Thursday, 15 December 2011
IS RIOTING AGAINST THE POLICE THE ONLY WAY TO FIND PEACE BETWEEN GANGS?
Amid the soul-searching, blame and accusations that followed five days of destruction and looting in the most serious UK riots seen in a generation, one reason for the unrest could frequently be heard. Gangs had played an important role, it was argued, rallying troops and leading the violence that ripped through England's inner cities.
That rhetoric had to be toned down as revised police intelligence showed gangs played a smaller part. Now the Reading the Riots project can reveal how, in repeated interviews about their experience of the riots, respondents said that the few gang members who were present during the August disturbances behaved in an entirely atypical manner for the duration of the unrest.
Most unusually, for four nights in August, gangs suspended any ordinary hostilities between each other to focus on other targets.
The majority of those who took part, from London to Liverpool, Manchester to Birmingham, denied that gangs had caused or exacerbated the unrest, arguing instead that for the short period when England was in the grip of the riots there had been a truce.
Gang members came together to capitalise on what they saw as an economic opportunity, or to hit back at "the authorities", whether the government or police.
Asked if gangs were involved in the disturbances, the response of one 24-year-old from Bermondsey was typical. "That's absolute bullshit," he said, adding that the gang members he knew did not venture into the fray.
"When I did speak to a few gang members, they was like, I'm not even going out like, so I don't think it was a gang thing. Definitely not a gang thing."
A 21-year-old man from Salford had his own theory about why gangs had been identified as a key feature of the riots. "The government needed someone to blame and [put] everything together under 'gangs'," he said. "I don't believe there was much planned gangland activity. I believe there was a lot of angry, very working-class, disillusioned young men that realised: hang on a minute, it's going off."
In its initial response to the riots the government frequently pointed to the problem of gangs as a factor in the riots. Senior police officers briefed the prime minister that gang leaders had orchestrated the second and third days of the disturbances.
In parliament, David Cameron told MPs that "gangs were at the heart of the protests and have been behind the co-ordinated attacks". At the Conservative party conference in September, Iain Duncan Smith said gangs had played a "significant part" in the riots, and he and the home secretary, Theresa May, were subsequently asked to work with Bill Bratton, former commissioner of the New York police department, to develop an anti-gangs strategy. The so-called "war on gangs" became the centrepiece of the coalition government's response to the riots.
Before too long, a different picture emerged. After initially claiming that as many as 28% of those arrested in London were gang members, the Metropolitan police later revised the figure to 19%, a figure that dropped to 13% countrywide.
Although the crude numbers by themselves do not indicate with any certainty what the role of gangs was in the disturbances, the changing police estimates prompted leading politicians to downplay their earlier suggestion that gang members had played a pivotal role in the riots.
Reading the Riots suggests they were right to do so. Gang members were certainly present in many of the disturbances. In some cases they may have played an important role, though there is little indication that they were responsible for orchestrating the riots.
Most importantly, the suggestion that 13% of people involved in riots were gang members – based on "intelligence" from those arrested – is almost certainly an overestimation. Rioters said they only occasionally saw people involved who they knew to be affiliated to gangs; in the main, respondents were struck by the breadth of people from all parts of their community who joined together.
That sense of unity also affected the small numbers of gangs involved. They suspended rivalries for the duration of the disturbances. For those used to local hostilities – sometimes defined by postcode – it was an unprecedented sight.
"You saw enemies become friends just for one day," said one rioter. "On that day all gangs are the same, are together," said another.
A 25-year-old man from Tottenham, who watched the peaceful protest at the death of Mark Duggan descend into violence, said gang members were present, but not controlling the situation. "The fact that they're members of enemy gangs and there's no animosity shows you that it wasn't a gang–orchestrated activity as many people like to perpetuate," he said.
Some respondents spoke knowledgeably about gangs, as a real and daily presence in their lives, but repeatedly expressed surprise, and often delight, that during the riots the postcode warfare melted away.
The irony did not escape some of those involved. "You know it was the one time everyone was helping each other out. It had to be robbing Foot Locker!" said one 17-year-old who looted in Brixton. "I saw people from Brixton, different areas who would have literally hated each other but they was literally sticking together when they was going in there, like holding the doors for each other, like going in there getting stuff. I was thinking it was, 'What? I swear you don't even like each other and yet you're helping each other out?'" She added: "In the sickest way possible it felt good."
A 26-year-old Croydon man described seeing a crowd of young men from miles away arrive in the area. "These youths actually came all the way from New Cross," he said. He described his feelings as they got involved. "'I know that we are beefing, yeah, but for this moment in time, let's eat together.' Let me elaborate. Eating means, let's go and take advantage of this situation."
An 18-year-old from Tuebrook described a similar atmosphere in Liverpool. "Like considering, if I was out on the road and I's seen another clique, or whatever … they'd be looking at me and that, but … it weren't like that. It was just was friendly, everyone was getting on and was on the same level, against Merseyside police or against higher elements or whatever you want to call it."
Similarly, in Birmingham, one man in his 20s, said it was "us, the youth and the rioters against the police". He said: "I seen lads from different gangs, from different sides of Birmingham, on a normal street out there they'd be shooting each other, like, without a doubt, but there was both stood around the same area like, all in black, paying no attention … I was happy that, to see them walk past, they didn't start no trouble or nothing."
Others, like a 22-year-old man from Stockwell, relished the moment. He said: "I couldn't believe and I was happy that there was actually standing together and I was thinking, why would it cause something like this for these people to get together?" He added: "For that day, they would have been my friend … Everyone's aiming for the government today. Everyone's voices needs to get heard. And that's what it was."
A sense of a common enemy, a common cause, brought members of gangs from different territories – gangs partly defined by their defence of territory and hostility to those from other turfs – to co-operate for as long as the disturbances lasted.
According to one 18-year-old from north London, gangs worked together, warning each other when police were on the scene and totally changing their normal modes of interaction.
"I can't go through certain ends and just walk through like it's nothing," he said. "But because that was going on no one was really concentrating too tough who's going through the ends, who's that or where this persons that's from, they just concentrating on the feds, that's all. Unity, yeah, that's what I'd call it, unity … It brought unity to certain classes … so there was a lot of unity involved in the riots … that's the only good thing I saw."
Some interviewees suggested that while they did not believe gangs were controlling the riots, their ability to provide numbers and to organise had played a part in how elements of the riots developed. A 16-year-old gang member from Brixton, who had already served time in a young offenders' institution, described how he saw the economic benefits of teaming up with other gangs from nearby areas. "There was no reason to fight … everyone could just team up together and when they team up, obviously there's more strength," he said. "Like one person can't lift up a shutter, so to come together and become one big group and be able to lift up something's that heavy like that, it just shows that people can work together. Even if they don't like each other and get what they want."
A handful of respondents said the "unity" – a word cited in dozens of interviews – and perceived collective strength led to improved relations in the week after the riots. In Birmingham, a black rioter said he was more likely to speak to Asian youths since the riots, while in south London there were sightings of rival gang members talking together at the same house party.
But others said the truce was short-lived. One 15-year-old girl from Clapham Common said everything changed during the riots. "You know how you get gang rivalry? Everything stopped that night," she said. She spoke of "gangs that actually hated each other and they was just together, like beef [rivalry] stopped, basically". She added: "Fights and everything just stopped."
But, she said, it soon became clear it would not last. Even as the debris of the riots was being cleaned up, the problems that normally beset them were back. "People see it as just a day," she said. "There's no bond between anyone. Everyone's gone back to the same as it used to be. There's not really a bond. Not a bond at all."