I have been talking to young people. And it scared me. They were basically lovely. Four lads from North London. They are all 14 and have the innocent posturing of the almost young man plus of course the bum fluff and the creaky voice. And they fight after school. Not each other. But big set piece rucks involving fifty or so boys. They come from one estate and their opponents from another. I am not going to say where they’re from. It doesn’t actually matter, except that it may put them in, if not danger, certainly potentially some difficulty. They were Asian. That again doesn’t matter. I only say it to dispel the wrong conclusion that this violence is somehow ethnically inspired or generated. The author of the most recent report on gangs in London, Professor John Pitts, who was also there at this conference, makes it very clear that “impetus towards gang membership is determined by the social predicament of gang members rather than their race or ethnicity”. And my four youngsters are not gang members. Not yet. Might they be? I hope not. They came to me via the Leap Project’s Quarrel Shop, where young people learn “mediation, communication and conflict resolution skills”. So there’s hope.

But Pitt’s report “Reluctant gangsters” is an arresting read. Coupled with meeting the four young guys, it was the source of my anxiety. I asked them why they fought like this. “It’s our area, isn’t it” said one. “They’re coming into our area,” said another. It was local pride distorted. And it sounded like an excuse. They wanted to fight. They were tiny, these boys. Yet they were being swept up into clashes of fists and weapons involving tens of youths in which they could easily get hurt. Have they ever been hurt? Or hurt anyone? “Not badly” is the sheepish admission. They want to fight but it scares them, so they don’t want to fight, but they do. They fight, they say, because the others “cursed my mum”. Each of them says it. They “cursed my mum”. Why not turn your back? What did you learn in the Quarrel Shop about your red flag (what it is that tips you over into a conflict)? “That we should know our red flag and back off”. Why don’t you then? Peer pressure? Older boys making you fight? No, apparently not. Just they “cursed my mum”

Their parents know what they are doing. They naturally disapprove. The boys feel their disapproval. Acutely. They drop their heads when I mention it. But it doesn’t stop them fighting, even though they say if they get into trouble with the law, they will bring dishonour on their families. The Policeman with them, Steve, whom they clearly respect, says to me that they’re not bad boys. And they don’t seem so to me. Except, oddly the smallest one who seems full of hidden menace. But will that parental disapproval eventually kick in?

Pitts’ report flags up a big warning. It is in the title. He estimates that at least a third of those involved in gangs do so not wholly voluntarily. Not getting involved can have dire consequences for a young person. They are frightened of being seen a “pussy”. Worse, their families or siblings might suffer. What is quite clear from his report too is that many of them are terrified of their own involvement. Like, on a much lower level, my four little fighters are in fact frightened too. One boy quoted by Pitts says, “He was crouched up in the corner crying because he brought the gun out to protect himself and he was challenged so he pulled the trigger… he didn’t want to pull the trigger”. One on level, no sympathy. But on another a clue to helping kids out of gangs is to recognise that a bit of them doesn’t want to be there.

I heard story this week about just such a lad in another city. It took months for him even to talk to this youth worker. He just hung around. Eventually the worker discovered that he was in a gang and couldn’t see a way out. So the worker did something clever. He got him an ASBO and had the other gang members named in it. The kid had an excuse not to associate with them. He began his exit from the gang.

What is frightening about this report is simply that as violent crime falls overall, gang crime and violence, a more extreme from of social dislocation, is more and more focused in poor areas. And furthermore, in the sixties and seventies, gangsters were mainly burglars and fraudsters. Now it’s changed from blag to business. From cracking safes to crack cocaine. Drugs drive it all. The street crime, the violence and the guns. Protection of territory and family is the excuse.

”They came into our area”. “They cursed my mum”. Is that how it starts? I hope not. Pitts’ has produced a seven-point plan for Waltham Forest. It’s worth a read. It may just save my four kids from anything deeper than just a fistfight after school.

Professor John Pitts, is at Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, University of Bedfordshire
His report “Reluctant gangsters: youth gangs in Waltham Forest” can be obtained form Waltham Forest Council.
Gangs: Implications for Social Work Practice
Tuesday 9 October 2007
10.00am – 1.00pm
King’s College London, SE1,,2128391,00.html

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