Youth crime remains endemic in deprived urban areas. Communities must develop inclusive, youth-led strategies to tackle the gangs, writes a Labour councillor.
By Cllr. Zaffar van Kalwala (Labour, Stonebridge Ward, London Borough of Brent)
Recently, 14 members of the ‘Thugs of Stonebridge’ gang were arrested in my ward as part of Operation Serpentine, the Metropolitan Police’s anti-gang initiative. The arrests were a timely reminder that even after £250m of regeneration investment from the last Labour government, the dark shadows of guns and gangs still hang over the notorious Stonebridge estate, formerly an address to which you couldn’t get a pizza delivered.
From SE10 to NW10, young people in gangs commit 22% of all serious violence in the capital. Today, we’re witnessing a worrying process of ‘Americanisation’, with gangs using colour-coded clothes, a la Los Angeles’ Bloods and Crips gangs, as trainers hung from telephone lines mark out their territories.
Yet most shocking of all is the propensity of some young people to use extreme violence and aggression, and then to flaunt it with pride on social media networks.
This careless violence and terror blights our streets everyday. Only 17% of young people feel safe in London. What is now needed is not just a radical, innovative approach to tackling gangs, but something more in sync with the lure of this corrosive new street culture.
This is why I’m supporting Stella Creasy MP’s Mayoral Youth Crime Pledge, which calls for the next Mayor of London to tackle youth crime. It empowers young people by creating young leaders and putting youth crime firmly on the next Mayor’s agenda. It gives a voice to London’s youth who, we sometimes forget, are also victims of crime.
• Grayling’s revisionism on Wire comparisons 6 Oct 2009
Last year, 7,500 young people were victims of knife crime. Moreover, all the evidence tells us that once a young person is a victim of crime, they are more likely to carry a knife themselves.
I recently hosted Labour MP Stella Creasy at our local youth radio station in Brent, where she spoke to young people about their experiences of gangs and the challenges of growing up in one of the most deprived areas in the country.
They told their stories with passion and purpose. We heard how some young people couldn’t go to other postcodes because they were from another part of the borough, even if it was only a few hundred meters away.
They spoke about having a virtual family where they hardly saw their parents, because they were working numerous jobs to make ends meet. In this situation, the gangs, by providing these young people both with the latest Nike trainers and a sense of love and belonging, become surrogate families.
We heard, too, about young girls who are drawn into gangs and subjected, along with the usual iniquities of gang culture and criminality, to sexual exploitation and abuse. The need for gang members to be the ‘big man’, to not back down whatever the odds, has become immortalised by ‘grime’, the tough urban music genre which fuses hip-hop, garage and drum and bass.
Government cuts, youth unemployment, tensions with the police and the erosion of community spirit only add to the complexities of the problems we face.
Our solution to gang culture needs to move away from a one-dimensional approach, which focuses solely on increasing resources. Although this is important, increased investment in youth services will achieve nothing without paying attention to other factors such as housing, education, family support raising aspirations and tackling social deprivation.
Above all, local stakeholders need to develop a coherent, coordinated gangs strategy. Isolated strands of public policy, and fragmented interventions by various public departments and organisations, must be eradicated. We need a more inclusive approach, which brings together local partners to develop youth-led initiatives. Local models can respond to local dynamics, and can be specific to the communities in which gangs operate.
We are now at a tipping point. Do we just accept gangs and gang culture, or do we, as a community, say that this is something we will not tolerate?