The blight of gangs
Young lives are being damaged by violence
GANGS of youths have been squaring up to each other for generations, but in Scotland, particularly in the west of Scotland, the aggression fuelled by a toxic mix of hate, knives, alcohol and drugs remains too often lethal. The 300 gangs that operate in Scotland, 167 of them in Strathclyde (not just Glasgow, as Iain Duncan Smith claimed recently), are usually territorial, the 21st-century manifestation of the atavistic urge which drives young males to defend their small stake in the planet when nothing more positive intervenes in the crucial teenage years.
Time-honoured diversionary tactics such as youth clubs and football have the immediate effect of taking youngsters off the streets, and for that reason alone they should be encouraged, but it is now clear that something more is required. Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Minister, describes young people following on from their fathers and their grandfathers in a gang culture. That is a particularly bleak assessment 40 years on from the intervention of the entertainer Frankie Vaughan, who persuaded rival gangs in Easterhouse to lay down their arms and join his boys’ club. The police repeated the process last summer, and reduced weekend gang fights in Easterhouse by 50% when youngsters put aside their rivalries to take part in gorge-walking and go-karting. If there is a glimmer of hope in this continuing cycle of violence, it is that gang fights in Scotland tend to be based on particular territo- ries rather than being linked to organised crime. That can be seen as an advantage, but it also means that in certain areas youngsters are adversely affected by gang rivalries even if they are not particularly active in a gang. In some cases, it can prevent them accessing services or taking a job which is situated in a rival gang’s fiefdom.
Even those who escape physical attacks, horrifying knife wounds, or a criminal record, however, have their young lives blighted by gang violence. Some realise too late that they have made so many enemies that they are not safe outside their own area; football needs to be combined with understanding the destructiveness.
Thirty years of experience in working with gangs has led the police to conclude that across Scotland 70% of young people will have no involvement with gangs or violence, a hard core of 5% will be actively involved and the remaining 25% will be on the periphery and could go either way. As one police officer puts it: “By the age of 18 they will either have a job and a girlfriend or they will be inside.”
That group should benefit from the £200,000 announced by Mr MacAskill last month which will go to groups offering diversions designed to break the cycle. If that is combined with the pledge of Steve House, Chief Constable of Strathclyde, to use the full force of the law to “de-glamorise and disrupt” gang violence, it may finally begin to sever gang culture’s deep and pernicious roots.