An encounter with a former gang member who has 'seen people get stabbed' in Newcastle

'Jay' speaks exclusively to Kris Jepson about life during and after being a Newcastle gang member

It is just after eight in the evening and it has been raining for much of the day.

The cameraman suggests we film the interview in a tunnel under the rail lines in the centre of Newcastle.

"It'll give us cover," he says. Cover from the rain - and cover for who we are about to meet.

As we recce the site, we hear footsteps. They get louder and closer. The anticipation releases a burst of adrenalin - and it is somewhat nerve-racking at the same time.

Will he be with other gang members? Will he be tooled up? Will he take offence to my line of questioning?

He appears from the shadows of an archway. It's the first time we've met in person, but through intermediaries we've had indirect contact for several months.

It's been a delicate negotiation to get to this point and trust has been built.

Kris Jepson conducts an interview that took months of negotiation and trust-building to secure. Credit: ITV News

He greets us with a swagger, but wants to know how we will film him and, more importantly, how we will protect his identity. He's wearing a balaclava, shades and a winter jacket, but asks us to disguise his voice.

Jay - not his real name -is a former gang member. He's been in and out of Newcastle gangs since he was a young teenager.

He tells us he's no longer involved in a gang, but the way he talks, it feels like he still has allegiances. He says he needs his identity protecting, because just speaking to us could put him in danger.

I ask him how he ended up in a gang. He says: "It’s just your mates innit. I wouldn’t really call it a gang, but that’s what other people see. They see wor as a gang."

For a group of mates, it must have been difficult to leave the fold, I ask. He agrees.

"It’s hard coz they’re your mates," he explains. "They’re people you love and care about. People you'd go to war for. People who become like family. And trying to tell them that (you're leaving) ... well, it’s hard."

He describes how a lack of opportunities led to him dealing drugs.

"We don't get no help," he adds. "We're just left to do whatever. If someone comes over and says 'do you wanna make a bit of money? Just sell that'. If I'm not selling it, someone else will do it."

With the dealing of drugs, also came the threat of "opps" or rivals and that inherently was dangerous for him.

Jay explains: "If they come in our section, then we gotta do what we gotta do. We're gonna get them. Chase them down and let them know they can't come in our area... through fists, and if they're carrying, we'd be carrying as well."

The former gang member admits to having carried a knife for 'protection'. Credit: ITV News

"Did you carry a knife?" I ask. "Yeah," he answers.

"Have you ever used it?"

He pauses and then replies: "I never used it, but the situation never happened. I’ve had mates who’ve used one. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, y'kna... I’ve seen people get stabbed."

The interview inevitably enters a subject area I know I need to probe.

Cautiously, I go on. "Are you carrying now?"

"I’m not gonna to talk about that on camera," he says.

I press him.

"How does that make you feel, that you’re carrying a knife that is essentially a lethal weapon? It could be used to kill somebody."

He dismisses the premise of the question, saying: "You don’t think about it, do you? Because, you’ve gotta think, if I bump into my opps and they catch me by myself and I’ve got that, then I’m safe aren’t I? So you’re protected."

I ask him what it's like to potentially walk around with a target on his back, when he talks about "opps".

"It’s hard innit, coz you’ve gotta watch your back," he says. "Every day you walk out, you could bump into them. It’s just what it is, you’ve got to look over your shoulder all the time."

I interject: "Is it scary?"

He continues: "Well, yeah, 100 per cent like, leaving the house... when you’re with your mates you’re alright and that, but there could be a time where you’re not with your boys and then you get caught sleeping.

"Obviously if you do get caught sleeping, then I’ve got my boys and we’ll get them back."

Jay defends drill music. Credit: ITV News

I started looking into gangs in Newcastle a year ago after Northumbria Police admitted for the first time that there was an issue in the city.

As my investigation unfolded, it appeared there was a correlation across the country between gangs of youths and drill music - a form of rap that was recently described by a judge in Newcastle as "pernicious", because it "tends to glorify violence".

I move the conversation with "Jay" onto this genre of music.

He says: "Music's obviously like a way out, innit. To get off the streets. You rap what you're going through. It's just our life."

I ask him if it is acceptable to glorify violent acts within the drill music lyrics, posing to him that it can appear intimidating to members of the public too, seeing gangs in balaclavas and carrying knives.

He responds: "You know, everyone’s always saying something bad about drill music and rapping about this, but that’s my reality.

"That’s what we see. That’s what we have to go through, y'kna? The normal person doesn’t have to watch their back, so we’re only talking about what we go through, so we can find a way out as well."

And with that, our interview is over.

He walks back into the city he once dealt drugs in - a city he once carried a knife in - a city where, even now he's 'out', he still has to look over his shoulder in.

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