It never fails to amaze me how much of the discussion, action and even government policy associated with teenage murders, serious violence and “gang culture” regularly mirrors the lack of psychological maturity of those committing the offences.
While the subject matter, teenage acts of individual and group brutality, concerns behaviours that are ill thought out and lack basic empathy and understanding. Those seeking to intervene in these behaviours, such as the police and government policy units, seem to share similar characteristics related to simplification and polarisation of issues and an inability to conceptualise anothers thoughts, emotions or position.
Both sides are primarily driven by emotional responses to events; often a brutish act; and both sides believe that by somehow increasing the level of brutality and representing the other side as negatively as possible this will sustain the impetus to act.
While teenagers can be forgiven to some degree for this simplistic immature approach, those in policing and government policy and strategy are being paid an adult wage to be a bit more mature about matters.
But before we dismiss these adults in “crime reduction” services for acting like the teenagers themselves we should also consider a far more professionalised motivation.
The “professionals” have a very strong vested financial interest in maintaining a heightened sense of emotionality around the threat or potential threat of teenage gangs. It is through this fear that they can persuade politicians to release funding to support pet projects and promote their own careers.
These opening statements probably sound a little strong but even very recently we have had both the police and government representatives, blame the London and English riots in August 2011 on gangs, only to later have the Home Office concede that the influence of gangs in the riots was minimal. The recent government gangs strategy was developed by the Home Office as a direct response to the summer riots, only to have the that development rationale destroyed by the Home Secretary admitting a month later that there was little evidence to suggests gangs were a motivating factor for the riots. Even very recently (December 2011) a range of academic research has reported that the effects of gangs was minimal in the riots, issues such as the police killing of Mark Duggan, anger against policing and the wider resentment caused by a decline in youth opportunities and prospects were the principal driving factors.
There is a clear pattern here of any horrific or violent issue that relates to young people being blamed on gangs, this gangs explanation allows politicians and police to discount a range of potential and possible complex issues, simplify the matter into a them against us scenario and condemn a whole group of already marginalised young people.
Unhappily none of this is a real surprise. Politicians are provided sound bites by speech writers and media advisors who are often seeking the most simple and powerful message to convey to the media and potential voters. Alas simple and powerful messages are often cliched and seek to tap into pre-existing stereotypes about groups and communities.
Policy and strategy that is then built upon these stereotypes is likely to re-enforce the negative issues that may have contributed to the violent behaviour in the first place.
There have been 131 teenage murders in London over the last 7 years (link to teenage murder page). With thankfully this year, to December 2011, being one of the lowest rate of teenage murders in the last seven years. Despite this we continually hear that the gang threat is increasing and that London is in the grip of a growing gang epidemic.
Lets remind ourselves that it is not that young people choose to hang around in groups, they do that as a natural part of being a young person, it is the behaviours that are expressed when they are together that is important.
Any strategy that tries to use the simplistic tag “anti-gang” is describing itself as simplistic, ill-considered and seeking to ramp-up fear and capitalise on negative emotional stereotyping.
Some Pointers for tackling Territorial Violence by Young People
1. While acknowledging concerns and issues, it is important that you do not create a state of fear and anxiety within young people for their own personal safety.
The vested financial interests of older professionals (and even those in the voluntary sector), can lead them to try and create a high level of anxiety and panic and to whip up media interest. Ramping up fear and threat levels is counter productive as it encourages young people to think that they should manage this threat by carrying weapons and being more violent themselves, you thus create a growing cycle of harm.
2. Identify the behaviour(s) that you specifically want to reduce, otherwise you will be prone to focusing on process or activity based indicators as your criteria for success. Again watch out for the professional vested interests, they will want you to focus on services provided, activities undertaken, people contacted, as this provides an ever increasing cycle of budget expansion.. By focusing on behaviour change outcomes you challenge yourself to think what success looks like and how it can be measured.
3. One of the reasons young people form groups for offending is to hide their individual identity within that group. By talking about a gang or group name you play into this de-individualisation process. Where ever possible re-assert how particular individuals have behaved, and the consequences for that behaviour. Talk about how different people benefit differentially in the group, some prosper others take the fall. It’s an old saying but it still resonates strongly – Divide and conquer.
4. Brutish and nasty systems tend to blame the victim for any harms they have suffered, and will regularly launch initiatives that increases the damage to the victim. This has been seen in areas such domestic violence, race attacks and human trafficking. The victim and perpetrator dynamic can often be confusing, but it is no excuse to slip into the “they deserve what they got” approach.
5……. to be continued