Viewpoint: Changing the way we look at gangs?

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A recent LGiU run webinar has prompted Roshni Mistry to wonder how – often very young – children can be kept out of gangs.

When we hear about gangs in the media, it is usually associated with drugs, turf wars and violent crime. In a recent LGiU webinar on Radicalisation and Gang culture I learnt that the average age of gang members in the UK is 13/14 and getting younger. This made me question whether we should change our perception of gangs and in particular young members. Maybe we should be looking at gang members as vulnerable children who have been ‘radicalised’, so to speak, into an antisocial way of life.

While gangs exist up and down the country it is young BME boys from deprived areas who are most likely to get caught up in these dangerous groups. The seminar talked about how gangs live in a parallel world with the rest of society – they have their own rules, norms and values. As a result young boys are cut off from the rest of society and spend their formative years living outside normal everyday life. These young children find themselves getting trapped into a life of crime, which may result in imprisonment. After coming out of prison many struggle to get back into education or secure a job and fall back into crime.

These young boys are vulnerable and easily impressionable, which is why I think local authorities, media and police need to change the way they see young gang members. Kids aged 13 to 14 years old are not criminals but vulnerable children who have been radicalised into a deviant way of life.

The government has ploughed a lot of money into combatting Islamic radicalisation which now extends into our schools e.g. prevent. It can be argued that the government and local authorities by extension need to do more to help vulnerable children who could be at risk of getting caught up in gangs. Within the seminar there was a discussion on what local authorities and third sector organisations can do and what best practice would look like.

1. Have the right people around the table

When trying to come up with solutions, local authorities need to consult with a network of different people. These include relevant third sector organisations, which work within the community, faith groups and the police.

2. A one size fits all approach does not work

In London alone there are a reported 225 recognised gangs with nearly 3,600 members. Whilst patterns can be drawn when looking at gangs we have to remember that the demographics change depending on where you are in the UK. For example gangs in Manchester and London have predominately Black members whilst in Glasgow and Liverpool they are predominately white. This will mean that the approaches used to try and engage will be different and sensitive to the particular culture of the gang.

3. Playing the long game

To gain trust within a gang requires a team of specialised individuals who can be part of an outreach program. Charities like Gangsline have in the past run successful outreach programs where they were able to create a dialogue with gangs in Newham over a three-year period. Obviously, long-term solutions like this are increasingly difficult as local government’s budgets are cut and pricey outreach programmes look less and less desirable.

Responsibility for combatting gang culture and protecting young children from getting caught up in violence does not only lie with local government and third sector organisations. Like the effort to combat Islamic radicalisation, it has to be an interdisciplinary effort involving central government, local authorities, faith groups and the police.

Roshni Mistry is LGiU’s External Affairs Coordinator.

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    1. Nivene Powell says:

      This is a very interesting article. I would like to be kept informed of any progress on this issue and also involved in any future policy work if possible.