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- Author or Editor: Anthony Gunter x
This book aims to challenge current thinking about serious youth violence and gangs, and their racialisation by the media and the police. Written by an expert with over 14 years’ experience in the field, it brings together research, theory and practice to influence policy. Placing gangs and urban violence in a broader social and political economic context, it argues that government-led policy and associated funding for anti-gangs work is counter-productive. It highlights how the street gang label is unfairly linked by both the news-media and police to black (and urban) youth street-based lifestyles/cultures and friendship groups, leading to the further criminalisation of innocent black youth via police targeting. The book is primarily aimed at practitioners, policy makers, academics as well as those community-minded individuals concerned about youth violence and social justice.
Since the late 1980s, there has been ongoing and ever-growing police-media-generated concern about the problem of violent crime in the inner cities. The issue of urban crime has a much longer history in Britain and can be traced back to the early 1970s when discussions about ‘coloured’ immigration collided with the problematisation of second generation black youth – most notably the mugging crisis. These themes of race and crime and the decaying inner city were reinforced and magnified within the nation’s consciousness via decades of flashpoints and police–black youth conflicts, as exemplified by the 1976 Notting Hill disturbances and 1981 Brixton disorders. It is within this historical context that the current UK ‘gangs crisis’ needs to be located as it both replays, as well as extends, these now well-worn threads of race, violent crime and urban degeneration. However, where it signals a significant departure from these older narratives is in relation to the recent burgeoning academic interest and governmental concern with, and official recognition of, the ‘street gang’. The ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ programme launched by David Cameron’s coalition government in 2011 (HM Government, 2011, 2012b) adopted the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) accepted ‘standard definition’: ‘Street Gangs – these are relatively durable, predominantly street-based groups [of young people] who are recognised as a discernible entity and for whom violence is intrinsic. Crime as well as violent crime in the gang is instrumental (to achieving an outcome) as well as expressive’ (ACPO, 207:22). Interestingly, as well as very controversially, the coalition government in arriving at its official ‘standard definition’ had figuratively speaking ‘put to bed’ the one issue that ‘gang experts’ in the US have not been able to find any sort of agreement about: ‘what a gang is’ and ‘how to define gangs’.
The August 2011 public disorders provided the pivotal moment when the changing nature of British urban youth cultures – specifically ‘the proliferation of violent youth gangs and the culture they ferment’ (Pitts, 2008:4) – was shown to the world. Looped television news montages, made instantly available to a global audience on a plethora of online platforms, depicted mob violence directed towards the police, burning buildings and the pillaging of high street retail stores. For many years prior to the 2011 riots there had been a steady increase in local and national news-media headlines discussing gun and knife violence, postcode wars and other violent crimes that were deemed to be gang related. More specifically, during the past two decades the nation has been ‘shocked’ by a number of high-profile youth homicides caused by gun and knife violence. The menace of serious urban youth violence was initially thrust into the consciousness of the nation by the killing in November 2000 of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, who bled to death in a stairwell on a housing estate in south-east London, after being stabbed in the leg. In January 2003 best friends 17-year-old Latisha Shakespeare and 18-year-old Charlene Ellis were the innocent victims of a fatal ‘drive-by’ shooting in north Birmingham. However, it was the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who in August 2007 was shot dead by a 16-year-old youth in Liverpool, that ‘perhaps more than any other single case … set the agenda’ (Goldson, 2011:4).
But even if the Rhys Jones case did usher in a new policing and policy agenda concerning violent youth crime, it was ceremoniously and ambitiously usurped by the events that unfurled during five days in August 2011, when England experienced significant and widespread civil unrest.
During the past 10 years in particular there has been a marked increase in academic interest about youth gangs (cf. Hallsworth and Young, 2008; Pitts, 2008; Batchelor, 2009; Deuchar, 2009; Goldson, 2011; Densley, 2013; Hallsworth, 2013; Harding, 2014) and urban violence in the UK. While there has been a discernible increase in youth gang scholarship recently, it still represents a relatively small area of academic interest as post-war UK youth researchers, rather than looking for gangs, have mostly been concerned with studying subcultures. The early incarnations of British youth subcultural studies were concerned with deviance and ‘abnormality rather than normality’ (Blackman, 2014:498). Spanning the inter- and post-war periods, British subcultural theory was initially influenced by biology and the eugenics movement. Utilising medical concepts, deviant youth group members were described as being mentally subnormal and exhibiting pathological personality traits (see, for example, Burt, 1925).
UK studies examining youth deviance and delinquency after 1945, while retaining elements of the earlier positivist traditions, were dominated by the therapeutic approaches of psychology and psychoanalysis. Bowlby’s (1944, 1953) theories concerning the ‘affectionless personality’ and ‘inadequate socialization’ caused by maternal–child separation, which he argued was ultimately responsible for juvenile delinquency, served as a model for further research into the causes of deviancy. This ‘psychoanalytical approach became the norm’ throughout the 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Mays, 1954; Morris, 1957; Trasler, 1962), with major empirical studies defining delinquent youth as ‘suffering from psychological problems within a deprived culture’ (Blackman, 2014:499). Moreover, the existence of working class youth subcultures was clear evidence as to the young deviant’s ‘inability to integrate in society’ (Blackman, 2014:499).
This book has so far examined and/or discussed much of the academic research evidence, as well as the key role played by the news media, with regard to the UK gangs crisis. However, there are two important areas concerning this latest moral panic that have yet to be addressed, first, the various national and local government policy responses and second, and perhaps more significantly, the role of the police as the chief architects of this national crisis. The way the police are able to shape and then control the gangs agenda is through the construction of crime statistics that are then leaked to the media. The London Evening Standard ran a front page (Bentham, 2014) headline proclaiming that according to Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) statistics ‘3,484 London gang members commit 6600 crimes including 24 murders in three years’. This new moral panic and fixation with the youth gang menace is then clearly not restricted to politicians and the media.
With regard to the empirical evidence that has helped to sustain this latest social panic concerning problem youth, it would be inaccurate to claim that gang research has taken root within the UK academy, as in truth this has not been the case. Nevertheless, there has been increasing interest in this area by a relatively small number of academics working within the area of criminology. Among this relatively small number of UK gang academics, there is a much smaller number of them who, it can be said, are part of a burgeoning (as regards policy, policing and practice) ‘gang industry’, which is on hand to intellectually respond to this latest ‘youth crisis’ of violent urban crime and disorder – much of it distorted, London centric and police constructed (Shute et al, 2012).
This chapter will examine, within a locally situated context, the impact of the national ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ and ‘austerity’ – and specifically the local ‘Enough is Enough’ – policy agendas on youth provision and policing strategy/practice in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. It draws heavily on data gleaned from a three-year study Youth Crime Prevention Practice & Neighbourhood Policing: A Study of one East London Borough 1 (see also Chapters two and six). The research project set out to examine youth crime prevention practice and evaluate local residents’ perceptions and satisfaction with policing in their neighbourhoods. As well as utilising ethnographic research techniques, the study also comprises in-depth biographical interviews with 66 young adults aged 14–24, as well as interviews with 34 practitioners and key stakeholders, including police officers, youth workers, housing officers, local residents and parents. The majority of the young informants resided in the adjoining neighbourhoods of Gulley and Dungle2 – the two primary research sites featured in this ethnographic study.
As well as being characterised by super-diversity (Vertovec, 2007) the research sites are also among the 20% of most deprived neighbourhoods in England (HM Government, 2010). The neighbourhoods of Gulley and Dungle are part of Manton Estate, built in the early 1970s and comprised of high-rise tower blocks and eight-storey flats, interspersed with owner-occupied Victorian terraced houses. Within the early part of the 2000s, Manton had been regenerated by the local Housing ActionTrust into a low-rise housing estate. Nearly two thirds (64%) of the residents of Gulley and Dungle are from a BAME background (Office for National Statistics, 2012).
This chapter will draw on data from my own ethnographic research (see also Chapters two and five) with regard to youth crime/prevention and policing in one east London borough, and the findings from a number of recent empirical research studies that explore the realities of urban youth violence in the UK away from the label of the street gang. In particular, I will be looking to revisit and further discuss the role and significance of ‘Road culture’ (see Gunter, 2008, 2010) in the lives of young people growing up in poor neighbourhoods. Drawing on the voices and direct experiences of young people, this chapter will demonstrate that contemporary Road-based1 subculture plays a largely positive and creative role in young people’s lives.
Nevertheless, the chapter will also revisit and discuss the violent social worlds and hyper-masculine modes of behaviour associated with ‘life on Road’. Whereas the current policy, prevention and policing agenda on serious youth violence in the UK is focussed on gangs, the discussions by the young people themselves about ‘on Road’ culture (as have been the findings of a number of recent studies examining urban youth violence) demonstrate that while the threat of violence was everywhere, its cause was not necessarily gang related. Rather it was about territoriality and specifically the ‘code of the street’ (Anderson, 1999) whereby young males living in particular urban neighbourhoods can easily find themselves caught up in violent confrontations (or beefs) with their peers, and for a myriad of petty reasons usually linked to some kind of perceived ‘disrespecting’.
In the UK we have now reached the point where there are more African Caribbean young males in prison and young offenders’ institution than are at university. This statistic can also be broken down to demonstrate that more black British men – relative to their numbers in the general population – are incarcerated than is the case even in the US. In 2003 I noted that ‘when looking at the innumerable indices of social alienation and discrimination it is more than likely that’ black British male youth ‘will head many of the lists that detail poverty, mental illness, school exclusions, educational under-achievement and criminal conviction rates’ (Gunter, 2003:22). More than a decade has passed since that statement was written and rather than the situation having improved, the current gangs agenda has exacerbated what was already a very worrying trajectory. When Thrasher was writing his classic text about gangs in 1920s Chicago, he managed to describe a plethora of white ethnic gangs in addition to those concentrated in the developing black ghetto. Nearly a century later, the US-led global media-academic fixation with street gangs has also coincided with their becoming synonymous with urban decay, violent criminality, immigration, and race/ethnicity. Although there has been a long-standing interest in the academic study of gangs in the US, it is only since the 1990s that the problem has been deemed to be escalating out of control, caused by an unprecedented proliferation of violent street gangs (Klein, 1995) within the black and Latino ghettos. Federal and local law enforcement agencies were similarly making sombre predictions about the serious threat to national security, not just in the US but throughout Central America and the Caribbean, posed by the spread of violent gang culture nurtured and developed in the US and then exported via mass deportations of convicted foreign-born nationals.
Contrary to the official statutory UK definition of gangs, which is (or should be) now used across all police and public services, there is still no consensus of opinion or agreement about the problem and proliferation of youth gangs in the US, never mind in Britain. Almost 100 years since Frederic Thrasher’s classic study, still ‘the least settled issue in gang research is the age old question: “What is a gang”’. Ironically the overwhelming majority of gang experts do seem to be able to ‘agree on only one point in this regard: that there is no agreement – neither among’ those academics who study gangs ‘nor among the cops who police them’ (Greene and Pranis, 2007:9). The picture becomes no clearer when we narrow the issue by asking, what is a youth gang? or what is a street gang? Moreover, what is the difference between drug gangs and street gangs? There is clearly much confusion and boundary blurring and these definitional issues are amply reflected within much of the literature on gangs. The prescribed and dominant definitional boundaries as proposed by influential American scholars such as Malcolm Klein and Irving Spergel have also resulted in the racialisation and criminalisation of youth gangs. Portrayals of black and Latino gangs in the global media, which are informed by those dominant academic and police definitions, have further helped fix in the public’s consciousness the strong association between race and violent urban crime.
If as researchers we become embroiled in looking for a world of gangs, as is suggested by Hagedorn, what definition or typology of gang are we to search for? Are we only to focus on groups of poor urban male youth from racial/ethnic backgrounds who are engaging in violent conflict? Even if we do, we run the risk of travelling down a dangerous academic cul de sac, because just as there is a great deal of contention around definitions, there are equally major concerns about linking youth gangs and violent crime too closely.
Every week there are numerous headlines, opinion pieces or reports on the pandemic of gang-related youth violence and crime throughout the myriad of local and national print and broadcast media outlets. Consequently, all reported incidents of youth violence involving either a knife or gun that occur within any of England’s poor multi-ethnic urban locations are automatically deemed to be caused by the menace of street gangs. This situation is further corroborated by police ‘intelligence’ and statistics as well as by a small but growing number of criminological studies. Moreover, the existence and unique problem of street gangs has been officially recognised by national policy makers via the implementation of a range of new legislative tools and powers. In June 2015 the Conservative government both widened and extended the scope of gang injunctions – which were first introduced under the New Labour administration – and also introduced an updated statutory definition of gangs to be used across all of the police and public services including health, education, children and youth services. The official definition of UK street gangs was originally arrived upon by the Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2011 as part of its ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ (EGYV) strategy. However, the refreshed and more flexible 2015 definition allows the police and local authorities to take pre-emptive action in order for them to more effectively tackle gang and drug-related violent crime. The official government gang definition is extremely controversial, not least because of the long-standing and ongoing contested/heated academic and public debates about: (a) what a gang is and how to define it; (b) whether there is a growing gang problem; (c) whether there is a link between violent youth crime and gang membership; and (d) the demonisation and racialisation of gangs by the news media, which provides justification for the continued use of oppressive law enforcement tactics that disproportionately impact upon black and minority ethnic youth.