Socialist Worker

The gang who rule over us

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1834

I REMEMBER it like it was just yesterday-the day 14 years ago when four men carrying hammers walked into the nightclub I was DJing in and proceeded to smash up the record decks. Apparently these hammer-wielding psychopaths came from a rival sound system which wanted to put us out of business. It was my first and hopefully my last brush with the activities of the criminal underworld.

In the past two weeks two stunning new films have been released which vividly portray the role of gangs in shaping city life. The first is Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs of New York, which tells the largely unknown story of 19th century gang warfare in Manhattan. One of the gangs, the Natives, not only profit from taxing petty thieves but also carry out violent attacks on Irish immigrants who, they fear, are going to take their jobs and already meagre homes.

In response to these attacks the Irish form their own gangs to defend themselves and in turn resort to criminal activities to fund their activities. The other film is the breathtakingly brilliant City of God. It's an exhilarating Brazilian movie which follows gang rivalry in Rio de Janeiro's poorest neighbourhoods during the 1960s and 70s.

And look out for the chicken-in my opinion it should get an Oscar! Today, New Labour ministers like Kim Howells like to portray gangs and gun violence as a product of rap music and Jamaican youth. What both films show is that gang violence has nothing to do with music but has everything to do with poverty, desperation and social conditions.

What strikes you about Scorsese's cinematic vision of mid-19th century New York is the squalor and poverty-very like the London portrayed in a Dickens novel. In fact these Brazilian and New York gangs mirror capitalism.

The only difference is that under capitalism rival firms are driven out by ruthless competition, whereas these gangs literally wipe out the competition. Is this what Karl Marx meant by primitive accumulation?

These films are incredibly violent but neither glamorises violence or gang life. One of the striking features of both films is the directors' ability to portray some of the most vicious, violent and alienated young men and explain why they have become what they are-victims of a brutal system.

Finally Gangs of New York shows that there is another much more powerful but never-mentioned gang operating in New York. This gang is comprised of police officers who happily take protection payments off the street gangs and politicians who use the gangs to win influence in working class communities.

The final component of this gang is the idle rich playing one working class gang off against the other to stop them heading up town to steal their silverware. Funnily enough, seeing the Scorsese film reminded me of a regular occurrence that used to take place in that club I used to DJ in.

Every week a person would come round and collect money from the club owner on behalf of the police widows and orphans fund. And just like clockwork my manager paid his £20. Still it was nice to know that in this case the money was going to a good cause.

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Sat 18 Jan 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1834
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