What makes a young person pick up a knife or a gun and attack another?
Two men were killed and four teenagers hurt in separate stabbings in London last week. And shortly after, two children were among ten people hurt in a shooting in Manchester. So you’d hope someone had a clue.
Instead, you’ll find that no politician or pundit has the faintest idea. Knowing that victims are disproportionately black and poor does, however, provide them with a ready?made backstory.
They quickly slip into the same old racist stereotypes about black boys and men that have been doing the rounds since before the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury.
There must be something in “black culture” that drives all of this, they whisper.
Drill music is their latest obsession—but they wouldn’t know Drill if it had bored its way into their heads. It’s just a phrase they repeat, just as they once did with “Gangster Rap”, Garage and Grime.
“And, behind all of this are the gangs,” they add.
Few would disagree that gangs are playing a role in the recent spike in violence.
But a recent report into Waltham Forest, north east London, by Southbank University makes interesting reading.
It says that the “postcode gangs” of a decade ago are gone.
These were groups of young people from particular areas, or specific estates, that acted territorially. They patrolled their areas and saw off challenges from other gangs who tried to come on to their patch.
Gang members described an emotional relationship with their locality, leading one young respondent to say that he would “defend anyone who lived in his postcode”.
These groups gradually took on specific identities by wearing particular clothing or colours. Rivalry was at the very core of the gang identity and frequently resulted in violent clashes.
Researchers say that this type of organisation has been replaced by a new type that is “focused on the drugs market and driven by a desire for profits”.
The leaders of this new school reject all outward signs of gang culture. They don’t wear street clothes or things that might identify them, and they have no loyalty to an area—only a desire to control territory because it is a market.
The report says that these type of gangs have moved from a “recreational stage”, where illegal activity is merely a by-product, to an “enterprise stage”.
Selling drugs becomes an end in itself—the only reason why the gang exists.
The desire to conquer new markets, and make greater profits, drives the gangs to recruit youngsters from the estates to sell in the satellite towns that surround the capital.
This has drawn in a large number of young women who are sent off with drugs and money in the knowledge that they are less likely to be stopped by the police.
One person interviewed said the new gangs were “almost like a franchise”.
“[It’s] like McDonalds or Benetton where the [the gang] have got a very effective pyramid structure, business plan, but instead of burgers and woolly jumpers it’s Class A drugs and cannabis.”
However, one former gang member explained how business alliances between gangs could be unstable.
“One minute you’re friends, the next minute you’re not,” he said.
He went on to describe how, when things were difficult, gang members can turn on each other.
“Even within a tight circle, when things are getting hard, there’s not enough money coming through, maybe there’s been a drought with the drugs—no weed coming in—they will, literally, look at who’s in their circle and think, ‘Who can we rob?’… ‘Who can we get rid of?’ In their own circle.”
And when business rivalries turn vicious, it’s the gang’s lowest rung, the workers on the street, who pay the price—sometimes with their lives.
It turns out that the new gangs, far from being something “foreign” to the system, are in fact the very embodiment of capitalism.