For the past month, The Evening Standard has been running a sobering series of articles on gangs in London, under the headline 'Frontline London'. Youth gangs, the paper reports, are now responsible for half of all shootings and a fifth of all stabbings in capital. 'What we are witnessing,' says Camila Batmanghelidjh, one of the paper's chief witnesses, 'is the creeping normalisation of violence with catastrophic consequences for the kids and for our city.'
Violence and the threat of violence is a grim reality for many of most marginalised young people in Britain and the Evening Standard deserves credit for demanding answers from the government. But are 'gangs' and 'gang culture' really the best way of understanding youth violence?
Concern over gangs is nothing new; Victorian newspapers struck fear into their readers with tales of rampant 'hooliganism' while pitched battles between mods and rockers regularly made the headlines in the 1960's. Public anxiety was revived in the wake of the August 2011 riots, with David Cameron calling for 'concerted, all-out war on gangs', which he said constituted a 'criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country.'
But Claire Alexander, author of the Runnymede Trusts '(Re)thinking gangs' report, suggests that despite the well-rehearsed public and political discourse around gangs and 'gang culture':
'We actually know very little about 'gangs' in the UK: about how 'a gang' might be defined or understood, about what being in 'a gang' means... We know still less about how 'the gang' links to levels of youth violence.'
Professor Simon Hallsworth- perhaps the country's leading expert on gangs with decades of experience in the field- argues that where they exist, gangs in the UK are 'far more fluid, volatile and amorphous than the myth of the organized group with a corporate structure.' This assertion is supported by Judith Aldridge and Juanjo Medina at the University of Manchester, who found in a recent field study that 'most within- and between-gang disputes... emanated from interpersonal disputes regarding friends, family and romantic relationships', as opposed to territorial rivalries, and that criminal enterprises were 'rarely gang-coordinated... most involved gang members operating as individuals or in small groups.'
Before the 2011 riots, the Metropolitan police were opposed to making gangs the focus of enforcement, stating in their 2006 'Pan London Gang Profile' that the majority of gangs in the capital were 'assessed to cause a low level of harm' and that 'many [gang members] will only belong to a gang for a few years before moving on'. The report concluded that current evidence suggested responses to gang crime 'should target behaviour and not gang involvement.'
But David Cameron's pronouncement to a recalled Parliament in August 2011 that 'territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent' street gangs had been 'at the heart of all the violence' signalled a step change in the way the police deal with youth gangs. First, the remit of Operation Trident, which had previously been tasked with tackling gun-crime, was radically expanded to focus on teenage street gangs.
Next, the availability of 'gang injunctions' - which empower police to impose a range of prohibitions and requirements on suspected gang members - was extended for use with 14 - 17 year olds. These injunctions are obtained through the civil courts and have a low burden-of-proof requirement, yet a breach constitutes contempt of court and can result in up to two years imprisonment.
Additionally, the government pledged to publicise the use of 'joint enterprise' - a legal doctrine which assigns criminal liability to all participants in a criminal act - in an attempt to 'bring home to young people the potentially severe consequences to them of associating with gang members, even if only on the periphery'. Joint Enterprise is a controversial area of law, which the Prison Reform Trust is concerned;
'may be used disproportionately in cases involving children and young adults and can act as a drag-net, bringing individuals and groups into the criminal justice system who do not necessarily need to be there'
Looking to the future, the Government is building on these policies and exploring the possibility of introducing 'legal definitions of 'gangs' and 'gang crimes' and sentence enhancements for gang related crime.'
The decision to place contested concept of the gang centre stage in government strategies to address youth violence flies in the face of some of the most successful violence reduction initiatives of recent years, such as the 'Boston Ceasfire'. This problem-orientated model saw youth homicides fall by 63% in the US city and it has since been successfully replicated in the form of Glasgow's 'Community Initiative to Reduce Violence'. The Boston model does not seek to eliminate gangs but specifically targets violent behaviour; staging 'call-ins' where chronic violent offenders are offered support from multi-agency teams, with intensive police enforcement threatened in the event of the recurrence of violence.
Interventions which target violent behaviour provide clear incentives for young people not to engage in serious crime. Interventions targeting gangs on the other hand may be far less meaningful, especially as many youths do not interpret 'gang involvement' to be anything more than associating with friends in their local area. This was clear in the Evening Standard's coverage, when a group of youths interviewed by David Cohen insisted that 'gang' was a label assigned to them by 'other people'. The 'drag net' approach to enforcement may lead to a perception among young people that the police are out to get them regardless of how they behave as individuals; thus removing incentives to desist from violence.
Focusing enforcement efforts on gang membership also reflects a shift in the way youth crime is understood in our society. A highly influential 2009 report from Iain Duncan Smith's 'Centre for Social Justice' claimed that;
'young people have created their own, alternative, society - the gang - and they live by the gang's rules: the 'code of the street.''
The coalition government echoed this perspective in its 2011 strategy, 'Ending Gang and Youth Violence', arguing that 'gang culture' was not merely a symptom but a root cause of offending, creating a 'culture of violence and criminality which can stretch beyond the gang itself'.
But cultural explanations for criminality ignore study after study pointing towards low socio-economic status as the most recurrent 'risk factor' predicting youth offending. Poverty puts a strain on families and communities, increasing the likelihood of early childhood neglect, parental violence and school exclusion; key indicators for future violent offending. As Simon Hallsworth points out:
'many of the problems posed by groups of youths arise not because they enter into a collective that becomes immediately pathological, but derive instead from the ecology of the world in which they live.'
The coalition sees helping young people escape 'gang culture' as the solution to ending serious youth crime. Nick Clegg, applauding the Evening Standards coverage, mused that;
'Many of these young people have so much energy and enterprise waiting to be unlocked if they can find their way out of the capital's gang culture.'
But this ignores the bigger structural problem. How are thousands of the most marginalised young people in our nation to 'find their way out' of their position at the bottom of an increasingly unequal society, with few opportunities in education or the labour market?
'Ricky', an ex-gang member profiled by David Cohen, had endured horrific abuse as a child, followed by homelessness and institutional care; brutalising experiences that are known risk factors for violent offending. He was no longer in a gang, but he remained deeply damaged and chaotic individual; scarred by past trauma and weighed down by hopelessness and the daily pressures of poverty.
The danger of the current discourse around gangs is that it provides politicians with a cultural explanation for outbreaks of criminal immorality; a bounded receptacle for blame. If young people who engage in violence are portrayed as living in a 'parallel society' then their offending can be interpreted within the cultural logic of that parallel-society, preventing scrutiny of the structural roots of violence in British society.
To protect the victims of violent crime, (who, overwhelmingly, are also young and economically disadvantaged), there needs to be a clearer enforcement focus on persistent violent offenders and more holistic, evidence based responses to tackling and preventing violent behaviour. Focusing violence reduction strategies on gangs runs the risk of missing the broader social context within which violence occurs and consequently arriving at the wrong solutions.