor is the way men abandon their families. In many cases, gang leaders become substitute fathers.
“The issue of the problems caused by fatherlessness came up right at the start,” recalls McKie.
“When we began the group, some people suggested we call it ‘Parents Against Violence’. But the mothers got angry and said: ‘Where are the fathers?’ “Only recently, there was a case of a young man who was shot. His father came to see him after the shooting, and the son asked him: ‘Where were you when I needed you?’ ” Children often find themselves forced into the role of family breadwinner. They are vulnerable to the easy lure of drug money and the power and status that gang membership provides.
There are also more complex racial issues at work. “We find that a lot of the young men who do the shooting are of mixed parentage. Surveys back that up,” says McKie. “These kids grow up in one-parent families. The black father was, maybe, somewhere else. The mother is usually white. The children were ridiculed and looked down upon: they weren’t black, they weren’t white, they were in-between.
“The man who is supposed to be the father, who is black, doesn’t own them properly, so a lot of them were angry with their fathers. A black young fella, a gang leader will remind them of their fathers.” For the past two years, Mothers Against Violence has collaborated with Manchester police on their Multi-Agency Gang Strategy — a new initiative to crack down on the gun and gang culture. Bringing together social services, probation and education, the strategy targets gang members and provides support “for alternative and more posi tive life choices”.
The philosophy is to tackle those factors which lead to criminal gang involvement, alongside tough law-enforcement measures for those who persist in criminal activity. Gang members who “reject the offer for change” are subject to “rigorous and enhanced legal action”. In plain speak, the urban community has finally declared enough is enough.
Mothers Against Violence is not only concerned with gang members: they need to persuade the community to speak out.
McKie explains: “Many people have information about crimes but are afraid to speak out because they are threatened by gang members that their houses will be burnt down and their families harmed.
“Often, the police have some idea who is guilty, but they need evidence that will stand up in court.” Despite her awful experience, McKie is prepared to meet the sort of gang members who shot her son. “If anyone can tell me where a gang is hanging out, I’m willing to go there and meet them.” Those gang members she has met paint a horrific picture of life on the streets. “These are young men of 12, having sex with girlfriends of 21, who are already selling drugs and being beaten up,” she says.
“A boy was telling me all this, and I was sitting there with my mouth wide open and thinking: Am I hearing this? A young man of 12! Where is his mother? Where is his father? But as far as he is concerned he is already the breadwinner.” McKie’s empathy with these young men is born of her Christian faith. She has never sought retribution for her son, and has fully forgiven his killers.
“I never went to court because I don’t want justice from man,” she says. “I wanted justice from God. What I want is my son back. Who can give me that? Only God.
“I believe I’ve got justice already, because nobody who kills somebody lives free. I found it very easy to forgive Junior’s killers. I think of what God has forgiven me, for killing his son on the cross.
“As soon as I knew Junior was dead, I said to God: ‘Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.’ ” In hindsight, McKie can see that she was being prepared for Junior’s death.
She says her faith had deepened watching evangelical Christian television channels. “I learned more from those programmes than I did from 20 years of churchgoing,” she says.
“I heard lots of testimonies, the testimonies of people who had gone through great suffering, but who had come through and seen the benefits of their pain. So my faith started building up, and I realised that there was a purpose and a plan in all of our lives.” McKie’s reawakening of faith coincided with increasing concern for the physical and mental wellbeing of her youngest child. It was as if she had a premonition of the tragedy.
Junior had never been a gang member himself, but he had friends who were involved. She recalls that, one afternoon, a group of young men arrived at their house and tried to shoot Junior through his bedroom window.
“After that, I was praying for Junior and his friends with a passion. But one day God said to me: ‘Don’t worry about Junior. He will bring his peers to know me’‚ and I thought: That sounds very good, Lord. This is what I want for my son.” When Junior was first shot, she thought he would survive. “I never though he would die. Afterwards, I went through my pain, and every now and then I would go to God and say: How is my son going to bring his peers to know you when he’s dead?
“And God said: You are only feeling a little bit of what I felt when my son was hung on the cross. I am bearing most of the pain for you.” Then something quite unexpected happened: Junior’s death brought reconciliation. “In the weeks after my son died, this place was full of young people whom I ministered to,” says McKie. “Some were young men whom I hadn’t seen for years, who’d maybe been to church and left.” She firmly believes that all Britain’s Churches have a responsibility to address the gang problem.
“I really believe the Church has lost its way in why it is here,” she says.
“That applies whichever denomination you come from — Catholic or Pentecostal. We divide ourselves so much that we are no help to anybody.
“We are the light and the world is in darkness. We need to switch on that light.” Mothers Against Violence can be contacted on 07985 490333