European experiences with street violence: not gangs but troublesome youth groups

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Insights from the seminar of the EU Reco Street Violence Project, Paris, November 29 2011

Do European cities have a gangs problem? Cities have different answers to this question, but the answer also depends on what we mean by “gangs”. Most European cities consider that “gangs” as portrayed in the famous musical West Side Story, are, if not fiction, very remote. In general, they consider that such gangs exist only in North and Central America. On the other hand, many European cities are confronted to incivilities and conflicts related to the use of public space, as well as to violence and crime linked to groups of young people. Furthermore, some European medias use the word “gangs” when they report on acts committed by groups of young people that are not necessarily organised, but are rather spontaneous gatherings. In any case, even youth groups that are somewhat structured are rarely comparable to organisations such as the Sharks or the Jets.

This contradiction between the fact that some cities are really confronted to problems linked to youth groups and their belief that they do not have any gangs problem has been termed as the “Eurogang paradox” by researchers of the Eurogang project. Elmar Weitekamp, co-author of The Eurogang Paradox: Street Gangs and Youth Groups in the U.S. and Europe (2000), considers that it is essential to agree on a definition of what constitutes a gang. Like his colleague Marwan Mohammed, Weitekamp considers that  the word “gang” conveys a very negative bias. Including within the Eurogang project, which is an American-European research network, scholars had a hard time finding a common denominator. In order to describe more accurately the reality on this side of the Atlantic, European researchers coined the expression “troublesome youth groups”.

This is why the “EU Reco Street Violence” project invited European experts and Efus member cities to discuss “street violence” with the project partners.  The project deliberately uses the broad term “street violence” to take into account the diversity of phenomena that occur in European cities. Its aim is to gather analyses, recommendations and practices on all sorts of phenomena of violence committed by groups of young people in the public space that are considered important by European cities. Nevertheless, “gangs” or “gang-like groups” are one of the core issues of the project and it was therefore an important theme of the seminar “What conclusions can be drawn from European experiences with street violence?”, which took place on November 29, 2011 in the city hall of the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The project partners had invited European experts and cities member of Efus to discuss issues of street violence and the project of a database.

Keynote speakers were Marwan Mohammed, researcher at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs of Paris, France, and Elmar Weitekamp, professor of criminology at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Other key points of the seminar were the presentations of the cities of Mons (Belgium) and Manchester (United Kingdom) and the Catalonia region (Spain).

Gangs in France – between family, school and the street

Gangs are quite often mentioned by French politicians and media, explained Marwan Mohammed, even though there is little record of their activity or existence. According Paris Police data (Préfecture de police – service d’investigation transversale), 52 gangs are currently registered. This figure can be compared to the 1959 Police records, which mention 80 gangs. But perception is quite different: In a recent  victimisation survey, one in four respondents declared to be afraid of gangs at home or nearby, and one in three in public transport. Perception is also biased towards so-called “girl gangs”: The French press runs regularly stories about “girl gangs”, althrough they are in fact very rare. Mohammed’s research shows that gangs are almost exclusively male, which matches sociological observations: Girls are better at school, they grow up under tighter family control, and social reactions to their deviant behaviour is not the same as for boys.

In his recent book Les bandes de jeunes. Entre l’école, la famille et la rue [1] (2011) Mohammed provides a sociological explanation of gangs and how they come into existence, which he briefly presented during the seminar. According to Mohammed’s research, individuals who become members of/associated with a gang usually have had a difficult experience with their family or their school, and thus tend to socialise in the streets. A typical gang member is a young boy of modest origin, who has many brothers and sisters, drops out of school, is inactive, and is exposed to delinquency in his daily environment.

The fact that on average, gang members come from a minority background does not seem to be an explanatory factor, but rather an indication of an underprivileged socio-economic background. Indeed, without the variable “many brothers or sisters”, the “origin” factor does not apply.

Gangs attract a certain type of boys because they fulfill five functions that are deficient: a material function (consumption), a symbolic function (power and recognition), a political function (social conflict), a psychological function (self-esteem) and an identity function (being part of a history). In his research, Mohammed analyses in detail how deficiencies in the process of socialisation are replaced by the gang. For instance, he shows how reputation and recognition are created within a regional “space of communication”, and how different layers of identity as well as a strong local identity can overcome a weak inner sense of identity. Hence, he argues, there are fewer riots in Marseille that in other big cities, because there, the population of foreign origin has a strong sense of being “of Marseille”.

Mohammed also observes how gangs are linked to crime, and gang membership to criminal careers. While criminal activity does play a role in the life of gangs -links to organised crime seem to play a greater role than in the past- deviant or criminal behaviour are mainly the result of a quest for recognition, and the desire to obtain a reputation and to exercise power.

Restorative justice as a solution to gang problems

Elmar Weitekamp says that, provided the concept of gang is adapted to Europe (see above), there is indeed a problem in Europe with troublesome youth groups. This is a conclusion shared by the Eurogang project.

According to the typology defined by the Eurogang project, these troublesome youth groups are mainly “compressed gangs”, which have little internal structure, include fewer people (than traditional gangs), mostly of the same age group, and which have a relatively short life span. On average, individuals belong to a gang for less than a year. Common features, according to Weitkamp, are deprived areas, minority background, male, alienation/marginalisation, youth (less than 26 year old) and illegal activities. The driving forces that lead to gang membership are the quest for identity status, and the desire to belong and to make money. Gangs provide an alternative way of socialisation if traditional institutions and structures (family, school, job) cannot provide it. Sometimes, boys also join gangs to obtain protection even though reality proves the contrary: Gang members are significantly more likely to become victims than the majority of young people. According to Weitkamp, the phenomenon of gangs might grow in Europe as moderate welfare states evolve into competitive societies based on a “winner-loser” paradigm, which is precisely what draws young people to gangs.

Weitekamp also studied restorative justice, and he considers that the tools used in this approach are particularly relevant for gangs. Conflict, he says, should not only be dealt with by professionals of the Law, but by society itself, because it has the capacity to solve its problems. He favours the methodology of peace circles, which includes among other the use of a “talking stick” so that all participants can speak in turns. As reflected in restorative justice conferencing, the purpose of this methodology is to find solutions by including in the discussion the individuals’ environment, their families and the community, and thus better tackle underlying problems. Weitekamp believes this methodology should be taught as early as possible to children as a good way to deal with conflict and with frustration. Based on the example of a gang intervention programme in Boston (USA) known as ROCA, which uses this approach, Weitekamp is now working with German, Belgian and Hungarian partners on a project to adapt and apply this methodology to the European context.

A differentiated approach to problems of street violence and youth groups in Mons

In Mons (Belgium), problems of street violence and youth groups are different in the city centre and in the peripheral neighbourhoods. As Véronique Roos, prevention coordinator of the city, explained, the problems in the city centre are mainly linked to marginalised or homeless young people, and to festive events. Also, some people feel unsafe in the city centre because there is less social control in the streets. In the peripheral neighbourhoods, mainly in six priority neighbourhoods identified in the local safety audit, some youth groups commit acts of incivility and violence.

As in any prevention work, action programmes dealing with youth violence in the public space follow a four step process: 1) A phase of observation and analysis, 2) definition of adequate answers, 3) implementation, and 4) evaluation.

Street work and a shelter called “L’Escale” are used to deal with marginalised youth groups who are mainly causing incivilities and a feeling of insecurity among neighbours and passersby. The city helps to provide these marginalised youngsters with pathways to get “back into society”. It also works on reducing the risks they incur, and on diminishing the feeling of insecurity among other users of the public space.

As for youth groups who create problems during festive activities and at night, the city also carries out street work, and uses a contact point set up right in the middle of this neighbourhood, called “Espace Synapse”, where information is provided on alcohol and binge drinking. Furthermore, 45 unarmed public order officers (called “gardiens de la paix” in French), patrol the streets and offer mediation.

The cornerstone of the prevention scheme in these priority neighbourhoods is the “neighbourhood houses” (“maisons de quartier”). These “one-stop shops” for assistance and help are also a focal point for the community. Their mission is to prevent physical, psychological and social risks. As for troublesome youth groups, they offer mediation on the use of the public space. Ms Roos presented the example of the Cuesmes sports ground, where various initiatives are implemented to reach youth groups, and to enforce social rules and cohesion.

From Gunchester back to Manchester with a holistic multiagency approach

At the end of the 1990s, Manchester became known as Gunchester, explained Andrew Pownall of the National Community Safety Network and in charge of prevention in the city. At the beginning of the 1990s, gang associations and the use of firearms soared in south Manchester. Gangs related to their ‘patch’, named after places such as Gooch Close, Doddington Close and Pepperhill pub. The gangs of South Manchester started to fight for the control of the drug trade. The frequency of shootings and murders increased. This attracted quite a lot of negative press coverage, and the nickname of ‘Gunchester’ was coined ([2]).

Data were indeed quite alarming: A police report at the time mentions “27 Deaths, 250 Non Fatal Stabbings over 5 years, 135 Firearm Discharges in 18 months, 25 Active Street Violence Factions, 2 Gangs in Total Control – Doddington & Gooch, 400 Individuals involved in Street Violence”. Communities living in the affected neighbourhoods were increasingly concerned, and this led local authorities to set up the Manchester Multi Agency Gang Strategy (MMAGS), which adopted a holistic approach aimed at educating, preventing and enforcing. Education consisted in intensive work with young people in priority neighbourhoods, anti-violence campaigns, group work using drama and arts, the enrollment of former gang leaders, and the use of new media (DVDs). Prevention consisted in a multi agency work with youth, massive consultation with communities to identify hot spots and several divisionary projects. Finally, enforcement played a central role especially at the beginning of the intervention. 150 police officers were involved, 2,200 stop and searches were carried out, and the full extent of the Law was applied, such as the Anti Social Behaviour Order, the Violent Offenders Order, Gang Injuctions, and Drinking Banning Orders. Tough sentences were also imposed.

The strategy worked, and street violence was reduced by a whopping 90%. The level of trust in police authorities among local communities went up as the troublesome youth groups were removed from the streets. The reestablishment of peace also allowed local communities to regain ownership of their city. Preventive and educational measures backed by the community were carried out to consolidate and improve the situation.

Barcelona: Understanding new phenomena of organised and violent youth groups

“Latino gangs” appeared in Catalonia and in Barcelona around 2002, explained Santi Herrero Blanco of the Catalan Ministry of the Interior. “The Latin Kings” and “The Ñetas” were the most famous of these gangs composed mainly of South-Americans, but which also included young people from North Africa, Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. These Spain-based gangs were set up following the model of the Latin American “traditional gangs” (and indeed, the first “Latin Kings” appeared in the 1940s in Chicago and New York). Rather than labelling them as “latino”, and thus stigmatise the whole South-American immigrant community, Catalan authorities prefer to talk about “New phenomenon or organised and violent youth groups” (NOVYG). Indeed, preventing stigmatisation was not simply a question of political correctedness, but necessary in order to fight the very exclusion that can lead to joining a gang.

Herrero Blanco has been working in the Catalan police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) on the gang phenomenon since 2003. Catalan authorities have invested a lot of time, energy and resources in understanding the gang phenomenon prior to addressing it with preventive and law enforcement measures. The starting point was to obtain information, knowledge, and intelligence from all available sources. This allowed to understand this phenomenon as precisely as possible, in the local context: Identifying the various groups, dispelling misconceptions, getting to know their history, their links amongst each other and to crime. The links to crime are, according to Herrero Blanco, particularly difficult to pinpoint because most crimes are committed by only a few gang members, which means it is difficult to know if they are linked to the activities of the whole gang, or only of the individuals involved.

Based on their research, Catalan authorities developed an original approach, which they shared with other local stakeholders -local authorities and Justice, social and educational services, cultural mediators- and which can be summarised as follows: being on alert but not alarmed, using a “trained outlook” to avoid misconceptions, stigmatisation and criminalisation, and promoting positive dynamics while limiting negative ones.

Based on this holistic approach, local authorities and stakeholders developed action plans aimed at building trust (knowledge and recognition, or conocimiento y reconocimiento in Spanish), and preventing young people from joining a gang. One of the most striking aspect of this approach is that it considers that gangs have also positive aspects, which can be put to use. This is why the Catalan authorities decided in 2006 to legalise the Latin Kings, who became the “Cultural Association of Latin Kings and Queens of Catalonia”. This meant that authorities recognised the organisation as a responsible and positive member of society.

[1] Youth gangs, between family, school and the street

[2] Randell, Tom (2006-09-15). “North West: Trying to banish ‘Gunchester'”BBC News (BBC). Retrieved 2008-12-28.