The boy emerged, LA gangsta-style, and fired

The guns are blazing, for sure. Here in Brixton on a hot summer's day, a young man on a motorcycle attempted to execute another who was sharing a basketball court with two dozen black youths. He was the latest victim. Just around the corner another boy was murdered two weeks ago.

There was equally dramatic gun-play in the East End of London. A member of one of several crews arrived in a fancy ride. The sunroof was drawn back; he emerged through it, LA gangsta-style, and let the bullets fly. Another punk was at full speed, on his feet, firing as he went.

And Harlesden is the capital, the headquarters of mayhem. Eight dead in this tiny corner of London. The smell of cordite is everywhere; every calibre of gun known to man is in use. A sub-machine gun - the Mach 10 - seems to be the favourite weapon. Some kind of mini-war is on.

Let's clear up a couple of myths that are flying about. This is no Yardie war. Yardies, as I understand it, are recent immigrants from one of the garrisons in Kingston, Jamaica. Those involved in this war are British-born blacks.

Second, this is no drug war. Ever seen West Side Story - the Diggers, the Stompers and the rest of them? They have acquired new titles - this crew, that crew, the other crew.

It all falls out of the lexicon of gang warfare, which originates in Los Angeles. Years ago I visited LA to report on the riots that followed the police brutalisation of Rodney King. I based myself in LA South Central, formerly Watts, and gained access to the gangster crowd. In the face of hostility from the LA police, they had called a truce and were meeting every day to discuss terms and how to hold the peace together.

They asked me to address the teams about race relations in Britain and thereafter to chair the discussion. Guns were on the table, a glittering array of them, obviously so cherished that I recognised at once the devotion that kept them in beautiful shape. These were the Bloods and the Crips - as notorious as any social phenomenon to hit the United States. Enter LA South Central and you know immediately where you are. Scores of young men are in wheelchairs as a result of gang shootings. At first I thought they were veterans of Vietnam. Membership is compulsory on this turf, and very few unemployed youths can avoid it.

We met at an emergency hospital especially set up to supply the Hollywood rich with organs extracted from dead gangsters. I heard stories about police infiltration and about dozens of very young men who would never walk free in their natural lives: they are in prison for ever. I would not make comparisons with England. This phenomenon is deeply rooted in the urban culture of the US. It has drawn into its destructive web generations of black Americans. It is almost taken for granted by other sections of the population - part of the life, so to speak.

Here in the UK it is a recent development. The dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote that classic poem "Five Nights of Bleeding", in which he dramatises the gang warfare between the youths of Brixton in the 1970s. The Rebels were the rude boys of the day. It was much the same formation, we agreed. Today, add guns, fancy cars, designer clothes and a bevy of the top-ranking beauties who drift through dance-hall land in London. The young men are armed to the teeth. And any minor inconvenience can trigger a war: a "diss" - that is to say, words of disrespect - a drink sprayed accidentally on the Armani gear or a young woman shifting allegiance sends the bullets flying. And Harlesden has always boasted a heavy mob since my youth, when we Groveites - Ladbroke Grove youths - tangled with them.

It is a phenomenon that comes and goes, explodes and subsides. There will be some arrests, long sentences and a retreat. It seems that the unemployed, drifting through urban life, are determined to repeat these asinine but costly mistakes.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?