What happened to Michael?
In November 2017, 16-year-old Jhemar Jonas’ brother Michael was stabbed to death in Betts Park, Penge, in south London. Nobody has been convicted of the 17-year-old’s murder.
Jhemar has been speaking to his mentor of four years, Ciaran Thapar, about what it’s like to lose a brother to knife crime – and about the pressures teenagers like him growing up in London are under.
“As a youth worker, I have met many strong, resilient young men and women who overcome the barrier of normalised violence in their social environment,” says Thapar.
“Jhemar is one of these people – despite everything, he remains positive about his future, and determined to contribute to his community and wider society.”
But voices like his are rarely heard. “Usually the focus is on violent crimes, perpetrators and direct victims, rather than the perspectives of those who rise above the trappings of inner-city life,” says Thapar.
The following is Michael’s story in Jhemar’s own words – as told to Ciaran Thapar.
“I’ll never forget the moment I found out what had happened to Michael.
I’m playing on my PlayStation 4, driving one of my favourite cars, when my mum comes in from work.
‘Did Daddy tell you what happened to Michael?’ she asks me.
I drop my controller on to the floor.
I tell my mum I want to go to the place where it happened – where Michael was stabbed. I go to my room to get changed. I pick out a random tracksuit and slap on some trainers. Then someone comes to pick us up to take us to Betts Park.
We arrive at the park. I’m seeing the forensic team. I’m seeing my dad crying. I don’t think I’ve seen my dad crying before.
The ambulance team say it isn’t a normal knife that killed him. Even they look overwhelmed.
It doesn’t feel real.
I’m so angry – I want to find the people who did this. But then I think to myself, ‘I’m not God, I’m not a parent, I didn’t give life’.
Michael and I hadn’t spoken in a year. He’d faced his own problems, and I know he had a lot of anger.
But I also know he was leaving the negative things behind. He was working hard at college and trying to better himself.
He was studying engineering. I’m doing an aeronautical engineering course at college, so we could’ve buss mechanical jokes together.
He was the most loyal person I know. I think that’s why I’m so loyal. He always had my back, no matter what.
He died on a Thursday, and I had a phone call organised with him on the following Sunday.
Then we were going to see each other at Christmas. I was looking forward to playing PS4, catching up and hearing about how he was getting on.
Me and Michael always used to play PlayStation games like GTA 5, and talk about the cars on them.
We were both keen to get our own cars. It was a regular conversation we would have with my dad. We’d speak about what cars we would get when we passed our driving test.
We’re a family of transport gurus. My dad’s a bus driver, and I’ve always dreamed of being a pilot.
Recently, I went to look at cars with Jerome, my younger brother. We went to different showrooms across London. It was upsetting that Michael wasn’t there with us.
You know what the worst thing about this is? It’s that I didn’t get to speak to Michael before it happened.
If I could speak to him now, I’d ask him what he was planning to do with his life.
I think if I’d spoken to him before he was taken from us, I’d feel more at peace.
Right now, London is a shambles. You’ve got loose-headed teenagers running around with knives and guns, thinking it’s normal. But you can’t always blame them, cause they’re products of their environment.
I’m only 16, but I know someone who has had a gun held to their head. I know of someone who was kidnapped. I know about a guy who was stabbed 23 times because of where he lived.
Every day when I leave my front door, I think about how I might not make it home.
How crazy is that?
Recently I was sat in my front room and I heard a gun sound outside – it went “ch-ch-BOW!” – and two more shots followed.
And you know what? It didn’t even surprise me. I thought, ‘Rah, when did hearing gunfire become normal in my head?’ Then I found out the person who had been shot was someone I had played football with a few days before.
Another time I went shopping with Jerome to buy our mum something for Mother’s Day. We saw someone pull out a samurai sword in the middle of the road and chase after someone else, who managed to get away.
My 13-year-old brother and I nearly witnessed a murder right in front of us.
When I speak to youngers – such as the boys I mentor – I tell them they shouldn’t have a knife.
I ask them why they feel the need to carry a knife. It makes them think harder about their actions. I say to them, ‘You know you can use your hands and feet to defend yourself?’
And I tell them that if the other person has a knife, ‘Run’.
Running is actually smart, you know. And carrying a knife doesn’t make you a big man – it really doesn’t.
At the end of the day, when someone is stabbed, it doesn’t just harm them, it also harms their family, their community.
The ‘postcode wars’ are getting worse, and messing it up for everyone. If you’re a young person in London and you wear a tracksuit, you can’t just roam around the area you’ve grown up in anymore.
I was robbed last year, not far from where I live. I handed my phone over because I didn’t know if they had a weapon on them. I don’t think they even wanted the phone, it was just to make a statement.
Some boys do stupid stuff, just for their reputation.
The thing is, society tells you that you need money. Social media, music, films, advertising – they say you need money, you need to buy things. Money is the motive.
So why are adults so confused when some yute is drug-dealing? He’s got no money, his mum’s broke, his dad’s broke, maybe his parents ain’t even there, and maybe the kid is paying the bills.
Then you’ve got the idiots that choose that lifestyle.
What are they doing?
If you have food on the table and a loving family and you still wanna sell drugs and do violence, then your screws have fallen out, fam.
Also, when we get stop-and-searched by police, it can create more tension.
Not long ago, I was walking through Clapham where I went to school, and two police cars came down the road towards me and stopped. Five officers got out. One of them grabbed my bag and demanded I open it. So I asked him calmly and politely to please take his hand off my bag. He did, and I showed him that I only had school folders and a tub of Vaseline inside.
Why did they need so many grown men to speak to me, a teenager? Why did the policeman feel like he could put his hands on me like that? Is he my dad?
I’ve learned to communicate in those situations. But not everyone is capable of that. It makes you feel violated and some people lose their temper.
At the same time, people always complain about police, and that’s not good either. It’s frowned upon in my community to join the police force, and that’s just as bad.
We need better relationships with police to make things safer.
Everyone says that in London there are all these opportunities for young people. It’s true. But they don’t realise that opportunities aren’t available for teenagers who need the most attention.
I don’t mean a ‘shove-police-sirens-in-their-face’ type of attention.
I mean appropriate care that will mould their character – like having a mentor or counsellor they can speak to.
Boys and girls need help to find something they are passionate about, something creative to keep them active, because school doesn’t work for everyone.
Me? I try not to be a product of my environment. I keep myself to myself. I stay busy.
I’ve always had the support of those around me – family members, mentors, teachers. I’m thankful for that.
I’ve got church. I enjoy making music. I do all kinds of sports. I’ll take myself off to the swimming pool, or the BMX track. When I’m riding, I’m taking in that fresh air, applying myself and concentrating.
I’m on the youth board for the Mayor’s Fund For London. When we meet, we think of ideas for helping young people.
In January, I went to Parliament to a discussion with MPs about how to stop knife crime. It was hella mad sitting in one of those committee rooms with the high ceilings! It made me feel like I was a step closer to helping the world.
I’ve started college this year. Then I might go to university or do an apprenticeship.
I want to start my own business – most likely a car dealership.
I dream big and believe great things are possible. That’s my secret.
Jhemar was talking to @CiaranThapar – a youth worker and writer based in London.