n his first day at secondary school, Terroll Lewis packed a knife in his shoe and a screwdriver in his blazer pocket and headed into class, primed for trouble. Just 11, he was already a member of a notorious south London gang, OC, which stood for Organised Crime.
It was an inauspicious start to his adolescence, and it quickly got much worse. By 16, Lewis had graduated from knives to guns, he was a drug dealer who had been stabbed and shot at — and by 21 he was on remand at Belmarsh, where he remained for 11 months before being acquitted. It was only then that Lewis had time to reflect and made the decision to get strong “mentally and physically” to change the trajectory of his life.
Fast-forward 10 years and Lewis, 31, is indeed a reformed man, known these days as the founder of the much-admired Brixton Street Gym. Currently deserted due to lockdown, it has become known for its diversity, where bankers train alongside prisoners released on tag and where young people caught up in gang culture are mentored between bench-presses to re-evaluate their lives.
It is a transformation that has led to Lewis being named an Evening Standard Next Generation Trailblazer as well as one of Men’s Health magazine’s most inspirational black men of 2020.
And now, with his just-published memoir One Chance, Surviving London’s Gangs — and with the launch of the Standard’s Young London SOS appeal — Lewis talked about the hidden mental health cost of gangs on teenagers, and how, 10 years after leaving the gang, it still haunts him. “I used fitness to turn my life around and so people think, that’s me, sorted, but being exposed to violence from a young age impacts your mind in the long term,” said Lewis. “For years I sat in a cloud of pain. This book is part of my healing.”
His story offers insights for our appeal, launched to highlight the mental health impact on young people of the pandemic and where we have partnered with Place2Be, the UK’s largest provider of schools-based mental health services. His testimony is especially salutary for disaffected children who get drawn into gangs — and the bill that they, and society, pay down the line.
Lewis was raised on Brixton’s troubled Myatt’s Field and Angell Town estates — the latter featured as the flagship of the Standard’s 2015 Estate We’re In campaign — and how he was surrounded by gang culture from a young age. “Violence? I was born into it man,” he says. He told how his first influences were crack cocaine users who left their drugs and guns on the kitchen table. “At first I found gang life incredibly exciting,” he said. “Your mates pull up in Porsches and superbikes, so the toys you have at your disposal are like out of a comic book. But as I grew up and my friends were killed or sent to prison, I became increasingly anxious and depressed. I lost over 10 friends — killed over small beefs, big beefs, beefs passed down from elders. I realised I was going to die if I continued on that path.”
Lewis’s book title One Chance pays homage to that critical moment. “At night, as I lay trying to sleep, my mind would replay the trauma of guns going off behind me as I ran away.” Now he finds healing by meditation and by helping at-risk youngsters get over their own rough patches.
“At the gym we do a subtle sort of mentoring,” he said. “After the workout, we cook up some pasta and they start to open up as they eat, talking about their life, their pain. It’s like listening to the old me. I tell them, ‘I been there you know’.”
One Chance, Surviving London’s Gangs is published by Ad Lib in hardback at £12.99