Identity and exclusion were themes that ran through Middlesex University’s recent conference on social disorder and youth gangs. The Conference, hosted by the University’s Crime and Conflict Research Centre, included presentations by social policy and crime researchers,
and by members of the Metropolitan Police. Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero, Professor of Sociology at Middlesex and Co-Director of the Crime and Conflict Research Centre summed up at the end of the event, pointing to issues around social disorder and the criminalisation of indolence. He suggested that people regarded as ‘other’ are often stigmatised less for their actual or potential criminality than for the fact that they do not ‘fit’ into a conventional society.
Speakers explored issues surrounding street violence and youth gangs and also the moral panic which tends to magnify them. John Pitts of the
University of Bedfordshire spoke about his research which drew on interviews with gang members from three London boroughs – Lewisham,
Lambeth and Waltham Forest. He felt that youth culture often causes misplaced anxiety: “Not all youth groups are gangs,” he said, adding,
“there’s a lot of ‘myth-making’ within gangs, with youngsters ‘bigging’ themselves up”.
Common features he found in gangs were shared names, control of territories – for example through drug dealing – and the assignment of
specific roles to gang members, such as ‘elders’ or ‘runners’. A shared identity usually holds gangs together but this identity also leads them into conflict, for example ‘postcode’ fights with rival gangs. Often, young people succumb to pressure for protection and affiliation in areas which are dominated by gang territory conflicts - becoming ‘reluctant gangsters’.
This view was echoed by Metropolitan Police representative John Swinfield, who outlined some of the strategies the Force had adopted to
prevent and tackle violent gangs. He said: “As many as 90% of gang members are just in it for the status”. He outlined some mentoring
initiatives currently taking place with young people, particularly through ambassadors working with football clubs. He said: “Our focus is on engaging, understanding and acting. We try to use intelligence and prevention techniques wherever possible - and enforcement when everything else has failed”. He also spoke about joint agency work and initiatives designed to reassure victims and witnesses who had to appear in court cases.
Other conference speakers explored the experiences of individuals and groups who encounter suspicion, hostility or criminalisation simply because they are ‘different’, alien or unknown. Nicola Montagna and Jon Mulholland of Middlesex University spoke about Islamophobia in the UK and Italy; Ann Singleton of Bristol University commented on racism and the dynamics of migration in the UK and Europe; and Roger Grimshaw of King’s College Centre for Crime and Justice Studies explored media representations of asylum seekers.
Ideas for long-term solutions focused on the importance of sharing of information, building up intelligence about the operational methods of gangs and increasing collaboration between agencies. Several speakers commented on ‘the neighbourhood effect’, where the combination of deprived neighbourhoods, the economic downturn and increased unemployment levels can push people towards crime. Funding – or the lack of it - was seen as a key influence in the rise in gang incidents. John Pitt said: “Money is terribly important”.
Imprisonment for gang offences is rarely a deterrent - Simon Hallsworth of London Metropolitan University suggested that the prison system can produce an environment which actually leads to greater dissemination of gang knowledge. “We put too many people in prison for too long,” he said.
Mentoring schemes were seen as being most effective where the match between mentor and mentee was highly relevant – perhaps between people who shared similar backgrounds or experiences. “We need more mentors from the local community, there are just not enough of
them”, was a plea which was echoed in the Conference audience, particularly by youth workers and probation officers.
Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero closed the Conference, highlighting the irony that where people and communities were treated with suspicion because they are ‘different’, this often drives people in those groups away from taking a greater part in the community and society, making them retreat more into isolated groups.