We Don’t Have A Gang Problem

Last Thursday we saw the first primetime debate in the House of Commons on ‘gangs and serious youth violence’. We both attended a short summit held the morning of the debate, in order to brief MPs on what could really make an impact and reduce violence in our city. The outcome of the debate was a unanimously passed motion, calling on the Government to establish an ‘independent, all-party commission, involving wide-ranging consultation to identify the root causes, effect of and solution to youth violence’.

When we refer to youth violence we are talking about children and adolescents perpetrating severe violence against one another, sometimes resulting in death. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron declared an all out ‘war on gangs’ and the policy written to address youth violence since then, seems to believe that if we eradicate the ‘gang’, we will end youth violence. The problem is, not all incidents of youth violence are gang related. As highlighted by “(Re)thinking Gangs”, a report by Runnymede Trust, “The ‘gang’ provides a potent shortcut to understanding youth conflict, offering Hollywood style images of urban chaos and random violence… in the place of more complex explanations exploring the realities of this phenomenon and the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of its emergence’.

Gangs are the product of a society that is economically unjust, fragmented and materialistically driven. James Gilligan, in his book Violence: Reflections on Our Deadliest Epidemic, stated that poverty is the deadliest form of violence. Therefore, we must begin to understand the problem as a whole because youth violence cannot be understood in a vacuum which does not take into account violence in other forms. Gangs are not new. Gangs are not exclusively young. Gangs are not inclusively black and the racialised nature of the term is highly problematic.

We believe that if stopping youth violence is the change we truly want to see, we must change the way we think about it.

One of the biggest issues we both have encountered when working with young people, in the prison system and in the community, is the amount of trauma that they have experienced. Now the problem with trauma is that most people do not understand it; those suffering from trauma cannot just choose to get over it, especially if they do not realise anything is wrong. You also need to know that we all experience trauma differently and just because something doesn’t affect you badly, doesn’t mean that it wont affect me.

When childhood trauma goes undetected or untreated, that child may grow up reenacting that trauma over and over again in order to master it. A lot of what we deal with in our day-to-day jobs, is working with young people who are being violent in order to regain some kind of control over their lives and emotions, most doing so unconsciously. The trauma does not have to be one big experience, it can be very small experiences that happen over and over again. Remember trauma is different to everyone.

So let’s think for a moment; what if we (as a society) started to see gangs as groups of young people attempting to gain control over their lives or had better understanding that young people who feel like they have no control over their lives gravitate to others that share their experience. What could we do to support these young people and help them gain more control over their destinies?

This is a very complex issue and not everyone will agree with the points made but it is vitally important to share a different perspective with the reader, one not often spoken about, so we can all start working on developing the solutions for a less violent society.

It is also important that we do not get caught up in the notion that every young drug dealer is a ‘Richard Branson’ waiting to happen, this within itself is a problematic thought process and can often lead to young people not getting the support they need. That’s not to say that these young people cannot be very successful and that a economic focus is not part of the solution, but we must also remember to work holistically and make sure a person is emotionally and psychologically ready and supported for that journey. There is no quick fix solution to ending serious youth violence, there needs to be a long thought out strategy that does not just focus on interventions and ‘gang-exit’ programmes but the systemic changes that need to happen to prevent violence in the first instant.


This article was originally published on The Huffington Post and was co-written with Temi Mwale

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