Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The street gangs fuelling fear

By Richard Bilton
BBC News

Teenage hoodies in Bristol
The death of schoolboy Rhys Jones focused attention on gangs
The black-clad group was about nine strong. They were sat on a wall, gathered around a big, tough-looking dog. As I approached they all covered their faces.

This is Norris Green. The shot that killed Rhys Jones was intended for a Norris Green gang member.

The trial which saw 18-year-old Sean Mercer convicted of Rhys's murder was dominated by stories of gang warfare, but is it a world these youths recognise?

"Yeah, gangs are everywhere, aren't they? You know what I mean?" said one.

The thing is, they do not sound like gangsters, they sound like what they are - a group of 15-year-old boys quick to laugh and mess around.

What is different is the way they talk about violence.

"If bigger gangs come up to us we are threatened, aren't we? We've got to grab a knife or something like that," another said.

From the age of 12 they get associated with older lads and they look up to them. But it's not too late
Football instructor Phil Fisher

His friend added: "Got to be done, hasn't it? If they come up to us with a gun."

And when I suggest he is just trying to look tough, the 15-year-old does not smile.

He said: "I'm just saying, if someone came up to me with a gun I'd fight them off with a knife."

Our gang moves off but others are not hard to find.

There are groups of young men clad from head to toe in black with hoods pulled over their heads and scarves across their faces. These are the street gangs of Liverpool.

What brought these gangs into every home in the country was the death of schoolboy Rhys Jones.

Killed by bullets fired by one gang at another, this vision of gun-toting teenagers prompted national horror.

Hardcore

But how realistic was this nightmare vision - how widespread are the gangs?

I went to meet Justin. At 17, he is a veteran of the street gangs and explains that most are just groups of friends, not hardened criminals.

I've carried knives. To you it's protection but to other people it's a threat
Former gang member Justin, 17
"To you it's gangs, to them it's just mates hanging around, having a laugh. If you're all mates and it forms a gang, you do things together," he said.

He went on to say that as he got older, doing things together became more about breaking the law.

"We wear black trackies; it's just the uniform. It's easier to escape in the dark and not be seen," he said.

"That's how it is when you're getting chased by the police, it's just a buzz - like an adrenalin buzz. You get chased and you get a name for yourself, don't you? Everyone will talk.

"I've carried knives. To you it's protection but to other people it's a threat. When people see you've got it they see it as a threat, that's why I stopped carrying knives."

Justin has also stopped that chaotic life. I met him at a training scheme designed to get young people out of gang life and into jobs with qualifications.

Football instructor Phil Fisher grew up on the same Liverpool streets as Justin but said things are different now.

"I'd say the problem has got worse as there are younger kids hanging round the streets," he said.

"From the age of 12 they get associated with older lads and they look up to them. But it's not too late. Engage with kids and they'll leave the gangs."

I have been on these streets many times. The gangs are intimidating and they know it, but only a hard core are involved in serious crime.

That hard core caused the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, and the impact is still being felt.

The gangs do not dominate life here but there are many people in this city - and across the country - who live in fear of teenagers in black.

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