"Gangs" get a bad press. The overused noun is now synonymous with the evils of youth culture and its incumbent violence, drugs, guns and sexual misconduct. There is a lot of rooftop shouting and table banging about the breakdown of teenage society: poor education, dysfunctional families, no respect for the older generations. "Wasn't like that when I was young." This dim view is, at best, misguided. At worst, clouded in denial and cushioned in the fiction of the non-existent "good old days". Societies throughout history have each had their share of unlawful, out-of-control youth.
We hear a lot about an epidemic rise in youth crime. The truth is, youth crime has always been a part of society. It is how society deals with it that dictates its trajectory. Much of the reported rise in youth crime is in direct relation to the huge population increase in recent decades and, crucially, in the way the media choose to report youth crime.
I put the blame for the de-meaning of the word gang squarely on the money hungry, narrative-driven media to ramp up our fear of the fiction of "gangs dominating every street corner". The issue is adrenalised in drama, documentaries and rolling news by repeatedly declaring "gang culture" as the cause of teenage societal meltdown. Gang culture is the widely accepted term used directly in connection with youth violence.
I've been working with young people both in and out of prison for more than 20 years, and what's clear is that gangs in and of themselves are not the problem. I was part of a gang in school and it was all about belonging to a group – it had nothing to do with fighting other gangs. It's when gangs start using violence to control turf and territory and make money that we need to take action. Young people join gangs because it is a crucial part of growing up. Gangs do not always revert to violence. If there are positive, older role models involved with these gangs, they can hold the boundaries essential to stopping them spiralling out of control and turning violent and crime driven. This is key.
Young people are looking for boundaries, and these are explored in gangs and in their social interactions with each other and people outside the gang circle. They will push the boundaries until they reach a wall they are either unable or unwilling to break down. This is an essential part of the process of growing up and becoming an active, law abiding member of society. The proliferation of violence in so many gangs in the UK is largely down to the absence of positive older role models holding the boundary line of acceptable behaviour. Without them, gang culture becomes toxic, loses its moral compass and often resorts to violence in dealing with power struggles and internal conflicts.
But there are many organisations working positively with young people in gangs and helping them through very difficult times in their lives, helping them through the often tough transition of evolving into productive, responsible members of society.
Having stopped my own death slide into crime, drugs and violence, I now choose to balance out media driven, moral "gang" panic with the many positive stories of reconciliation, rehabilitation and community reintegration that I hear about pretty much every day (see my previous blogs).
For me, gang is simply another word for tribe. In essence, gangs are good for society. In a healthy state, they are about the formation of groups that operate under ethical and moral codes of conduct upheld and enforced by the elders of the community. If these codes are based in a fundamental respect for society and the individual, there's absolutely nothing wrong with gangs. If the elders in the gangs have been supported and steered into responsible adulthood and are able in turn to guide and contain the fiery energy of future, younger gang members, society will be a far richer, more connected and ultimately less fearful place.
Caspar Walsh taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2011/nov/10/gangs-good-society-youth-crime