I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer. I first became deeply interested in the topic of crime and policing in response to a wave of gang violence that was plaguing the area of North West London I call home.
I say this to illustrate that there are instances where gangs are the culprit. It isn’t my intention to delegitimise or trivialise those situations. However, in the words of an unnamed senior Met officer talking to Amnesty International: “Gangs are, for the most part, a complete red herring… fixation with the term is unhelpful at every level.”
That hasn’t stopped all major police forces and media outlets in the UK from fixating on gangs. Gang activity is often cited as the driving force behind the current explosion in serious youth violence and as a justification for ever more draconian, discriminatory forms of policing.
The gang discourse has been present for years in the way the state talks about black men in relation to crime. When I was growing up the emphasis was on Yardies (Jamaican gangsters). That paled in comparison to the intensity with which we fixate on gangs today.
If we take Amnesty international researchers, academics like Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke, and even senior police officers at their word then the evidence to back up this gang narrative simply doesn’t exist.
The rise of “gang” discourse can be quite straight forwardly traced back to the riots of 2011. In their aftermath, then Home Secretary Theresa May, desperately looking for anyone but herself to blame, incorrectly named gang activity as the main driver behind the violence.
That claim has been pretty thoroughly debunked today. But it set in motion the Home Office’s pledge to allocate extra funding to police forces who could show “gang problems”, and the implementation of the Gang Matrix.
The Gang Matrix is a database of around 4,000 individuals (figure from 2017) deemed to be either in a gang, at risk of engaging in gang activity, or somehow linked to gangs. This description already seems broad to the point of uselessness. It gets much worse when you take into account the fact the Met has no clear definition of what a gang actually is.
The Matrix takes a number of variables like prior offences, age at first contact with the police, patrol logs, social media activity, friendship groups, and even taste in music. Then applies a mathematical formula to that information, one that most of us (including the police who use it) don’t understand.
That is used to determine an individual’s so-called gang “risk score”.
Police forces are using more big data and sometimes even AI as tools for “predictive” policing. In theory it is supposed to help the police better allocate resources. In reality has proven to be deeply racist, class-discriminatory, and inaccurate.
78% of people on the Matrix are black, while black people are only responsible for only 27% of serious youth crime. According to an assessment seen by the Guardian, more than 40% of young people on the matrix from Haringey north London, were deemed to pose “zero” risk of causing harm. Some are assessed as being much more likely to be victims than offenders.
The Matrix doesn’t differentiate between victim and offender, or violent and non-violent. You’re just a name, a score, and the word gang. Once you are on the Matrix, it’s next to impossible to find out why you are on it or how to get off it.
The data in the Matrix doesn’t just stay there. It is shared with third parties such as the courts, the DWP, local authorities, educational intuitions, and even potential employers.
This sort of blanket data sharing is a criminal data breach, and has been called as much by Britain’s watchdog for data use the ICO. It has a chilling effect on peoples lives. According to a 2019 Wired article:
“One family received a letter warning they would be evicted from their home if their son didn’t stop his involvement with gangs – but he had been dead for more than a year. A disabled mother’s council-provided car was seized after her son – who acted as her carer and was registered to drive the car – was arrested without charge or further action.”
A boy who found himself on the Gang Matrix because a friend of his was arrested ended up being forced out of his mother’s house and put into a residential care home. He was later banned from attending the South London Learning Centre because he was on the Matrix.
This sort of collective punishment approach is made possible by the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014.
And it is just the tip of the iceberg. The sharpest end of collective punishment can be found in our Joint Enterprise laws.
“Joint enterprise” is the collective name for a number of laws that can see an individual convicted of a murder they didn’t commit and more alarmingly may not even have been present at. The idea is that if you had prior knowledge of and contributed in any way towards a murder, you are as culpable as the murderer themselves.
Joint enterprise laws have been a feature of our common law for hundreds of years. Their misuse in “gang-related” convictions has been making headlines since Boris Johnson as Mayor of London announced Operation Shield.
This was an initiative that would see all “gang members” punished if one carried out a violent crime. Remember, the parameters by which we identify gang activity are fundamentally flawed. And those flaws are just as prevalent in joint enterprise cases as they are in the Gang Matrix.
When Abdul Wahab Hafidah was murdered in Moss Side in 2016, for example, eleven young black boys were convicted of murder though only one stabbed the victim. Most of the defendants weren’t even present when the stabbing took place, but, because they were all, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in the chase and fight that proceeded the stabbing, they were all found guilty under joint enterprise laws.
The gang narrative featured heavily during court case but no one who actually knows the boys believes they were members of a gang. According to an article from the Guardian “The evidence of gang membership that prosecutors bring to bear in joint enterprise trials is often of questionable merit”.
In the Moss Side case, the prosecution alleged that some defendants were linked to the gang activity because of photographs from their social media accounts in which they made what the prosecution claimed were “gang hand signs”. DCI Terry Crompton, who led the murder investigation, said this evidence represented “self-admission” of gang membership”.
According to the sister of one of the boys, they were just emulating their favourite rappers.
The Guardian article continued: “The 13 defendants were not a particularly close group, but it was easy to find links between them. Moss Side has been the heart of Manchester’s African-Caribbean and African communities since the 1950s, and it was easy for police to identify social or family connections between the defendants, which were then characterised as gang associations.”
There are huge racial disparities in both the use of joint enterprise convictions and the justification of those convictions under the guise of gang activity. According to Clarke and Williams, almost two-thirds of people convicted under joint enterprise laws reported alleged gang activity being cited by the prosecution during their trial. 78.9% of ethnic-minority joint enterprise prisoners are described as gang members by prosecutors, compared to only 38.5% of whites.
In fact, young black men are responsible for only a small-ish minority of serious youth violence cases in the UK. And less than 5% of serious youth violence was linked to gang activity in 2015-2016.
This sort of thing is serious institutional racism, and leads to disproportionate numbers of young black men being locked away.
There are no simple solutions here. However, we need to abolish the Gang Matrix. We need to seriously limit and regulate the use of joint enterprise convictions. We need to be hyper-critical of the “gangs” discourse. We need to follow through on the recommendations of the Lammy review: bit.ly/lammyr.
We need to abolish collective punishment and also seriously regulate the police’s use of data and predictive policing.
Akemia Minott, a youth worker who has known most of the boys convicted of the Moss Side murder for years says: “I don’t understand how the police and the courts can justify themselves. It’s not a game. This shit’s not a game, this is real people’s lives.
“These lives aren’t less valuable than yours, these lives aren’t inferior to yours, or insignificant in comparison to yours.
“So why is the criminal justice system of a supposedly civilised and advanced country able to use certain people as just pawns in their game of chess?”