Gang culture is not a new thing. London was the first city to experience back in Victorian times, when street gangs caused violence, especially in the East end of the city. The problem of criminal gangs persisted well in the 1960s and is best exemplified by the Kray twins.
Most of the violence involved fist fights compounded with alcohol. Contemporaries at the time called these youths ‘The Mob’ or ‘Other’. Even Karl Marx and Frederick Engels regarded these young men as forming part of a "lumpen-proletariat", nowadays referred to as an urban under-class located at the bottom of the class hierarchy.
In the 1990s, new forms of criminal youth gangs began to appear in London and Manchester according to the sociologists Bennett and Holloway. In one of the key studies of gang culture in the UK, "Gang Membership, Drugs and Crime in the UK", the authors analysed data from interviews with almost 5,000 arrestees across the country. 15% had current or past experiences as gang members. From this study alone it’s estimated that there could be 20,000 active gang members in Britain aged 18 or over.
But as the authors recognised, this could be mere speculation as no major detailed study into gang culture had been conducted till the publication of John Pitt’s important book, ‘Reluctant Gangsters’ in 2015.
According to Bennet and Holloway these gangs are younger, violent, armed, organised and heavily involved in the drugs trade.
In London up to July 2018 there were 6,290 victims of serious youth violence, with 1,749 under-25s stabbed. According to the Metropolitan Police gang activity has soared by 25%.
Some parts of the capital are seeing "an epidemic of knife crime". There’s been a 53% increase in the number of young people using knives for robberies, homicides and assaults between 2016 to 2018 while the number of those under 16 treated for stab wounds by the NHS more than doubled from 2014. 17 teenagers were killed in London in 2015 in gang related murders, up from 8 in 2008.
Meanwhile, the total number of lethal guns discharges rose to 302 in the year to August 2016, up 42% in one year. And the disturbing use of acid to attack moped riders is on the up too in parts of London. To date 70 youngsters have been killed with knives in London alone in the last twelve months.
But, as the experts have noted, even in cities where gangs and increased knife crime have taken hold, they are confined to particular neighbourhoods where deprivation is combined with social exclusion. John Pitts in ‘Reluctant Gangsters’ notes that gangs are dominated by young men, some as young as 11, mostly from disadvantaged areas.
Often there are familiar links, perpetuated by a hierarchical structure, and that young men join them for sense of belonging and identity. Most are territorial, and in some parts of south London, there’s an ethnic dimension too.
Members are heavily involved in drug use and dealing; most have been excluded from school and few, if any, have any basic qualifications like GCSE passes or job related skills.
While some criminologists believe that gang culture stems from social class inequality, poverty and austerity the educationalist Tony Sewell takes the view that gangs are almost like surrogate families, a replacement for traditional family structures, where disaffected youngsters seek and gain an identity.
For Sewell many inner-city London gang members are growing up in “fatherless families”.
Whatever the explanation, what’s going on in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester is a serious cause for concern. This led to the Home Office publishing a paper, ‘Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation’ providing a route out of gang life and to reduce the level of serious youth violence on our streets.
Newcastle hasn’t been afflicted by the type of violent, knife, drug related crime experienced in other core cities. As the Safe Newcastle Partnership notes the level of gun violence is comparatively low.
There’s a big difference between groups of youths hanging about the city centre, sometimes committing low level of crime and anti-social behaviour, and the “real” criminal gangs carrying knives seen in other places. Newcastle is quite small and compact, so it’s difficult to form territorial gangs.
Another view is cultural. Our strong local identity, social cohesion and long-established strong ‘modified extended families’ exercise informal social control, and the absence of deprived neighbourhoods next to exclusive retail outlets, may have helped to stem the emergence of gang culture.
Of-course there’s no magic single bullet to resolve the problem of knife crime or gang violence in the rest of the UK. On a national level government is beginning to address the problem of youth violence in London by doubling its “early intervention scheme’ to £22m by adopting a ‘public health approach’ and tackling the drugs market.
More needs to be done. A full-scale assault on social and ethnic inequalities in jobs, income, housing and education coupled with an aim for full employment based on quality meaningful apprenticeships especially for youngsters living in the most disadvantaged “wards’ who make up eight of out 10 NEETs is one way forward. FE has a key role to play in meeting the needs of disaffected youth.
A National Youth Service, alongside the development of boxing clubs (for boys and girls), for disenfranchised youngsters is a sure way to avoid the emergence of a gang culture, a criminal under-class or potential social disorder on the streets.
But we also need a revolution in our thinking on the relationship between society and citizen. A well- resourced neighbourhood police force should be given the power of surrogate parents to discipline out-of-control youths, who plague some of our deprived outer-council estates and inner-city neighbourhoods. And finally, schools and colleges must help their students understand the dangers of knives through compulsory citizenship classes from the age of 11.
Stephen Lambert is a local sociologist and a Newcastle City Councillor. He was Chair of Safe Newcastle in 2010 to 2012 and a member of the Northumbria Police Authority till 2013.