Coming Soon to a Town Near You?
Part Three of Three
... The current gang culture of London and other British cities, like those in the rookeries of former times, draws its membership from the poor and socially dispossessed, who attempt to assert control over small closely-defined territories. Where the rookeries' inhabitants engaged in robberies and traded in cheap alcohol, contemporary gangs rob and steal and trade drugs, and sometimes weapons.
In 1976, I went as a student to live in the Borough of Hackney, in East London. I soon heard of gang rivalry between individuals living in three housing projects. Now, Hackney has more than 30 such gangs, each one connected to a particular "estate" or housing project. Some of the gangs are black, some racially mixed, while the Bengal Tigers, who operate in the south of the borough, are Bangladeshi Muslims. The territorial instinct of these gangs is astounding.
Last month, a 16-year-old black youth named Nassirudeen Osawe was killed at a bus stop in Hackney's neighboring borough of Islington, the 27th teenager to die in the capital in 2007. He was stabbed to death at 2.30 pm in the afternoon on busy Upper Street. He was six days away from celebrating his 17th birthday. According to the Guardian, police investigations were being made into the activities of members of the "Shakespeare" gang, who live in a bleak housing project on the edge of Hackney known as Milton Gardens Estate. It appears that Nass Osawe was killed for "offending" members of this gang, probably by being seen on their territory.
In 1984, when European "regeneration" money was flowing into Hackney, I designed letterheads for the community center based in Milton Gardens. Though the local young people then were boisterous, they were generally friendly to each other and to outsiders. Now the Shakespeare gang, which has members as young as 10 years old, defines the Milton Gardens neighborhood.
An internal police report quoted by the Guardian claimed that Hackney now has the "the highest rates of increase of gun and knife crime in London," involving "terrible acts of gratuitous violence." The gangs engage in warfare based on postcodes (zip codes). The Guardian quoted a member of the Metropolitan Police's Violent Crime Directorate, who said: "There have always been territorial gangs in London. What's different is the levels of violence that are used. In most cases it is knives, and, extremely rarely, guns. It is postcode related. I've spoken to young people who say it's about respecting territory and, because they've got nothing else, they have to hold on to what little they have got. And the trigger seems more tightly sprung. It's not a phenomenon that's going to go away overnight."
When a teenager can have his life snatched away merely for being on another gang's "turf," it is obvious that the growing phenomenon of gang culture is creating for young people a climate of fear and defensiveness. Trapped in shabby housing projects they are pressured to join gangs, where they gain protection from other rival gangs. In such a paranoid climate, it is small wonder that ethnic and religious tensions are now thriving in some regions of Britain.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Hackney was racially mixed and genuinely tolerant. The problems for Hackney began in the mid 1980s, when properties began to be bought by white professionals from outside the borough. Suddenly the "haves" were living next to the "have nots" in the same streets, and resentments began to grow. At the end of the 1980s, new migrants began to flood the borough. First came Kurdish and Turkish refugees, followed in the 1990s by Somalis, then Bosnians, and more recently, members of European Union countries. With different disadvantaged groups all competing for the same diminishing supply of homes and jobs, the minority groups have no love for each other.