These riots do not fit the mentality of gangs. Blaming it on them only distances ourselves from the problems of our young people
Following the London riots, the media have been quick to say the looting was the work of an organised gang of thugs, even a network of gangs working together. The truth is more complex. Mark Duggan was a member of the Star gang. Made up of less than 10 members, it had a notorious reputation for being armed, dealing Class A drugs and intent on making money. It was affiliated to larger, older gangs in the area known as the Tottenham Man Dem or the Farm Boys, with around 30 members each from different generations.
Given the cut-off nature of Broadwater Farm Estate, the gang members there are close-knit. They do not attack members of their own community. They all grew up together and remain in touch with previous generations. They also protect the estate like a fortress against rivals like Edmonton in the north, the Wood Green “Mob” to the west.
In Tottenham, as in other parts of inner cities in the UK, one of the key trends is the lowering of the age group involved in gang activity. Younger and younger kids are becoming involved. It is likely that young kids from outside the area, alerted by BlackBerry instant messages, arrived to loot the shops. One eyewitness from the community told me how he was driving in the area with his family and could see young kids he recognised but they were “so angry and emotional” he decided not to engage with them. “They saw the burning car and it gave them an adrenaline rush. They were spurred on by a chance to put one over on the police, maybe for the only time in their lives.”
Some kids who looted Foot Locker later boasted about the boxes of trainers they had in their house. They do not fit the profile of organised senior gang members. A source close to the gang community, with a background in armed robbery, told me: “If senior gang members were involved, they would not be interested in just trainers and TVs. They’d take out the bank, the safes and tills from H&M and Foot Locker. They would break into the bookies.”
A network of gangs at work is also unlikely, as rivals gang members entering Tottenham territory risk reprisals. “If they saw someone who had done something to their family, they would not hold back just because a riot was going on,” my source told me. “The kids who turned up have nothing in common with each other except that they were throwing stones at the police. Young people looking for excitement.”
The cutting of youth services in the area is not an excuse to go out and loot shops. However, the younger teenagers drawn into gang activity and petty crime or looting do so in deprived areas of the inner city. Without jobs, any social or educational aspiration, the youth services were a means to distract them. Youth offenders who try to turn their back on a life on the streets are constantly hampered by prospective employers doing CRB checks. An offence can dog them for years. It is only theLondon mayor’s scheme that seeks to employ young people regardless of their previous offending. These young people do not feel part of a society. “When the city is on fire the prime minister and mayor don’t even come back from holiday,” my source told me. “It just shows they don’t care about us.”
Before the cuts squeezed youth services, there was evidence of hope provided by social enterprise and youth-based initiatives. In deprived areas with deteriorating high-density social housing, troubled young men no longer needed to eek out a sense of identity in violent life on the streets. Violence happens in deprived areas where domestic violence, family breakdown and addiction issues are also rife. Younger boys are intimidated by teenagers and men to join gangs. The media stereotypes groups of urban teenagers as feckless thugs. This judgment and distancing only exacerbates the problem. Media attempts to blame the Tottenham riots on a network of organised thugs is the latest way to distance ourselves from the problems of this community and our young people who desperately need a voice.