Just before Christmas last year, reports emerged of a "super gang" being formed out of Birmingham's warring street gangs. According to a "gang source", the city's top two criminal factions – the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew – had realised that stabbing each other in nightclubs probably wasn't the most efficient way to stack that paper, so had decided to put their differences aside, join forces with friendly gangs in other British cities and get the ball rolling on a nationwide crime syndicate.
The thought of a UK mafia made up of beleaguered Brummie gangsters and Clerkenwell crime families sparked my interest, so I headed to Birmingham to get a handle on the situation. Only, it didn't take long to realise there wasn't much of a situation to grasp. According to the drug dealers, former gang members and youth workers I spoke to, no "super gang" is being formed on the city's streets.
Furthermore, everyone I interviewed told me that the two gangs apparently leading the charge don't even really exist any more. While acknowledging the possibility that a limited number of professional villains once involved with the groups might be forging clandestine criminal links in other places, they all said the street gangs themselves are defunct, with their names living on as mere media shorthand for any kind of vaguely organised criminal activity.
One of the locals I spoke to is a 27-year-old heroin and crack dealer from North Birmingham who's familiar with the criminal scene.
"The only time I hear of the Burger Bar or Johnson's is when I read it in the newspaper. They're talking rubbish," he told me. "There's no super-gang, either – every time they sentence people [in court] from here they say they're gang members. There's always going to be [organised criminals], but gang culture like that is dying. They just want to create fear, but in fact the crime rate has gone down."
Another street level drug dealer was nonplussed when I asked him about a super-gang formed between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.
"There's no such thing," he said.
Since the murders of 17-year-old Letisha Shakespeare and 18-year-old Charlene Ellis in 2003, Birmingham police – in conjunction with community mediators – have successfully adopted tactics to reduce gang rivalries that often spring up for no real reason at all. These include working with the council to move gangster families out of their traditional strongholds, control orders for individuals inciting gang lifestyles and long prison sentences for offenders. Crime in Aston and Handsworth, areas that historically have suffered unusually ferocious spates of gang conflict, has been reduced.
A former member of the Burger Bar Boys I spoke to was also adamant that the two gangs don't exist any more, and pointed out that criminal street gangs are unstable and short-lived entities.
"Individuals linking up in different cities is nothing new," he said. "If you go to prison for five years, you're going to make a link. But [doing it] in the name of the gang is a load of crap. In all crews there are inevitably splits and rifts. In a crew of 30, there's probably only four or five guys who'll be doing the shooting. Those guys don't have time to make money. They see others making money and they think, 'Hang on.' They fight among their own, and then people have to move away. A large portion are not active in crime at all."§
As well as pressure from the police, which greatly increased in Birmingham after 2003, criminal street gangs are also replaced by younger groups looking to take dominance and make a name for themselves.
"The Burger Bar was a name that, at one point, was current in the early-90s 'cos of the youths who hung out at the Burger Bar Cafe, which was close to where everyone got their drugs from," the ex-gang member told me. "They saw the Yardies taking the piss and thought, 'Nah, they aren't doing that to us.'
"So they used the same level of violence or even worse. They pushed them out, and then after that a new set came in, but they didn't call themselves the Burger Bar Boys. After that there was a new crew with a different name again. The names don't live on. It was exactly the same with the Johnsons."
The problem, it seems, lies in confusing criminal street gangs with secretive organised crime networks. Although the two have informal links, street gangs are also very physically grounded to the communities they operate in. Street gang members might be engaged in petty crime or drug dealing, and they're often the ones responsible for horrific and senseless acts of public violence. They worry parents much more than crime-lord figures because they're open to their children. However, while they might make a more of a splash on the streets, their influence is confined to their respective local stomping grounds.
As the lead detective in the murder case of Rhys Jones – the 11-year-old shot by a 16-year-old street gang member in 2007 – said: "We are not talking about the Mafia here."
Investigative journalist Amardeep Bassey, who has written a book on Birmingham street gangs, said that active ex-members of the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew will now be experienced criminals intent on keeping a low profile.
He told me: "They are so far removed from the street scene, your average gangster wouldn't be aware of what's going on at the top."
Across Handsworth and Aston you'll hear Polish as well as patois these days. There is an array of Sikh temples, mosques, Victorian churches and evangelical halls. The area has undergone a rapid transformation, but still suffers from the same problems as any impoverished and diverse inner-city district – and is blessed with the same bustling, erratic energy, too.
As a deprived area with a high concentration of teenage boys, youth violence is a problem, says criminology lecturer and youth worker Craig Pinkney. Craig, who grew up in Handsworth and is part of the European Union Gangs Project, said incidents of aimless school kids getting into fights are often "boxed off as gang related".
He added that the use of obsolete street names with such a powerful resonance, and no relevance to the current situation in Birmingham, disturbs people.
"You're selling the community a false reality, and you're also scaring people. If you hear the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew, you automatically think of the killings," he said. "Grouping them together as a new emerging gang was like telling the community that the bogey man is back. I had parents, community members and even councillors messaging me. When I have that many parents frightened, that's something, as a youth worker, I have to take seriously."
Oakland's Youth Centre manager Desta Hall echoed Craig's sentiments.
"Parents are still extremely fearful," she said. "They don't want to let their children out when they hear things like that. It's affects us massively."
The combined total population of the two council wards that contain Handsworth and Aston is approximately 60,000, of which a tiny percentage will be involved in criminal gangs. Given that many people are already wary of teenagers – and that teenagers in poor multicultural areas know they're more likely to be confused with gang members – inaccurate catch-all terms such as "super gangs" can be damaging and encourage self-fulfilling prophecies, said Craig:
"We need to understand the power of labelling. Young people, when they hear the same thing over and over again – 'You're gang members, you're gang members' – unfortunately some young people believe that, and when they believe that they amplify it. It's a case of, 'Everyone thinks we're gang members, so we might as well be gang members.'"
Handsworth and Aston's recent history has been restive, with the most shocking incidents often gang related. During the riots that spread from London to the area in 2011, six people fire-bombed an Aston pub, laid in wait for the police and unsuccessfully attempted to shoot them. They were given sentences ranging from 12 to 30 years.
In Tottenham, the riots started when community anger boiled over after police shot Mark Duggan, who they knew to be carrying a gun. For many, including people in Birmingham, the incident exemplified the unjustified use of force inflicted on members of the black community by the police. The 2011 riots were the latest in a long line of riots affecting black British communities in inner-city areas, many of them linked to overt and institutional racism. Handsworth itself has seen five major riots since 1981.
Both Craig and the ex-Burger Bar Boys member I spoke to said many of the leaders fighting against black oppression who were involved in battles with the police in the 1980s had fathered prominent gang members from the 90s and early-2000s, with five dynastic criminal families known by authorities to be at the centre of much of the trouble. Despite this, they were explicit in pointing out that there were no political ideologies directing the lawlessness that these gangs had promoted.
As a relatively young British community – which faced not only racial prejudice and discrimination, but also the hierarchies of the class system – there is a sense that parts of Handsworth and Aston still feel vulnerable, alienated and judged. Racism is less of a problem than it used to be in the UK, but it's still an issue, as is inequality.
There's undoubtedly much work to be done in tackling the street gangs that have arisen, in part, because of such structural oppression. And a large chunk of that work is to engage with important issues that affect sensitive communities without resorting to culturally loaded, inaccurate and obsolete touchstones.
More stories about gangs: