Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Gangs, guns and BMX bikes

Gangs are a growing problem which needs local action

By Zaffar Van Kalwala

—It was just another ordinary Monday. Schoolchildren were making their way home, joined by the many workers returning home on an early September evening. The sky still bright and pleasant was suddenly disturbed by the sound of gunshots being fired across the sprawling Stonebridge estate. Two men had just been shot and lay in the middle of the road. Rumours began that the shooting was by a rival gang from another estate in retaliation for an earlier incident.

The area has witnessed some of the worst street violence ever seen as gangs vied for control of the lucrative crack cocaine trade. £250m of investment under Labour has undoubtedly brought huge social and physical regeneration to the estate. But although the crack houses have gone they have been replaced by the ‘youngers’, 13-18-year-olds who peddle and deliver drugs on BMX bikes like takeaway pizzas.

Gangs are beginning to take hold in our cities. In London, it is estimated that gangs are responsible for half of all shootings, a fifth of stabbings and one in seven rapes. A quarter of burglaries are also gang-related as well as a fifth of all muggings. Outside the capital, gangs in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool accounted for 65 per cent of all firearm homicides.

They are also evolving. UK gangs are going through a worrying process of ‘Americanisation’. Members are exhibiting colour-coded clothes based on the Los Angeles Bloods and Crips gangs and marking out their territories using graffiti and trainers suspended from telephone lines. They also adopt associated names such as ‘Old Trafford Crips’ and ‘Moss Side Bloods’. All this is backed up by a ferocious appetite of some young people to use violence and aggression and then to parade it with pride and adulation as the latest internet sensation.

Young people talk about ‘postcode wars’ where they are unable to enter certain areas because they simply happen to be from a different postcode, even if it is only a few hundred metres away. Young girls get drawn into gangs and gang culture and, along with the terror of crime and drugs, are subjected to sexual exploitation and violence.

Gangs also act as 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.It is a badge of honour that is earned by being the ‘big man’ and not backing down whatever the odds, a phenomenon that is immortalised in the tough urban music genre ‘grime’, which mixes hip-hop, garage and drum and bass.

Some places have begun to fight back. Glasgow’s highly acclaimed Community Initiative to Reduce Violence directly engaged 500 gang members and was based on Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. The £4.5m scheme achieved a 49 per cent reduction in gang violence from CIRV participants.

This is why I have set up the Gangs Task Group 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.

We need to move away from a one-dimensional approach which focuses solely on increasing resources. Although this is important, increased investment in youth services will achieve nothing without paying attention to other factors such as housing, education, family support, raising aspirations and tackling social deprivation. Government cuts, youth unemployment, tensions with the police and the erosion of community spirit only add to the complexities of the problems we face.

Local stakeholders need to develop a coherent, coordinated gangs strategy. Isolated strands of public policy and fragmented interventions by various public departments must be eradicated. We need a more inclusive approach, which brings together local partners to develop youth-inspired initiatives. We are now at a tipping-point. Do we just accept gangs and gang culture, or do we, as a community, say that this is something we will not tolerate?

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Zaffar Van Kalwala is a councillor in the London borough of Brent

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Zaffar Van Kalwala

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