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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 09:58 GMT
Mothers' campaign against guns
By David Akinsanya
BBC One's Real Story

L-R: Cheryl Shaw, Charlene Ellis, Sophie Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare
Cheryl, Charlene, Sophie and Letisha were at a party with friends

Two mothers whose daughters were shot dead by gangsters in Birmingham travel to New York with a BBC TV crew in the hope of taking lessons back to their troubled community.

Underneath a bright, autumnal New York sky I'm standing, microphone ready, shaking with fear.

It isn't the cold that has me shivering - it is the thought of having to put awkward questions to the women standing opposite me.

They are Marcia Shakespeare and Beverley Thomas, the mothers of Letisha Shakespeare, 17, and Charlene Ellis, 18, the two college friends shot in a crossfire while celebrating New Year in Aston, Birmingham.

Beverley had never seen a bullet and wanted to touch it. She wanted to know what had killed her daughter.
Police say the friends were the innocent victims of a feud between two rival north Birmingham gangs. Charlene's twin sister, Sophie, and their cousin, Cheryl Shaw, were injured in the hail of bullets.

Cheryl's mother, Sandra, is also on the trip which is funded by Disarm, a group set up in the wake of the killings.

When I ask Beverley how she consoles the remaining twin on her birthday, she breaks down and I have to stop the interview. It is a searing moment and not the only time the women get upset.

L-R: Beverley Thomas, Marcia Shakespeare, Sandra Thomas and David Akinsanya
The women visited a youth group teaching the danger of guns
The previous night, they attended a ball hosted by Mothers Against Guns. They were handed certificates but the organisers had got the girls' names mixed up and put down the surviving twin, Sophie, as dead.

Another poignant moment is at the Fellowship and Peace Academy in Brooklyn where community worker and rastafarian, Richard E. Green, gives workshops to children - showing the damage guns can do.

Beverley had never seen a bullet and wanted to touch it. She wanted to know what had killed her daughter.

Mr Green, a charismatic man, strongly encourages children to "snitch" on friends who may have a gun. It is a clear message to young blacks in America.

He is talking to a group of 7-14 year-olds who, it turns out, each know of six people who have been shot.

During a break, I step outside with the mothers for a cigarette. We see 40 tiny black toddlers being led, hand in hand, from a nursery. It is a shame to think that by the time they are eight, they will know of several people injured or killed by bullets.

Firearms statistics: the reality of guns on our streets.

Our next stop is Rikers Island Jail which houses up to 14,000 inmates, many of them teenagers on remand or serving sentences of up to one year.

At the Island Academy, the prison's educational organisation, they meet young offenders who have held up petrol stations at gunpoint.

To stop the cycle of criminality, former gang members are working with the released prisoners to help them find other ways of surviving on the streets.

"It's made me realise that you can be in a gang and around guns but you can get out of it," says Beverley.

It strikes us we need more schemes like this at home to stop the UK's surging tide of gun crime. Between April and July this year, there were 637 incidents involving firearms around Birmingham alone, according to the West Midlands police.

Witness protection

Marcia, Beverley and Sandra, who have appealed to their community to expose the girls' killers, also believe Britain needs a better witness protection programme.

On a visit to the District Attorney's office in Queens, they are impressed with the gang experts, specialists in youth culture, who support victims coming forward with information.

New York's gun crime can never be compared to that in England, but there are certainly lessons to take home.

Police and the community must work together to solve this problem, the police need to know the community they're serving, and community leaders must speak out about what is going wrong.

Real Story: Monday 10 November 2003 at 1930 GMT on BBC One and streamed live on the Real Story website.

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