London’s gangs have changed, and it’s driving a surge in pitiless violence

Guardian Web |

The murder of 14-year-old Jayden Moodie on Tuesday night highlights how youth violence continues to devastate the lives of young people, families and communities in London. Jayden’s death marks a new low point as he is the youngest victim to die on London’s streets so far this year.

We don’t know whether Jayden was himself involved in gangs or if his death was gang-related. All we know is that he was struck by a vehicle while riding a moped, then chased by a group of three men and stabbed to death in what police believe was a targeted attack. However, Jayden was killed in Leyton, part of the east London borough of Waltham Forest where the threat of gangs and gang violence looms large.

Last year, we published the results of a study looking at gangs in Waltham Forest, that provides some context for Jayden’s murder. As one of the many areas in London affected by rising youth violence, Waltham Forest has been at the forefront of gang interventions ever since the ground-breaking Reluctant Gangsters study was published in 2007. We went back to see what, if anything, had changed since then, interviewing front-line services, practitioners and young people.

Being involved in gangs significantly increases the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of violence

A decade ago, gangs in Waltham Forest were organised around postcode territories that young people defended from outsiders. Gang membership was a physical and emotional commitment – exhibited through gang “colours” and a real sense of local pride at being visibly present on the street.

Our research highlighted that gangs in Waltham Forest today view turf differently; less as symbolic hallowed ground, and more as a marketplace. Gangs are now more focused on profits, not postcodes. Two factors were responsible for this evolution: the ready availability of illicit drugs and the rise of social media.

Gangs had come to reject outward signs of gang membership as “bad for business” because they attracted unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. They instead grew up and moved on to develop lucrative “ county lines ” operations in new areas where they were unknown to police.

County lines are predicated on an exploitation of people, not places. Leveraging young people’s boredom, poverty and lack of future prospects, gang elders cynically lure children into the drug trade with false promises of more money and status that rarely materialise, then entrap them through debt bondage and other coercive means. County lines have been linked with an increase in stabbings involving known drug dealers as victims or suspects, partly because grievances in illicit drugs markets cannot be settled through legal channels.

At the same time, social media has further redrawn territorial boundaries by rendering the physical street inconsequential to the performance of gang membership. While some gangs avoid social media because it has a tendency to expose or backfire (a problem gangs share with all Twitter users), others have embraced it as a means of promoting their “ brand ” in the drugs game both inside and outside London. This in turn has changed how gang members spend their time, devoting hours to the creation of a constant stream of content for their followers while monitoring the activities of friends, gang members and enemies because of a fear of missing out.

Like celebrities, influencers and politicians, gang members face pressure to continue being “the best” by being the most talked about – and outdoing themselves each time. Violence has long had a “display value” and has always been deployed as a means of achieving status on the streets, but on the “digital street” conflict is king. Physical conflicts used to be temporally and geographically limited. Now, perceived taunts and insults remain live and can be replayed indefinitely, as well as being seen by a large audience of friends and followers. This pressure to perform creates incentives to respond and retaliate, ultimately leading to an escalating prospect of real violence taking place.

Our findings have implications for thinking about rising numbers of violent incidents in London. There were 132 homicides in 2018 – the highest total since 2008.

Whenever violence is gang-related, it is increasingly about protecting drugs markets rather than the honour of the gang. Although gang-related violence appears to represent a minority share of the violence we have seen in London this year, the fact that gangs have moved indoors and online may mean that more violence is gang-related than is realised.

Most of the street gangs identified a decade ago have disappeared from the streets of Waltham Forest, but the few remaining have evolved from street-oriented groups to business alliances with a focus on controlling drugs markets.

Waltham Forest’s violence problem, like London’s in general, is not exclusively a gang problem. However, being involved in gangs significantly increases the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of violence. For this reason, we must do all we can to understand gangs and the young people embedded within them; not least because gangs are changing and these changes are driving the pitiless violence we are seeing on London’s streets.

Andrew Whittaker is associate professor of social work at London South Bank University. He is the lead author of From Postcodes to Profit: How Gangs Have Changed in Waltham Forest.

James Densley is associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and the author of How Gangs Work (Palgrave, 2013).

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer

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