Society falling apart? Blame it on The Gang!
You’d never know it from listening to politicians or perusing the press, but there’s no ‘gang culture’ in Britain.
In the aftermath of the riots, police, politicians and penmen all arrived at the same conclusion: gangs have taken over parts of England. Organised cliques of mask-wearing, territory-protecting youth, who divide themselves into ‘elders’, ‘soldiers’ and ‘youngers’, are turning bits of London and other English cities into something akin to south-central LA. These gangs orchestrated the violence, we’re told, as a way of staking their claim over local patches of land and warning off the ‘Feds’ (police). It is now apparently time, says David Cameron, for a war against ‘gang culture’.
There’s only one problem with these claims: they are complete and utter bunkum. No doubt gangs exist in some parts of urban England, and no doubt some of them are criminal. But there is no ‘gang culture’ and gangs were not responsible for the recent rioting in London and elsewhere. ‘Gang culture’ is almost entirely the imaginary creation of a political elite which prefers to fantasise that urban implosion is a product of gang conspiracies, rather than face up to the harsh reality that the riots were triggered by the twin crises of community solidarity and state authority.
It pays to be sceptical when politicians and the media fret about gangs. From the spectre of Fagin-style gangs of pickpockets in Dickensian times to stories about gangs of Mods and Rockers organising violent clashes in the 1960s to tall tales about gangs of football hooligans in the 1980s, the powers-that-be have a grating habit of seeing coherence and even organisational structure in what are in fact loose, instinctive outbursts of crime and disorder. I believe academics call it ‘projecting’. Incapable of understanding youth, or of having a hard debate about the state of society and morality, the cultural elite tends to imagine the existence of conscious cells of people that are apparently responsible for moral decay and social instability.
So it was in the aftermath of the riots. Perusing the press, it was hard to tell if you were reading genuine reports about English cities or drafts for a movie about the life and times of 50 Cent. ‘Inside the deadly world of gangs’, screamed newspaper headlines, inviting readers to peer at these violent groups where new recruits as young as nine are referred to as ‘Tinies’ or ‘Babies’, while teenage members are known as ‘Soldiers’ and the overlords have the title ‘General’. Apparently there are 171 such gangs in London alone. Journalists write about being ‘embedded’ with the police, as if they’re in Iraq rather than England, and observing an ‘inner-city underworld’. This underworld exploded into the overworld two weeks ago, we’re told, when these military-style gangs ‘orchestrated’ looting through social media or by ‘laying on minibuses to ferry yobs into and around towns’.
Many of these claims about the spread of gangs aren’t new. In recent years we’ve heard stories about ‘LA-style girl gangs on the streets of Britain’ (Guardian, 1995) and a hybrid LA-style/al-Qaeda gang called Muslim Boys, which ‘doesn’t only do law-breaking, it does it with militant Islamic vengeance’ (Independent, 2005). Yet neither girls nor criminal Muslims have yet succeeded in bringing down British society. Often, the hotheaded claims about Britain being overrun with hundreds of gangs simply do not stand up to scrutiny. So the Metropolitan Police claims there are 171 gangs in London, while the Home Office says there are 356 gang members in London. As one study pointed out, this would mean ‘around two people per gang’ (1).
The powers-that-be can’t even decide what a gang is. As a critical article in the journal Crime, Media and Culture pointed out recently, ‘Defining what constitutes a gang remains a constant problem’, and ‘the lack of clarity on definition has a significant impact on the measurability of “gang culture”’ (2). In many instances, the number of gangs in Britain is determined through a process of self-reporting – that is, if a youth tells a researcher he’s in a gang, then it’s accepted that he is. Anyone who has spent any time in urban bits of England should know that the last people you take at face value are wannabe gang-bangers who big up their night-time bus-stop activities as the workings of a ‘gang’. As Crime, Media and Culture points out, ‘People interviewed [by the media] about gangs are rarely challenged about their knowledge or understanding of the gang and are often presented with a pre-scripted narrative which they are then implicitly asked to follow’ (3). So it was post-riots, where, unsurprisingly, journalists on a mission to find loudmouthed youths willing to boast about their ‘gangs’ always seem to find loudmouthed youths willing to boast about their ‘gangs’. Yet even when it comes to self-reported gang membership, still the number of (alleged) gang members remains stubbornly low. A self-report survey carried out by the group Communities That Care in six ‘gang hotspots’ in London asked 11,400 people aged between 11 and 15 if they were in a gang – only four per cent claimed they were (4).
You would never know any of this from the post-rioting political debates and media coverage, which have depicted England as having fallen to what one paper calls ‘gang masterminds’. It is important to make a distinction between gangs, which no doubt exist, some of them criminal and some of them harmless, and ‘the gang’ as conjured up in the feverish minds of the political and cultural elite. For our betters, ‘the gang’ has become an all-encompassing explanation for social disarray. This habit of seeing well-organised gangs everywhere, speaking in the same lingo and wearing the same insignia, goes back decades. In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen refers to it as ‘cabalism’ – seeing a cabal (‘a private intrigue of a sinister character formed by a small body of persons’) where none actually exists (5).
Cohen cites the example of the Mods vs Rockers clashes in Brighton in 1964, which gave rise to a great deal of what he calls ‘conspiratorial mythology’ – the notion that ‘the events were masterminded, perhaps by a super gang with headquarters in some café on the M1’ or by a ‘tightly knit core of criminally motivated youths who led a gullible mob into a planned battle’. For example, the Daily Telegraph wrung its hands over the ‘organised malice’ of the Mods/Rockers clash. Cohen points out that, in truth, many of the Mods and Rockers ended up in Brighton after hearing rumours, not instructions, that there would be ‘some action’, and the main reason protagonists gave for taking part was: ‘boredom’.
Likewise, politicians and journalists became convinced in the 1980s that well-organised gangs of football hooligans led by charming yet evil ‘bosses’, some of which even had their own gang names and swearing-in ceremonies, were wreaking havoc in football stadia and streets across Britain. The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of so-called football hooliganism was heat-of-the-moment stuff, an instinctive lashing out or letting off of steam. Time and again, the cultural elite sees coherence where there is only formless upheaval. As one author puts it, ‘What in fact may be a confused situation involving miscellaneous youths with marginal membership and varied motives is too often defined by observers as a case of two highly mechanised and organised gang groups battling each other over territory. They project organisation on to the gang and membership status on to a fellow curiosity seeker.’ (6)
This trend for seeing the wicked hand of ‘the gang’ behind every problematic event speaks to the authorities’ fear of and dislocation from youth. In recent years, the notion that gangs control all has been stepped up a gear, with some scientists now even claiming to have found a ‘warrior gene’, which ‘could make teenagers more likely to join gangs’. In short, social disarray does not spring from within society itself, but from certain people’s warped DNA. Post-riots, Cameron plans to boost laws preventing gang members from meeting up, loitering in certain places and displaying their insignia. He’s declaring war on a bogeyman. How much easier it is to fantasise you are a Dirty Harry-style cop doing battle with imaginary gang-bangers, than to get to grips with the fact that it wasn’t gangs that caused the recent rioting but rather the corrosion of communities and the collapse of police authority.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
(1) Dying to Belong: An In-Depth Study of Street Gangs in Britain, Centre for Social Justice, February 2009
(2) Gang Talk and Gang Talkers: A Critique, Crime, Media and Culture, 2008
(3) Gang Talk and Gang Talkers: A Critique, Crime, Media and Culture, 2008
(4) Gang Talk and Gang Talkers: A Critique, Crime, Media and Culture, 2008
(5) Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition), Stanley Cohen, Routledge, 2002
(6) Quoted in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition), Stanley Cohen, Routledge, 2002