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We Asked Some Former Gang Members for the Truth About London's Gangs

A recent article implied all gang members in the capital are black or Asian teenagers – which didn't seem right. So we asked some experts for their expert opinions.

by Nick Chester
05 November 2015, 12:13pm

Some young men with guns (Photo: police handout)

"London in Peril from Drug Gang Turf Wars" read a headline on Sky News a couple of weeks ago. Usually when an article title implies that a major city is facing imminent doom due to anything short of an earthquake or a substantiated terror attack, I file it away in a little box in my brain marked "fear-mongering bullshit" and read no further.

However, this time curiosity got the better of me and I clicked through. The content was nothing new – "crime is out of control", "you should live in constant fear of gangs", "do not, for any reason, leave your home", etc, etc – but what did catch my eye was an accompanying map that purported to show all of the gangs in East London. These gangs all had names like "Hindle House Thugs", "E3 Bloods" and "True Tredegar Thugs", along with their own colour codes.

Given that a gang is just a group of people who commit crime together, was this report trying to imply that the majority of criminal activity in London is carried out by American-style street gangs with hip-hop-inspired names and gang colours? It didn't seem particularly plausible to me – but then again, I'm no authority on London's gangs.

This map did the rounds in numerous different major newspapers and media outlets. Several papers published extended versions, claiming to show the territory of every gang in London. Googling the gangs, most appeared to be predominantly black or Asian, and made up of teenagers. Boroughs like Havering and Bexley with fewer minorities apparently have no gangs whatsoever, so presumably have no drug-related crime or robberies either, unless they're being carried out by either lone criminals or commuters.

It seemed to me the map represented the prejudices of the compiler, which only saw a group of criminals as a gang if they modelled themselves on black American street gangs. I decided to get in touch with former London gang members to get their opinions. Here's what they had to say.

VICE: What was your involvement in gangs?
Paul: I was in a gang who called ourselves the East London Gang. We carried knives and knuckle dusters, did street robberies and nicked safes and other things out the back of shops. By the time we reached 18, we'd become an organised unit and were earning up to a grand a day from credit card fraud. Between the age of 18 and 21 I became the leader, but then I tried heroin, and one year later I'd lost five stone, stopped brushing my teeth and my gang wanted nothing to do with me. I've now been clean for nine years and give talks to kids about the dangers of drugs and knives.

According to the gang map, there are entire boroughs of London that don't have any gangs. How accurate is that?
It might be true when you go further afield into rural areas outside London, but within places like Central and East London, it's a load of rubbish. In Havering, which is the borough I'm from, there were gangs 20 years ago, and the gang situation in London is worse now than it was then.

Most of the gangs on the list seem to be predominantly black and Asian. Is that how things really are?
I work with lots of kids in gangs to try to stop them from taking drugs and carrying knives, and I'd say you get a range. There's black gangs, white gangs, gangs with both black and white boys, Asian gangs – and then you've got the Eastern European gangs.

Have most of the gangs you've come across got official names and gang colours?
I think most give themselves a tongue-in-cheek name, but that's not really important. All that counts to the gang is that if there's trouble, they'll all be there.

Do you think most gangs in London are made up of teenagers?
There's involvement from older adults in terms of getting rid of stolen goods, sorting out drugs and providing financing.

In your opinion, do articles like the ones these maps appeared in show gangs in an accurate light?
I think they actually show the situation as being less bad than it is.

"Mr E"

What was your involvement in gangs?
"Mr E": I was in a firm that did a lot of fraud, was involved with drugs and sent ecstasy over to Italy in bulk. I associated with football gangs as well. Some of the lads I grafted [committed crime] with were Millwall, and some were West Ham.

Football gangs aren't mentioned at all on the gang map. Are they still prominent in the city today?
Of course, but you won't see a lot of the stuff they do on TV, because MPs don't want their boroughs to be shown in a bad light.

According to the gang map, there are entire boroughs that don't have any gangs. Would you say that's accurate?
No, you can find gangs in every area.

Most of the gangs on the map seem to be predominantly black and Asian. How does that square up with your experiences?
In terms of drugs, most of the crews in London that I've come into contact with have been Jamaicans, but there are lots of gangs of white lads doing credit card fraud and things like that, and lots in football firms.

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Have most of the gangs you've come across had official names and gang colours?
That's mainly the young lads, and they're messing it up for themselves because they're bringing their firms on top. We didn't have a crew name, because we tried to keep under the radar. It's mostly lads at the bottom of the ladder that are into having a gang name. The people at the top live off their own reputations, so they don't need a name for their crews.

Are most gangs in London really made up of teenagers?
Nah, you get a lot of younger lads, but a lot of older ones as well.

Do you think that media articles like the ones these maps appeared in show gangs in an accurate light?
When gangs are shown in the media, it's almost like a game. Kids look at things like that and it puts a seed in their head that grows and takes them down a bad path.

Justin

What was your involvement in gangs?
Justin: I created a graffiti gang called WZ, which stood for Warriorz. We started trouble with graffiti gangs and other street gangs, using fists, knives, whatever.

There aren't any graffiti gangs on the map. Are there still violent graffiti gangs operating in London?
Yeah, there's a gang called SFL, which stands for Scum for Life, who are a graffiti gang and general street gang.

According to the map, there are entire boroughs that don't have any gangs. How accurate is that?
I think there's probably at least one gang in every borough.

Most of the gangs on the map seem to be predominantly black and Asian. How does that square up with your experiences?
We were on the move around London a lot, and came across gangs that were black, Asian, white, whatever.

Do you think that media articles like the one these maps appeared in show gangs in an accurate light?
They're just another way to sell stories and breed fear.

Sam

What was your involvement in gangs?
Sam: My gang involvement included robbery, graffiti, fighting, drugs and theft. I chose to get out because a revelation of the purpose of my life was made clear through many spiritual experiences.

Okay. According to the map, there are entire boroughs that don't have any gangs. Would you say that's accurate?
Every area in London probably has a gang. Whether they're recognised or not is the question. Many of the recognised gangs are those who are loud in their community, and who fight and commit crime both in secret and in public to be talked about the next day.

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Most of the gangs on the map seem to be predominantly black and Asian. Does that reflect the reality of the city's gangs?
Not entirely. There are many black and Asian gangs, and gangs with mixes of both, but there are also a lot of gangs with mostly white members. Many of London's white gangs seem to be football firms, which are rarely reported by the media, probably because many of the fights are away from the community. If it's not in the media, it doesn't mean it's not happening.

Do you think it's realistic that the majority of gang-related crime in London is carried out by gangs with official names and gang colours, like the ones on the map?
Yes. But saying that, there are many unreported crimes happening every day, and a lot of these crimes are not being committed by the teen gangs we see all over London. Many of these youths lack experience in stealth gang involvement, so they're known in the community and are the most likely to get caught for crimes. There are bigger and smarter gangs who wear the right things and say the right things, but are secretly involved in gang-related activities.

Do you think the media depicts gangs in an accurate light?
The media is partly to blame for putting across the idea that gangs only come in the form of blacks and Asians, which is not true. As mentioned already, just because we see it and hear about it, it doesn't mean it's the only thing happening in our city.

Thanks to Stuart Campbell for putting me in touch with Mr E. Stuart has a book coming out about his own criminal exploits. You can book Paul for talks here, check out Justin's book about his time as a gang leader here, and listen to the music that Sam's been making since quitting the gang lifestyle here.

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Tagged:
crime
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London
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gang members
East London Gang
gang map
Hindle House Thugs
E3 Bloods