As we stood in the boxing club overlooking the sprawling Stonebridge estate, Lefty, a former member of the Suspect Gang looked over at me, “Despite all the horror, the poverty and suffering, we will always defend Stonebridge, we will always be Stonebridge.” The estate has over the years become synonymous with some of the worst street violence ever seen as guns and gangs vied for control of the lucrative Crack Cocaine trade.
Today, after a quarter of a billion pounds of investment and regeneration, the crack houses have gone but have been replaced by the ‘youngers,’ youths aged between 13 and 18 who peddle and deliver drugs on BMX bikes like takeaway pizzas. This is backed up by a ferocious appetite of some young people to use violence and aggression and to then parade it with pride and adulation as the latest YouTube video.
Gangs are beginning to take hold in our cities. In London, the Metropolitan Police estimates Gangs are responsible for half of all shootings, a fifth of stabbings and one in seven rapes. 25% of burglaries are also gang related, as well as almost a fifth of all muggings. Outside the capital, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool gangs accounted for 65% of all firearm homicides in the UK.
They are also evolving. UK gangs are going through a worrying process of ‘Americanisation.’ Members are exhibiting colour-coded clothes based on the American Blood and Crips gangs and marking out their territories using trainers suspended from telephone lines.
A year on from the August Riots, little it seems has changed. After much fanfare and tough talk from the Government about tackling gangs, their response has been mainly confined to recycling and rehashing old policies. Certainly not the “concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture” that David Cameron promised us all.
The result is that only 17% of young people feel safe in London with 28% of 12-18 years olds believing there could be a repeat of last year’s riots.
This is why I have set-up the Gangs Taskgroup in Brent, which will look at developing diversion and exit strategies for young people who are at most risk of becoming involved in gang activity.
The taskgroup will also harness some of the challenges and fears our young people face while growing up in some of the most deprived areas in the country.
Young people talk about postcode wars where they are unable to enter certain parts of the borough because they simply happen to be from a different area, even if it’s only a few hundred meters away. How young girls are seduced into gangs and gang culture and along with the terror of crime and drugs, are subjected to sexual exploitation and violence.
Gangs at times are substitute families for many young people who hardly see their parents because they are working numerous jobs to make ends meet. By providing the latest Nike trainers and designer clothing, gangs evoke a deep sense of family-type love and belonging.
On our streets, for many ‘Bling Bling is King,’ where being ‘dissed’ results in violence or even murder. A badge of honour that is earned by being the ‘big man’ and not backing down whatever the odds.
All this is wrapped up and spat out by the tough urban music genre ‘grime,’ which mixes hip-hop, garage and drum and bass and immortalises the gang lifestyle.
Our response to gangs needs to be more than just resource focused. It needs to bring in some of the other contributing factors such as housing, education, family breakdown as well as raising the aspirations of our young people to help free them from poverty and social deprivation.
The challenge is only made greater by government cuts, youth unemployment and the on-going tensions between young people and the police.
Along with statutory bodies and local stakeholders having well-coordinated and coherent strategies, there is also a key role for communities to play in helping to change the gangs landscape. There needs to be local responses to local challenges.
Local organisations can bring their own creativity and knowledge to help tackle gangs in their neighbourhoods. Many have the in-roads and sympathies of the local culture, which can help challenge the behaviour of local young people and to encourage lasting change in them. Government should avoid wasting local energies and empower them through mentoring, networking opportunities and promoting best-practice.
Meanwhile back at the boxing club, Squingy, another former member of the Suspect Gang commented to me: “Gangs are here to stay. Its how you deal with them that’ll make the difference.”
Zaffar Van Kalwala is a Labour Councillor in Stronebridge, Brent