Criminal gangs have been around for centuries but police believe they have become more organised in recent years. So how do they operate?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
A prior engagement one night 21 years ago prevented Shaun Bailey from a life of crime.
"I can place to the day the point I missed out on becoming an idiot," he recalls. "A group of friends was going to burgle a factory near where I live. I missed it because I was at the cadets and they were all arrested."
Of the group of 12, three are now dead of gun or knife wounds, and others have been involved in "madness" or suffered mental health problems, says Shaun, 35.
He credits his uncle for making him join the Army cadets, which not only saved him that fateful night but taught him to listen to his mother and grandmother's values and less to the "street".
After getting a degree, he returned to the west London estates where he grew up and for more than a decade has helped prevent youngsters drifting into gangs and crime, in the knowledge that the line separating a life of purpose and one of violence is a thin one.
But not everyone escapes. Last week the Metropolitan Police identified 169 gangs in London, a quarter of which have been involved in murder.
A gang led by the men who murdered City lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce committed at least 150 robberies, and compiled a robbery guide to Underground stations which rated areas according to police presence and victims.
"The nature of gangs in London is changing and we are starting to see more clearly definable gangs - only a couple or a handful at the moment," says Met Police assistant commissioner Steve Round.
Getting into a gang depends on a recommendation, a family connection or a big reputation, says Shaun, and initiation could mean receiving a beating or stabbing someone. The more organised gangs have tattoos and use websites to spread their message.
"It's a loose association and you might see the others every night or once or twice a week. Now and then someone will plan something or say you need to meet.
When is a gang a gang?
"There's a real power in it, especially if someone has a problem and you deal with it. The camaraderie is unbelievable and is a bit like the Army. People are dependent on you and you have a role. There's the safety, the friendship and there's the purpose."
A role could be keeping the gun, cutting up the drugs or even fixing the mopeds, he says.
"You're getting affirmation from alpha males. Another man telling you that you are good or worthwhile is very, very important."
Gangs are nothing new, of course. In Victorian times, there were the Scuttlers in Manchester and the Peaky Blinders in Birmingham at a time when, not unlike today, there was a panic about yobbery and hooliganism. But methods have changed.
"In my time robbing adults was a big step and people were very rarely prepared to do that," says Shaun. "Now it's stabbing people to death. My friends waited until they were 20 before they got shot. Now there are more guns and knives."
Professor Gus John, who has studied gang culture in Manchester and London and advised the Home Office on policy, says that in recent years those using guns are getting younger. They are more likely to take the law into their own hands, and geography is playing more of a part in gang warfare, which used to be defined more by conflict over business deals.
Some gangs demand a loyalty test on joining, which in extreme cases could mean committing an act of violence against a family member.
"It's a brutalising environment that seeks to transform the individual from what could be a reasonable, well-adjusted social being into a complete and utter monster."
Gangs are usually between 20 to 30 in number and members aged between 15 and 25, he says, but their activities are hidden and many communities like Moss Side which have gangs are otherwise well-balanced, vibrant places to live.
"It's not as if the community would be intimidated by seeing 30 or 40 people together, necessarily. It's the way in which they operate within sub-cultures that are on the margins of what the rest of the community is seeing."
Rules of behaviour
There are three common means of income - drugs, robbery and handling stolen goods. The leaders are clearly identified in the more organised gangs, says Professor John, and when one is killed or imprisoned, others vie for top spot.
And despite the brutality, there is a "moral" code which means younger and elderly relatives are usually off-limits.
"Even within the madness there are certain codes and principles that they ascribe to. But they might not respect the grandparent enough not to hide a gun in their house."
People apply the term "gangs" too liberally and should be careful doing that, he believes, because it confers a status which is worn as a badge of honour.
Shaun Bailey believes government plans for tougher sentences for gangs will glamorise and encourage them, and the notion of what defines a gang is not clear.
"Children hanging around in large groups is the most natural thing in the world," he says. "But whether they are a gang is about what they're doing."
He says the estates in North Kensington where he lives and works have "clicks", groups lacking the loyalty, names and codes of violence associated with the gangs which reside a few miles away in White City and Shepherds Bush.
For instance, if a gang member was attacked then the rest are obliged to exact revenge, but in a click they would not - although they may well do anyway, he says.
Clicks can be formed and dissolved instantly, coming together for an event like the Notting Hill Carnival, and may or may not be involved in crime.
But the distinctions may be irrelevant anyway. In Nottingham, even those not members of gangs imitate the behaviour of those who are, says Karl White, who has 24 years experience working with young people in parts of the city where gangs are rife.
"They may not be a gang member but they become dangerous because they do dangerous things because they want to be gangsters."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I grew up in Hackney, East London and Ely, in the Fens. Both of these places, although seeming worlds apart, were in fact very alike. Gangs, drugs, violence, crime, it's everywhere. Youths move in groups, like to do things that would upset their parents and compete with each to be the number one. It's actually quite natural. They are also VERY media driven, so the more you tell them what they are or are not the more they want to be it. I also agree about hip-hop, loved it as a teenager, but seriously, songs about rape, gang-bangs, robbery, drugs, and crime do nothing positive for a teenager. Parental Advisory, that's a joke!
Gang culture is inevitable in a culture that patronises and mistrusts young people. If someone is in a gang they are treated seriously, or even as heroes. That's an attractive prospect to someone who is been told day in and day out that someone knows better than them, and they need to grow up etc.
Paddy White, Salisbury
I have seen gang violence at first-hand and been victimised by teens who are now prolific and well-known burglars who often spend time in jail. My home town has had gangsters here longer than I've been around and there is no crime that they haven't committed at some time or other. Gangs are nothing new and what we see today is just the natural development of a problem that has been ignored, rather than dealt with when the kids were young enough to be saved.
The comments on this article are typical of the hysteria which have surrounded gangs for the past one hundred years. There exists in Glasgow gangs which have had the same name since the early 1900s.These gangs are primarily based on geographical boundaries (real or imagined) and have not changed significantly in structure or intent for over 40 years. To suggest this is a breakdown of societies values etc is simply to echo numerous moral panics of the past.
I can bet there are plenty of teenagers watching these news stories on gangs and thinking: That sounds exiting, lots of kids are doing this, I think our group should become a gang to get some street respect. And people wonder why this nation has a crime problem.
Al Blackwool, Stevenage
If the media didn't publish stories about crime, people wouldn't get any bad ideas. One of the kids at my husband's school decided to attach a razor blade to the underside of a school banister rail, so that when everyone walked down the stairs with their hands on the rail, their fingers ran over the blade. The child said he read about this in the news and thought it would be "fun" to see how many people cut themselves. It's about time the media in this country started to take responsibility for what they publish.
Sarah, it isn't simply a child's awareness of a crime that causes her to think it would be "cool" to replicate it. It's the child's moral judgement when presented with these situations. All that comes down to is a decent set of morals. Suggesting the media shouldn't report these things is ridiculous.
I hang around with up to 10 mates when we go out shopping or for a drink, and we get people crossing the street or tutting at us. We have all grown up together and are mates who have never done anything illegal, but get labelled as a gang because of the media. Not all youths of today are troublemakers but the media seems to think so and because of that most of the public believe them.
Could these youngsters be meeting up in gangs as a form of protection? Streets have become a dangerous place, meeting up in big group gives a sense of protection and belonging.
I agree with much of what has been said before. They need something to do, I was involved in a tall ships cadets and it changed my life. Providing more opportunities not taking them away is the answer
Phil, Farnham, Surrey
I'm 14 and from what I hear a lot of people's comments suggest that almost every teenager in Britain wants to have a gang but I swear that's not the case. At my old school in England, almost everybody in all the year-groups think that these kind of people are disgraces.
George van Eesteren, Wassenaar, the Netherlands
This reads like a marketing brochure for gangs. Highlighting the incentives in joining a gang is hardly the way to deter youngsters from joining. Surely that would be by showing gang members behind bars, badly injured, or dead.
The reason for this so-called yob culture is that there is nothing constructive for the kids to do after school or on the weekends. What happened to all the after-school sports and activities? Where have all the youth clubs gone? Give the kids something constructive and fun and suddenly petty crime becomes not fun but just petty. Give them some self-worth back.
Timothy, east London
Where I live gangs are far less organized and extremely dangerous. I go to school in one of the poorest districts in my city, already this year two of my classmates have died to gang violence. In our neighbouring city of St Paul, gangs are even worse, with violence erupting for little to no reason at all. Drugs sometimes have nothing to do with it, but since it happens in the ghetto the rest of the city is unaffected and does little to solve the problems.
Payton, Minneapolis, US
Give these young people alternative role models to aspire to. Their fathers are often absent, society despises them and the media hounds them. Their general lack of respect for authority is taught at home, with parents expecting teachers and politicians to raise their children for them. The only respect these youths receive is from their peers...leaving the way clear for anyone to manipulate and influence them. Parents need to do their job, with society supporting them!
I wasn't allowed out on the street at night, I was never part of a gang or big group of friends out late. My kids aren't allowed out at night and aren't part of a "gang", they socialise with friends, have sleepovers, attend sleepovers, have respectable friends, meet during the day in town. Do you see where I'm coming from? Parenting, some parents don't do it. It's a massive problem that will not go away. There's so many contributory factors, I don't know where to start. I suppose looking after mine and instilling good values is all I can do.
Andy, Maidstone, UK
We should encourage gangs as a natural aspect of life - what is the problem is not the gang but the criminal activities they get involved with. It is a good way for young people to get involved with their peers. However to avoid the crime I would suggest that competitions be organised with the members for things like team snooker, boxing, air rifle target practice, cards for significant amounts of money. Those teams coming to notoriety for good reasons would encourage more young people to self organise into teams. It would be much easier to organise the gang tournaments than to try and classify and prosecute loose affiliations. The gang tournaments would give direction and purpose to lots of different individuals and provide a mechanism for young men from disadvantaged backgrounds to make a positive contribution. Any better ideas for a liberal society?
Peter Knowles, Chessington
The word "gang" terrifies me now - when I was a child being part of a gang was like the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. Today there is no respect - the only respect that these kids have is one another. I ask myself constantly has society let them down or the law. As a mother of a 15-yr-old who has been severely beaten up for not joining a gang and has turned to the church, he finds solitude there. Whilst I am not a religious person, I welcome the path he going down - he is never rude, can talk to people with a reasonable understanding of all subjects. My partner, who is in the forces and has served all over, has always said that kids should be part of the cadets, to teach them basic skills and respect for those in authority.
Excellent article. Is it possible that there has been a schism in our education process that has broken the link between generations? Previous generations of young men make sacrifices for this country that the youth of today don't appreciate. Young men need role models and this country had them aplenty. We need to resolve this immediately. Schools should research and post on their websites rolls-of-honour. Every sports club and Scout troop, that can, should do likewise. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has details of all British & Empire soldiers who fell in these conflicts. It would be an interesting and useful project for the boys to do this research themselves. I am sure they would not easily forget what they learned.
It's a lack of individuality in these people's mindset that encourages them to be drawn to gangs of any sort, and their lack of regard for what's right triggers the criminality.
Karl Chads, London, UK
Everybody behaves differently when alone and when part of a group. There is this tendency to abdicate responsibility when with others. This is shown when a group of children run thoughtlessly across the road - individually they would realise they were solely responsible for their safety. Young people need to be told this clearly; too often we just appeal to their better individual morality without realising that this ceases to function in a group, and they don't understand this either. Shaun Bailey's separateness enabled him to foster his individual control. It is not so much peer pressure as peer presence.
Gang members are weak sheep. I'm constantly fed the viewpoint that these youths are bored and have nothing to do. My childhood was far from ideal but I didn't end up throwing a brick at someone's face - Why? Because I thought for myself.
Jamie Read, Southport, Merseyside
I think the key issue here is what youngsters get out of the gang. It's obvious that a lot of these individuals feel dispossessed, bored and ignored, and it's no wonder that something that gives them purpose. A position of respect, power and security should attract them under these circumstances. It seems apparent that we have to treat these key issues that draw these young people to gangs, and/or provide alternative, non-criminal sources to fulfil such needs.
Charlotte Garrett, Manchester
I am a youth myself but only in terms of not being old enough to be counted as anything else. I have had an encounter with a gang member before and they were brutal and have left me scared. I identified the gang member to the police and nothing has been done - that gives the gang members a sense of ownership of towns as they feel they have the power over local police. It is the police that have allowed for these gang members, yobs etc to get out of hand because of the pathetic attempts at stopping them. The parents and police are to blame for the fall of society.
These youngsters are looking for a sense of purpose and shortcutting the road to a potentially successful life for their families and communities. We should be slow to judge and do more to improve their social environment so they are not inclined this way in the first place.
Muqbool Khan, London, UK
The view that this country mistrusts and patronises young people is markedly out of place here. It is the very fact that young people and their 'rights' are emphasised so heavily which throws them into the outside world at a young age. In a world in which children are afforded the rights of adults, but not the punishments associated with those rights, disparity the only logical outcome. I'm not saying that harsher punishments are the answer - quite the opposite. We need to treat children like children. Social institutions need to listen to children, but also need to guide them. Second guessing ourselves and confusing the young are undoubtedly going to produce an unsavoury result.
Josh Robson, London
How about banning the glorification of gangs by hip-hop and rap groups. It's not appropriate for a teenager to listen to music advocating selling drugs, murder, gun crime, burglary etc. With these negative role models prevalent in society no wonder teenagers with 'nothing to lose' are committing so many dangerous crimes. I wouldn't be surprised if these sad individuals we under the twisted belief that membership in a gang will give them a fast track to status, money and power - basically all the things in life successful people have to work very hard to achieve.
Mark, Manchester, UK
The age of "group" members is a key point here. In this age range, children (particularly boys) look to authority figures to admire, emulate, and to be acknowledged and appreciated by them. The line between beneficial and detrimental role models is blurred by these basic needs of the teenager. If a better role model isn't available (through broken families, lack of parental attention or time), then any source of approval will do.
Click is the American pronunciation of the word "clique", which is the proper name for the other type of group referred to...
A gang is only a gang when the purpose of their existing or congregating together is to engage in regular criminal activity, otherwise they are just a group of friends. They may still be intimidating to some people, but let's not tarnish every group of friends with the same brush
Pastor D, Woodford Green, NE London
If you really want to combat gangs, establish an armed presence in cities. Bring back army conscription and stop all this completely insane politically correct cowardice that enables kids to hide behind the law and get away with murder.
Bob, Oxford, UK
Bob, I sincerely hope you are not advocating shooting civilians in the street without a trial because they happen to belong to a gang? It is that kind of attitude against young, disadvantaged people that has probably helped to foster the situation we age in now.
I agree that police should be able to carry firearms in a similar fashion to the US. This at least will mean instant reaction by the nearest police officers in our growing gun-crime country. I also agree with forcing young people to join the armed forces instead of sending them to prison; thus teaching them self discipline, self worth and ultimately giving them the opportunity to be part of the best organised gang in the entire world.
Young people should be encouraged to find organised groups - such as the Scouting movement or the forces cadets - with which to engage. All the benefits of a group of their peers with a defined structure and agenda, and the added advantage of leadership from people who care enough to volunteer to run them.
Megan, Cheshire UK
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