Friday, 12 August 2011

Gang culture and the Riots.

Watching the events of this week unfolding, and listening to the various opinions aired, from MP’s, to police, to journalists, and the myriad bloggers on my twitter feed, It is clear that amongst the outrage that everybody feels, people have various places to lay the blame as they make sense of this in their own way. The left and the right, all with ideas on understanding, punishment, and causes, and never the twain shall meet.
What we saw was, to some extent, organised. Much has been made of social networks and Blackberries closed messenger as groups assembled and committed this atrocious acts of Vandalism, Arson, theft and murder. What was missing was a p[political statement by the perpetrators. Unlike the student protests, and the G20 protests, this seemed to have no root cause. When Tottenham kicked off (maybe in part due to the Death of Mark Duggan) it sparked a series of copycat events across the country.
So, Causes? If one is to blame party politics, one needs to accept that the failure is not that of the coalition, or the previous labour Government alone, rather the fault of Governments since the sixties (if not before) to properly address issues within these neighbourhoods, allowing an underclass to evolve over that time.
What has been seen in these areas in inner cities mostly (But also in some rural villages and towns) is the rise of gang culture, a street subculture that provides a guiding influence among those who lack such from Parents, schools and law enforcement. The majority of those who participate in such gangs are between 14 and 18 years old, a time when new social identities are forged, adolescents rely more on their peers and slightly older role models than their parents as guides, a time marked by ambivalence and unpredictability. Some of these adolescents, those living in the most stressful home/ social situations find their social development arrested and depend on these groups well into adulthood.
The socialisation offered by these gangs is important to many of these kids who, because of home/school situation spend most of their time on the streets. Such socialisation begins in early childhood, and reaches a peak in Adolescence, when Social identities are being forged. It is then that the group orientated activities of the preteen life merge into gang life, where the street socialisation dictates behaviour patterns. – Friendship, counsel, protection and an adventurous lifestyle are what is offered, in return, watching the backs of those members, and obeying the rules of the street are asked.
This all culiminates in a mindset of locura (a severe form of chronic psychosis, attributed to an inherited vulnerability, the effect of multiple life difficulties, or a combination of the two.) This psychosociological mindset has become a requisite for street survival, and a behaviour standard from which to identify and emulate oneself within a gang. This is valued because it helps gang members fit with the fight-fright-flight dilemma that the realities of the street impose on a person.
This gang violence has a melting pot of causes – neighbourhood effects, poverty, culture conflict and sociocultural marginalisation, lack of stable guiding influence at home & school, social control and other such gang dynamics, and all of these need to be looked at in order to address the problem. What we saw in the streets of our towns and cities this week was an ultimate manifestation of that gang turf war.
Five main factors emerge. (in Brief)
1) Place. – Poorer areas, lifestyle already in place – no work, crime, drugs, nothing in the way of discipline. Attitudes that school doesn’t matter. – being bottled up in these areas doesn’t help, and places to congregate, “turfs” become important – these teens are perhaps second generation of inhabitants, been brought up to it – engenders aggression and frustration.
2) Competition over resources (a factor in small and large scale conflicts historically)
3) Not everyone in these areas in participant, but still have to learn the street rules to negotiate safely in those areas.
4) Identity with the gangs offers a structured life that home doesn’t provide, for many reasons.
5) Discipline, that vital structure in our society, is NOT being provided by parents, and schools and law have had their claws trimmed in this regard. The discipline within the gangs replaces this, sets rules and boundaries.

Understanding how this gang culture has come up over the last 30 or 40 years is vital if we are to address the root causes of the violence that occurs, not just this week, but also the small pockets of violence in these areas that occur day to day. Us Humans are social creatures, we build societies that are based on a framework and structure that has within it authority, rules, and punishments that act as deterrents for those who would transgress those rules. The framework and structure is provided on a local level, by parents, schools and employers. Governments (local and national) set the rules by which those structures are governed, and Parents, teachers and the police exist to enforce those rules.
What we are seeing is in some areas, is the social structure and framework the street culture provides has filled a gap where it is missing. It has its own rules, it’s own punishments for transgressing those rules. It is more relevant to its members because it is the only social structure they have that is worth anything. As such, the rules of the gang matter more to them than other laws, there is an order in that society that is lacking in their own.
What our leaders need to do then, in the aftermath of these events, is to make our prevailing society more relevant to those areas than the street culture. That means providing order and structure to peoples lives, It means employment, not just call centres, but real employment, bring back the manufacturing and labouring jobs. Gear our education system to making education relevant to all sections of society, not just those academically minded. Keep our youth clubs, our community workers and projects. Allow our courts, our teachers, our police and parents to exert REAL discipline on our children. (yes, I am talking about corporal punishment and stiffer sentencing) and bring to book those parents that fail to have their children under control. Structure and discipline is what society needs to work, that is what engenders respect. This week is the result of when that has gone.
(source: Source: Urban violence and street gangs: James Diego Vigil . Annual review of Anthropology 2003. )

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