Christina Patterson: To win the war on gangs, you have to make their members cry

Being in a gang is like being in a family. But one without parents and where children play with guns

Share

She's wearing a pink dress. She's wearing, as she dances in the aisle of her uncle's corner shop, a little red cardigan and a pretty pink dress. She's waving her arms around, as you do when you're five years old, and it's your uncle's birthday. Less than 50 seconds later, she's sprawled on the ground. She doesn't know, as she lies there, fighting for her life, that she has just walked, and danced, for the last time.

Thusha Kamaleswaran, says her mother, who allowed the CCTV footage to be released, wanted to be a dancer. She doesn't say what she dreams of now. She doesn't say what a six-year-old who's spent most of the last year in hospital, and who's now in a wheelchair, in constant pain, and who will need round-the-clock care for the rest of her life, can do now. But she does say that it "takes her heart away" to hear about her nightmares.

Thusha's life was wrecked by a single bullet, fired at random into her uncle's shop. The target, if you can call a young man ambling through a shop a target, was a crack dealer called Roshaun Bryan. He was being chased, if you can call a fairly gentle bike ride a chase, by three young men who thought they were being brave by cycling a few roads away from where they lived. It was, of course, about turf. It was, of course, about gangs. It was, of course, about young men trying to feel important.

Nathaniel Grant, and Anthony McCalla, and Kazeem Kolawole, who were all found guilty of grievous bodily harm at the Old Bailey on Monday, were members of the "GAS" gang. This, apparently, stands for "guns and shanks", which is a word people who want to sound like Jamaican yardies use instead of "knives", or "grip and shoot", or "grind and stack". Roshaun Bryan belonged to a gang called ABM, which stands, if you're not too fussy about spelling, for "all about money".

But it isn't all about money. It isn't even all about guns, or knives, or drugs. It is, according to one young spokesman for the GAS gang on yesterday's Today programme, all about wanting to feel "secure". "When you're in a group," he said, "you feel much safer than when you're alone." It is, he said, "more like a big group of friends" than a gang. It is, in fact, "just like a family". The newspapers, he said, "have always got ways of turning things around, and making it seem like they're the baddest people out there." They call them, he said, "ruthless thugs". But, he said, he couldn't "relate to" a description like that.

In a way, he's right. Being in a gang is just like a family. But it's the kind of family where there aren't any parents, and the children play with real knives and guns. It's the kind of family where you make up complicated rules, about "respect", and turf, and postcodes. And where, if someone breaks those rules, or "disses" your girlfriend, or crosses a street you think they shouldn't cross, what you do is put a bullet in their chest. Or in the chest of a small child who's in the way.

It's the kind of family you'd have if the codes you'd developed were stronger than any codes you were brought up with, and the bonds you'd developed were stronger than the ones you had with your parents, if they were around. It's the kind of family you'd have if you thought that actions didn't have consequences.

It's because of this kind of family that some parts of some of our cities are turning into war zones. And like the one we're meant to be fighting in Afghanistan, this is beginning to look like a war we can't win. You can lock a gang member up, just as you can blow a Taliban soldier up, but there will always be another one in his place.

In Afghanistan, we can give up. If you make a mess in another country, you can always get out, and give up. But we can't get out of London, and Liverpool, and Manchester, and Glasgow. And if you're fighting a war you're losing, which you can't afford to lose, what you have to do is change your strategy.

In Boston, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gang murders doubled in a few years. Tough talk, and long prison sentences, weren't working, so a Harvard academic called David Kennedy decided to help police and youth workers try something new. He summoned gang members for "call-ins". He challenged their ideas of loyalty, and their codes of "honour". He told them about a 13-year-old girl who had been killed by a stray bullet, and asked them if they thought this was OK. He brought in a mother whose son was murdered. She was, she told them, "so broken" that she couldn't look after her other sons. "If you let yourself get killed," she said, "your mother will be standing here."

People who left gangs were told they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction. People who didn't were told that if they committed a crime, the police would go after every single other member of the gang for every single crime they could find. If one suffered, they'd all suffer. You want solidarity? You got it.

It worked. Nine months after the first "call-in", gang-related murders were down by 50 per cent. It has worked in Glasgow, too, where Karyn McCluskey, the head of intelligence at Strathclyde police, decided to try Kennedy's model. At the first "call-in", in 2008, a pensioner told 120 gang members that he was too scared to walk past them to get his pension. An A&E consultant described the terrible injuries he had to treat. A mother talked about how her son was attacked by a gang with machetes, and lost his fingers as he tried to protect his face. "We had gang members crying," says McCluskey, "because regardless of how good or bad their parents are, they love their mums. That," she says, "was the most powerful thing in the US, and it was the most powerful thing here."

It's probably too late for the young men who shot Thusha Kamaleswaran. They haven't shown any signs of caring about the lives they've wrecked, and it doesn't look as though they're about to start now. But they might want to meet some of the young black men outside my local job centre in Dalston. "It's just a fact," one told the Evening Standard on Monday, "that there are certain jobs that are never going to be available for black people, 'cos of the stereotype thing. People in gangs," he said, "is just making it bad for everyone else."

You can't change a culture overnight. You can't make hopeless parents suddenly brilliant, or turn teenagers with no moral framework into responsible members of society. But you can find ways of showing them that their stupid gangs, with stupid names, and stupid codes, are the kind of thing you'd only take part in if you weren't up to anything else. Kennedy's programme seems to do that. I think we should give it a go.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness