The riots are over for now. Some people have lost their businesses; four people have died; and those of us who were lucky enough not to be directly involved are still left with a sense of dread. There was a day last week when I was afraid to walk the streets of my own neighbourhood, amid rumours that a mob was on the march.
The rumours came to nothing. But I’ve never before felt like that; for about twenty four hours I had a glimpse of what it would feel like to be in a world where you are not safe even in your own back yard. I actually couldn’t believe that so much violence could happen so quickly; and the images of looters arrogantly swaggering away with stolen trainers or flat screen plasma TVs sent a cold tingle through my soul.
Actually, in the scale of things, this wasn’t so bad; it wasn’t Bosnia in the the 1990s. But for those direly affected, it was bad enough; and as many have commented, it was a glimpse of dystopia. Here’s one report I read in the Guardian on that theme; and this is a fascinating blog by Charles Christian picking up on that idea.
My point is that the reality was pretty bad; but my panic was that this was the harbinger of something far worse. Complete meltdown. Well, okay, I’m a science fiction writer so maybe I’m over-inclined to extrapolate. But my initial reaction was: things must have really fallen apart for riots to spring up so quickly and so wildly.
But a few days later, I can start to see some of the underlying causes of the mass riot. I’m not talking here about the alienation of modern youth and the effect of the cuts – I think there are truths in those arguments, which are being expounded at length in every Sunday paper today. But at a nitty gritty level, this was I would argue a criminal event which is explicable as part of the evolution in the nature of crime.
I’m talking about gangs.
When I was working on police dramas I did some research on gangs. I spend time in Thamesmead talking to coppers investigating a gang-related murder, and even got to listen to an interview with a gang member, which was an eye-opener. By ‘gangs’ I mean teenage gangs of an organised or semi-organised variety. Not as cool as the Sharks and the Jets, but in that territory. London is full of these gangs. They all have silly names, such as the Causeway Gang; Puff City; the Red African Devils, Asian Auto Takeaway Inc. the Barrier Boys, the New World Order. [My source here is the book Reluctant Gangsters by John Pitts, an intensely detailed sociological study of gang culture in London.)
Puff City is one of the most feared gangs; it's a supergang really, made up of the Wordsworth Hall Man Dem, the Cromwell Close Gang, the Keats Close Boys, the Shelley Fam and the Byrne Gang; in total it has about 100 members. The Puff City tag originally came from a real person; but now anyone who commands the gang is called Puff.
The Cruise gang is more recent and is smaller, and is made up of members between 14 and 17 from four streets. Four streets! We're talking territorial gangs with a small 't' here; this is where the concept of 'postcode wars' arise. There are gang members who rarely venture from their own estate; a estate four blocks away might as well be in another country.
Sometimes the gangs have an older leader; like the Asian Auto Takeaway Inc, whose boss (allegedly) is a property developer; the gang target high value cars and get paid in cash for each theft. These gang members are like 'joeys' - children used by gangsters to commit crime. Think Fagin, and you're in the right ballpark.
Here's a 25 year old gang member who I shall call X bragging about his gang: [My source here is One Blood by John Heale]
‘Because we’re independent we don’t have time to fuck around. The Trident stats [Operation Trident is the Metropolitan police team that deals with gun and gang crime] imply we’re better shots than other boroughs. I’d say that’s wrong. It’s not that we aim better, it’s that we’ve got it in us to walk up to the target, look him in the eyes and pull the trigger. The other thing about Hackney boys is that we’re very well connected. I’ve spent years inside.’
There have always been street gangs; and there have always been kids who hang out together and claim to be in a ‘gang’; I was in one such gang as a child. We used to jump off walls and sneak into derelict buildings; nothing worse.
But these gangs are organised and territorialised; and as X admits, they are also connected. Because one level above the street gangs are the ‘gangster gangs’. Like the Krays; or the Arifs; or the Triads. And there are increasingly close links between the Faces (i.e. the established gangsters) and the street gangs. There are hierachies within gangs - e.g. Youngers and Elders – and the so-called supergangs (including Puff City) are in effect teen gangs that have evolved into organised crime gangs.
This is all very disturbing; and at the same time, all very normal. There have always been criminals, and they have often started young; and this is how they organise themselves now. You still have ethnic gangs – Yardies, Triads, Eastern European gangs and Asian gangs. In my days shadowing the West London murder squad I had a few encounters with victims of the Holy Smokes and the Tooti Nungs – the two dominant Asian gangs in that area, who worked in much the same way as the Mafia – ie they are based around families. But the white gangs are also family based; when I spent time with the South London Robbery squad, their main nemesis were the Arif family, who for years had a bloody feud with the equally large Brindle family which left many dead, shot to bits in South London pubs.
But awful though it is, there’s an architecture to this criminality that makes sense to me, and scares me less than the idea that ordinary nice decent young people can suddenly out of the blue becoming ruthless looters. From all the accounts I’ve read, the London gangs and supergangs were very much to the fore in the recent riots. It’s in a day’s work for them; foment a riot then loot the shops. I would bet that all the serious gang members were properly ‘ballied up’ (wearing face masks or balaclavas) and will not be easily captured from cctv footage. It’s the opportunist looters – the daft kids who saw a riot kicking off and thought they’d join in – who are going to go down for their role in the riots. The likes of X, the well connected Hackney gang member, are not that dumb; they’ll have covered up, then flogged the gear fast, possibly via an established network of older criminals who are hungry for looted gear.
I do understand how some idiots got caught up in the riot frenzy – like the lad who stole a bottle of mineral water from a looted shop because it was there, and was sentenced to six months. We all do daft things when we’re young; though in my case, never THAT daft. But I didn’t, at the time, comprehend how anarchy could descend so fast. And then I got it; it’s not anarchy; it’s all very well organised. This was a city-wide burglary, with territorial gangs sending messages via their Blackberry and pillaging the same shops that they would normally, of a Saturday afternoon, shoplift from.
I’m not intending this as the definitive argument about the riots; social alienation remains a key issue to be explored. But my view is that the core of the riot was, indeed, criminality, not revolution.
I hope such chaos never happens again; and I hope, also, that the real grievances of the disaffected and alienated and, let’s face it, shat-upon-by-their-elders youth of today, don’t get overlooked as politicans engage in their weary old passing-the-buck blame game.
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