Crips and Bloods: How Britain’s mobs are imitating US gangs

July 11, 2008

Gang culture in Britain has reached an alarming new level, as young people are attacked for wearing the “wrong” colours or straying into hostile territory

There seemed to be no obvious reason to pick on the teenage boy who was leaving the Tube station in West London. But within seconds he was being encircled by a group of young lads who forced him, at knifepoint, to take off his clothes before they allowed him to go on his way.

By the appalling standards of knife crime in London today this incident may not be classed as particularly shocking. Until you consider this: the hapless teenager was targeted because he was wearing a blue shirt. And in this particular sliver of London, this gang’s chosen colour is, apparently, red. Wearing the wrong colour in the wrong territory smacks of disrespect – even if you were not aware of the “rules”.

There is no more terrifying violent crime than the seemingly arbitrary one. David Idowu, 14, was stabbed in Southwark, southeast London, last month and died this week. It has been suggested that the school uniform he was wearing may have been a factor. There is no indication that he was involved in gang culture. His Walworth Academy tie is fastened to the lamppost near where he fell, along with dozens of floral tributes. Last year Sophie Lancaster, 20, was kicked to death by youths in Bacup, Lancashire, because she was dressed as a Goth.

Have we reached a point where a young person might be attacked because of the clothes he or she happens to be wearing? Do parents, who now worry about what colour sweatshirt their son puts on before he leaves the house lest he inadvertently “disses” an unknown gang member, have a legitimate fear, or are we all in danger of becoming hysterical?

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has already warned that British gangs are copying the tactics of US ones. Earlier this year she said there was increasing evidence that they are wearing colours of allegiance, like the famous LA gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, and using graffiti to warn others off their territory. A building or wall is “tagged” with graffiti to tell gangs of another’s presence.

“Some elements of gang culture tend to come from the States,” said Smith. “We have seen the development of things like the use of tags, the use of colours. Those are all things we need to address.” Some schools in London already ban the wearing of bandanas in “gang colours”. In North London two rival gangs have been known to wear Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine caps to denote their loyalties. It is said that in Wood Green the required colour of bandana is green while in Tottenham it is purple or black. Camden, meanwhile, is signified by red.

The trend is not confined to the capital. A former peripheral gang member in the North West, who is now 23, but spent three years in a gang when he was younger, says: “Wearing a certain colour, or hat, or whatever, massively strengthens the feeling of belonging. Sometimes you might get a tattoo, but the names or the clothes can change all the time. It is all about respect. These are kids who have virtually nothing in life, but the one thing they can get s***loads of, by being in a gang, is respect. Other people are scared of you and that feels good.”

It is important, of course, not to overstate the problem. Incidents such as the one at the Tube station are rare and we do not yet know the full circumstances of David Idowu’s tragic death [a youth has been charged over the incident]. It would be absurd to suggest that all schoolchildren now need to worry about the shade of their jackets. But teen gangs are certainly a growing problem: police figures from 2006 suggest there are 169 operating in London alone, many demarcated by postcode. The police’s pan-London gang profile found that most gang members joined between the ages of 12 and 14 and that the majority were under 18.

Last year Commander Shaun Sawyer, head of the Met’s Violent Crime Directorate, said: “There have always been territorial gangs in London. What is different is the level of violence – in most cases knives are used. It is postcode related. I’ve spoken to young people who say that it is about respecting territory. Because they’ve got nothing else, they hold on to what little they’ve got. And the trigger seems more tightly sprung.” Of course, if the “dress code” and postcode is well known for a certain area then it is easy to know where to avoid. But as the number of gangs multiplies so does the number of rules – and the outsider may accidentally do the wrong thing. In some areas of London community leaders have spoken of children being terrified of getting on the wrong bus, or simply crossing the road into a different postcode.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools and Children’s Secretary, has recently been speaking to young people from deprived areas of London about the problem of gangs. What they told him confirmed that many operate on a “colour-coded, postcoded” basis. “Gangs often have a precise set of rules and their own language,” he says. “It is a closed world, which it is very difficult for us to penetrate.” He says there was a need to look closely at “the reasons why teenagers are drawn to gang culture and the factors that are driving young men to embrace gang violence”.

“We need to be asking hard questions,” Gove adds, “such as the part played by the absence of male role models in young people’s lives, their inability to control their anger and frustration and the problems faced by those who want to exit a gang but feel they cannot.”

Some private schools in London have taken the decision not to have a school uniform to avoid its pupils being “picked on” by those from other schools.

Professor John Pitts, of the University of Bedfordshire, an expert on youth crime, recently produced a two-year study on gangs for Waltham Forest Council. The picture painted for certain areas is worrying, with gangs transforming their estates into “totalitarian spaces in which the options of the residents are largely controlled”.

“Many gang members appear to have a virtually obsessive preoccupation with status and respect. This is institutionalised into gang culture in the form of an elaborate non-verbal and clothing-based etiquette, the breach of which ‘can get you killed’,” reads one section. Another quotes a young person saying: “People come up to you and say ‘where are you from’ and if you say the wrong area they have you. But you don’t always know what to say.” Pitts says that mobile phones and texting have intensified gang- related tensions in and around schools “creating little respite from rumours, threats and the attendant agitation”.

Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Hammersmith, was raised by his single mother on the North Kensington estates and was co-founder of a charity set up to address the social problems faced by many young people. He says that we must keep a perspective about gang culture and not afford members a special status they do not deserve. He believes that fears about so-called colour coding have been blown out of proportion. “It does exist, but the wearing of a certain colour in a certain area is very unlikely to put you at risk,” he says. “The gangs know who they are fighting with and who they are looking for.” He says parents should not be worrying that “if their kid is from E12 and he goes into E1 he’s finished. It isn’t like that. There has been a certain amount of Hollywoodisation about gangs by the media.”

Of the Tube station incident, Bailey says that it was likely that they wanted to bully someone and the T-shirt was merely the catalyst. “They had probably already picked him out as a victim,” he says. “If it hadn’t been that they would have found something else.”

But he agrees that gangs have changed since he was a teenager, mainly in children joining at a much younger age, often as a substitute family.

He blames the levels of teenage knife crime partly on “15 years of liberal politics” and parents being allowed to get away with not taking full responsibility for their children. “A lot of the crime committed by boys is their misplaced idea of what it is to be a proper man,” he says. “In the absence of a father figure many get their notions of masculinity from 50 Cent and Loaded magazine.”

THE STATISTICS

1,000 gangs are thought to be operating across Britain

1,226 people aged under 18 were convicted of carrying a knife or other weapon in 2006

10 per cent of boys aged 11 and 12 say they have carried a knife or other weapon

179 under-16s were admitted to hospital with stab wounds between 2006-07

Sources: Centre for Social Justice; Home Office; Department for Health

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