Justice for Jesse
Barbara Reid on her son’s murder
Some people advertise fetes, or amateur dramatics. But the posters in Barbara Reid's glazed porch urge witnesses to come forward with information about the murder of her son, Jesse.
Welcome to Moss Side, in South Manchester – or “Gunchester”, as increasing numbers of people call it.
Bathed in summer sunshine, it looks pleasant enough, if not overwhelmingly attractive. There’s a brewery, a second-hand furniture depot, some converted churches. Here and there, terraces of modest, red-brick housing are broken up by grassy scrub dotted with loitering teenagers, some of them almost certainly up to no good.
Barbara, 48, was born in Britain, and has lived in the area for 30 years. She's been in this street since before Jessie was born and retains many memories of bringing him up, along with his older siblings Rosemary and Elmo.
Jessie was good at art, Barbara says, as Rosemary silently distributes tea, and the supportive Pastor Michael Simpson, of Salford’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, settles in a chair nearby.
He wanted to be an architect, then an interior designer. “When he was 11 he started tampering with electrical things. I was a bit scared that he would wreck my things but I could see that he was interested and I encouraged him. One time, he pulled apart the computer. And he went into the stereo box. It wasn't working, but he fixed it. He was determined to do things and get them right. He gets a buzz out of it.”
Like others who have lost a child, Barbara still refers to Jessie occasionally in the present tense.
“I did my best over the years as a mother,” she says. “I had high hopes for all my children, that they would take to education and become better than myself. All parents want that.”
Certainly, none would ever wish to learn, as Barbara did early one night last September, that their child had been killed, shot three times at close range in the local park.
Details of the killing were relayed to the coroner this week by witnesses whose identity – and even their gender – had to be concealed for fear of reprisals.
They described how Jessie had spent the evening at a youth centre, then cycled off with friends towards a house party. One friend warned Jessie not to enter the park, but he disregarded that, and was followed by a group who had been gathered nearby. A witness saw sparks from a gun and watched Jessie collapse. “It was like I was watching one of them gangster films,” the witness said.
Only after more than an hour did Jessie’s friends dare to go back to the park. They found him by ringing his phone, which flashed in the dark. By the time medical help arrived, Jessie was dead.
A website set up in his memory soon become a forum for threats of retribution and speculation over the identity of his killers. The site is headlined A Fallen Soldier – a term used by street gangs to describe friends killed by rival gangs. But nobody has ever suggested that Jessie was a gang member – on the contrary, Barbara says he was killed because he refused to join a gang.
“He said, ‘Look, I have grown up with all of you, I just want to be Jessie – to be everybody's friend.’ They said, ‘If you don't take sides there going to be nuff blood around here.' Three weeks after that Jessie was a dead man.”
Recent research indicates that as many as 40% of gang members join up only reluctantly, under intense pressure. John Pitts, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Bedfordshire, says they have no choice.
“These young people are stuck on their estates, they can't get out because the waiting lists for social housing are so long there is nowhere for them to go. If they resist gang involvement they can be attacked, or their families can be.”
Even staying at home is not safe. In February two 15-year-olds, Michael Dosunmu, and Billy Cox were separately shot dead in their bedrooms in south London – accounting for just two out of 3,500 gun crimes in London over the last 12 months.
Though considerably smaller than London, Manchester has seen more than 3,000 firearms incidents – equivalent to seven gun crimes a day. In a month-long amnesty after Jessie’s murder, more than 400 weapons and 2,500 rounds of ammunition were handed in to police.
As a result, the life expectancy of many Afro-Caribbean males in Manchester is just 25 years, according to professor Gus John, who based the statistics on the number of gun or knife-related murders of young black people per 1,000 head of population since the early 1990s.
“What is perhaps more shocking,” professor John says, “is that many young black males in Manchester will tell you that they expect they might die young.”
The frightened community seems largely unable to do anything about changing this grim culture. For 11 months, no witnesses would identify Jessie’s murderers. But this week, as a result of publicity relating to the inquest, a witness came forward, providing information leading to the arrest of two men already in prison.
Barbara won’t be able to rest till there’s a conviction. “I can never rebuild my life until I get justice. It's a gaping wound in my heart that can't knit together.”
Before he died, Jessie was studying for his GCSEs to train as an electrician. But he had other practical skills too. “He would fix bikes and take them apart. His friends bring things and ask, ‘Jessie, can you fix this?' He had gifted hands. He was very skilful. He could fix anything in this house. He was my handyman.”
In this respect, as well as others, he bore little resemblance to the unambitious, broadly-criminal stereotype of black youth conjured up by a report published this week.
The independent Reach report called for a shift of focus “from rap stars, sports personalities and celebrities”, arguing that there is clear evidence of a deep-seated culture of low aspirations among black urban teenagers. Hoping to shift the focus, the report calls on successful black professionals to offer themselves as mentors.
Previous attempts to impose solutions from outside have had patchy results. Moss Side benefited from massive investment in regeneration, but locals point out that the work was done by outsiders. Others point out that grass-roots initiatives are consistently rejected by the council.
On these matters, Barbara defers to Pastor Simpson, a clean-shaven man in a smart suit. “They don't trust black people to do business,” he says.
That’s terrible, I say, finding it hard to believe. The pastor takes hold of a bunch of flowers, one of several bouquets sent to Barbara this week. “Smell the roses, my friend! They put black people into a position so that they fail. And then they can say, ‘You see'. That's not just my view, it's the view of the whole community, and not just in Manchester but everywhere.”
“One time, we wanted to work with children who are not yet in trouble. But they only wanted us to work with children who are already in trouble. You can't get funding for what we wanted to do because they can't measure the outputs. The policy is always reactive: ‘They're killing now, what should we do?'
“All we wanted from the council was property. We have two shops here that have been empty for years. We applied to use those buildings in 2001. They said they were being pulled down in 12 months. But they're still there!”
After Jessie was killed, many children gathered in the area. “We had no place to take them,” says the Pastor, whose church is several miles away. “We had to do a candlelit service in the park.”
“We do need black role models,” he agrees. “I recently took my son to Kenya. He's 16, and out there he saw people who were prime minister and doctors and lawyers and so on and they were all black. He was so surprised to see that black people have all those positions.
“On the radio today they were talking about a role model called ‘dad’. But most kids in the black community are growing up without their dads. And the ones who have dads see them struggling with unemployment or other problems.
Why are there so few fathers? “There is a link between what is happening now and the slave trade. Black males were used as a commodity to have offspring without responsibility. They would meet with a woman in a hut and then go back to the fields. So now it seems there is a God-given right to have children without responsibility.”
I feel awkward bringing the conversation back to Barbara – a single mother since Jessie was born – so slightly change the subject by asking how she discussed Moss Side’s criminal subculture with her youngest son.
“I constantly reminded him of good and bad, and what was going on in the community. If I hear something about a particular person I would tell him. If someone told me that X was smoking I would say, Jessie, is it true? I would try to be aware and point out the dangers.
With retrospect, after Jessie’s murder, it seems a little quaint to worry about smoking. But that’s the kind of parent Barbara was. “None of my children smoke or drink,” she says.
Which must have made it all the more shocking for her that Jessie’s older brother Elmo, was jailed for seven years in July last year for robbery and possession of an imitation firearm.
“I don't want to talk about Elmo,” she says firmly.
But surely his conviction makes her views all the more compelling. Who else could speak with such authority about gun culture, and how difficult it is for parents to keep their children out of it?
The subject plainly upsets her, and she raises her voice into a surprisingly harsh, denunciatory tone.
“When Jessie found out what Elmo did he said, ‘he has been stupid.' there was no need for him to do what he did. I don't smoke or drink and I have always put money to one side for the children. I never deprived my kids of anything. I go around in rags for them. What Elmo did is unforgivable.”
The very recollection makes it difficult for Barbara to conceal her fury. I regret having to bring it up, but push on. What did she say to Elmo?
“I told him I was disgusted and shocked. When I see what I have done for them and taken second place for them. Elmo let me down. He has debased himself and devalued himself, and brought shame on the family.
Elmo missed out on the service and he has not been to the grave to visit his brother. I go to see him regularly. I always encourage him. I said, OK, you made a mistake and you have to prove to yourself and me that you can make something of yourself.
“I do forgive Elmo. You do have to forgive – but not forget. Jesus said forgive, and I have to do that.”
Does she forgive Jessie’s killers? Or is it too early?
“It's too early. I was destroyed by what happened to Jessie. My life is in ruins. As the days go by, I am able to move on with my life. That young man or persons who have done this great evil – I leave him in the hands of God. It's only eleven months but I tell you that in my heart I feel sorry for him.
“But think of what he is putting me and my family through. We have no peace. He is basking in his glory while we are crumbling in pieces.”