‘There’s No Such Thing As Gangs. Just People.’
Has anyone stopped to ask young people how they feel about how they are portrayed in the media? Antonia has, and she has used them as a mouthpiece to reveal how they feel when ‘gang’ culture and ‘youth’ culture are spoken about interchangeably, especially among the working class.
Through the years, I have witnessed first-hand, how mainstream media can be lazy and reductive when it comes to reporting and understanding young people – especially teenagers. The desire to rectify this isn’t at the top of the agenda, leaving young people feeling as though politics, current affairs, the working world and even education do not apply to them.
‘The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist.’
– Max Hastings, Daily Mail
I spoke to a group of teenagers, who for the purpose of this article, will be known as ‘Gang X’, to give them a chance to share their opinions. This group of teens, like me, has been surrounded by gang culture on the periphery of their environment without necessarily being involved in it themselves. During our conversation, we spoke about differences between gangs and communities. We discussed how certain groups are depicted similarly and dissimilarly, and how Gang X’s individual experiences come into play with this. The general sentiment was that media is out of touch and, time after time, fails to effectively engage with, and represent, young people accurately. I related to this so hard, having grown up and gone to school in a similar environment, reading articles about people I knew and instantly knowing the journalist was an outsider peering in and cutting corners for the sake of click-bait headlines.
The group expressed frustration at talked about as if self-expression and articulation is something strictly limited to adults. Not being able to vote until 18 discouraged me from engaging with politics, which impacted my route into higher education. I went to university the year fees increased threefold, but of course none of these decisions were made by me or my peers. We were just hit by the inevitable domino effect.
What Is A Gang?
The media tends to look to mafia movie portrayals of gangs when discussing how they work. Often, it’s the working class who get lumped in with this, defenceless youth who simply look like criminals by standing on a council estate with their hoods up.
Until recently the Home Office didn’t even have a definition of a gang. The G Word, (like the T Word,) has become amplified, to scare, to label teens from deprived communities troublemakers, to disempower the reality, that they simply have nothing to do.
‘When you’re told something enough you start to become it.’
– Gang X
The language often used to describe young people is often condemnatory and damaging. One of the guys in the workshop said, ‘when you’re told something enough you start to become it.’ The immediate association with youth violence and gang culture is problematic. ‘Most people don’t even know they’re in a gang until they’re told they are’, he added.
Members of Gang X told me that they define a gang as a ‘group of friends’ – everyone has a gang (a group of people they spend time with). One said ‘some gangs do good, some do bad stuff’ but just because you call yourself a gang, it doesn’t automatically mean that you all do negative things together. The group’s instinct to see beyond the reductive term made me do an internal fist pump into the air.
Look at the language our Prime Minister used in this speech, post London riots. He himself declares ‘war’ on gangs and gang culture. He describes it as a ‘criminal disease’, infecting streets and estates, as if young people are vermin he wants to ‘stamp’ out.
‘You’re more likely to get stopped by the police if you’re dark and from the ‘ghetto’ or rural areas.’
– Gang X
Something that stood out in this speech is the focus on ‘streets’ and ‘estates’. And it isn’t just Cameron who does this. The depiction of ‘gangs’ in mainstream media is almost always that of a working class background. Is it because the working class are easy targets? Too uneducated, defenceless and uncontrollable to bother doing anything to change this whether or not it is largely true. Other members of Gang X told me they automatically thought of St Pauls and Easton: working class areas of Bristol with large BME communities.
This made me think back to my own experiences of the London Riots back in 2011. That summer, you could physically feel the tension in the air. The riots was just the climax of all the frustrations felt by young people and the working class folk about their position in society. And of course, they got the blame for looting.
I asked Gang X why their peers may be attracted to joining a criminal gang. One told me that in school, he felt less of a chance to voice his opinions on youth-related issues. Seeing peers within his community as connected through schools and youth networks, joining a gang can be alluring from an outside perspective, especially when you are conditioned to think that this is a rite of passage. It could be the only spot available for them within society. For others, the pressure from peers can get all too much and once you’re in it, it’s almost impossible to back out.
‘True gangsters wear suits like the mafia, but in England we aspire to flashy brands and tracksuits.’
– Gang X
So, what are the effects and how are these deprived, working-class gang sob stories played out in day-to-day life? ‘The public are intimidated by us because of the stereotypes associated with us’, another told me. ‘I know I don’t cause trouble, even if I might match the description of the reported crime. You can’t judge me just on my appearance and not my personal character.’ Gang X reminded me that anyone can dress in a black tracksuit and look dangerous, because that’s the council estate gangster uniform.
Understandably, the group found being pigeon-holed patronising because it ends up deterring young people from dressing a certain way, so they don’t get stopped and searched. It also removes a sense of autonomy and self-expression as they are having to conform for the sake of freedom. This is a confusing concept, but this is what teens are facing, whilst going through the confusing stages of puberty, growing and trying to understand who they are in relation to the world. And those who choose not to conform and wear the hoodies are being conditioned to think that they should behave in the way the media expects them to.
As DuShane says to a copper in series 2 of Channel 4’s ‘Top Boy’, ‘People are obsessed with gangs. There’s no such thing as gangs. Just people’.