Everyone in Britain Is Getting Nastier
The last time we spoke to Graham Johnson, he was surrounded by burning bus stops and screaming teenage girls, and he was bleeding from the head after being hit with a stray chunk of concrete. That was for our article "Caaaaam on then, you faggot cunts" [The War Effort: Not Going Great Issue] where we all found ourselves in the middle of a right royal riot. Since then, things have calmed enough for Graham to release his new book Gang War, which is about the heavily armed child gangs battling for control on the streets of Liverpool. Since Graham is our go-to guy when we want to know where and how things will be kicking off next, we picked up the phone and spoke to him about it..
VICE: Hey Graham. You've spoken to us about Liverpool's child gangs before. Why did you first start writing about them?
Graham Johnson: I was working as a crime reporter for the Sunday Mirror and the News of the World. Initially, I had more to do with the people higher up in the food chain. But around 2005 I noticed a lot of the young gangs on the streets were becoming more powerful. They were getting angry and aggressive and they were armed to the teeth.
So I guess it was that winning combo of youth and sociopathic violence, right?
What it was, really, was that they just looked totally mad. 50 of them at a time would be hanging out on their estates dressed in state of the art all-weather wear; in brands like North Face and Lowe Alpine, always in black. All of them are aged between 14 and 17, and while I was with them I saw them armed with SA80s – you know the British army assault rifles – and bipod mounted machine guns like from Rambo. And they had IEDs.
IEDs? Don't the Taliban use those to blow up British tanks in Afghanistan?
Yeah. There are two types they use – low explosive ones, which are slightly more dangerous than fireworks. The young kids make those themselves to scare people. Then there are proper IEDs, which they buy off older gang members. They're sheet metal wrapped around explosives and shrapnel. I remember one lad telling me how he'd watched one blow the door off a house.
Whose house was it?
The older gang members are being terrorised by these young lads. They've had to put steel blast doors on their houses to keep them out. What it showed was that the younger lads, who'd always been the weakest, were now taking power from the older, more organised drugs cartels. They weren't scared of hierarchy any more, because everyone's got a gun. The guns are democratising the gangs. They do know, though, that they need to fall in with the hierarchy in some respects, cause otherwise the business doesn't get done. The hierarchies can give them access to big drug deals, and the chance to work in Spain and Amsterdam.
James 'Pancake' Taylor
So there are a lot of 'rising stars' out there in gangland at the moment?
That's it. They just tear through the ranks. There's this one lad called James 'Pancake' Taylor. He's like a Christ figure amongst these gangs, because he's risen from being a Scouse street punk to a European overlord in a matter of months. It used to take you years to do that.
Have you noticed any other changes?
Yeah, there's more emphasis on the sexual side of things. Their mobile phones are full of footage of them and their mates having sex with these girls. They just look like gang rapes to me. Or, at the very least, exploitation – the girls would usually be high or drunk. I started to see adverts in local papers saying "My daughter was raped the other night, does anyone know anything about it?" It was part of the culture and I found that difficult to deal with.
Why do you think they're behaving like that?
Me or you growing up, we'd chat up a girl in a club, or you'd take her to the pictures. These lads aren't interested in that. They come from crime families, some of their parents are smackheads, so they just want to take and they're aggressive about it. They've got no idea how to chat up a girl, so they'll just pay for a prostitute – which they're all into at 15, 16 – or "smash" these poor girls.
Another change has been within the police. They've got militarised anti-gang units. The Matrix in Liverpool, Excalibur in Manchester, Territorial Support Groups in London. They're all ex-squaddies from Iraq and Afghanistan, armed to the teeth.
So everyone's getting nastier, basically.
Yeah, it's like an arms race. It's exciting for me as a writer, but it frightens me.
Britain doesn't have much history of kids going at each other with guns, does it? Our gangs have always tended to prefer a good, old-fashioned mass brawl, usually armed with an arsenal of ad hoc weapons like shivs, bricks, tennis racquets, pipes off the ground, etc. So why the sudden change?
I've heard it blamed on video games, rap music, rock music, schools, absent dads, benefits, TVs. But the main reason is the extreme form of capitalism in this country. In all the places this is happening – parts of London, Liverpool, Manchester – a 'black' criminal economy has grown in tandem with the 'white' legal economy. What we're seeing is the product of 30 years of black economy evolution. Liverpool has one of the biggest drug-dealing cartels in Europe now, if not the world. For these young kids, it's the classic Scarface thing – it's so much quicker to attain status and wealth if you buy into this illegal economy than if you play by the rules. There are head shops on estate shopping parades now. On one side of the shop is the drug-dealing paraphernalia, on the other is the Scarface paraphernalia.
That's pretty cliched though, right?
It is, but they've got their Scarface posters on the wall, and then next to that they'll do drawings of guns. So their rooms will be full of pictures of Colt Commandos or AK-47s.
Guns as the new rock stars. The young man's new pin-up.
That's it yeah. Listen: they're like Mike Tyson, they've got no idols, they don't go to the match, they think all footballers are losers, they're just interested in guns and they love it. That's all they talk about.
If the gangs of Manchester, Liverpool and London had a fight, who'd win?
I don't know who would win. No one would. It'd either be a standoff or a bloodbath because they've all got guns. They're quite clever too. They'd probably just see it as an opportunity to do business together.
How easy was it to speak to them? Did they hate you at first?
I went down to the estate one day, jumped out of my car and walked up to them. I was fearful, because a few reporters had been threatened and a few bashed up in their cars. It was after Rhys Jones got shot, so there was a lot of tension. But once I broke the ice with them I was fine.
Taken from Mersey Infanticide, shot by Stuart Griffiths
Did you witness any moments of tenderness or compassion while you were with them? Or are they really the hopeless sociopaths everyone assumes them to be?
Lots of tenderness, compassion, empathy. They used to have a caravan parked up on the estate where they'd go to smoke pot. They'd put Scarface on in the background and we'd talk. I remember there were these two rock hard brothers, and one day the older one came over to the caravan. He'd got shot in the arse. He had a line of cocaine on the way to the hospital the next day, which is a street anaesthetic for them. After he'd checked out he was riding around on this bike with this arse wound, when a third brother turned up, who was gay. He worked as a barman in Spain and he came over with his gay mate. They were accepted into the gang community right away and no one thought anything of it. I didn't expect that. For them to just let this lad live his gay, glamourous life in Spain and not have any judgements about it. To me, that showed they have compassion and tolerance.
I remember seeing one of their mothers, too, who was mentally ill. She'd shuffle around the estate in her pyjamas, and they were really protective of her, the gang members.
So they are human after all.
In broader terms, they just want what we do. Warmth, friends, freedom – because they don't get any freedom, y'know? They're so oppressed by the militarised police, and adults hate them. And adults fear them. So there's very little freedom.
I guess what you're talking about is a kind of emotional freedom. I guess the freedom they lack is the ability to engage with other people on a level setting.
Yeah, I suppose the product of that frustration is what the book's about – where does this go when the militarised police can't contain them? Do you have the army on the streets? If there are any riots in the future, I don't think the police will have any qualms about deploying all this military equipment they've bought – the Jankels [armoured personnel carriers], the Heckler and Koch machine guns, the BAE spy drones.
I guess it's one thing for the police to shoot at the estate gangs. Society has no trouble seeing them as criminals. But if street protests and demonstrations keep getting more popular, where do the lines between career gang member and career civil disobedient begin to blur? What happens if the police start firing on the middle classes?
I don't think they'd do that. I don't think they'd fire on anarchists rioting at the Royal Wedding. But I think they'd definitely fire if there was a riot on an estate in Woolwich, Plumstead, Norris Green or wherever. Would troops fire on their own people? Definitely. We're seeing it all around the world right now, and it goes back 180 years ago to the Chartist Movement. If it's what the elite have to do to retain power, they'll do it.
That's the worst case scenario, I guess.
Yep. The army comes onto the streets, private security contractors come in. The kids on the estates are shut off and away in gang exclusion zones. It's all about the counter-insurgency tactics solders are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq. It doubles as training if hostilities ever build up to anything near that level back home in Britain. It's not just me saying that, either – there are a couple of professors, academics in the North East who are saying that's where it's going.
How far are we from that?
It could just be around the corner, with the cuts and the tension building up on the estates. The next Brixton or Toxteth or Handsworth, the next wave of urban disturbance could be that scenario. And it wouldn't be a pretty thing.
Gang War by Graham Johnson is available now in eBook format through all good etailers and in paperback format at www.mainstreampublishing.com.