One of the comments made by Theresa May during her opening speech in yesterday’s debate on the riots was that “6% of young people are in gangs”.

MPs in the Chamber and people on Twitter were questioning where that stat came from, and what exactly constituted a ‘gang’.

Which reminded me of a blog post I did a couple of years ago which I’ve reproduced below… .

It’s good to be in a gang

It’s not every day that you get approached by someone whose opening line is “I’m a lifer, I’ve been in prison for 18 years for murder and this is my first day out”. But that’s what happened on Monday, as I was making an early departure from the Home Affairs Select Committee meeting at the Trinity Centre in Bristol. This guy had been standing at the side, watching what was going on. He said he’d been doing some plastering work at the Trinity Centre and had overheard what was going on, and wanted to join in the discussion, so I popped back and asked Keith Vaz if he could. By all accounts he made a very interesting contribution to the debate. Somewhat bizarre though – 18 years in prison and you end up giving evidence to a Select Committee on your first day of release.

I only caught the first hour of the session, as I had to get to London, but there were some really interesting points emerging. We talked with a crowd of young people and community activists about the role of parents, and the fact that ever younger children are now carrying knives. It’s all going to be in the Select Committee’s report, but one of the things that struck me suddenly was the realisation that belonging to “a gang” per se is not a bad thing. It can be good to be in a gang. Often young people look to peer groups to find the emotional support and understanding they don’t get at home or at school. Or sometimes it’s even less complicated than that; it’s just about hanging out with a bunch of mates. Gangs might be about security (safety in numbers) but they’re also about having a laugh and pursuing common interests. (OK, yes, sometimes they’re about crime and territorial wars and drug-dealing and intimidation too, but let’s park that for now).

When I was 15, 16, 17 I used to meet up with the same group of friends – Steve, Chris, Mark, Lewis, Joe, Antonella and Emma (my sister) – down the park virtually every night. We’d camp out on the steps of Luton museum, listening to Joy Division and Lynton Kwesi Johnson on Lewis’ ghettoblaster until it was time to head home to catch the John Peel show at 10pm. Or at the weekend we’d meet in Mark’s outhouse, play cards and listen to ‘Slates’ by the Fall, Theatre of Hate and the Birthday Party. Sometimes the Cocteau Twins if Mark had his way. Or Psychik TV if Chris had his. And every now and again we’d head down to London on the train to see bands at the Hammersmith Palais or the Lyceum or the Town and Country Club.
I’m sure my teenage nephews and nieces are just the same, albeit with rather different taste in music. But I bet that when some people see the 18 year old nephew and the 17 year old niece with their mates, they respond completely differently to when they see their 15 year old and 17 year old cousins. Why? Because two of them are white, and two are mixed race. How many people see a group of friends in the first instance, and a ‘gang’ in the second?
But I digress… What I’m wondering is this: youth work tends to involve bringing lots of young people together under one roof. The Government will be announcing extra spending on this later this week. And yes, youth centres are good. But would it be better if more spaces were created for young people to break off into their gangs, and be with the mates they really want to be with? Is there something slightly artificial about forcing fifty or sixty or more young people to socialise together and is there an optimum size for a gathering? (Actually that’s what we used to call it when we went round Mark’s house: a gathering). Should we be encouraging gangs instead of demonising them?
Stop press – this is the news I was expecting, about extra funding. £5 million. Not bad.
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  • Quietzaple  On August 13, 2011 at 4:20 am

    My most significant peer group aged 16 – 63/4 insisted that what others might have called parties were gatherings, as in “of the clans” I think. Most of us got together in our sixtieth birthday year.

    As an ornithology mad nine year old I accumulated a very motely gang – like Rabbit’s friends and relations – for trips beyond the local dangerous road: those in my gang had safe conduct over it. (I’d been taught to cross the Hammersmith High Rd at the age of 4)

    I suppose gangs however short lived have cultures including rules which are mostly brought in by members: even the Hell Fire Club wasn’t wholly original.

  • I.C.E.  On August 23, 2011 at 2:08 am

    Mandelson, the Labour peer I remind you, not a Tory one, is looking over an £8,000,000 property. He’s thinking of buying it outright, which means he feels he can afford the upkeep on the property too. I ask you, what’s the difference between the Tory and the Labour parties these days? They’re all getting wealthy off our backs… I ask you also, how does any formerly financially rank and file politician get to be able to afford something like this? All he had to sell was.. well, was us – down the river, I would think! I’m not too relaxed about that, personally!

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