Turfed out

The public perception of teenage gang culture tends to involve
guns, drugs and a lot of gold jewellery. Fuelled by media reports
and rap lyrics, an image has emerged of dissolute youth, isolated
from society and locked into a destructive cycle of “bling bling”
materialism and violent criminality. When teenagers Latisha
Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis died in the early hours of New
Year’s Day 2003 in a hail of bullets, innocently caught up in
a gang feud, it seemed to confirm the impression that the UK is
following the US path of inter-gang warfare, drug-driven territory
disputes and indiscriminate use of deadly weapons.

It is an image that endures, not least among some gang members
themselves. For the bulk of young people involved in UK gangs,
however, the reality is somewhat different. While no one would deny
that gang-related organised crime and violence is a worrying, and
in some areas growing, problem, the drug-running, gun-toting
“gangsta” remains the exception rather that the rule.

Research carried out by Manchester’s Multi-Agency Gang
Strategy (Mmags) suggests that while some gangs do deal in drugs,
many do not. Gangs are not predominantly made up of young, black
men. In fact they are often ethnically diverse and increasingly
involve young women. Shootings are rare and are more often about
settling petty, personal disputes than about protecting illicit
drug markets.

Few gangs in the UK conform to the US template of hierarchical
groups of criminally active and armed young people, according to a
study by the UK-wide young people’s mediation group Leap.

“It really varies in the UK,” says Jesse Feinstein, a
development worker with Leap’s gangs and territorialism
project. “A lot of so-called gangs are really just loose
associations of very alienated young people. There may be a small
hard core of armed, criminally active young men whose whole
identity is wrapped up in the gang. But there will be a lot more on
the periphery who identify with the gang simply because of where
they live.”

Although some gangs are demarcated along racial lines, the most
common identifying factor is geography. Once a gang has marked out
its turf, it is territorialism, rather than the desire to protect
organised criminal activities, that is at the root of most violent
conflicts with other gangs.

Gang members’ alienation from mainstream services
can be increased by territorialism. “Access to resources is
something that a lot of these young people have problems with,”
says Feinstein. “That’s made even worse when, for example,
they feel they can’t go to the doctor because it means going
into another gang’s area.”

Leap’s research, which involved interviews with 330 young
people from 30 youth organisations throughout the UK, suggests that
joining a gang is often a rite of passage born of a need for
protection, self-esteem, friendship and enjoyment. Antisocial
behaviour and criminal activity is used to bond the group and set
it apart from wider society.

Typically, several members of these gangs are known to the youth
offending team as persistent offenders who are not willing to
address their offending behaviour, says Sameera Khan, a project
worker on Southwark’s Gang Reduction Project in London. “They
see criminal activity as a vehicle to gain the respect of their

As a result, crimes committed by gang members tend to be highly
visible and conducted in groups. Graffiti, car theft, street
robbery, violence and intimidation are all common gang-related

The Southwark project, which was set up in response to the fatal
stabbing in 2000 of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, aims to “demystify
the appeal of gangs” by challenging the attitudes of young people
who are already members of a gang and those who are at risk of
becoming enticed into one. The project’s workers run a
14-week course in schools, youth and community groups, and through
youth offending team workshops. The course uses art, drama and
video to encourage the young people to discuss issues such as
bullying, peer pressure, relationships, offending behaviour and
gang conflict.

“Our aim is not to dissolve these gangs but to give them a
positive outlook, seeking to address their offending behaviour
through positive activities and constructive leisure,” says

Similar schemes are being set up in cities where there are
problems with youth gangs. In Bristol, for instance, the stabbing
of two youths in March last year led to the formation of the
Bristol Gang Awareness Project.

“At the moment we are working with 13 to 19-year-olds who tend
to be on the fringes of the gangs rather than the hard core
members,” says project co-ordinator Hen Wilkinson. “But we are also
training up local people in conflict resolution, so hopefully in
three or four years time we’ll have a group of ex-gang
members who will be able to act as peer educators.”

In Leeds, head of the youth offending service Jim Hopkinson is
also seeking to nip the problem of gang-related crime in the bud.
“It’s very difficult to reach the really hard core members of
a gang,” he says. “They are the ones who feel that they can make a
lot of money, and to be honest some of them can. They also tend to
believe they are invincible and are not afraid of the risks they
are running.

“The typical profile is a 16 to 17-year-old male, not in
employment, excluded from education for many years. The prevention
angle is therefore to ensure that young people do stay in education
and that there are positive activities available.”

Hopkinson believes that measures such as the youth inclusion
programme can identify the potential and peripheral members of
gangs and help steer them back towards mainstream support

Leeds Council has also been an enthusiastic advocate of
the antisocial behaviour order, many of which have been aimed at
young members of teen gangs.

The Leeds Town Crew, for instance has seen around half of its
50-odd members hit by Asbos over the past year, the most recent a
five-year order imposed on a 13-year-old girl.

“Leeds Town Crew is a loose collection of young people who hang
around the city centre causing a nuisance,” says Hopkinson. “They
are an unsophisticated gang, they’re not a major part of any
drug supply chain and there’s no leadership as such. However,
they do get involved in criminal activity – street robberies,
intimidation, car theft and so on – and some of them carry weapons
so if they get into a fight the consequences can be serious.”

There’s not much in the way of “gangsta-chic” about this
bunch of petty criminals, but the Leeds Town Crew is probably a
fair representative of gang culture UK-style. And on a positive
note, its members may prove far more amenable to positive
intervention than their contemporaries in more organised gangs.

“When it comes to the hard core gang members involved in the
drug supply chain then we probably need to find other ways of
working with these people,” says Hopkinson. “But they make up only
a very small proportion of the young offenders we see in Leeds. For
the others, we can chip away at the edges of the gangs and have a
real effect.”

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