Gangs are back in the headlines. Last week, the London Evening Standard ran a three-day ‘investigation’ into London’s gang culture. It called it ‘Frontline London’. The reports followed the release of a new study by University College London of ‘high-risk young people in south London’. It revealed that nearly half of these high-risk children had seen a stabbing or shooting, one in four had witnessed a killing, and one in five had themselves been stabbed or shot.
The Standard’s intrepid reporter bravely ventured into London’s gangland, to attend a ‘soldier’s summit’ in Camberwell, south London. I know Camberwell for its Arts College and posh pubs, which only serve bottled ale. But, in the wake of the tragic killing of Jerome Edwards in Camberwell earlier this year, the Standard described it as a ‘postcode-war-riven patch of London’ and ‘just one of many similarly fraught “frontlines” that striate the capital’. The Standard is employing more than a little dramatic license here, as such violence is extremely rare in Camberwell. There is no evidence at this stage that Edwards was ever even involved in a gang.
In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever of any ‘postcode war’, or of any ‘epidemic’ of gang violence in London. There are no official statistics on the number of gangs or on the level of gang-related crime. Of the 155 teenage murders in London between 2005 and 2013, very few can be tied to any gang feud. More often than not, the media rush to label teen killings as ‘gang violence’ before quickly rowing back on such assertions when it’s revealed that neither the victim nor the perpetrators had anything to do with gangs.
Take, for example, the tragic killing of Ben Kinsella in June 2008. This was widely reported as an example of ‘gang violence’, despite the fact that the murder was the tragic end of an isolated altercation in a nightclub which had nothing to do with gangs. Today, as long as a crime is committed by a group of young black men, it seems it is fair game to situate it in the false narrative of ‘gang violence’.
The lack of any evidence of gang violence is understandable since no one really knows what ‘gangs’ are. The police’s definition of a ‘gang’ amounts to any group of young people regularly involved in petty crime. ‘Gangs’ are distinguished from ‘organised criminal networks’, which tend actually to be involved in high-level organised crime. It is hard to see how you could ever build any kind of evidence to demonstrate the links between ‘gangs’ and crime, let alone reliably justify the claim that these gangs are involved in a ‘postcode war’. But the lack of evidence did not stop the Standard ‘revealing’ that ‘250 gangs’ were ‘struggling’ for control over London’s streets.