70 youngsters died at the hands of gangs in the UK in 2008, and the police have identified more than a 170 street gangs in London alone. These gangs control their turf through the use of violence as they look to maximise their profits from the growing trade in crack cocaine, while their members carry knives as fashion accessories and a prison term is seen as a badge of honour. Gang culture is a growing problem in our inner cities and it’s spreading here from the United States. Britian’s youth is bombarded with images of the gangsta lifestyle, from the ostentatious cribs of west coast rap stars to hard-hitting crime dramas such as The Wire, and they’re picking up some very bad habits.

So if the problem largely originates in America, what can we learn from our cousins experiences across the pond? The American city that’s most synonymous with gangs is Los Angeles, and the gangs that are most synonymous with LA are the Crips and the Bloods, but that’s only half the story. First, you can’t just put a black face on LA’s gang problem, and second, that problem has never gone away.

When I set out to write my second novel, Blood Law, I had some knowledge of gang culture, but in the course of my research I was shocked to find out just how entrenched this culture has become in the daily lives of many Angelenos. But what drives young people to sign up as gangbangers in the first place? Why are so many kids so keen to engage in a criminal lifestyle that offers little more than incarceration or a one-way trip to the morgue as a final reward? For the most part, it’s the fatal lack of hope that causes gangs to flourish. The abject poverty in LA’s slums and barrios results in a breeding ground that’s ripe for despair, and when you factor in the breakdown of the family unit, the result is a generation of young minds that can see no way out of their downtrodden situation other than joining a gang. A hustler’s lifestyle can look pretty sweet to a ghetto kid – fast cars, fast women, easy money – when the only other career choice is minimum wage at McDonalds, its not hard to see why so many fall victim to temptation.

But financial considerations are not the only ones that drive kids into the arms of the gangs, as fear also plays a vital role. Many kids weigh up the danger of being unaffiliated, and thus unprotected, in their neighbourhood, and come to the conclusion that this danger far outweighs the risks of gangbanging itself. Kids are afraid to walk to school because they know they have to cross gang territory to get there – some even wear their neighbourhood colours just to feel safe. When you live in gang territory you’ve got a target painted on your chest whether you’re affiliated or not, so why choose to stand alone when there’s a crew of well-armed street veterans willing to back you up?

Joining a gang often involves being ‘jumped in’ – a process where existing members hand out a beat down to the newcomer to test his dedication. Some kids volunteer for this physical abuse while others are the victims of unprovoked attacks, and recruits can also be asked to prove themselves by committing a crime such as robbery, rape, or even murder. Once in the gang, you’re in it for life, and from that moment on you have to protect your block no matter what, while any offence against you or your brethren will command a swift and even bloodier reprisal. An eye for an eye doesn’t exist anymore – in the modern age it’s all about escalation.

Black gangs have been around in LA since the 1940’s when they formed to defend their communities against white violence. Immigration from the south during World War II swelled the original black ghetto of Central Avenue and Watts to breaking point, and as the black residents challenged restrictive housing laws for the right to move into nearby white communities, resentment from whites grew, eventually resulting in white flight to the suburbs. At this point, the gangs started to turn on each other, and disputes were handled with fists or rudimentary weapons such as knives or tire irons. Murders were rare, and the 6 gang-related deaths that occurred in LA in 1960 were considered extremely high.

Fast forward to 2006, when there were 269 gang-related killings in LA, and you can see the heavy price of this escalation. But it’s not black on black crime that’s solely behind this recent set of figures, as LA’s gang culture has shifted and a disturbing new trend has become apparent. As the Latino population of LA grows at a rapid rate so does the number of Latino gangs, and as they strive to expand their territory, it’s the black gangs that are being forced to cede ground. Hate crimes against black people have surged, and just being black in the wrong neighbourhood can get you killed, whether you’re a gangbanger or a citizen, male or female, young or old, your life is in danger simply because of the colour of your skin. The city is in danger of falling into the deadly grip of a full-on race war.

And why is territory so important? Because whoever controls the territory controls the drug sales that occur within it. Gangs are the main retail-level distributors of almost all illegal drugs, they create a market for them, distribute them, and sell them, in short, it’s a multi-million dollar business. Drugs are the currency of the street and guns are the negotiating tools, and with many of the Hispanic gangs tied to the virulently racist Mexican Mafia, orders have come down from on high to ‘green light’ (i.e. mark for death) any and all blacks.

The authorities response has been to crack down on gang membership. In recent times they’ve hired more officers, toughened up sentences, imposed stricter gun laws and gang injunctions, and even took the controversial step of identifying and targeting the city’s eleven most dangerous gangs. The results have been encouraging, as gang related homicides fell to 216 in 2007 then to 167 in 2008, the latter being the lowest number seen since the turn of the millennium. But veteran police officers are quick to warn against becoming complacent. The city’s history is littered with anti-gang initiatives and while the gang problem has been beaten down before, it has never gone away. While a battle may have been won, the outcome of the war is still in doubt, but at least the residents of LA now have something to cling to – hope.

So with gang culture on the rise in the UK’s inner cites, is there a chance that we could end up with a problem like that seen in LA? Scare mongering? Let’s reconsider the facts listed at the start of this article: 70 youngsters died at the hands of gangs in the UK in 2008, and the police have identified more than 170 street gangs in London alone. These gangs control their turf through the use of violence as they look to maximise their profits from the growing trade in crack cocaine, while their members carry knives as fashion accessories and a prison term is seen as a badge of honour. Does any of this sound familiar? It’s like a flashback to LA’s infamous South Central district in the early 1980’s, right about the time that the gang problem exploded onto the streets to be followed by three decades of bloodshed.

We need to act now before it’s too late – social institutions such as school, youth groups, the community, and above all, the family unit, need to be strengthened, the air of hopelessness caused by abject poverty needs to be addressed, and law enforcement needs to learn from the twenty-year case study that our American cousins have provided. LA’s gang problem may yet provide a salutary lesson for us all.

Blood Law by Steven Hague is publshed by Mira

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