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We need to wise up about gangs

In the wake of intense media focus on knife crime and gang culture Craig Pinkney, who works with disaffected young people, explains what professionals need to know

Gangs, knife crime
Craig Pinkney says there are key factors behind gangs, knife crime and other violent activity

9 November 2018

It seems almost every day we hear about another young man or woman whose life has been taken by a knife or gun.

We also hear of more and more young people joining gangs, racist groups or political parties and becoming involved in religious extremism. As practitioners we are often left scratching our heads as we try to make sense of this phenomena. 

In reality, there is not one reason a young person turns to violence, becomes involved in criminality or joins a gang or extremist group. However, research suggests there are some key factors why they do: 

Father absence/role models 

Lack of fathers and consistent males within households and the wider community often causes young men to seek attention from older males or other men that they believe can develop their masculinity. 

Poor self-concept/identity

Young people that have low self-esteem and issues around identity often join groups that will give them a sense of security or belonging. 

Code of the streets

There are street codes embedded into a community that people have to abide by, such as no ‘snitching’ or no communication with the police. This can cause tensions within the community, especially if a person has been threatened, seriously injured or even killed. 

Those affected may want to communicate with the authorities to ensure justice, but subconsciously they have to follow a code that suggests the solution is personal retribution.

Community disconnect

This happens as communities become more stagnant in responding to issues that affect young people such as mental health, lack of opportunity, inconsistent role models, poor education, racial profiling, homelessness and poor leadership. By default, it creates an environment where young people feel marginalised and criminal cultures begin to emerge to capitalise on youth vulnerability. 

Racialised social structures

Research over the last two decades highlights that racism remains an issue in the UK. It does not always exist in an overt nature, rather it is covert and embedded within institutions such as education, health, housing, media, policing, law and politics. This can mean gangs, youth violence or criminality as a whole are often categorised according to race and responded to in ways that are unjust compared to other groups. For example, males from black minority ethnic groups are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to receive longer and harsher sentences compared to any other group and if perceived to be mentally ill, they are more likely to be sectioned. 

Scared young people

The numerous news reports, documentaries and interventions geared towards tackling knife and gun crime can have a psychological impact on young people living in gang impacted areas. Those who have been, or know, victims of such crimes can feel they are in a climate of fear. Some young people will carry knives and weapons, thinking this will ensure their personal safety. Fear can cause young people to join groups they believe will protect them at a time when they feel family, community, services, government and wider society is failing to do so.

Effects of incarceration

Due to the fact that punitive measures have not been successful in dealing with gangs, violence or criminality, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we deal with such issues, one which encompasses punishment, repentance and rehabilitation. 

Gangs are like surrogate families

Given the factors already mentioned, its possible to see why young people would be motivated to join gangs or groups. Gangs provide a substitute for all the attributes that are supposed to exist in an ideal society as described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Our concern should not be about gangs but why young people do not have these needs met. One of the challenges for professionals is that many organisations mainly focus on one need at a time such as the physiological. However, where gangs, extremist groups, sexual exploiters or criminal groups are effective is that they are highly proficient at meeting basic needs such as food, money, safety, security, a sense of belonging and family. 

As practitioners, we don’t want young people to be around other people we consider criminal, violent or dangerous. However, we cannot fulfil their needs in the same way as the person we are telling them not to engage with. The challenge is to provide young people with what they need to reach a positive state of self-actualisation. If we solely focus on behaviour and ignore the social factors and environments many of our young people live in, we will be fighting a losing battle. 

Gangs are excellent at ensuring young people feel safe, secure and have a sense of belonging. Until those in positions of power recognise this, violence will intensify and we will see more murders on our streets. 

Ten things practitioners should ask themselves

• Do you understand the social reality of young people today?

• Do you understand the different youth cultures (music, fashion, lifestyles) of young people in modern Britain?

• When you last qualified or went on training in this area, how have you embedded this into your practice?

• If you have not being trained, why not? 

• Are you up-to-date with current literature (reports, journals, books) around these issues? (Working with just passion alone, is not enough)

• Did you know social media has become one of the new challenges for practitioners? What do you know about this?

• Do you use social media? (If you work in community, you should at least be on twitter or LinkedIn)

• How many mentors, youth workers, family support workers, community workers or leaders from the communities that you serve do you know? 

• As current research shows that we are failing young people in society ‘as a whole’, what are we prepared to do as social workers to begin to engage with this issue differently?

• Are you fit for purpose?

* This article first appeared in Professional Social Work magazine in June 2018

Craig Pinkney is a criminologist and leader of the Working with Gangs and Youth Violence Programme at University College Birmingham. He is also the director of Real ActionUK – an outreach organisation in Birmingham which specialises in working with disaffected youth.