Gang culture, territory & fearJuly 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime | 6 Comments
Nothing brings Britain’s social problems into focus like seeing them on your doorstep. What might seem abstract when described in Home Office documents or reported from unfamiliar places becomes a lot more intimate when it’s set somewhere you know: full of landmarks you’ve visited, people you might’ve met, folks who speak with the same accent or walk the same streets as you.
So when I read Mark Townsend’s report on the rise of gun & gang culture around the Burngreave & Pitsmoor areas of Sheffield, I was always going to react to it differently than if it’d been set in somewhere like Manchester, Liverpool or the North East. I can’t claim to know these neighbourhoods intimately, but my emotional attachment to the city means I probably can’t react as impartially or dispassionately as I would if it were set somewhere else.
But whilst responding emotionally to problems which need rational policy solutions isn’t always helpful, it’s also often unavoidable. Watching YouTube videos made by members of the various ‘postcode gangs’ can be a thoroughly depressing experience: seeing kids as young as 13 drinking beers, lighting up joints, posing with enough knives & firearms to overthrow the city council, and filming tributes to slain friends. To be honest, if I didn’t have an emotional reaction to this parade of low ambition & self-destruction, there’d be something wrong with me.
In fact, when we think about the dangers for kids in our inner cities, it wouldn’t hurt to see emotion as a useful tool for analysis. Whilst there are always structural explanations for poverty, unemployment, social exclusion & family breakdown, what leads these young people into situations where they put their lives or other people’s lives at risk is a toxic brew of bravado & fear. It’s the combination of these which leads kids to join a gang, get hold of a weapon, threaten someone with a knife or gun, and then eventually use one. As Townsend’s report indicates, the wars in Pitsmoor & Burngreave aren’t over control of drug turf like you might find in Manchester; they result from petty beefs which escalate into murders because they’ve never learnt how to control their emotions.
The controlling, constraining nature of fear alters kids’ behaviour in other ways, too. Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted a study to see what impact ‘territorality’ (basically a nicer way of saying ‘ghettoisation’) had on the lives of young people. They asked kids to draw maps of their neighbourhoods and label which places they felt were safe to go and which were not:
As you can see from these pictures, pieces of land which may be no bigger than a single square mile can be written-off as ‘no go areas’, boxing these kids in to their gang-defined safety zones. As a result, they might not be able to access social services, leisure activities, schools, work or relationships with people from other areas. Their postcode becomes their world, and straying too far from it must feel like sailing off the edge of a flat earth.
So when we think about how we might reduce the harms of gang culture and the number of youngsters being stabbed or shot, of course we should consider those long-term structural aspects which social scientists have talked about for decades, but we should also think about practical ways of reducing the fear which causes many of these kids to join gangs, to rarely leave their small, ‘safe’ postcodes, to carry weapons and cause harm to others. This situation won’t get better with more crackdowns or ‘get tough’ pledges, but if you can make the streets seem a little less terrifying, you might just same some lives.