Serious Youth Violence in the Capital

Est. read time: 21 min

The following paper was submitted  for consideration by the London Mayor’s ‘Time for Action’ and Community Safety Teams and the London Mayor’s Expert Advisory Group.


On 13 December 2010, the Mayor’s Expert Advisory Group (MEAG) received and discussed a paper:  Serious Youth Violence in London – a brief retrospective on recent action that was written on its behalf and circulated by Ray Lewis.  Members of the MEAG present at that meeting were:  Ray Lewis, Bevan Powell, Richard Taylor and Gus John (for part of the agenda).  Apologies had been received from other MEAG members.

At that meeting, Gus John provided a verbal critique of the paper and attempted to examine both the GLA’s response and that of the African heritage community to the issue of serious youth violence, assessing the role of the MEAG in the context of the latter.  After some discussion, Gus John offered to write a paper and set out his views of the issues and challenges which the Mayor and his team as well as the MEAG need to address.

These are therefore the views of Gus John and not necessarily of the MEAG.  The latter are invited to state whether they are in agreement that this paper should form the basis of a discussion with the Mayor on 21 December 2010, acknowledging the fact that both MEAG and the Mayor’s team(s) may wish to  have a wider ranging discussion of the issues once the paper has been given due consideration.

Some Issues of Focus and Definition 

It is an old sociological dictum that the way a problem is defined or any given situation is understood is indicative of the way one sets about resolving the problem or dealing with the situation.  So, to what extent have our interventions, the GLA’s and ‘the community’, in respect of serious youth violence, whether proactive or reactive been based upon our too shallow analysis or too restricted definition of ‘the problem’?

The concern about serious youth violence has become conflated with  issues of gun- and knife-enabled crime, ‘gang’ membership, ‘gang’ activities and ‘gang’ culture, and the relation that is thought to exist between ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, social exclusion, youth disaffection and youth offending. This conflation by law enforcers, the media and society at large, no less than by African heritage communities themselves has led to a new moral panic about ‘race’ and crime to the extent that one could be forgiven for thinking that ‘black males’, young men of African and African-Caribbean heritage, have a congenital propensity to evil, murder and mayhem.

To what extent, then, are our responses and interventions evidence based?  Are we simply acting on hunches, on sentiment, or in response to mass hysteria that so readily projects certain formations of youth into the public gaze and encourages them to live up to the image the media and others project of them and to generate fear within their own generation and across age ranges in the society?

I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee chaired by John Denham MP that made an in depth examination of young black people and crime.  The report of that Committee and the statistics in that report were shocking. So were and are the deaths by knife- and gun-enabled crimes that have plagued the Capital and other major cities in Britain year on year in the last two decades.  But, shocking though all of that is, it behoves us to remember that, thankfully, those involved in these crimes, typically males between the ages of thirteen and twenty six, represent less than 1% of the population of African heritage youths in the Capital.

This clearly is not meant to encourage complacency or to downgrade the havoc and wrecking of lives that the activities of that relatively small group inflict upon communities.  Rather, it suggests that we might better understand what makes the conduct and disposition of perpetrators of serious youth violence so aberrant and reckless if we examine their circumstances relative to that of their peers who typically have the same adverse forces impacting upon their lives.

In other contexts I have often asked the question:

Why is it that certain young people choose lifestyles and adopt identities that compound their social exclusion and lead them to embrace a life of crime and gratuitous violence, whereas their siblings and peers living in exactly the same conditions and facing the same challenges and constraints do not so much as spit in the street?

Social exclusion as defined by factors such as broken homes, one parent families, generations of worklessness, school exclusions, poor educational attainment and short or long term unemployment is not a sufficient explanation for what either ‘causes’ or motivates young people to indulge in serious youth violence.  In the coaching and ‘developing future leaders’ work I do with young people in different parts of the country, I remind them at all stages of the programme that experiences and circumstances on life’s journey thus far might have made us who we are, but we are responsible for what we become.

This is no crude attempt at ‘blaming the victim’.  Rather, it is a sober reminder of how easy it is for us to embrace a ‘victim’ status and remain locked within that mindset, especially when there is a veritable army of significant ‘others’ who insist on, if not make a good living from, treating us as ‘victims’ and blaming the world for our condition.

The challenge therefore becomes how to avoid projecting young people and their needs and ‘problems’ in a manner that reinforces their view of themselves as ‘outsiders’, as ‘the gang’ that has achieved some notoriety, as the ‘hard to reach’ except by ‘bredrin’ with the Midas touch, etc.

So, let us imagine what our practice might be if we were to make the following assumptions:

a) ‘Young black people’ are not a homogenous group any more than ‘the community’ or ‘the black community’ is an identifiable homogenous community;

b) The majority of young people of any and all ethnicities go about their daily business with no other desire than to live peaceably with their peers and with the rest of society and to go about in their communities and anywhere in the city or country without fear of being attacked, molested or harassed because they are defined as ‘youth’ or because they are the wrong colour or on the wrong side of town;

c) Some young people develop and employ strategies for managing themselves at home, in school and in the community and for surviving those environments, especially when they experience them as hostile, while others lack the capacity to do so and either struggle to cope or become totally dysfunctional;

d) Some young people choose a deviant lifestyle and see it as a quick and sure way of reaping material benefits, despite the values that their parents/families subscribe to and seek to inculcate in their young;

e) In those situations, many parents and families, single mothers in particular, struggle to parent adolescent boys and lose the battle to the peer group or small but influential coterie of ‘friends’;

f) Inculcating and embedding the values that make us fit for living in civil society and operating as active citizens who discharge our responsibility to home, school and community, while safeguarding and extending hard won rights, is not the function of schooling only;  it is primarily the function of parents and families as children’s first and most dependable teachers;

g) Many parents and families, however, lack both the skills and the competence to instil those values and often fail to demonstrate that they have embedded those values themselves;  it is for that reason that mentoring individual young people or matching them with ‘role models’ without regard for the parenting support needs of their parents/carers is often misguided and can easily lead those young people to devalue and pathologies their own families;

h) Among the 95% plus of young people who have no involvement in crime, are not ‘disaffected’ or alienated and who reject the lumping together of ‘black youth’ whether for ‘Stop and Search’ purposes or the indiscriminate labelling of black youth as ‘gangs’ are those who demonstrate sound leadership skills and capacities and can work as peer mentors or as ‘buddies’ for their peers who are seeking confidence through belonging to a wider circle of friends whom they could trust;

i) Rather than always looking for well disposed adults who could be role models, coaches and mentors to the ‘vulnerable and at risk’ or ‘hard to reach’, more effort and resources need to be spent in identifying, training, supporting and validating such young people so they could effectively support their peers who are often attractive to the ‘gang’;

j) This approach will build a critical mass of positive and actively engaged young people over time, as well as enabling genuine dialogue among young people themselves about the condition of being young, black and British and the opportunities and challenges that come with that; the energy and money (such as it is) that is expended on preventing young people joining ‘gangs’ could be better spent empowering young people to deal with those issues and actively engage with one another in their own interest;

k) There is a scandalous number of young people (African, Asian and English White) in young offender institutions across the country and particularly in those to which young Londoners are sent;  invariably, they leave such institutions without an established network of support to come back to, a network that could have been supporting them while in custody.  It is estimated that up to 84% of those serving six month sentences and less re-offend within one year of release.  More energy and resources could be expended on building supportive networks across age groups and employers within communities so that those young people could receive structured support with rehabilitation both while in custody and on release;

l) Serious Youth Violence is not necessarily related to ‘gang’ activity or to group activity for that matter.  Some of it is sporadic and perpetrated by individuals; some of it is opportunistic and unplanned; some of it is the result of poor self management and even worse anger management; some of it results from low self esteem and for a perceived need to demonstrate masculinity and machismo; some of it results from a desire to compensate for social inadequacy;

m) It is not necessarily correlated to ‘race’ or ethnicity, and increasingly girls and young women are involved either in ‘joint enterprise’ with boys and men or acting as girls indulging in violence for their own reasons;

n) All the above nuances are lost, however, as a result of the increasing tendency to pathologies whole neighbourhoods or boroughs and demonise their youth because of the concentrated activities of a small sector of the youth population whose activities and reckless disposition put others at risk and sow fear in the community, especially among other young people;

o) Of equal concern is the fact that more and more schools are equating the aberrant conduct of African heritage boys, African Caribbean especially, with their assumed membership of ‘gangs’ or their immersion in ‘gang culture’;

p) I am currently acting as Expert Witness in a High Court case in which a parent is seeking judgement against a school that excluded her eleven year old son for wearing ‘corn row’ plaits, arguing that such a hairstyle was not only ‘emblematic of gang culture’, the kind of culture the school was ‘working hard to keep outside its gates’, but was also ‘an aggressive and unwelcome badge of ethnic identity’;  that boy had never had a haircut since birth but was excluded until his mother could bring him back with a ‘classic short back and sides’, something she refused to do as she repudiated the suggestion that her son had any knowledge or understanding of, let alone indulgence in, ‘gang culture’;

q) In another school exclusion case involving one of the four young men (and their families) to whom I am giving support, a mindless form of aggressive play in a corridor was deemed to be ‘street culture imported into the school’ and ‘the kind of violent youth activity that characterises the community surrounding our school’;

r) School discipline is therefore being based on the sort of moral panic about young black people and ‘gang related’ violence with which all young black boys are considered to be associated; what is more, the ‘Standards’ agenda is increasingly about academic achievement and high examination results and less and less about the holistic development of young people, especially adolescents who, throughout history, have kicked against boundaries and viewed their parents’ if not their teachers’ generation as belonging to a far gone age;

s) The ‘Standards’ agenda with its almost exclusive focus on achieving high examination results is displacing schools’ responsibility to guide learners as they face an increasing number of challenges in the communities (and often the homes) from which they come to school;

t) The Mayor has no jurisdiction over schools in the Capital, but most if not all schools share the GLA’s concern about serious youth violence and the corrosive impact of that on community well-being; the Mayor should therefore be seen to:

–      condemn the practice of stereotyping young black boys, highlighting how powerfully such exclusionary rules can affect the boys’ sense of themselves as well as having wider implications for race relations and the way the rest of society is encouraged to stereotype and label young black boys;

–      highlight the importance of encouraging black students/young people to be full participants in mainstream society and why it is important for such participation not to be based on the basis of “erasing” aspects of ethnic identity which are neither criminal nor deviant;

–      highlight the stereotypical assumptions in the media and in organizations about peer groupings among black young people, particularly the equating of youth groups and their activities with ‘gangs’ and with aggressive if not violent and criminal conduct; the equating of the activities of aberrant young black people with the black youth population as a whole;

–      highlighting the fact that such stereotyping and indiscriminate labeling compounds young black people’s social exclusion rather than eliminates discrimination, and does the very opposite of promoting good relations between people of different racial groups;

u) At this juncture, let me commend to all those to whom this paper is directed the report of Claire Alexander for the Runnymede Trust: ‘Re-Thinking Gangs’.  Alexander’s report, I submit, is a useful reminder of how ‘moral panics’ are created and sustained with dire consequences that impact the lives of young people and society’s and societal institutions’ perceptions of them from one generation to the next.  Among the critical passages in that report are the following:

“There are a number of problems inherent in the construction of ‘the gang’ through the image of black youth. Firstly the correlation of “gang cultures and criminal activities” with ‘young black boys’ serves to collectively implicate and criminalize all ‘young black boys’ and by extension the broader ‘black community’. Secondly, the reduction of the problem to this one group belies the far more complex picture of youth deviance and violence that has emerged – for example, the London murder victims (and perpetrators) of 2007 came from a range of communities including White, Asian, and Turkish, and included young women as well as young men. Thirdly the focus on “race” as the primary signifier homogenizes ‘the black community’, erasing differences between and within African, Caribbean and Black British experiences and positions, and eliding any distinction between new migrant and long established communities. Consequently, what seems to bind these disparate groups together is a biological and phenotypical identification – the “fact of blackness”… – and this serves to naturalise and transfix through biology what begs to be understood socially and historically…the ‘gang’ – and by extension ‘the black community’ – is positioned as permanently outside of, and opposed to, the broader national community …, along with the rights and protections of citizenship.” (p.14, “(Re)thinking ‘Gangs’”).

“…the current debate fails to locate ‘the gang’ in a longer post-war historical context around black folk devils, and in particular the association of black young men with crime, violence and danger, For example, Policing the Crisis (Hall, 1978) unpacked the same stereotypes  of black cultures of poverty, pathologized families, identity crisis, crime and hyper-masculinity, as have emerged in recent debates, if now updated with a hi-gloss American cultural veneer. What people are saying today was said about muggers in the 1970s, rioters in the 1980s and “Yardies” in the 1990s, and these stereotypes have been consistently revealed to be more about fantasy than reality – or as Paul Gilroy has termed it ‘the myth of black criminality’…The current construction of ‘the gang’ is, of course, disingenuously building on these commonsense ‘knowledges’ about black youth and crime in a way that allows ‘the gang’ to be read as raced and enables us to decode references to ‘specific criminal cultures’, ‘the inner city’, ‘immigrant’ or ‘urban youth’ in ways that are highly racially targeted. However, placing ‘the gang’ within the longer history of black folk devils also allows us to refocus on the mythic elements of ‘the gang’ and to explore the broader social, economic and political contexts in which these discourses take shape and assume the status of ‘truth’.” (pp.14-15, “(Re)thinking ‘Gangs’”).

v) It is common practice to look to the United States of America for explanations of social (if not economic) phenomena in the UK.  This trend has been apparent in the African community’s response to gun crime and to ‘gangs’ in our urban centres.  The danger in this approach is that certain factors are seen as common to both situations (blackness, poverty, discrimination, institutional racism, marginalization, social exclusion) and therefore as having the same explanatory if not causal value.  What that does, however, is to ‘treat’ urban violence of which black people are seen to be both perpetrators and victims as if it is a form of malaria.  Whether you contract malaria in Nigeria or Cameroon, it is still malaria and tried and tested malaria cures would most likely work in response to it, irrespective of the source.

w) Dealing with the genesis and persistence of serious youth violence among black young people in the UK is a much more complex issue in terms of the history and origins of ‘the problem’, the scale of it, how it plays out in communities and the institutional responses to it;

x) One thing is certain, however, and it is that there needs to be a more mature and informed debate within African heritage communities in London and nationwide about how those communities experience serious youth violence and develop internal mechanisms for dealing with it, or protecting their children and themselves from it;  that debate needs to take place in an environment where African heritage people are talking to themselves about themselves, strengths, failings, collusion and all; deepening their understanding of one another’s pain, one another’s coping strategies and support networks, one another’s parenting challenges, one another’s experience of being let down by ‘the system’, one another’s power and the potential to harness that power and reclaim the streets;

y) While it is advantageous for the Mayor to have or facilitate those community conversations, therefore, it could be argued that without the prior step of encouraging or facilitating such conversations among those communities themselves, the Mayor is likely to find either that the same group(s) of people who routinely talk to one another as practitioners or organised groups in the community are having that conversation in front of him and his officers, with MEAG giving some validation to the process, or that they are challenging him about his own commitment, the nature and thrust of his intervention or what he is allowing the Metropolitan Police to get away with;

z) Those communities have a right to know how many actual and how many presumed offenders there are in their community that are involved in serious youth violence and are known to the authorities; what, in addition to prosecutions and imprisonment the authorities are doing to engage with that small section of the population;  since each of them and each of their victims is somebody’s child, what support is being offered to families who are sometimes as bewildered, bothered and bereaved at the imprisonment of their young for activities they never knew that they were associated with, as are the relatives of victims of their crimes; the equation that is too often made, i.e., victims and their families good and deserving of the community’s and the agencies’ sympathy and perpetrators and their families bad and in collusion, therefore worthy of the community’s contempt and society’s ‘zero tolerance’ could be very wide of the mark.

A number of questions flow from all this:

– What then, does this set of assumptions or statements imply for the nature and target of our interventions?

– What shared understanding exists within the MEAG itself about them?

– How can the Mayor be assisted by the identification and assessment of the many examples of good practice there are in communities precisely because people are taking this more nuanced approach to the complex issues they deal with daily?

– How can Project Oracle engage with these forms of good practice having regard to the dynamic and ever shifting situation practitioners work with, and encourage dissemination of approaches and methods in a manner that is empowering for communities rather than setting up bureaucratic hurdles for them to leap over in the interest of assuring quality, as if you could ‘measure’ quality by laying out a set of criteria that might well be difficult to apply across the board?

– If we accept that deaths on the street are but the most extreme manifestation of the destructiveness of serious youth violence and the evidence that attracts media interest and moral repugnance across communities, what do we know about the extent and impact of less serious manifestations of youth violence and about what is done with perpetrators?

– Should the Mayor, with the support of the Secretary of State for Education and his Shadow, not convene a conference at which these issues could be debated with headteachers and Chairs of Governors in the Capital and steps taken to work towards a ‘Treaty’ or ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ that would tie headteachers in to adopting more enlightened practices rather than compounding the social exclusion of young black people?

– After this round of Community Conversations, could the Mayor not work with MEAG and significant others in communities, young people particularly, and convene a young people’s conference on the scale of the former ‘London Schools and the Black Child’ conference organised by Diane Abbott, a conference that would give young people a voice and provide young people’s perspectives on many of the issues raised in the A-Z list above?

– Would that not demonstrate that the Mayor himself does not buy in to this notion of all young black people being potentially violent, better talked about and done unto rather than heard speaking for themselves, and too potentially volatile to have them assembled in such numbers in one place?

I would strongly recommend that the Mayor gives serious consideration to hosting such a conference, suitably planned and facilitated.  This will be the very first time that an opportunity will have been created for young people to have an informed debate about these complex and vexing issues and to help the Mayor, if not the Government, shape an agenda that deals with their realities rather than one that has the potential to socially exclude and marginalise them.

From such a conversation might arise issues for schools, for employers, for universities, for local councils and the provision they make (or not) for the social education and community empowerment of young people, for the London Development Agency or its successor, for banks and financial houses and their support for young entrepreneurs, for the Third Sector within communities.


I present this paper in an attempt to recast the terms of the debate and help define both what the Mayor might do in ‘Time for Action’ and how MEAG might be more strategic in its role as an Advisory Group.

There are some specific actions indicated above, not least what the Mayor himself could do in countering the ‘propaganda war’ against and unfettered stereotyping of young black people in the Capital, and demonstrating to those young people that he believes in them and that there is no future for London as a Capital City if that future is not constructed with them somewhere near its centre rather than on its margins.

I believe MEAG can and should play a more strategic role in supporting the Mayor and his team to make those interventions and that that role must be properly validated.  In this regard, I would like to see the Mayor commissioning research to augment whatever data is already to hand on the issues enumerated above, as well as ensuring that where data already exists it is put at the disposal of the MEAG so that it can more usefully perform its advisory function.

Picture: “A gang of youngsters“, by Lars Plougmann.

If you would like to download this paper in pdf format, please click here.

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