Tuesday, 3 March 2009

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.


Captain Fun said...

I must be about your age as I listened to LKJ as well, and know that Shot by Both Sides was a Magazine song by Devoto/Shelley ex of The Buzzcocks.

My "Gangs" were in W. Yorks. we had chains, knives (usually Stanley), sometimes air pistols. I actually once saw someone bring a war time revolver with ammunition to school, in the toilets at my primary school. (and I'm still scared NOW !) Most gangs were all white - I can only think of 2 Asian lads and 1 West Indian who were part of this. The gangs were all pretty threatening - but real violence was rare. Some gangs were official - Spen Skins, Spen Suedes, White Lee Skins, Dale Lane Mafia, Hightown Wreckers - but most just random mobs.

Through the later 70's they became more aligned with Football Crews - Huddersfield's Hecky Boys, Suicide Squad, Dressers; Leeds's Service Crew, Young Batley Whites (YBW), and Bradford's Ointment. The violence in those groups was more real, and the risk of arrest more real as well.

As a parent now I ask my teenage kids to go "somewhere" rather than just hanging out - though the park (in Leighton Buzzard) tends to be the attraction. Their gatherings are less threatening, and more multiracial (although LB is not exactly cosmopolitan). I don't think mixed race or race in particular is likely to be an issue - although I do hear young people in London where I work commenting specifically that they find Somali groups frightening because of their willingness to use knives.

But overall I don't think things are any worse or better than they were 30 years ago when I was 17, but I still think the main reason I never became an MP like you is because I spent too much time in gangs, and my schoolwork suffered drastically.

Really liked this blog - as you can probably tell by my lyrical waxing.

Kerry said...

Leighton Buzzard? Just down the road from Luton! Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees...

To be honest, our 'gang' was a bit precious and more into posing with obscure record sleeves and existentialist novels than carrying chains or knives. We did light a fire in the park once - but that's about as bad/ good as it got.

There were skinhead gangs, who were scary - I remember walking along the covered bridge at Luton railway station and suddenly hearing this chanting 'Sieg heil, sieg heil' echoing and then about 50 skins coming into view, up the stairs ahead of us... But then it turned out we knew one of them, the fat lad, so we survived. And Luton Town FC was of course notorious for a while. You didn't go down Bury Park on a match day if you had any sense.

All this nostalgia just proves how old we are...

Old Holborn said...

That youth centre is going to get lively when the different "gangs" start hanging out there. It appears to be on the Brizzle Crew's turf. Can't see them allowing anyone else to use it.

Consider yourself warned