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«Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone London Metropolitan University CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 ...»

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Few studies consider young people’s perception of school as a centre for learning or as a safe environment. Whilst not seeking to explain delinquency in young people or gang membership, Willis’s seminal study ‘Learning to Labour’ looked at schooling from a child’s perspective. His findings highlighted how working class children created their own subculture as an adaptive response to a school system they came to recognise as failing them (Willis, 1977). Consequently, the young men in his study rejected middle-class values that stressed educational achievement and deferred gratification, and embraced a subculture of masculinity that celebrated toughness (including violence) and immediate gratification, one they believed would stand them in better stead to gain employment as ‘working-class’ males (Willis, 1977).

Offering a slightly different perspective from Willis, a recent ethnography by Garot (2010) found that the gang members studied were not so much rebelling against the middle-class values projected in school as against teachers whom they perceived to have given up on them, with no real interest in educating them. Garot’s research, conducted in an ‘alternative school’ for children living in a high-crime neighbourhood, highlights the ambivalent relationship pupils may have with teachers and the influence this may have on their attitude to school, educational outcomes and gang membership. Indeed, Garot found that, in some Bjerregaard and Smith (1993) found this finding to be more significant with females than males.

instances, the teachers considered gang members as ‘unteachable’ and experienced their role as educators was just getting through the day (Garot, 2010).

Other school-based gang studies find a correlation between gang membership and victimisation. In a study measuring victimisation amongst gang and non-gang members, Peterson et al found higher reporting rates for assault by gang-involved individuals than those who were not involved in gangs (60% in comparison to 40%) (Peterson et al, 2004:804). Whilst schools are often perceived as being relatively safe spaces for young people, research focusing on school experiences (Ofsted, 2008; Hayden, 2008; Young and Hallsworth, 2010) suggests otherwise. The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) TellUS3 survey found bullying to be a problem for many young people (Ofsted, 2008). Two in five young people surveyed (39%) said they were bullied at school. Hayden’s study revealed that 20% of pupils sampled had been ‘bullied a little’ in school (Hayden, 2008:2), and Young and Hallsworth found that 14% (87) of pupils who took part in their gang study had been ‘threatened or intimidated’ on the school estate; 9% (54 pupils) had been ‘robbed/jacked’ and 7% had been hit or beaten up (Young and Hallsworth, 2010:20). It is important to take account of the levels of violence in school and the relationship that pupils have with teachers because research has repeatedly shown that one of the primary motives for getting involved in gang groups is protection from victimisation (Peterson et al, 2004).

3.5 Leaving the gang: the family and its influence Criminological research has shown that gangs are populated by young people and membership rarely extends into old age (Thrasher, 1927; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993;

Thornberry, 1998). As a number of studies have shown, for many young people gang membership is transitory; it is a phase they enter and leave through the process of growing up. Many young people ‘join’ gangs in the early years of their lives during puberty (usually between 12 and 15 years old) and typically remain in them for about a year (Decker and Lauritsen, 1996). Only a small number of young people are still gang members four years after joining (Peterson et al, 2004). These findings suggest that most people will grow out of gangs fairly quickly. A few, however, do not and for these entrenched individuals the process of leaving may be a little more difficult to achieve.

Leaving a gang can be dangerous and according to the literature has little to do with the family and more to do with the individual. According to ex-gang member Kody Scott, gang membership is for life; once a gang member, forever a gang member (Shakur, 2004). If a person ‘wants out’ there are only two credible options: death or imprisonment. The research of other scholars, however, points to alternatives. Vigil’s work exposes the ritual of ‘beating out’15 amongst some Chicago gang members (Vigil, 1988). Yet others refer to common exit strategies such as ‘fading out’ (Skolnick, 1988), ‘aging’ out (Hagedorn, 1998) or opting out, leaving when the group is in crisis (Jankowski, 1991).

In research conducted by Decker and Van Winkle on gang members in St Louis, gang members’ principal reason for leaving the gang was the level of violence (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996:109). Quite often, it was the personal violence they had endured as a result of 'Beating out’ involves being beaten by several members of the gang before leaving.

being involved in a gang that caused them to leave. Their decisions were also influenced by the impact of abuse, violence and gang culture on family members and close friends. 16 Like the gangsters in Hagedorn’s study (1998) those interviewed by Decker and Van Winkle had reached a point where they had matured or outgrown gang life. They had grown weary of the threats against them, or their families, and had started to prioritise other aspects of life, such as a new relationship or having children. It is paradoxical that the very thing that is supposed to unite and facilitate camaraderie in the gang (violence and the threat of violence) is the very thing that destroys allegiances to the group. This is a factor that should not be overlooked. Recent studies on youth transitions and desistance have found similar results (Maruna et al, 2004). Barry’s (2010) work shows that young people come to a point in their lives where there have been too many run-ins with other gangs or too many knocks on the door from the police or they have started their own family and wish to keep it safe.





It is commonly believed that fear is the motive that keeps most young people in the gang.

For example, scholars such as Foley (2011) and Pitts (2007) argue that leaving can have dire consequences, not just for the individual wishing to leave a gang but also for their family. According to Pitts, ex-gangsters are doomed to spend the rest of their lives in fear, dodging retribution or attack from remaining members or rivals. Indeed, by leaving they not only lose the protection accorded to members but they, and their family members, are at risk of assault from gang members unhappy with the decision to leave and from rivals waiting to harm them. There would certainly appear to be some evidence supporting this scenario in some cases. Leaving a gang might well be particularly hard for longstanding gangsters and offenders who have caused much harm in the community.

However, Decker and Lauritsen (1996) claim that it is not the fear of persecution or punishment from other gang members that frightens people into staying but rather the fear of life outside the gang unit, particularly the fear gang members may have of not being able to make their way in society. Gang members often have poor experience of mainstream social institutions so that they perceive these as rejecting them (Metcalf et al, 2001). Many struggle to find employment or other opportunities to reconnect with the legal economy and remain stigmatised by their ‘gang-banging’ past (Bourgois, 1995). Ex-gang members recall harassment by the police long after they have left the gang and find the gang label difficult to dislodge once it has been applied (Aldridge and Medina, 2008). These factors increase the likelihood that young people will stay locked into gang life (or be driven back to it).

3.6 Summary  A review of the literature highlights the complex nature of influences on gang formation, criminality and exit. Whilst there is a substantial body of research highlighting the increased risks of youth delinquency and gang involvement associated with family breakdown and conflict, harsh or erratic parenting and weak family bonds, other evidence points to the importance of individual characteristics and of wider social variables outside the family. The evidence highlights the risks of living in deprived neighbourhoods, with high levels of exposure to violence and When asked why they decided to leave the gang, a typical respondent answered, 'Cause everybody was getting killed and shot for no reason. I said one day it’s gonna be one of us. I just quit' (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996:269) and 'at first it was fun and then it just got kind of stupid cause too many people was getting killed and stuff' (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996:269).

victimisation and with low expectations from school, where street culture exerts a strong ‘pull’ and gang membership can be seen as the best means of securing protection and economic success.

Studies suggest that family members’ knowledge of young people’s gang  involvement and endorsement of it is disjointed and variable. The limited studies focusing on the experience of family members range from active encouragement by relatives who are themselves gang-involved to tacit acceptance to ignorance of young people’s lives outside the home.

 Families are not shown by research to play a key role in young people deciding to leave gangs: rather, the decision to leave is one taken by the gang member. The motivations that lead gang members to leave gang life tend to be linked to personal experience of crime, violence and victimisation, while threats against families, witnessing violence directed at family members, starting a new relationship or having children are among the influences that can prompt gang exit. Most young people who engage with gangs drift into gangs and most will drift out (Matza, 1964). In this their behaviour is consistent with the offending patterns of other young people. They may grow too old for gang life; often they ‘mature’ out of it. Finally, they leave because they have had enough of the violence that is endemic to gang life.

4. FINDINGS FROM INDIVIDUALS INVOLVED IN GANGS OR ‘ON

ROAD’ This first section presents findings generated from interviews with young people with experience of being ‘on road’ or in gangs.

4.1 Respondent characteristics The 53 gang-involved people whose interviews we analysed for this study came from the three key areas: London, the West Midlands and Scotland (see Table 3). The group consisted of 35 males and 18 females and was culturally diverse. Thirty-four participants were from the African Caribbean community or of mixed heritage. Seventeen individuals classified themselves as ‘white’ and two as Asian. There was an even spread of ages within the group. Nineteen participants were children between 14 and 17 years old. Eighteen were young adults and 16 were adults aged 25 years or more.

Table 3: Profile of respondents

–  –  –

Age 14–17 7 6 6 19 36% 18–24 11 4 3 18 34% 25+ 6 6 4 16 30% This table includes demographic data from the 16 young women interviewed in Young (forthcoming 2013).

4.1.1 Gang membership At the time of interview, participants were currently involved with groups defined as gangs or had a history of gang involvement; that is, they were, or had been, affiliated to a streetbased group that had a collective identity whose members had engaged in offending, including violent crime.

It is important to note that, whilst the participants could objectively be seen as ‘gang members’, not all agreed with this label and some did not regard their group as ‘gangs’ or themselves as gang members. This point is particularly pertinent when discussing Scottish groups. Scottish ‘gangs’ are thought to have a different structure from those found in England and Wales (Bannister et al, 2010) and do not appear to be as hierarchical or organised as some scholars have suggested (Pitts, 2007). This may account for the relative absence of the term ‘gang’ within the Scottish interviews as compared to the English ones.

When describing their ‘affiliation’ Scottish respondents, like some of their English counterparts, were more likely to consider their gang to be a group of friends, youth group or team.



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