From muggers to gangs: It’s the same (police) story

Patrick Williams argues that blaming 'gangs' for social problems further divides communities and fails to tackle the root causes of violence.

August 9, 2018
9 min read

Today we are in a perilous moment. Within England and Wales, there’s a common and spreading view that ‘gang-members’ are responsible for an increase in serious violence being committed across the nation’s capital. Young black people have long been ‘used and abused’ as a myth to explain a myriad of criminal and social problems. In my 20 years as a social researcher, I’ve seen how concealed criminal (in)justice practices which produce and reproduce the black criminal Other which in turn legitimise punitive punishments of increasing numbers of young black people.

The criminal ‘other’: Racial constructions then and now:

Writing some 30 years ago, Paul Gilroy remarked that ‘old’ and ‘new’ images of Black communities as prone to violence, drugs and disorderly behaviour have become entrenched in the public consciousness.’ Similarly, for Keith,

‘[T]hrough time and over space the dominant themes in racializing discourses fluctuate and contradict each other. The precise nature of ‘Blackness’ that is connoted evolves.  In Britain, at a crude level, the succession of racist images of (gender-specific) Afro-Caribbean criminality have followed from the pimp of the 1950s, to the Black power activist of the 1960s, to the mugger of the 1970s, to the rioter of the 1980s and, quite possibly, to the ultimate folk devil, the underworld ‘Yardie’ of the 1990s’.

Sadly, today such racialising discourses remain, On 20th July 2016, The Daily Mail ran the header “A genteel setting blighted by sex, mayhem and the shooting of a Brixton ‘gangster’: How several blind eyes – and political correctness – helped Yardies invade a Surrey village idyll.”  The article focuses attention on the murder of a 34-year-old man at a party in Headley, Surrey. The piece is less concerned with the fatal shooting of the partygoer, than the “impact” of the guests who were “mainly from the Caribbean community in Brixton” upon the “unsuspecting folk of Headley”.  Of significance, “witnesses said several guests were suspected of being Yardies, a term for Jamaican-born gangsters originally from the backyards of Kingston, the capital of the Caribbean island”. So, “detectives from Scotland Yard’s Trident unit, which specialises in gang-related crime, are now helping the Surrey force with the investigation”.  While there is little evidence to explain what caused the tragic violent event above, what emerges is the ‘gang’, a police story which I believe is critical in preserving within the public consciousness the construct of serious violence as being synonymous with young black people and black communities.

Gangs, gang databases & over-policing

Since 2004, the Metropolitan Police Trident gang unit have employed the use of the Matrix, a database of ‘gang nominals’, who the police ‘suspect’ of being gang members.  According to Amnesty International, the most recent figures suggest that the details of approximately 3800 individuals are now held on the Matrix gang database. Academically, within the UK there is little consensus as to the precise definition of the gang. Despite this, 87% of those recorded on the Matrix are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) group, with three quarters (78%) defined as black. The majority are aged under 21 years of age, with the youngest person being 12 years of age. Paradoxically the majority pose ‘no risk’ of violence and are regarded by police to be ‘inactive’. In Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism (DA), Becky Clarke and I identified a significant racialised disconnect between those people who are recorded as ‘gang nominals’ and those people who perpetrate serious violent offences. In London, whilst Black people were most likely to be police-defined gang members, non-black people were most likely to be convicted of serious violent offences. The Mayor’s Office (MOPAC) has since confirmed this finding where of all serious youth violence committed in London, only 5% was defined as gang-related. In London, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham, young black and brown people are stereotyped as gang ‘suspects’ and to be developed below, it is this which drives increased levels of stop and search, legitimises covert police surveillance and the collective punishment through Joint Enterprise.

‘It’s all made up’

Furthermore, we found that approximately 80% of black people serving Joint Enterprise custodial sentences reported ‘gang speak’ as a central narrative in the prosecution of their court case even though many respondents (97%), disputed the ‘gang status’ as a ‘made up’ feature of the prosecution story designed to secure their convictions.  

“No, I have never been in a gang and I have no previous convictions of being in a gang and there is no proof that I am in a gang. It’s all made up.”  

“Do not agree. I was the only female. I was a mother studying to be a midwife.  My partner was an electrician, we had a life, we did not “hang around” with anyone.”

“I didn’t even know the alleged shooter before my arrest. No link to him whatsoever.”

Undeniably, the gang is a product of police memories that preserve the ‘consciousness’ of the black criminal other. Such constructions are increasingly ‘hardwired’ into police practice being concealed away from the public view and in turn being resistant to charges of racism(s).  In a ‘Social Network Analysis of an Urban Street Gang’, Gunnell illustrates how police ‘intelligence’ serves to reproduce the ‘gang’ problem. The red circles opposite represent five ‘gang members’ from which a network of 137 individuals was identified. Of interest, 115 (84%) people were connected through ‘social links’ (family, friendship and romantic links) meaning they had no ‘criminal’, ‘drugs’ or ‘gang’ links, yet still they become objects of intelligence to be policed.  Consequently, gang suspicion extends beyond the ‘gang nominal’ in stigmatising friends, family members and other community members.

Consequently it appears that police, prosecution teams and the police-sourced media, use (and abuse) the gang label to signify criminal ‘intent’ in the absence of little or no evidence.  The gang is a powerful symbolic device making (non)sense of social and criminal problems. As noted above, ‘dangerous associations’ are contingent upon police intelligence, including registration to gang databases, the exploitation of telephone cell-site information, the mining of an individuals’ social media account(s) and the building of ‘bad character’ records. Such associations arise from non-criminal, stereotypical and racialised constructs.

By virtue of its simplicity, ‘gang speak’ disrupts all other explanations for violent crime.  However, the consequences of being recorded to the Trident Matrix can have devastating consequences for young people because, In my most recent study for the Stopwatch charity (forthcoming) we have found that being Matrix’d (that is policed as a gang suspect), results in a number of data and social harms. To be Matrix’d increases the young person’s experience of being stopped and searched thereby increasing their likelihood of becoming ensnared within the CJS. So for one respondent,

“They think they know me. They don’t know me. That’s what these police officers go off. They think they know you because they see things on paper and they think they can make a judgement. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t search me. I am not going to bow down to you because you found out I have been in trouble with the police.’”

Further, young people told us that as children, they had been excluded from schools or were denied access to education because they were on the Matrix.  The ‘achilles heel’, referenced in the Amnesty report means that the families of ‘gang suspects’ can be denied accommodation and in turn be excluded from their homes and communities because they are deemed to pose ‘risks’. For another respondent,  

“The thing what pisses me off is that they [police] have the power to do stuff, extra stuff, and their power derives from intelligence. You can ask them, ‘What’s the intelligence?’ They’ll say they’re not allowed to tell you. [I]t’s not proven in court. So why is it [intelligence] allowing you the powers to come to oppress me…[y]ou’re oppressing me with power that you shouldn’t even have.”  

Complex solutions for a complex problem

Official statistics shows that serious interpersonal violence affects all communities irrespective of race, class and gender.  Therefore, solutions to the present crisis will not be simple, being as diverse as the individuals who perpetrate violence. The incalculable pain etched onto the faces of the family and loved ones of those who have lost their lives to serious violence is truly heart breaking.  Yet respectfully, let us be clear. The pursuit of the gang will not reduce levels of serious violence across England and Wales. The gang as defined by the police is a device through which politicians and police desperately claim to be responding to the challenges of serious violence. And yet, the performance of police gang units across England and Wales which since 2011 have been focused upon ‘Ending Gangs and Youth Violence’ (EGYV) have emphatically failed in tackling serious violence and have served only to reaffirm that ‘consciousness’ of the black criminal, driving up the hyper-criminalisation of young black and brown people and their communities.

Patrick Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

This piece was commissioned by the Black Journalism Fund.

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