Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Young People and Gang Violence: Thoughts

Two of the most recent murders of youngsters by youngsters in London have taken place within a mile of my house: one in the little street where I used to live, and one in the tower block where I used to visit my then partner. Bringing up three sons in Hackney, one just a few years off teenage, certainly focuses your mind on the issue.

For a long time, the left has left the political terrain of 'crime' to the right wing, as though it is not our natural territory. I tried to address this in an article some years ago and I hope that many of its arguments are relevant to the situation today. But I guess that more needs to be said.

With this latest issue of gang violence, mainly with knives, it seems that not even the right wing are confidently declaring their solutions - maybe even they baulk at the idea of capital punishment for screwed-up youth. I don't think I've ever seen so many political rabbits caught in headlights.

Much of what response there has been has focused on ridding the streets of guns and knives. I wouldn't particularly protest against this on principle - initiatives such as amnesties seem reasonable to me. I'm rather less keen on the idea of compulsory searches at schools and elsewhere, as I can't help but think that even if they might confiscate a few weapons, they may also create a siege mentality, resentment and 'challenge' to the worst offenders to get round the system and so worsen the problem in the long term.

Around a year and a half ago, I witnessed the police searching passengers travelling through Bethnal Green tube station, selected 'at random'. Funnily enough, I wasn't collared and marched through the metal detectors: somehow, I don't think that middle-aged white women were on the target list. I stopped and watched for ten minutes, and every single person they pulled was a young ethnic minority man. So I challenged the head copper, who denied it all and made sure a couple of white people were pulled too.

It is also notable that the use of ASBOs, dispersal orders or other new powers created by New Labour has not prevented the outbreak of gang violence.

Gang violence is certainly linked to poverty and inequality. Having no space of your own in a cramped home, on a rundown estate, unable to afford constructive leisure activities, parents out working long hours because they have no choice, unable to aspire to or afford higher education, all while fat cats ostentatiously profiteer at our expense ... On top of this, the lack of resources to public services for working-class people contributes too. Large classes in over-stretched schools mean that some pupils don't get the attention and support they need. These are obviously all factors in driving some young people into violent behaviour.

But equally obviously, it is more complex than this. Not everyone brought up in poverty ends up stabbing someone, and not everyone who stabs someone can not afford entry to the local sports club. We have to ask ourselves more complex questions.

If you join up because the gang has 'got your back', then why do you feel that no-one else - community, family, the authorities that are supposed to protect you - have your back? Why, similarly, do those not give you the sense of belonging that a gang provides?

If it is true that the random, unprovoked killings may be some sort of gang initiation, then why is it that gang would require someone to prove themselves like this, and what exactly is it that they are proving?

What sort of definition of masculinity has our society established when for some boys, extreme violence is part of the process of becoming a man? But on the other hand, why are girls getting more and more involved in this sort of thing too?

And what about parenting? "We blame the parents" has always been the refrain of the right. But parenting is pretty much the hardest job in the world, carried out by rank amateurs with no training and precious little support, and only the amateurs who brought them up as role models. Parents do remarkably well in the circumstances, but if some mess up, that's hardly surprising.

With economic crisis looming, the crisis of youth violence may also get worse, and may be both fuelled and harnessed by a resurgent fascist movement. There may never have been a more urgent time for the left to get its act together, both in understanding and addressing these issues and in fighting for a reinvigorated labour movement, so that young people want to join our gang instead.

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