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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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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