Thursday November 5th, 2020, was a cloudy day in Manchester and the temperature stubbornly hung around five degrees Celsius. It was miserable weather – the kind most, but not all, avoid by staying inside.
Moston is north-east of Manchester city centre, tucked below the M60 and five miles from Oldham. It was once the heart of Britain’s cotton industry, but like so many places it now struggled to identify itself beyond its aging housing stock, gaudy convenience stores, littered streets, and pavements that doubled as carparks. That Thursday evening Moston would become infamous for the murder of a sixteen-year-old boy – a death that would, over the next three years, lead to eighteen young men being jailed for a combined 292 years, and re-open the debate on the racial bias of England’s criminal justice system.
Piccadilly Gardens, in Manchester’s northern quarter, is a wedge-shaped piece of green, with multi-storey buildings on three sides and a busy tram and bus station on the fourth. It sits on the former site of the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the Manchester Royal Lunatic Asylum. During its last major redevelopment its sunken garden was removed, flat plain lawns were laid, new paths were added, and a large oval fountain was installed. Despite the £20 million investment problems quickly emerged with the new design. Turf was frequently damaged, the public complained about the ‘cold, modernistic’ style of the layout, and the Gardens attracted antisocial behaviour.
At around 2.30pm on Thursday 5th a group of teenage boys entered the Gardens. Police would later claim the boys were part of the M40 gang – the ‘40′ designated the postcode where the boys lived. Once in the Gardens a violent attack took place on a lone teenage male whom police suggested was part of a rival gang from Oldham, the RTD (“Representing The Danger”). The victim was chased through the Gardens before being ‘punched, kicked, stamped on and stabbed.’ Having survived the attack, he contacted other members of RTD. Exactly what was said is not known.
By 7pm thirteen members of RTD entered the M40 postcode area on what police reasoned was a revenge mission. Some were armed: knives, machetes, metal rods and poles. They travelled down Moston Lane on foot and turned into the top of Kenyon Lane, past an undertaker on the corner. As the RTD entered Kenyon Lane they spotted the teenagers from Piccadilly Gardens, who were fewer in number, and a brawl broke out. The fighting was vicious; weapons were used by both groups.
The Piccadilly Gardens group realised they were outnumbered and in a bid to get away, ran across the car park that separates Kenyon Lane and Ebsworth Street and continued down Birchenall Street. One of them, sixteen-year-old Alexander “John” Soyoye was injured and struggled to keep up. By the time he reached the corner of Birchenall and Hartley Street, he fell to the ground. Within seconds he was surrounded by nine RTD members and was subjected to a frenzied assault. He was struck, stabbed, slashed, and kicked. The attack was filmed by one of the RTD.
John died at the scene from his injuries.
The corner pavement where John was murdered is ugly: patchy dark tarmac, waist-high metal bollards with chipped black paint, a cheap green wire fence and behind it an overgrown plot of land, abandoned except for a couple of broken wheelie bins. There is a decaying wooden telephone pole, and next to it a metal pipe protruding from the pavement five feet high – it has no purpose. This is a bleak place to die.
The First Trial
One of John’s attackers, 19-year-old Brent Tchipenda, was injured during the initial brawl on Kenyon Lane. After participating in the second attack Tchipenda made his way to the Royal Oldham Hospital by taxi. He discarded his rucksack and blood-stained outer clothing outside the A&E department, and told staff he had been the victim of an assault in Oldham. Detectives, who were now leading a murder investigation into John’s death, were alerted to Tchipenda’s A&E admission. Sceptical of his explanation about his injuries they visited him and subsequently arrested him on suspicion of murder. Seven further arrests were made during November and December 2020. In March 2022, after an eleven-week trial, seven defendants were found guilty of murder, including Tchipenda and a sixteen-year-old. The eighth defendant was found guilty of manslaughter. Their combined jail sentences totalled 161 years. Police continue to seek five additional suspects who are believed to have fled the country.
The Second Trial
News of John’s murder travelled fast. He was popular and looking older than his sixteen years he was a leader amongst his peers. He was a talented rapper performing regularly at Pie Radio’s Shutdown Sessions under his stage name, Morsley or MD.
Within hours of his death a wave of chatter filled social media and messaging platforms. Short video clips and photos of John were shared; some commented on John’s musical talents, others on his generosity. There was speculation about his killing – who, how, why.
One Telegram channel used by a small but diverse group of John’s friends initially spoke of grief and distress at John’s death. Over the next couple of days, the sentiment changed to one of anger and possible revenge. For most on the channel the comments were empty rage and hollow threats. They were venting and verbalising their despair at John’s senseless killing. Nothing that was posted was ever acted on, and the few names that were mentioned in the chat were never harmed.
Within a month of John’s death, the individual who set up the Telegram channel instigated an assault which the police subsequently called a revenge attack. The victim had not been mentioned in the Telegram chat. There would be a second assault on a second victim in December by two other users of the channel. Like the first, the second victim had never been spoken about in the chat. Both attacks were violent, involving machetes and the use of a car as a weapon.
It appeared the two attacks were unrelated to the Telegram channel as neither had ever been referenced or included in any of the chats. The police thought otherwise and by April 2021 they arrested ten young males who had used the channel.
The Super Court
In March 2022, the ten appeared in Manchester’s ‘super court,’ a £2.5 million purpose-built facility designed to hold gang related trials. The inside is three times the size of a usual courtroom and allows for trials with up to 12 defendants. It’s a space that proudly and deliberately announces the largeness of the law and its licence to intimidate.
Marking its opening in September 2021, Courts Minister Lord Wolfson QC declared the super court “will get gang-related suspects in front of judges quicker – sending a message to would-be criminals that the justice system stands ready to hold them to account.”
The building is testimony to the government and law enforcement’s obsession with the ‘gang’ construct, and their overzealous, on occasion illogical, application of it. Knowing the gang construct is heavily racialised and highly discriminatory in nature we are left wondering how balanced the scales of justice are in a building that is so overtly politicised.
The ten on trial were young Black men. Some had never met each other. They were loosely connected through schools and church and music, but primarily through a grief-fuelled Telegram channel that was active for less than a month. Two of the accused spent a mere fourteen and twenty minutes respectively on the channel, contributing twenty-two messages out of 345 between them. One had been prescribed antidepressants as a result of John’s death.
The prosecution service asserted they were a gang, which meant they would face the all-encompassing charge of conspiracy: one count of conspiracy that ‘led to harm’ in the November and December 2020 attacks, a second count that other ‘potential harms’ may happen at some point in the future. The prosecution’s conspiracy strategy made all ten into ‘principal defendants’ by their mere association. Equally importantly, it meant their words and thoughts alone could be deemed criminal – an act of violence didn’t need to be proved.
The trial concluded in May 2022: four were found guilty of conspiracy to murder, three were sentenced to twenty-one years and one to twenty years; six were found guilty of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm and sentenced to eight years each.
A couple of miles from Piccadilly Gardens and five miles from Birchenall Street is the Geoffrey Manton Building. It’s part of the Manchester Metropolitan University campus where Dr Patrick Williams works. Dr Williams is a Senior Lecturer and specialises in race and the criminal justice system, with a particular focus on the legal and racial constructs of gangs.
In 2016 he produced a research paper titled Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism. His conclusion is sobering: “…responding to serious youth violence through the ‘gang’ construct is deeply flawed and likely to be unsuccessful.”
The Manchester Ten, as they have come to be referred to, highlight the judiciary’s predisposition to view relationships, however informal, amongst Black men with alarm. Grief and participation on a Telegram channel were the only things that tied some of the ten youths to each other; yet that loose association was allowed to be presented in the more menacing form of a ‘gang,’ dangerously recontextualising what had been shared on the messaging platform. Holding the trial at Manchester’s Super Court allowed the prosecution to complete their powerful gang narrative despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
Academics have frequently remarked on the racial bias of the ‘gang’ construct, and the continued reinforcement of that bias by the police, the judiciary, government, and mainstream media. The popular rhetoric, gangs are urban, wear hoodies, and listen to rap, subtly manipulates us into a false view of a certain part of society.
In the case of the Manchester Ten it is worth reflecting on who exactly the gang makers really were.
©2023 Sul Nowroz