Gang culture, territory & fear

July 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.



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  1. I was just thinking about Sjoke & how much it suffocates people, basically. I’ve not met a single person from the area who didn’t have this attitude bred into their bones of thinking nothing of yourself, expecting the worst of everything & taking it for granted, etc. etc. (Apart from people who’ve somehow managed to get out & have been away for years).

    It is strange how immigrants, & those from other places, have a much more positive view of the city than we do & often ask us why we’re so negative about the area. Maybe it isn’t that bad a place, it’s just that we’ve grown up breathing in some fucking shite that’s made us undernourished. (It is this that is to blame for the woeful state of education, which has always been completely awful).

    I was interested to note that even on the worst estates, it’s generally only very small minorities who cause the most trouble, which set me to thinking that the really crucial thing is to “rescue” those who are vaguely on the borders. The ones who are below average intelligence, albeit only slightly so, who won’t engage in any great feats of attainment but are basically stable can become perfectly respectable citizens if they live in a good area but aren’t resilient enough to keep from being dragged down if they live somewhere rough. You only actually need a small minority to ruin a place given that most won’t resist them.

    Apart from no longer creating vast impersonal housing estates (bearing in mind also that the state’s control over housing is a large part of what gets Asians crowded into some areas, & asylum seekers moved there) a possible solution would be to encourage voluntary work. We are now talking about how corrosive youth unemployment is, so surely this is as good a time as any to have voluntary work on such shite as cleaning up local areas, looking after the poorest people in an area, preserving whatever green space can be salvaged, & what have you.

    Aye- not feeling so coherent now but I have to express some vague thoughts that were flitting round my head earlier. I imagine that Sheffield is much the same as my environs, what with the demise of industry & the like.

    All worth exploring. Psychogeography is an issue I’ve not delved into, but probably should. I found “Estates” by Lynsey Hanley to be quite good- certainly not without its flaws, & I doubt whether I’d become best mates with the author, but worth a look certainly. Have you ever made use of MOSAIC?

    Sorry I may not be at the pinnacle of my comments & that- this is the last one before bed :)

  2. Cheers for that mate. I think the idea of ‘rescuing’ those on the fringes is an interesting one – though I guess we should also assume that some of those will rescue themselves by simply growing up, avoiding serious criminality, channel their energies into something they’re passionate about. None of these kids’ futures are fixed at 13/14; you just need to make sure that they’re able to read & write (or at least having a skill/trade to fall back on) by the time they leave education. Equally, the stuff about psychogeography or the sociology of place is something which is worth discovering, especially when thinking about how to rejuvinate social housing. In my daydreams, what I’d see is all those town planners who’ve done such a fab job with Sheffield city centre getting to work in places like Manor or Pitsmoor and seeing what would happen.

    The third paragraph to this got highlighted by a few folks on LC as either being unduly alarmist or jumping a bandwagon of some description, which is funny because that was something I was quite consciously trying to avoid at the time. I think that possibly happened because I’ve spent the past 6 months or so working with kids in a mostly working-class part of Barnsley and see how often a child’s ambition is so much lower than their potential. Rightly or wrongly, I’m minded to see gang culture as a contributing factor to that, which has possibly led to a conflation of the two topics and thus the charge of alarmism. Either that, or they’re all just completely effing wrong ;)

  3. Well, funnily enough I grew up on a fairly shite estate & I didn’t see any of the horrors you talk about (though arguably I was shielded from them by a strong family background & being naturally different to others), but I did observe the culture of low horizons corroding lives every day.

    Of course, another factor what we’ve identified, as with the recent series in the Groan, is that these youngsters’ conviction that professional jobs aren’t for the likes of them is rooted in reality. All the self-esteem in the world won’t make up for the fact that a middle-class dimbulb will be more likely to end up at the top than a bright child from a poor family. It is my view that the solution to this is not only to raise aspirations but also to make higher education more reliant on potential than on exam-passing which any old fuckwit will be able to do given enough drilling.

    You’re not actually supposed to know a great deal when you land on campus, just to have the ability to benefit from what it offers. Many of my fellow students who were from priviliged backgrounds did not posess this & shouldn’t have been at university.

  4. Of course you won’t get into a top university unless you apply, also, so culture is indeed important.

    • You seem just as negative as the people your talking about. It is possible to get on in life with the right support, whether family, school, peers or whatever. I grew up in pitsmoor and despite the disadvantges it had to offer, have done well enough [professional degree].
      But it’s alot of hard work and determination.

      You’re right about one thing though; there is a class war out there. And the middle classes instinctively know you’re not one of them and will stop you progressing any further than they want you to. But here’s the plan: Get so far yourself [ie up the social ladder], then instill your values into your kids and let them stealthily move to the next level.

      Pitsmoor was a good place to grow up, I’m proud to come from there. By the way, you don’t decide ‘to join a gang’, you just grow into the gang, because older kids in your circle have already slipped into that culture. Gangs were always in Pitsmoor and the same trepidation at leaving your area existed in the 70’s when I grew up there.The boundaries then were certain strets after which you wouldn’t venture for fear of being beaten up. However, guns were unheard of then. That said I wouldn’t like to live there now, too long away from it all.

  5. im from pitsmoor and im proud to live here. people complain about gangs but at the end of the day its us out here who have to survive and its a lot easier when they are more of you. im not saying gangs are good but coming from pitsmoor ive seen too many cops who arent at all interested in helping our community, for some people the only answer is crime to put food on the table so until pitsmoor has some major development i.e. more jobs and better schools, the gang culture is just going keep evolving until its something like you see from the wire. im 21 and have had two freinds murdered as well as many freinds being locked up. we didnt choose this life but you go with what you knw and too many youths know how to make illegal money but cant make a cv.

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