One Blood: Inside Britain's New Street Gangs, by John Heale

Searching for the truth behind gangs
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The Independent Culture

A vociferous cacophony presently demands that we should "blame the parents". Jack Straw himself has suggested that boys get involved in gangs because their father is not around. Fathers, he pointed out in July 2007, are least likely to be around if they are "Afro-Caribbean".

What he says is not untrue. But matters are far more complex than this suggests. When Jack Straw's son was caught with drugs, his father turned him over to the police. A few years on, and the father is tipped as a likely prime minister, and the son is an Oxbridge graduate nurturing his own political career.

An anonymous single mother whose story John Heale came across in his research into Britain's street gang culture did much the same thing. She found drugs in her son's bedroom and told the police, who gave him a caution and confiscated the drugs. The boy became terribly agitated. What the mother didn't know was that he was working as a "shotter", a "younger" who sells drugs on behalf of an "elder".

The rule for shotters is that if they lose their drugs to the police, they pay for them twice over, reimbursing the money both for the confiscated drugs and for the lost profit. The boy was frightened because there was no way he could pay. Again misunderstanding the gravity of the situation, the mother told the police where she thought the drugs had come from. Within a few days her son had been beaten so hard he was put into intensive care, and the mother had been subjected to a gang-rape.

The intention of telling the story, Heale says, is not "to shock". It is to illustrate that in "Gangland" it is hard to protect your children, whether you have a firm hand or not.

One of the strengths of Heale's book is that it is carefully calculated not to be shocking. He talks to many gang members and former members, but is never voyeuristic. He scrupulously avoids what the academic Dominic White refers to as "the journey into the spectacle and carnival of crime". It is a welcome relief from the majority of journalistic coverage, which seems only interested in angelic victims and evil perpetrators.

Instead of these clichés, Heale looks for patterns, in all the places where street-gang activity has become a social problem in England. These places are always what he terms, in a borrowing from the early-20th-century US gang expert Frederic Thrasher, "interstitial areas". Thrasher's researches took place nearly 100 years ago, in another country. But as Heale points out, his observations could easily be of Britain today. Thrasher describes these areas as "isolated from the wider culture of the larger community by the processes of competition and conflict, which have resulted in the selection of its population". They are the places where the least economically viable people by necessity congregate.

Thrasher also suggests that young gangs are a manifestation of "the disorganisation incident to cultural conflict among diverse nations and races gathered together in one place and themselves in contact with a civilisation foreign and largely inimical to them". This description holds fairly true in London or Birmingham. But Heale found that in the far less ethnically diverse interstitial areas of Liverpool or Manchester, similar patterns emerged among largely white populations.

Heale christens the places harbouring the conditions that foster such a culture "Gangland". He painstakingly disassembles the idea that street gangs are organised criminal groups, and points out that while an impression of iron control and top-down discipline can enhance the reputation of a gang, the truth is usually more messy.

The reality is of three different layers – peer groups feed into street gangs and they in turn develop a connection with organised criminal activity. It is, he says, the lack of social organisation in these areas that makes this alternative culture of belonging attractive.

Heale says that he wrote One Blood because he believes that the gang culture in this country is "getting worse". He describes it as "a book about a social problem; a problem that will never be solved until it is understood". In this book, Heale makes a solid contribution to that understanding. He believes that unless there is successful intervention, then new generations will be born into Gangland, even less aware than today's children are that they have far more desirable alternatives.

Heale also understands that this difficulty has already become mightily intractable, not least because the people in these areas have come to heartily distrust all the authorities ostensibly around to help them.

The challenge is working out how to invest these places and people with social capital, and show the unfortunate occupants of Gangland that their own social investment will be of benefit to them and their children. Can this really be so hard to do? Not, Heale argues, if we start modestly, and at least resist the temptation to demonise want.