USA ’12: The gangs

IT wasn’t the most eloquent or lengthy performances, but last year the council asked me to say a few words at one of its meetings following the Camden riots.

Reporting at the scene, myself, Tom Foot and Dan Carrier were first hand witnesses to the trouble in Chalk Farm Road and Camden Town. When people question how bad it really was out there, I tell them about seeing the police forced into tactical retreats in pitched battles, the burning bins, the smashed street furniture, the furious looting of fashion shops and phone places and the bottles whizzing past our heads. Define it how you like, but it was a riot.

As police and politicians tried to work out what had caused this one night breakdown, my own tiny contribution was to suggest at these debates two things. Firstly, I was concerned that well-intentioned studies, inquiries and government taskforces were only really talking to people who had subsequently been through the courts as their sample base as to who was out there. That’s fair enough, but nobody, even the Guardian’s in depth Reading The Riots investigation, could trace the teens who just came out to watch like spectators at an open air theatre show.

Everything was centred on trying to speak to the rioters who were arrested, but nobody really asked: Why were groups of teenagers finding the best place for entertainment at midnight on a midweek evening a a street corner watching police chases? These were the ones committing no crime, just standing there watching, at maybe 13 or 14. Finding out why they were there might have helped illustrate the broader picture as to what teenagers want from their lives and whether they get it in London.

The second point was a mea culpa and referred to the ongoing debate over whether newspapers should rush to use the word ‘gang’. I said all papers, local to Camden and national, could probably think more about how we refer to loosely connected groups of teenagers and young adults hanging around on the streets and try to be sure about whether they really are gangs. There are gangs in Camden, but not every cluster of teenagers you see in hooded sweatshirts and looking bored should be framed in this context.

The police have warned in the past that using the term emboldens otherwise disorganised friendship circles who then feel some form of notoriety and the publicity almost acts as an adhesive to bring them together in a menacing way. Officers in the past have tried to downplay the influence of the gangs that do exist in Camden, but then struggle not to use the word themselves at public community meetings when talking about their workloads. And the debate over the term ‘gang’ goes on.

A week in Chicago, especially the south side, however, focuses the issue. I’m not saying there aren’t entrenched gangs in London – of course it is part of the underworld and the way drug markets operate in Camden and elsewhere – but no police press department has ever shown me a document like the guide to Chicago gangs I saw a copy of while I was in the US last week. A thick book called The Gang Book produced by police a few years ago is like a small phone directory of the city’s gangs.

They are older than the teens who cop most of the blame for trouble in Camden and a kind of warning of where it ends up if it escalates. The book shows their block by block territories, their leaders, the tattoos they demand and the grafitti tags they leave like alley cats warding of a rival tom. And they mean business, from an early age, late teens and young men drift into this world of drugs and guns, and then find it difficult to return to normal life. The value on life diminishes as they shoot at each other during night time chases. Many are not scared of firing at police in the most treacherous of southside areas. Their stories make you reassess what the word gang means.

Earlier this year, police put out a press release in Chicago rejoicing that a whole 24 hours had passed without a shooting being reported. What a thing to rejoice. Sadly, there are few social or economic policies that seem likely to change the way of life in Chicago, but in London, a city where rich and poor, black and white, aren’t so rigidly segregated by neighbourhoods, things don’t have to drift in that direction.

While there may be some disenfranchised minds who want to emulate the American organisation of gangs, in terms of groups of young teens hanging around on street corners in Camden, there is a gulf in the difference of how they operate. Here’s hoping The Gang Book: Camden is never published over here. It probably means providing something more stimulating for our adolescents to be involved in than standing on a street corner at midnight watching people in bandanas confront police.

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