Photo courtesy of Margaret Mizen
“It’s easy to talk about peace and love in an idealistic way, but life’s not as simple as that. Many young people live in situations that are dire. We have to take practical steps to make their lives better.”
Margaret Mizen knows what she’s talking about.
On Saturday, May 10, 2008, her son Jimmy, one of nine children, was murdered in a South London bakery.
An unprovoked attack
Jimmy was standing in line with his brother, waiting to get served, when they got into an altercation with a young man who was trying to push past them.
“Some manners wouldn’t go amiss,” is reportedly all that Jimmy said before he and his brother were attacked. During the ensuing fight, the young man picked up a glass serving dish and smashed it into Jimmy’s head, severing an artery.
Jimmy fled to the back of the shop, where he collapsed into his brother’s arms. Margaret rushed down to the scene and reportedly fainted at the sight.
Jimmy bled out before his father could arrive.
Jimmy’s murder became a big media story and lead to much soul searching in British society about youth violence and what to do about it. Inevitably, such violence also led to strong condemnations of the lack of morals in today’s youth.
For Margaret and her husband Barry, however, it was not enough to point fingers and lay blame.
Moving beyond blame and revenge
Recalling that traumatic day, Margaret recounts how she made a pact to honor Jimmy’s memory:
“That night, I promised Jimmy two things. I would keep his name alive, and I would dedicate my life to working for peace. We weren’t out for revenge, or retribution. We asked the media to leave the family of the boy who killed Jimmy alone. And we set about healing our lives.”
Practical peace building
The process of healing has taken Margaret, Barry and their entire family on a journey of outreach. They’ve spoken in schools and prisons about the dangers of youth violence. They’ve set up a foundation in Jimmy’s name which has opened two successful cafes employing youths. There are plans for four more in the works. They’ve raised funds for mini buses (known in London as Jimmy Buses) to facilitate positive youth activities. And they’ve reached out to other families afflicted by inner city violence:
“Our son was a fine young man. All of his friends are fine young people. Talking about children as thugs and losers doesn’t solve anything. The youth are brilliant. We go into prisons and schools and affirm young people. Most people are good, but they make bad decisions. We have to tell them how special they are.”
The results, says Margaret, have been astounding. She and Barry have had young men convicted of murder crying on their shoulders, telling them how sorry they are for their actions and what they’ve done. They’ve seen previously disruptive children turn their lives around and become leaders in their schools, simply as a result of hearing Jimmy’s story and reflecting on their own actions:
“All we need in life is to know that we matter — do you love me, am I of value, am I of worth? We tell these children that we love them, that they are of value, that they have worth. Many of them have never heard that before. And then we work to find ways that they can fulfill that value.”
The constraints of gang culture
In London, as in many parts of the world, there is a serious culture of gang violence. And that culture, as much as anything, makes it hard for children to leave a life of violence behind. But Margaret is adamant that a cultural shift is coming:
“I was just talking to 700 young people the other day. Most people are looking for ways out of the problem, but the gang culture and peer pressure makes it very hard to leave. It’s even harder once you are actually caught up in the violence first hand.”
Bad decisions have consequences
Margaret recalls how she was in court the other week with another family who had lost a child to knife crime. The perpetrator seemed surprised at the results of his own actions:
“He just kept saying ‘I had this knife. All I did was touch him gently with it.’ And yet that knife pierced the boys heart and killed him. We have to help these children make better decisions.”
Politicians and media alike love to talk about getting tough on crime, and even in Britain, where the death penalty for murder was abolished in the '60s, there are sporadic calls for a harsher form of justice. Margaret audibly recoils at the notion of retribution:
“I’ve never met the boy who killed Jimmy and I probably never will. But if he were to be hung today at noon, it wouldn’t fix a thing. It would leave me feeling more horrible than anything I can possibly imagine.”
Victim > Perpetrator > Victim > ?
As our conversation continues, we dive into a discussion about the impossibility of fitting complex people into neat little boxes. We are all potential victims. And we are all potential perpetrators. The real problem is that there is often a direct link between children being victimized and then turning to violence as a result:
“Many perpetrators of violent crime have a history of a parent being an alcoholic or abuser, and we wonder why they turn to violence. Some of the murders we see are perpetrated by children as young as 10. What are we going to do – lock them all up for life? They go from being a victim, who we all agree is deserving of our support, to being a murderer who nobody wants to know. Often on the basis of one bad decision.”
In the process of establishing The Jimmy Mizen Foundation, the family has built alliances across London and beyond. They have worked with local businesses to declare them CitySafe Havens where children can seek refuge from violence. They’ve reached out to politicians to tackle the root causes of violence. And Margaret has stood alongside other mothers who have lost their sons, including Grace Idowu, whose son David was stabbed just 50 yards from his own home, and with whom Margaret has launched a project called Release The Peace:
“Grace and I are known around London as mothers who are taking a stand. We stand together, united for peace, and we are encouraging other mothers to stand with us. We are not doing it to get our names in the paper. We are doing it because our sons were murdered, and we’ve had enough.”
Reliving the story
Given the awful story of Jimmy’s death, I ask Margaret how she has found the courage to face the issue of youth violence head on. Isn’t it hard, I suggest, to relive Jimmy’s story and be confronted by children who have committed such violence? She seems surprised that this is even a question:
“It’s not hard for me to share Jimmy’s story. I don’t find it a problem. I retell the story two or three times a week and I go into every horrible detail. I could have stayed in bed. I could have retreated. My family could have given up too. But who’d have won from that? All of my children work in Jimmy’s organization. None of us want to give up.”
The ups and downs of parenthood
Margaret and Barry have now turned their experiences into a book "Jimmy: A Legacy for Peace," looking not just at Jimmy’s life, but the whole experience of parenthood:
“I always thought I was a strong person before Jimmy’s murder, but I never realized how strong. I have nine children. I have a daughter with Down syndrome and another with mental illness. None of this is easy. The ups and downs of family life are incredible. And life as a parent can be tough. But it’s so rewarding. We can give these children so much.”
A challenge for peace
As we bring our conversation to a close, I ask Margaret if there is anything else she’d like to add. She shifts the conversation from ideas and stories into action:
“When I go into schools and prisons, I issue these children a challenge. I ask them to take some action for peace. They might paint a picture. They might reach out to someone they’ve hurt. It doesn’t matter what it is — we all have to start building the world we want to see. I’d like to issue that same challenge to you — and to your readers: commit yourself to doing something that builds peace for you and your community.”
Despite the violent story that brought Margaret to my attention, we make a tentative plan to meet one day. (I should disclose that this is the first time I have cried during an interview — yet we finish our conversation laughing.)
“You know it’s my dream to take a road trip with my children across America to talk about the need for peace," says Margaret. "Violence is a problem everywhere, and there are so many people working to solve that problem. One day, we’ll come and see what’s happening over there.”
I offer Margaret my services as a facilitator and a researcher for her travels, and then I start making plans for what else I can do to promote peace. I am reminded that Jimmy Mizen’s story is clearly a powerful one. And Margaret is the perfect person to tell it.
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Photos courtesy of Margaret Mizen.