Gang crime: another approach

Charities like Aasha Gang Mediation provide the things that working parents and the state can't.

A short walk east from the gleaming glass of the RBS building by Liverpool Street station, through Brick Lane, through the low rise red brick and concrete blocks of flats that make up the Spitalfields Estate, there's a big Victorian building, which looks like an old school. Outside, there's a small football pitch, and there are kids of all ages and races playing on it, with a crowd gathered round, screaming encouragement.

Next to this old building is a newer one. At the top floor of this, three Bengali men are talking to a room full of local youths, housing professionals, youth workers and others. Harun Miah is a short, stocky man in his 30s. Next to him is Abu Mumin, a slightly taller, bald man with a beard, and beside him Udjal Kamrujzaman. None of them look like criminals. But they have a fascinating story to tell.

Abu moved to England aged seven, and as an 80s child remembers a tough childhood - bricks through the window, kids riding through his estate on bikes looking for Pakis to bash. His friend would stuff copies of the Yellow Pages in his shirt when he walked down Brick Lane. His gang was originally formed to combat racists, but as the years went by it started to get involved in other things - drug dealing, battles with other gangs. One of the gangs with whom there was a particularly vicious rivalry was Harun's: "I wanted to track him down and do him some serious damage."

The Bengali gangs of Tower Hamlets became increasingly territorial and violent. One night in 1997 it all came to a head. Udjal describes the aftermath of a brutal clash between the main five gangs: "All of the tendons in my hand were cut with a meat cleaver. My friend's ear and fingers were hanging off. I wasn't sure if I was going to live. In hospital my mother and sister were crying over me, but I was already plotting my revenge. Harun came to me and offered a new perspective: it was time to forgive. The community set up a meeting between the different gangs. I didn't want to go: I was crying because all I wanted was revenge. But I sat down, and we talked, and we forgave each other."

Following a meeting in the East London Mosque, the young gang members turned into youth workers. At first they were based in a Portakabin; then they squatted in the Victorian building next to the one in which they're talking. Aasha Gang Mediation, as the group was now called (Aasha means hope in Bengali) began to work with gang-involved youths - mediating in disputes, holding excursions and doing outreach work. Now it does much the same work and much more, in far more opulent surroundings, thanks to a council grant. It's half term, and Aasha's facilities keep the local kids out of trouble. Besides the football tournament, on the ground floor the kids are playing Playstation 3, on the floor above that pool and table football, and on the floor above that there's even a boxing tournament taking place.

This is what voluntary sector groups do up and down the country: they provide the things that working parents and the state can't. It's not really the kind of work that can be quantified - you can walk around Aasha's building and see it in action, but how do you know how many stabbings or shootings they've stopped?

This is one reason why, year after year, charities like Aasha find themselves struggling for money. About a third of their funding comes from the council, but for the rest they have to apply to others like Comic Relief or the National Lottery. The Gherkin and the shimmering lights of the Square Mile loom over Aasha's centre, but very little funding comes from private equity - at the last count, they'd managed £10,000 for the "Canary Wharf room". The group's building, which keeps hundreds of kids busy every week - and will for years - cost slightly less than Operation Trident's gang initiative. I was recently talking to a senior civil servant who said to me: "I'm amazed the banks aren't getting involved in funding projects in Tower Hamlets. There's so much poverty there, it's right on their doorstep and if ever there was an institution that needed the positive publicity it would bring, it's them."

The problem with the kind of funding a charity like Aasha gets is sustainability. At most, a voluntary body gets money for a project for one or two years. Let's say you want to employ a gang member, because he's got a good insight into the culture you're trying to subvert. How easy is it to employ someone like that on a six-month contract? What future employment prospects does he have once that's ended?

There's another problem with how the funding is granted - more often than not it involves the filling out of huge, abstruse forms, rather than monitoring in person. But a quick walk around Aasha's base reveals that the work they do isn't easy to express in terms of concrete aims - one day it's stopping a fight breaking out, the next it's talking a kid through his employment prospects.

Aasha's work will never generate the headlines that a police operation will. But in the long run, early intervention isn't just the best way to banish gangs for good: it's the only way.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.