This blog is all that remains from the former website which was closed after 8 years of providing a 'wiki' of urban street gangs in London.

An unfinished history of modern urban street gangs in London has been used to replace some of the content of the original site, beginning here

Monday, 1 January 2007

Defining Gangs (page from original site)

by (2007)
Recognition and acceptance of the London Street Gang

February 3, 2007 marked the beginning of a number of so called “gang related” murders involving teenagers across London. James Andre Smartt-Ford, 16, was one of around 300 young people aged in their late teens and early twenties at Streatham Ice Rink enjoying an evening disco when a large number of young people entered the rink. After a moment of madness in the darkness of the arena, James was shot twice and died. Similar events had been gaining media attention in London for several years, however, the age of victims was seemingly becoming increasingly younger. One of the earliest incidences of someone school aged dying from a reported “gang feud” since the 1990s was that of Richard Everitt, 15, an innocent teen who became caught up in rivalry between white and Asian young men in the Somers Town and Drummond Street areas of Kings Cross in 1994. In 1997, Guydance Dacres, 16, was shot dead at a private party at Chimes night club in Hackney. One of the most publicised murders attributed to a gang was that of Damilola Taylor, 10, an innocent young boy murdered by the infamous Preddie brothers, both reportedly connected to the equally infamous Peckham Boys gang.

Events of this kind involving school aged children up until 2006 had been limited so we were led to believe. However, historical data on young murder victims in London shows a steady figure of between 10-20 victims between 1990 and 2005. From the beginning of 2006, however, such events had become more frequent, particularly amongst those under 18. The media became obsesses with counting the number of 'Teen Killings' from here on. In January 2006, Barrington Williams-Samuels, 19, died after being shot at the Palace Pavillion in Hackney, the following day an 18 year old died following a street fight in Kentish Town between friends. On the 5th May 2006 15-year-old Kiyan Prince was stabbed to death following an altercation outside his school in Edgware and another 15 year old, Alex Mulumba, was stabbed to death in what was said to be a feud between two street gangs in Kennington in June 2006. The following month Julian Knight, 16, was stabbed during a fight in Abbey Wood and died from his injuries. In September, 16 year old Thomas Jones from Harlow was stabbed to death in East Ham and Paul McMillan, 19, was stabbed to death in Dagenham. November saw the murder of 16-year-old Eugene Attram in Thornton Heath an innocent youth caught up in the rivalry between two gangs from Mitcham and Wandsworth. By no means were all these murders, if any, gang related but the number of teenagers killed in London was certainly becoming a cause for concern.

Operation Trident (black gun crime) and Trafalgar (non-black gun crime) have dealt with around 270 serious shootings each year between 2003-04 and 2006-07. The total number of incidents has remained at a similar level, however, it hides a worrying trend that shows youth suspects to be on the increase (Table 1.1). In 2003-4 there were 42 (16%) serious shootings committed in London by suspects under the age of 20. However, in 2006 this had increased to 86 and 31% as a proportion of all incidents (gun crime incidents only). The number of incidents involving this age group throughout 2006-07 may not have actually increased significantly when compared to 2005-06 (in fact it decreased by 1) but the attention being given to the matter in the media was disproportionate to actual volumes. What became apparent, was an increasing number of young people were also being killed often as innocent victims of youth gangs - or groups of young people, some of whom had histories of offending.

This has not just been confined to London, although it does seem to be consistent with the inner cities, there have been incidents of school aged children being shot and also stabbed to death in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield with some reference to youth gangs since the beginning of 2007.

If the number of incidents had remained at a similar level since 2005-06 and there was also evidence to show that a number of teens had been murdered in 2006 (17 in 2006 compared to 27 in 2007) then what was the significance of the James Andre Smartt-Ford murder at Streatham Ice Rink? It perhaps may not have been as significant a turning point if it had not been for the events to follow, although it was the first incidence of a school aged youth being shot dead in London for some time. The Streatham incident was shocking and what we would have expected to be an isolated incident, however, just three days later 15- year-old Michael Dosunmu was shot dead in his bedroom by intruders a short distance away in Peckham in what was a case of mistaken identity and which police linked to the murder of Javarie Crighton, 21, also murdered on the 3rd February less than 100 yards away. On the 14th February, Billy Cox, 15, became the third youth in 11 days to be shot dead in south London. Billy was found dying in his flat on the Fenwick Estate in Clapham (Figure 1.1).

The media linked the Billy Cox murder to a young gang in the area known as the 'Clap Town Kids'. In the following month another three teenagers were murdered, all of whom were stabbed to death. The press coverage for all of these incidents described how street gangs in their local area had murdered innocent youths. Kodjo Yenga, 16, was murdered by a group known as Murder Dem Pussies in west London, Adam Regis, 15, by a young Newham gang in east London and Paul Erahon, 14, by a group known as Thatch House Thugs also in east London. By the end of 2007 there had been 27 incidents of teen murders with the reporting in the media always mentioning the word gang whether it was gang related or not - there is no consensus amongst police, policy makers or practitioners as to what actually constitutes a gang crime.

There seems to be something about the word ‘gang’, particularly in the media during 2007, with the word being applied carelessly to any offence being committed that involves either violence or multiple offenders. It seems attaching the word gang to reports had replaced a need to establish real motives in these tragic incidents. In the coming years, much youth deviance was reduced to simply an issue of "gangs". This does very little in helping to understand the motivations for these crimes, because simply being a gang member does not lead someone to kill. Furthermore, there is over one hundred years worth of debates as to what is a gang and who is a gang member with no single definition being agreed upon by either police, the government or researchers and academics. The fact that no-one can decide on what is a gang might lead you to question whether there is such a thing?

"Gangs in London"

There have been two reports in the media detailing the whereabouts of gangs in London. The first appeared in the BBC in late 2006, which identified 169 “gangs” operating throughout the 32 London boroughs with Hackney (24) and Enfield (13) having the most. There were obvious flaws in the methodology of the report, compiled by the Metropolitan Police, most notably the fact that the research had no way of defining exactly what a gang was. Included within the report were a number of groups that did not actively commit crime - crime maybe being the only defining criteria of gangs that is widely agreed upon.

The report was also inconclusive as information was not supplied by every London borough. A second report published by the London Evening Standard in mid-2007 detailed the whereabouts of 257 gangs in London, as identified by the Metropolitan Police. However, again there were numerous errors in the report owing to the fact that the author, Southwark Borough Council Community Safety Enforcement Team, had incorrectly copied a large proportion of the list of gangs from an open source website. The media acquired the information as an open source from the London Guns Gangs and Weapons website (the report has since been removed from both the Evening Standard and the Guns Gangs and Weapons website no longer exists). A copy can be viewed here.

There has been prevailing evidence in the media, as well as police responses locally and nationally, that suggests there is an emerging culture of gangs in England and in particular London. Bennett and Holloway (2004, p.307) suggest that the picture painted by such reports is similar to gang membership in the United States. However, in reality they also contend that there is little evidence to suggest that there are any street gangs in the UK and there is certainly a dearth of criminological research that can shed any light on this development (Mares, 2001; Grainger, 2002; Bennett & Holloway, 2004; Marshal et al., 2005).

White (2004, p.41) argues that the media and the police provide the two richest sources of current knowledge on youth gangs in the UK, although amongst academics it has been suggested that the cause for a lack of criminological enquiry lie in the consensus that the gang is actually an American phenomenon yet to be encountered to a significant degree in UK inner cities. Weitekamp (2001, p.309) observes that most Europeans acknowledge the existence of youth groups, however, they are reluctant to name them as street gangs. Furthermore, Klein et al (2006, p.414) contend that many European countries do in fact have street gangs but researchers and policy makers also often hesitate to label them as gangs. This is because they compare their own groups to American stereotypes (Klein, 1997, 2001; Covey, 2003; Decker and Weerman, 2005).

Bennett and Holloway (2004, p.306) have expressed surprise at the little research undertaken about UK street gangs when considering the high level of interest in the topic particularly spurred on by the media. In 2007, the amount of research on the topic of street gangs was still relatively limited in the UK and many questions posed by Bennett and Holloway (2004) remained unanswered. There are important gaps about what is known of street gangs, particularly within Greater London. There is limited reliable and up to date knowledge about the number and distribution of gangs in London (despite the aforementioned reports naming 169 and then 257 gangs). Basic facts about the characteristics of gangs and members, their contribution to crime and their link to guns and drugs need to be explored. However, in order to do this we first need to establish what gangs are and where they are located within London.

From what has been suggested in the media, many of the gangs mentioned identify with their local area, which they regard as their turf or territory. Gang territory is a basis of gang existence and is why many groups will often name themselves after the streets or neighbourhoods in which they reside or operate. The first objective of this piece will be to establish what a gang is by reviewing previous literature on the subject. As well as knowing what defines a gang, the literature will also need to consider the nature and characteristics of groups and their offending to be able to understand what makes the group a gang. The second objective of this piece will be conduct a spatial/geographical analysis of groups in London and using the information obtained from previous literature, attempt to identify which of the groups can be described as gangs and the relationships and structure between them.

What are gangs?

England and the United Kingdom in general has been riddled by groups of youthful delinquents from as far back as the seventeenth Century (Pearson, 1983; Mares, 2001). However, due to the aforementioned dearth of coherent research on such groups, they had tended to be named in a local sense, for example, the Hooligans of south London and the Scuttlers of Manchester, rather than as gangs. Not too dissimilar to the stereotypical groups of America, these youths were described as territorial emerging from the impoverished inner city districts of British cities. They were never thought of as gangs, however, newer popular literature has tended to call them gangs (see Pre 1950's "Mobs" in London)

There is an assumption that young people in the past were on the whole, well mannered, disciplined and law abiding and somewhat different from today’s youth. In reality, there is nothing new about gangs and street violence, juvenile crime has deep roots in our past (Humphries, 1994, p.21). The notion of the delinquent neighbourhood in the United Kingdom can be traced back to 1852 following the Select Committee Report on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles (Brake, 1985, p.59). Below are a selection of attitudes to youth over the past century taken from John Muncie's 'Youth & Crime':
  • They are links which have fallen off the chain of society which are going to decay and obstruct the whole machine. (Politician, 1788)
  • Morals are getting much worse. When I was young my mother would have knocked me down for speaking improperly to her. (Newspaper Editorial, 1843)
  • The manners of children are deteriorating...the child of today is coarser, more vulgar, less refined than his parents were. (Howard Association, 1898)
  • Our young people have no idea of discipline or subordination. (Chief Constable, 1904)
  • There has been a decline in the disciplinary forces governing a child. Obedience and respect for the law have decreased. (The Times, 1952)
  • The adolescent has learned no definite moral standards from his parents, is contemptuous of the law, easily bored. (British Medical Association, 1961)
  • Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a revulsion from authority and discipline. (Newspaper Editorial, 1981)
  • We will never get reasonable behaviour among the young until we bring back National Service (Newspaper Editorial, 1985)
  • People nationally are sick of kids making their life hell...It never happened in the 1950s. (Letter to provincial newspaper, 2005)
The periods of most interest on youth delinquent culture has been the late nineteenth century and pre war periods. However, the major concern with delinquent sub-cultures came after the Second World War. Public concern about ‘youth’, even the identification of urban subcultures, has a long history. The derivation of the word “yob” provides the first reference that ideals of youthful innocence in the recent past were untrue. Yob is back-slang for boy and first became used in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain to describe groups of delinquent youth in city slum areas (Humphries, 1994: 21). Groups such as the Sabinis (London), Hooligans (south London) and Jewish Mobs (east London) helped fuel panics similar to those today about mob/yob rule and the breakdown of law and order (Blanch, 1979; Humphries, 1994; Hall, 2005).

Although youth groups have long attracted adult condemnation the notion of the ‘gang’ was peculiar to the twentieth century and largely confined to America. Campbell and Muncer (1989: 272) have claimed that Britain plays host to subcultures rather than gangs. The rejection of gangs could be the fault of American stereotypes, the absence of an agreed upon definition and a way of describing what a gang is. Downes (1966: 116) study of delinquent groups in East London concluded that gangs were not present because the groups he observed were not structured. The idea that gangs must be organised and structured led English researchers, such as Downes, to label youth groups in Britain subcultures as oppose to gangs. As Muncie (1999: 160) concludes in his examination of gangs and subcultures in Britain:

“America owns the gang, while Britain has traditionally been the home of [delinquent] subcultures”

Culture is learned behaviour emphasising the effects of socialisation (Lee, 1945; Gordon, 1947). The three main elements of culture are the ‘image’ (appearance of costume, hairstyle, jewellery); ‘demeanour’ (made up of expression, gait and posture); and ‘argot’ (a certain vocabulary and how it is delivered). All three elements are also descriptors, but not definers, of what constitutes a gang (see Klein, 2001; Decker & Weerman, 2005; Klein, 2005). The one definer that prevents the British subcultures from being a ‘gang’ is the idea that they were not formed for the sole purpose of committing criminal behaviour, as Brake (1985: 58) concludes:

“…gangs tend to be informally structured ‘near groups’, composed of a closely linked core with a looser network of peripheral members, subcultures have been seen as wider than this. They are the constellations of actions, values, style, imagery and even lifestyles which…extend beyond a neighbourhood to form a complex relationship with other larger cultures, to form a symbolic pseudo-community”

The definition of a “gang”, which will be considered later, attempted by many academics, has generally decided that criminal behaviour is important to the group identity. Whilst sub-cultures may have been delinquent they were not formed for that reason. The various subcultures endured in post war Britain were known for their descriptors rather than definers (see Table 2.1).

Mares (2001: 156) contends that during the 1980s a new type of “gang” began to emerge in Britain’s Metropolitan areas, most notably London, Birmingham and Manchester. These groups were commonly acknowledged to be ethnic street gangs involved in drug sales, violence and inter-gang rivalry. The groups formed over this period have been documented in popular culture and heavily by the media. Author Tony Thomson drawing upon the media and his own research has looked into the origins of modern day London gangs beginning with the National Front’s role in provoking Bengali and Indian youth gangs in Southall and Tower Hamlets and the history of the “Yardies” in Britain.

The information available on the history of street gangs, however, is minimal in the U.K. context. Authors such as Tony Thompson have drawn upon stories and events and interwoven them into chapters by ethnicity or activity. The nature of the groups studied is often more organised than street level although the complicated word “gang” has never really been discussed.

Defining Exactly What A Gang Is

Defining what exactly constitutes a gang is something that has plagued gang researchers since they first began investigating this phenomenon (Stelfox, 1998; Bjerregaard, 2002; Sharp et al, 2004; Decker & Weerman, 2005; Sullivan, 2005).

There is little, if any, consensus as to what constitutes a gang, who is a gang member and what gangs do either inside or outside the law (Klein, 1969; Miller, 1975; Gardner, 1993; Ball & Curry, 1995; Bjerregaard, 2002). As Esbensen et al (2001, p.106) concludes,

“There is an absence of definitional consensus. The irony, of course, is that even the “experts” cannot agree on what constitutes a gang or gang behaviour, and many experts find fault with nearly all definitions.”

Gangs, traditionally have been perceived as an American phenomenon whilst the majority of research on gangs in Europe, and in particular the United Kingdom, has largely been carried out over the last decade. Klein (2001, p.7) believes that the stereotypes and images portrayed historically in films such as ‘Colors’ and ‘Training Day’ have shaped our perception of the gang. However, he contends that both are distortions of reality and, few American gangs fit these stereotypes also. Weerman and Esbensen (2005, p.221) have observed that many non-Americans also compare their youth groups with such stereotypes. Drawing comparisons with Hollywood depictions inevitably led to the denial of the existence of gangs beyond America. Malcolm Klein (2001, p.7) referred to this false impression as the “Eurogang Paradox”.

One of the first researchers to develop a definition of the gang was Frederick Thrasher in his 1927 study of gangs in Chicago. Thrasher (1927, p.46) defined a gang as:

“…an interstitial group, originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict. It is characterised by the following types of behaviour; meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict and planning. The result of this collective behaviour is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory”

Klein (1971, p.13) defined a gang as:

“Any detonable adolescent group of youngsters who (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighbourhood; (b) recognise themselves as a detonable group (almost invariably with a group name); and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighbourhood residents, and/or law enforcement agencies”

Haskell and Yablonsky (1982) described a gang as a group of lawbreakers whose main organisation was around violence and other illegal activities. Miller (1982) defined the gang as a self-formed association of peers united by mutual interests. He also mentioned the conduct of illegal activity and control of a particular territory. Curry and Spergel (1988, p.383) argue that gangs are complexly organised, sometimes cohesive and often have leaders and rules. Again conflict with other gangs and possessing a distinctive territory is mentioned.

Historically gangs have been subjected to a plethora of different definitions; however, as previously mentioned there is no consensus as to what a gang actually is. A number of definitions have placed an emphasis on the amount of contact and meetings between gang members (Miller, 1982; Short, 1990; Huff, 1993). The presence of a leader is another definer often used to interpret an organised gang (Johnstone, 1981; Miller, 1982; Spergel, 1984). It is uncommon to specify a number of members; most definitions simply require a gang to be a group (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996, Curry & Decker, 1998). However, the most common defining elements of a gang are its involvement in criminal activity (Klein, 1971; Haskell & Yablonsky, 1982; Miller, 1982; Spergel, 1984; Curry & Decker, 1998) and its affiliation with a specific territory (Thrasher, 1927; Miller, 1975; Spergel, 1984).

The Eurogang Definition

The definition of gangs is problematic in relation to the difference between youth gangs and youth groups (Decker, 2001, p.21). It is problematic in the sense that most adolescents belong to peer groups who often act collectively and become involved in minor crimes of various kinds (Gabor, 1994). It is problematic because research has shown that most delinquent behaviour is a group activity (Erikson and Jensen, 1977; Poole and Regoli, 1979; Zimring, 1981), thus making it difficult to distinguish between a delinquent group and a delinquent gang. Furthermore, and particularly in the media, the term is applied to many different types of groups, ranging from the informal street-based youth groups to highly organised criminal networks (Sharp et al, 2004, p.1).

The issue of defining gangs is crucial to understanding what a gang is, who a gang member is and what activities the gang engages in. This has sparked considerable debate in the U.S. The Eurogang program, in 2001, developed a specific definition to gain consensus around the aforementioned issues. The “consensus Eurogang definition” was agreed upon by over 100 researchers in the U.S. and Europe and was specifically designed to improve comparative street gang research (Klein, 2005, p.136). The definition separates street gangs from other criminal groups such as prison gangs and terrorist groups as well as the far more numerous formal and informal youth groups (Klein et al, 2006, p.414).

It reads as follows:

“A street gang is any durable, street orientated youth group whose own identity includes involvement in illegal activity” (Klein, 2001, 2004, 2005; Klein et al, 2006; Decker & Weerman, 2005; Weerman and Esbensen, 2005)

The definition includes five necessary defining factors of what a gang is. All other characteristics used to describe gangs such as special clothing, ethnicity, age and gender are decidedly not definers, but instead, descriptors of a gang (Klein, 2004, 2005).

The definition helps to understand the characteristics and structure of the gangs. Using the characteristics derived from the definition (Age Range, Crime Versatility, Duration, Sub-groups combined with the Average Size and Territoriality) the gangs can be identified with a unique structure. The Eurogang definition yields five street gang structures:
  • Traditional Gang, large and territorial, long enduring with a wide age range, sub groups or cliques based on age or residence, with a versatile crime pattern.
  • Neo-Traditional Gang, similar to traditional gangs but newer, usually in existence for ten years or less, smaller, with a narrower age range of members.
  • Compressed Gang, labelled as such because of their smaller size and the restricted age range of their members, adolescent or very early adult groups without well defined sub-groups, they generally endure for less than 10 years as members mature.
  • Collective Gang, loosely structured, strong community ties but are not strongly territorial, low cohesiveness and large membership, transitional.
  • Speciality Gang, do not show crime versatility, specialise in narrow crime patterns such as drug distribution or extremist pursuits (e.g. racists), smallest in membership but most organised.
Hallsworth and Young Definition (adopted by Metropolitan Police)

In 2005 the Jill Dando Institute, ‘Rationalisation of Current Research on Guns, Gangs and Other Weapons’, carried out research on gangs and guns in England. The document drew upon the problems mentioned previously regarding stereotypes and definitional issues. Within the document, Hallsworth and Young make an attempt at working definitions that focussed on problem behaviours commonly associated with gangs. The definitions considered offending, of varying types and seriousness, amongst associated networks of individuals to determine the type of group.

The definitions use a three-fold typology composed of “peer groups”, “street gangs” and “organised crime groups”. Peer groups are composed of young people, who tend by nature to congregate together in groups. Peer groups can be formed by friends and acquaintances who share similar spaces and history. As observed in the Team Hackney ‘Floor Target Action Plan on Guns and Gangs’ (2006, p.12), age is the prime determinant though gender and to an extent a common ethnic background and class position are also important. Whilst they may appear as gang like in the sense of manner and appearance their delinquency is not mobilised in ways that suggest it is intrinsic to their identity and practice.

Peer Group:
  • Relatively small, unorganised and transient group of peers who share the same space and a common history. Involvement in crime will be mostly non serious in nature and not integral to the group identity…For most, adulthood will stabilise young people’s identity in the direction of law-abiding behaviour. Some, however, will move on the become gang members.
  • Crime is not intrinsic to the self-identity of the peer group. Delinquent behaviour will be rare and intermittent, and, not all members of the group need to be engaged in crime.
  • Peer-induced offending will be bourne out of peer pressure, bravado, etc. ALL these offences will be committed in the presence of a group. Common types of behviour would be more likely to include low level anti-social behaviour and intimidation, criminal damage, expressive acts of violence not involving weapons, drug-use and personal robbery.
  • Relatively durable, predominantly street based groups of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group’s identity. As with the peer group, gang members are likely to be bound together because of a shared history or place. The gang is a derivative of the peer group and for most of its existence, it will be indistinguishable from street-based peer groups.
  • It will have a name, a propensity to inflict violence and engage in crime, and, violence and delinquency will perform a functional role in promoting group identity and solidarity. Delinquent behaviour and violence is mobilised as a currency to acquire social capital (status, respect, power, etc.). ALL members of the gang will be engaged in crime.
  • Gang induced offending will be associated on behalf of, or for the benefit of a ‘gang’. This might include conflicts over territory (geographical or commercial) or pride (reputation), and are likely to be characterised by expressive acts of violence. Unlike peer-induced offending, it is possible that an individual acting alone may commit a “gang-related” offence, (selling drugs, for example). Possession of weapons will be the norm rather than the exception. Offending will include that of peer group, plus expressive acts of violence involving the use of weapons and the dealing of drugs.
Peer groups are far more numerous than gangs, however, they are considered by many to be gangs. This is partly because characteristics considered appropriate for the appellation of the gang are indeed present in the way peer groups behave. When considering the offending behaviours of groups, it is clear that peer induced offending is far more widespread than gang and organised crime group offending. What separates a peer group from a gang is that, gangs are formed in response to the aggressive tendencies of other adjacent groups with whom they fight, coupled with their participation in illegal drug markets and proximity to older organised criminals (Hackney Floor Target Action Plan Guns & Gangs, 2006, p.14).

The organised crime group is composed of career criminals. Like gangs and peer groups, there is an aggressive masculine culture and identity often giving them the same volatility as youth gangs. However, whilst the consequences are usually much more serious in nature, they are equally much less frequent. Organised crime groups are more likely to control the means of illegal production, and young men, including those in gangs, always stand in relation or subordination to them.

The Eurogang definition has no guidelines on types of offending which can make its application to groups far too broad. Using this definition could force us to accept a much greater number of groups as gangs, thus heightening the problem. The Hallsworth and Young definition, on the other hand, specifies offending types in an attempt to differentiate the gang from other gang like groups. As Morash (1983, p.312) observes, the degree to which peers are like a gang is related to members’ seriousness of delinquency.

Although Hallsworth & Youngs three-fold typology distinguishes between peer, street gang and organised crime group, there are some large groups where a continuum exists connecting individuals between the various staging posts. Some large street gangs in London will certainly include members that fall within each typology.
The definition helps to understand the characteristics and structure of the gangs. Using the characteristics derived from the definition (Age Range, Crime Versatility, Duration, Sub-groups combined with the Average Size and Territoriality) the gangs can be identified with a unique structure. The Eurogang definition yields five street gang structures:
  • Traditional Gang, large and territorial, long enduring with a wide age range, sub groups or cliques based on age or residence, with a versatile crime pattern.
  • Neo-Traditional Gang, similar to traditional gangs but newer, usually in existence for ten years or less, smaller, with a narrower age range of members.
  • Compressed Gang, labelled as such because of their smaller size and the restricted age range of their members, adolescent or very early adult groups without well defined sub-groups, they generally endure for less than 10 years as members mature.
  • Collective Gang, loosely structured, strong community ties but are not strongly territorial, low cohesiveness and large membership, transitional.
  • Speciality Gang, do not show crime versatility, specialise in narrow crime patterns such as drug distribution or extremist pursuits (e.g. racists), smallest in membership but most organised.
Gangs, immigration, nature and offending

Within London, gang members tend to be male, criminally active with a tendency to carry knives and guns (Marshall et al, 2005, p.19). However, as observed by Bennett and Holloway (2004, p.309) there are differences with gangs in the U.S., most notably the ethnic backgrounds of members. In the U.S., history has shown that youth gangs were often formed from within groups of recent immigrants (Curry and Decker 1998). Typically these gangs were formed by young second generation and recent immigrants residing within low income communities experiencing fluctuations in neighbourhood industrial bases (Thrasher, 1927; Asbury, 1971; Haskins, 1974). The study of gangs in the U.S. in fact has largely been a study of immigration and ethnicity. In the 1930s and 1940s, in response to immigration and assimilation, Polish, Irish, Jewish, Italian and other European immigrants formed gangs. However, street gangs of European descendants are seldom found in the U.S. today and instead most gangs are now perceived to be black or Hispanic and ethnically homogenous (Haagedorn, 2001; Klein, 2001)

In London some of the more recent gangs have also emerged from among the more recent immigrant groups. Indigenous gangs are reported in London, however, the more publicised gangs are composed of youths with West Indian, Bengali, Tamil, Somalian, African and Albanian backgrounds for example (Klein et al, 2006, p.421). Whilst U.S. street gangs are often unmixed, Mares (2001, p.155) observes that in the UK street gangs are principally a reflection of a neighbourhood’s ethnic composition. A substantial number of street gangs within London will include white and mixed race members. The territorial nature of groups in London suggests that gangs are not primarily organised around ethnicity, but rather around turf.

Klein (1995) cogently argues that it is not necessarily people migrating, but the migration of the gang culture itself that has contributed to the spread of youth gangs. As mentioned in the Hackney Floor Target Action Plan for Guns and Gangs (2006, p.14), the media’s role fuels the gang culture by providing easily accessible material emulating gang situations in other parts of the world. This includes the glamorisation of gang culture and the portrayal of gang life becoming increasingly commercialised. It is argued that teens and young adults emulate these behaviours and become “wannabes” or “copycats” with respect to established big city gangs.

As observed by Decker and Weerman (2005, p.298),

“…evidence is now coming to light that American gangs have an influence on the emerging gangs in Europe. In this sense the role of immigration has come full circle, whereby European immigrants played a central role in the formation and membership of American gangs in the twentieth century and American gangs are now influencing the symbols, style, and activities of European gangs in the 21st century”.

In Hagedorn’s (2001, p.42) study of Milwaukee gang history it is suggested that gangs of European descent dissipated when good jobs allowed their ethnic group to move away from the inner city. However, in the twilight of the industrial era the good jobs were unavailable for newer minority groups. As Bernard (1970) observes, the concept of ethnic succession ceased to work for African Americans. Opportunities in poor neighbourhoods, where gangs tend to be found, have declined. A large proportion of low skilled jobs requiring limited education, if any, have moved away from inner cities and it is not uncommon for them to be moved to even poorer countries in search of higher profits (Hagedorn, 2001, p.43). Globalisation in this sense has been seen by some as bringing Europe “Americansied” poverty (Wacquant , 1997; Castells, 1998) with European trends toward greater inequalities following inexorably in U.S. footsteps.

Increasing “social polarisation” in Britain has meant an increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society. As Sassen (1998, p.138) observes, there is no regulation on this social polarisation within the U.S., unlike many Western European countries. The unprecedented scale of industrial reform that has hit Britain has had a profoundly varied effect on different areas (Champion and Townsend, 1990; Taylor et al, 1996). It is inner city areas that have been affected most by such changes and consequently the majority of well known gangs across London are from these areas, for example Brixton and Hackney. As Mares (2001, p.162) argues, most of the jobs available to youngsters in these areas are low paying, insecure jobs in the service industries. A society that shifts to a “winner-loser culture” makes it hard for young people to get a good education or jobs (Weitekamp 2001, p.309). They are often excluded from fulltime, career orientated work, leading to this winner-loser culture (James, 1995). As Weitekamp (2001: 309-310) concludes,

“Young immigrants in particular are the biggest losers since they are usually the least integrated and often live in poorer and neglected neighbourhoods which can serve as breeding grounds for street gangs”.

Gang Nature and Characteristics

When studying gang members many academics have concentrated on the reasons for joining a gang and the sorts of familial environments that are conducive to producing “at risk youths” (Ruble, 2000; Vigil, 2003; Martin, 2005). Morash (1983, p.310) considers the strain theorists of the post war period and how they assumed that lower and working class boys are frustrated in their strive to achieve middle class goals. According to these theorists (Cohen, 1955; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960), youths join gangs in response to these frustrations. Lower and working class boys are born into areas that are “socially disorganised”. Socially disorganised areas are more characterised by rapid population movement of low income or working class people; social, political and economic change or disruption; rapid industrialisation and deindustrialisation; as well as distinct negative changes in the labour market. This results in key social institutions becoming unable to build community ties.

Shaw and McKay (1943) discovered higher rates of juvenile delinquency within areas possessing significantly higher levels of social disorganisation. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) advance this theory arguing that when gang adults lack access to legitimate opportunities such as education and vocational programmes, they are less likely to achieve economic success. As a consequence they will turn to illegitimate opportunities, such as crime, in order to achieve economic success (Shaw and McKay, 1943; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Wilson, 1991). Vigil (1988) found a higher prevalence of gang formation within communities experiencing multiple marginality (poverty, racism, segregated labour markets). This particularly advances the problem of social disorganisation in immigrant neighbourhoods as gangs then arise as a coping mechanism for these youths who are prevented from adapting to the dominant culture. Youth who lack access to both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities may form conflict or fighting gangs as a way of achieving some form of status and success within their communities (Miller, 1958; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Vigil, 1988). A British study into gangs also concluded that some of the motivations for (UK) gang membership were for status, power, respect and a sense of belonging (Marshall et al, 2005, p.10).

A problem with studying youth gangs in particular is that, little is known about whether gang members are in any way different from non-gang members of similar social backgrounds (Bennett and Holloway, 2004, p.316). It is also common for a young person to be associated in someway with a known gang yet not regard themselves as a member (Shropshire and McFarquhar, 2002; Pitts, 2007). Huff (1996) reported that differences between members and non-members are far smaller than the differences in their illegal activities and, gang members, contrary to popular perception, often engage in the same social and recreational activities as their non-gang counterparts. However, some researchers have observed gang members to be more socially inept with lower self-esteems and sociopathic characteristics (Yablonsky, 1962; Emms et al, 1986; Weerman and Esbensen, 2005). Moffitt (1993) has stated that youth gang members are likely to be life course persistent offenders and other studies (Robin, 1967; Spergel, 1989; Hagedorn, 1988) have shown youth gang criminal activity to extend into adulthood.

Research into gang members in Britain is limited and confined to certain localities. Marshall et al (2005, p.8) in a study of gangs in England concluded that U.K gang members shared particular identities based on age, ethnicity, locality, peer networks and blood relationships. A consistent finding within the study showed that individuals who had relatives and peers with problem behaviours are likely to become gang involved. An earlier study in Manchester observed that recruits to established gangs appeared to come mainly from blood relatives of those who were already in gangs, friends of gang members and lastly disaffected street youth seeking a gang home and willing to provide services to more senior members (Bullock and Tilley, 2002, p.28). A study in Hackney concluded that “youngers” (youngest gang members) are often manipulated by the “olders” (older gang members) through coercion or enticement (Team Hackney, 2006, p.14). Furthermore, a nation-wide study conducted by the Home Office, using the Eurogang definition, revealed that involvement in gangs was highest among those aged 14-15 (12%) and 16-17 (9%) and the factors most associated with group membership were having friends in trouble with police; commitment to deviant peers; having been expelled or suspended from school; and being drunk on a frequent basis (Sharp et al, 2004).

Research from the Safer London Youth Survey (2005, p.11) observed that white British and black Caribbean students were more likely than black African and south Asian students to say they belonged to a gang. Furthermore, black Caribbean students were more likely than all other ethnicity’s to say they belonged to a gang with a name. Referring back to definitional issues, gangs must be distinguished from other peer groups as the majority of youths are organised into groups and cliques rather than gangs. A number of groups proclaiming themselves to be gangs in London today are no different to groups observed by Downes (1966). In Downes’ (1966, p.273) study of East London he concluded that groups responsible for most delinquency were simply small cliques whose members committed illegal acts sometimes collectively, sometimes in pairs and sometimes individually. However, it is important to note that engagement in crime, and more importantly violent crime, committed in groups point in the direction of an increasing gang problem (Weitekamp, 2001, p.310).

Decker (2001, p.21-22) argues that gangs are often disorganised and typically do not have leaders and Klein (2001, p.10) concludes that gangs tend toward only moderate levels of organisation. An important indicator of the level of organisation is the differentiation of membership levels, less differentiation usually implies less developed organisation (Decker, 2001; Klein et al 2001). Bullock and Tilley (2002, p.26) in their study of Manchester gangs describe the various levels ranging from core members, ordinary members and runners, whereas the Hackney Floor Target Action Plan (2006, p.14) observe the differentiation by age (“olders” and “youngers”). Pitts (2007) goes into further detail by looking at the varying roles of an organised or articulate gang. The roles descend from the “elders”, “olders”, “youngers”, “shottas”, “wannabes” and reluctant gangsters. Newer gangs tend to compromise younger members (Bullock and Tilley, 2002, p.27), as a result they have the least differentiation. However, it is increasingly common for small cliques or sub-sets to be part of the same group. Newer young gangs or cliques that have limited levels of membership differentiation have instead differentiation based on location. Such examples would include numerous cliques in a locality who come together to identify with one shared commonality (i.e. a place or postcode).

Sullivan (2005, p.175) observes three categories of association, which he describes as action sets, cliques (or set) and named gangs. Sullivan’s (2005) aim is not to define gangs but instead distinguish the types of associations. An “Action Set” is an aggregation of individuals co-operating together in a co-ordinated line of activity, however, their activity does not need to continue over a specified amount of time and can simply be a one off. The “Clique” is an aggregation of individuals with some form of diffuse and enduring bonds of solidarity. A clique will engage in a variety of activities together on some kind of regular basis. They need not have a name or leader. A named “Gang” has the properties of a clique, along with a name and explicit criteria of membership. In some areas of London (i.e. Lambeth) it is common for a number of younger cliques to identify with or fall under the umbrella of a named gang. In one way it can be perceived as a production line, the cliques being the factory of raw materials and the established named gang being the shop floor of finished items (Table 2.5)

The established named gang usually gains the reputation from the original formed group. The eldest members (frequently 25 and over) tend not to use names and symbolism, however, this instead gets carried on by the older (18 to 25) and younger members (under 18). The named cliques are usually the youngest and newest set of members claming an affiliation to the reputed gang name. Older and younger members are also far more numerous than elder members. Cliques or sets in London generally tend to be small in number although they are often part of a large gang (such as the Peckham or Ghetto Boys). The police and the media often mistake these cliques or sets as individual gangs thus substantially increasing their estimations regarding the number of gangs. This is partly the reason for the 257 figure quoted in 2007.

Gang Offending

One of the main drivers for the current public concern about gangs is that they are seen as major facilitators of crime. Previous research suggests that gang members are disproportionately arrested (Bobrowski, 1988; Craig et al, 2002) and they are significantly more delinquent than non-gang youths (Thrasher, 1927; Marshall et al, 2005; Weerman and Esbensen, 2005). Further research concludes that levels of delinquency increase after youths have entered a gang (Thornberry et al, 1993; Battin-Pearson et al, 1998; Gatti et al, 2005). An important point to note is that attributing crime to gangs is problematic. This is in part due to difficulties in defining and identifying gangs but more importantly, as observed by Marshall et al (2005, p.10), because we cannot determine whether a crime committed by a gang member was gang related.

A report by Shaw and McKay (1931, cited in Hakkert et al 2001, p.222) highlighted that most youth crime is generally committed in the company of other people. A number of U.S. studies have revealed youths belonging to gangs commit more crimes than those who do not (Vigil, 1988; Spergel and Curry, 1993; Klein, 1995; Battin-Pearson et al, 1998). Similarly, the Safer London Youth Survey (2005, p.11) found that young people who reported being in a gang (as defined by name and territory) were significantly more likely to report engaging in criminal activity, especially criminal damage, violence and weapon carrying. They were also more likely to have ever used or sold drugs. Gatti et al (2005, p.178) conclude that a higher level of delinquency amongst gang members is due to the fact that gangs attract youths who are already committing crimes and therefore youths joining gangs already display higher levels of delinquency. Joining the gang exacerbates their deviant behaviour (Gatti et al, 2005; Marshall et al, 2005).

Most gangs, although certainly not all, engage in versatile offending patterns (Klein 2001, p.10-11). Thrasher (1927) in his study concluded that gang members’ were commonly involved in offences such as thefts, burglary, and robbery as well as gang fights. It is thought that involvement in criminal activities only occupies a small portion of the gang’s daily existence although it is clear that it is an important facet of gang membership (Monti, 1993; Chicago Crime Commission, 1995; Bjerregaard, 2002). The offences attributed most to gangs are often drug sales (Howell and Gleason, 1999, p.1) and violence (Klein et al, 2006, p.413), although, not all gang involved young people are involved in illicit drug markets. Shropshire and McFarquhar (2002, p.5) observe that many gangs avoid drug dealing and focus on street robberies or vehicle theft or taxing other offenders. However, studies of active robbers (Einstadter, 1969; Wright and Decker, 1997) and thieves (Wright and Decker, 1994; Tunnel, 1995) contend that offenders of these crimes rarely plan their offences and do not work well in groups. Best and Luckenbill (1994) suggest that independence among offenders is the norm whilst Irwin (1972: 122) argues:

“Disorganised criminals are the largest category of active criminals, [that] include the less skilled, less sophisticated thieves who spend most of their time when not in prison hanging around, waiting for something to come along, and engaging in unplanned, unprofitable petty crimes, often on impulse.”

Fagan (1996) notes that one of the most obvious sources of illegitimate income is the selling and distribution of drugs. Drugs and violence go hand in hand, the gang is an important vehicle for maintaining ones drug territory. Skolnick et al (1993, p.196) believes that gang related violence is often connected with controlling turf and territory. However, because of their illicit status, drug dealers robbed in the course of doing business cannot go to the police and as a result most gang crime takes place beyond the reach of the criminal law as it is perpetrated against individuals themselves involved in law breaking. As argued by Topalli et al (2002, p.337), people who operate outside the law can never really be victims in the eye of the law thus making retaliation an important mechanism amongst criminals (Arlacchi, 1987), youth gangs (Hagedorn, 1988; Decker and Van Winkle, 1996) and street level drug dealers (Bourgois, 1995).

References & Bibliography (to come)

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