The secret life of Britain's violent gangs

Journalist Gavin Knight spent two years studying youth gangs in Britain. In a new book, published next month, he lifts the lid on a dangerous and often tragic existence.

‘Kids were getting killed in London,’ says Gavin Knight, ‘It was reported in the press, but all felt a bit distant. I wanted to hear the human stories behind the killings.’

The result is Hood Rat, a book sure to shock, written after Knight spent two years in the murky and often frightening world of gangland Britain in Glasgow, Manchester and London. What he discovered was an urban battleground with no rules and hardened youths who’d prefer to be anywhere but home.

‘In Glasgow,’ says Knight, ‘I heard about a child of seven who stabbed his father in the eye. It was in self-defence. That boy then grew up to be a notorious robber and wife-beater. He used a shotgun in cold-blooded executions. And now his son, aged 19 is also a robber and has his father’s shooter – like it’s a family heirloom.’

Many gang members grew up in a world of domestic violence, exclusion from school and without male role models, claims Knight.

He asked one gang member to name his role models. ‘Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela,’ he said. ‘But they don’t live round here.’

‘Gangs are about identity and belonging,’ says Knight. ‘They’re a family for those who don’t have a family at home.’ They’re also about protection – but gang protection is a two-edged sword.

You may never be mugged on your estate if you belong to a gang; you’ll be safe on your territory.

But away from your patch you’re the enemy and vulnerable; and so is your sister, girlfriend or mother. ‘Families used to be off limits,’ says Knight, ‘but that is no longer so. There’s no code of honour now. And rape is used as a weapon.’

Gangs use people brutally. Older kids use younger kids, who are eager to impress. They’ll be told to carry drugs, collect debts, stash firearms and even go to jail as part of their initiation.

For girls seeking membership, it can be even more savage. Knight heard of ‘rape initiation’ for an 11-year-old girl. Invited back to her boyfriend’s home, she discovered two other boys waiting for her. What followed didn’t feel like a choice. Knight was also told of ‘line ups’, when girls are required to perform sexual acts on a group of boys. ‘These girls are not empowered in any way and that’s exploited.’

Toxic

Karyn McCluskey, a policewoman in Glasgow, one of Europe’s most violent cities, says ‘the group dynamics are the really toxic thing.’

Knight agrees. ‘Every gang member is obsessed with the idea of respect.’ And in groups, to gain respect, reasonable people will do terrible things.

Some say they’re not criminals but children in desperate need. Others feel that while they kill themselves, in gang-on-gang crime, why should anybody care?

You Decide

  1. Are gangs more about young people's needs than young people's violence?
  2. Have you ever been influenced by a group to do something you regret?

Activities

  1. Increasingly, those guilty of violent crimes are asked to face the victim or their families. Establish your characters and the crime committed and then role play the meeting between victim and perpetrator. What is there to be said?
  2. The Government has asked you to suggest five things to be done about the teenage gang culture. After research (See 'Become an expert'), what are your recommendations?

Some People Say...

“No child can be a criminal.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How did Knight get his information?
He spent two years with police forces as well as following heroin addicts, youth workers and charities working in the field.
Are gangs all about drugs?
One recent report found that drug dealing was not the defining activity but more an individual pursuit and that gang violence was more likely to be linked to disputes about love and friendship than drug dealing.
But gangs protect you?
Not always. Contrary to the image of gangs offering loyalty and protection, researchers found a large degree of in-gang conflict was caused by jealousy and debt.
Is territory important?
Yes. In Glasgow, it's marked with graffiti; those who stray outside their area risk attack from a rival gang. Intelligence work revealed there were 170 gangs, with 3,500 gang members aged from around 11 to 23.

Word Watch

Heirloom
Something passed down through family generations. Usually something like an antique or piece of jewellery.
Domestic violence
Violence committed in the home.

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