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.