To many observers the concept of community remains in the realm of ideology when confronted with societal upheavals and fractious divisions exposing youth violence, street gangs and turf rivalry amongst different sub-cultures and social exclusion, especially when listening to the punitive responses from politicians, the police and criminal justice system. Such is the external perception of Inner London’s post-code wars, a societal imbalance fraught with strife, mistrust, and disregard for social norms and encoded practices that promote order, safety and peace. A 2007 report from the Evening Standard typifies the collective sense that London’s postcodes outrageously define social inclusion, just as postcodes delineate potential murder targets, in response to insignificant actions such as looking at someone with the wrong facial expression or walking on another gang’s territory. Community is indeed a problematic axiom in contexts such as Inner London.
The 2007 media report titled ‘Postcode’ gang rivalry suspected in street murder’, indicated that a 17 year old A level students crossing the road and thus infringing upon the next postcode, “was stabbed in front of afternoon shoppers in Upper Street, Islington after a gang from neighbouring Hackney decided he had given them a dirty look, witnesses said.”[London Evening Standard 2007].
Moreover, following a series of arrests in conjunction with the event, “police investigated whether Hackney’s Shakespeare gang, whose territory includes Stoke Newington’s Milton Garden Estate near Nassirudeen’s home in Highbury, was involved. Reverend Joyce Daley, a street pastor in Hackney, said: ‘Postcode gangs are a real problem.’” [London Evening Standard 2007].
Such actions exemplify an endemic problem arguably due, in part at least, to ethnic resentment, ‘ghetto-ism’ and mistrust of people who share different ethnic markers, challenge sociologists and policy makers to look very closely at the very concept of community and whose needs community actually serve in practice. In this important respect, Tyler [2003:2] has reminded us that the impact of communities and community membership is better understood when a historical overview of the meaning of community is known. He has also cautioned us not to side with those who wish to cosmetically treat the societal dysfunction without acknowledging the underlying discord and unmet needs that give rise to such fear mongering and reckless violence. Instead, the relationship between community and learning is grasped when the complexity of community is understood.
According to Jewkes and Letherby [2002:236], “proportionately more ethnic minorities and working class youth are dealt with by the criminal justice system, and the problem of crime is cast as a problem of youth crime, specifically young males from lower social class and ethnic minority communities.” This notion gives rise to the view that gangs are simply a coalescence of deviant individuals refusing to accept the protocols of a civil society, perhaps because of family breakdown and bad parenting, and/or financial as well as cultural poverty. The view is linked to the equally serious concept of the criminal career of today’s inner city youth, who are set on an inescapable pathway spiralling ultimately into a life of prison and prison culture which may well be perceived as ‘cool’ by some youth from some communities.
Predictors of future criminality based upon a longitudinal study conducted in the 1960’s suggested including socio-economic deprivation, poor parenting and family conflict, criminal and anti-social families, low intelligence and school failure, hyperactivity and anti-social behaviour. Researchers such as Foster and Farrington who conducted longitudinal and generational experiments in the 1980’s, noted that children who had difficulty evading the law and had school failure, more often than not had similar parents, so a sociological pattern was being perpetuated.
Indeed, while the public’s thought of community often hails consciously or unconsciously from romanticised constructs of communities, Inner London’s postcode wars are better understood in terms of a “Foucauldian perspective, …(in terms of) strategic alliances, challenging government and domination, and taking the form of original communities or local communities or vocational communities. ‘Community’, as term and as strategy, is a technique of power” [Tyler :1]. Moreover, each of the significant sociological paradigms namely symbolic interactionism, functional analysis and conflict theory, may be used to illuminate the dynamics of community in inner London over the past 30 years [Browne 2005:9]. Symbols aid definition of community membership and exclusion. The notion that postcode, albeit a geographical marker akin to a national boundary between nation states with opposing ideologies, has become aligned with symbolic indicators of belonging and exclusion, is a unique expression of community, where protection and discontent have been exacerbated by local youths from ethnic minorities not having fundamental needs of educational attainment, family cohesion and employment met, so the need for identity and meaning is found through gang membership and gang related deviant activity. And in a diverse and vast city such as London, where the very rich and very poor often live in neighbouring streets let alone post codes, and which has some of the poorest areas in the UK, local people also have to cope with massive immigration levels, so there are many tensions in the least advantaged communities who struggle in such a sociological and demographic landscape – although it is worth remembering that many who are poor and who are immigrants or black and minority ethic (BME) succeed, indeed thrive, despite their disadvantage, (for example, Indian and Chinese communities), so one must not ignore the home culture and country of origin of individuals; after all, gang violence is widespread in places such as Jamaica and black communities in the United States.
Typical accounts of the territorial violence, seemingly inspired by disaffected youth who are perhaps seeking empowerment in the face of social ennui through school failure, unemployment and family fragmentation, are noted in the following reports. According to Shah  in “De Beauvoir Estate in Hackney… gangs fight over territories marked out by the first section of a postcode (N1, NW5 and so on).” Speaking with local youth, Shah recorded that:
“If you walk into certain ends and you don’t know someone who lives there, they’ll beat you. They’ll rob you and say, ‘Get out of my ends’. They watch you and they know you’re not from the area. You can’t walk through places around here. The police try and stop it but they make it worse. Not everyone who wears a hood is into drugs, robbing and fighting. Look at me; I’ve just been to college…It’s not everywhere you go, it’s just some places. But if we go into London Fields now we’re dead – dead. It’s gang wars. I always watch my back ‘cos if you get caught slipping, they’ll get you.”[Shah 2008].\
In another report from 2008, the Islington Gazette writer spoke of the “postcode wars that make some estates no-go areas for Islington youths begin because teens want respect from older hardened criminals. For feuding gang members, stepping over the ‘front line’ between N1 and E8 can mean death” [Islington Gazette 2008]. (The writer also pinpointed Finsbury Park as a place not to be at 4am in the morning, though, as in much on London, it depends on which street one is standing…). Indeed, “Wesley’s Chapel in City Road is on the border between Islington and Hackney and attended by teenagers from warring postcodes” [Islington Gazette 2008].
The need for social regeneration in the N4 postcode district of Haringey is has not been lost on local government. The Finsbury Park Partnership was established and functioned from 1999-2006, with a £25 million government grant with “primary aims to provide a better area to live in with improved housing, a cleaner environment, open spaces for all to enjoy and better access to transport. They also aimed to provide an area for local people by creating a sense of one neighbourhood through a range of initiatives based around community involvement, health, arts and sports, as well as an area for people to learn in by providing additional access to education and training for residents of all ages, an area for work by encouraging and supporting new and existing businesses and providing training for local people to meet the employment opportunities created and a safer area to live in by improving the safety of those who live in, work in and visit the area by supporting initiatives to reduce crime and drug abuse” [Crown 2010]. This initiative provided a more cohesive sense of community within the area, yet from the recent reports, worked alongside postcode rivalry, rather than tackling the destructive inter-territorial rivalries that still give rise to reports of heinous youth related crimes.
In the above account, the viewpoint is that younger disaffected teens may brutally attack fellow youth in adjoining postcodes to not only protect territory, but also to impress older youths who in their view have ‘made it’ and so garner the ‘respect’ of others through intimidation and menace. There is a kind of initiation process and cry for recognition and social status through acts of territorial violence, in the absence of social recognition through the conventional and ethically legitimate channels available. Some functionalists would view this as a rational manifestation of bringing functionality to the otherwise meaningless lives of youth in the light of a highly dysfunctional society epitomised by London’s housing estates already mentioned [Browne 2005:9]. While some of these territorial contests and attempted conquests are defined by ethnic minorities, be they Afro-Caribbean or Asian, the youth-related violence within London itself is not fully accounted for by these designations alone. For example, in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square in 2002, an education professor named Tim Brown and his brother-in-law were viciously attacked by white youths and then aided by Asian youths who notified authorities. There was an unprovoked rampage in the area that night [Emsley 2006:173], and it illustrates that youth violence in inner London is not confined to territorial warfare by ethnic minorities – (although one must perhaps recognise this as an exception that proves the rule: i.e. that most gang violence and most mugging and most shootings and stabbings are done by young black males; drunken violence, however, seems more a white issue, for example, as with football hooliganism.) As Tyler explains, the phenomenon of community does not merely have different expressions, but also different political implications [Tyler 2003:3-4]
The sociological analysis of community can aid the examination of the basis of social interaction, both within sub-cultures and between distinct cultural groups. The essence of community inculcates a sense of belonging, affinity and collective identity, yet the values of the particular group towards who individuals gravitate are shaped by broader and more complex socio-political, cultural and economic factors too.
The common sense of community draws attention to levels of cohesion and intimacy. Yet it also functions as a tool of exclusion and as a mechanism for exchanging power. For the most part, the feasibility of learning is not about whether people are community members or alienated from communities, (as is commonly thought), but rather about how the communities they are part of inter-relate with other communities. Such a view espoused by Tyler [2003: 4-6], helps us approach the question as to whether youth gangs should be regarded as ‘communities’. For the term ‘community’, as consistently argued through this paper, connotes positive social values such as collective social responsibility, nurture, security, mutual understanding, yet it also refers in the Foucaltian tradition to strategic alliances and power associations, reminding us that communities are not benign entities but manifestations of prescribed social values. ‘Community’ is an abstract noun, such as ‘happiness’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘fairness’ or ‘change’ so, in fact, can really mean whatever one wants it to mean: perhaps why it has become such a popular buzz-word amongst politicians and bureaucrats. Tyler describes some of Foucault’s notions when he discusses his concept of power, to which he identifies the three levels namely, “strategic relations, techniques of government, and states of domination” [Tyler 2003:3]. Communities can be formulated and imposed ‘top-down’ or conceived and grown from the bottom up. Learning is impacted by the tensions created by such dynamics. The work of Tyler and certainly that of Foucault, underscores that we are all constantly engaged in power related transactions at all levels of our lived experience. This is a radical or if not a novel idea for many people, who perceive social institutions as pre-existing and part of the fabric of the way things are, rather than an expression of a particular set of social and political arrangements. In light of Tyler’s deconstruction of community, since youth culture intersects with many communities and gangs do fulfil several of the key components of communities, we are better served to examine the range of ways youth in violent sub-cultures do interact across the entire spectrum of their experience, so their lives and communities are not simply demonised, as this tends to sanction heavy handed political and police responses. Instead, in London’s troubled postcodes, the provision of salient identities for youth should be identified, so that appropriate social provision can bring reform for longer term benefit for such groups.
Blackshaw [2008:21] notes that community is deeply entrenched in the way we understand the world (and indeed in the way we transact with the world); each of us participates in a series of interlocking communities. Moreover, whilst community includes people who meet the criteria of membership, it often also excludes those who do not possess the prescribed characteristics of belonging. In London’s postcode rivalry, the ear-markers of membership include cultural indicators such as ethnicity and levels of affluence [see Blackshaw [2008:22-23]. The ‘dark side’ to community is not welcome in much serious discussion as it implies the need to apportion blame and analyse why violence develops.
Communities can induce positive and affirming learning environments, but they can also inadvertently or consciously suppress learning and foster postcode wars through exclusion. Formal educational settings plagued by violence and disorder are one obvious example of this, but a more subtle, yet powerful case is active ethnocentrism in schools and neighbourhoods ( also see Blackshaw 2008:151 etc). (It is worth pointing out, however, that many Indian and Chinese – as well as Black, particularly African-origin – individuals succeed in the education system and wider society; the question perhaps should be asked why certain groups seem not to and whether this is due to a social class, or heritage and cultural reasons. As some have commented, perhaps race and poverty should not be used as an excuse – although people may well be reluctant to express such view due to a fear of being accused of racism.)
New Labour’s attempt to counteract social exclusion involved a new approach which emphasised prevention, reintegration of those already experiencing social exclusion, minimum standards for everyone, joint working between different agencies and evidence-based policy-making [Social Exclusion Unit 2004:7]. Otherwise, social exclusion from the mainstream culture is perpetuated generationally through poor quality education and inability to establish new forms of community that the disenfranchised may access [Social Exclusion Unit 2004:7]. According to Gaskell [2008:223], New Labour’s philosophy implemented a ‘respect agenda’ joining “anti-social behaviour policies, third way active citizenship and a theory of community-based support and regulation.” This ‘respect agenda’ directly addressed young people, children and vulnerable communities and at its core, demands respect from young people, according to Gaskell [2008:223]. The policy states that “young people’s lived citizenship is too often experienced in terms of disrespect and even shame of the self. Young people respond to these feelings of disrespect by seeking out other ways through which respect can be acted out and negotiated” [Gaskell 2008:223]. However, it could be said that this obsession with ‘respect’ is just aping US-type policies, and that the meaning of respect has changed: no longer is it something to be earned, but something to be demanded with menaces and threats of violence by a ‘ghetto gangsta’ – so one wonders whether or not New Labour were right is emulating failed US policies here.
In essence, Gaskell’s criticisms of New Labour’s ‘respect agenda’ elucidate opposing views of community. The government operating from a vested interest to maintain the status quo, conceptualises community as a pre-existing entity to which youth must conform for the well-being of all. Similar to the notion that deviance is an attitude and behavioural pattern of rebellion or resistance to upstanding social values and practices, by adopting such postures, government criminalises young people, as Gaskell [2008:223] asserts. Instead, a view of community which recognises the political formulations underpinning it and acknowledges the agenda it seeks to impose upon members and outsiders, makes for healthier discourse within democratic societies. Ironically, the outworking of the respect agenda through law-enforcement may inadvertently further diminish “self-respect, interpersonal respect and societal respect” [Gaskell 2008:223].
Gaskell [2008:224] shows the outworking of the reinforcement of the status quo in response to youth crime in the past decade in urban Britain. She argues that “in 1997, during New Labour’s early phase of power ‘anti-social behaviour’ was seen as the cause of crime and violence. By 2003 however, ‘anti-social behaviour’ was the crime, and punitive ‘alarm or distress’ was called upon. More significantly, breaching an antisocial behaviour order holds the potential of a prison sentence.” [Gaskell 2008:224]. Very significantly, criminality has shifted into this highly subjective realm where law enforcement determines when a behaviour is anti-social, and then criminalises such behaviour.
With particular regard to postcode rivalries in central and north London, Gaskell’s close analysis of New Labour’s key terms such as citizenship, respect, rights and responsibilities are apt, timely and prudent. Citizenship does undoubtedly express the individual’s efforts to more fully participate in democratic processes, as Gaskell asserts [2008:225], and in the “context of youth policy, the state plays an important role in shaping the expectations of respectful citizenship. In doing so, the spaces of citizenship formation and enactment are identified and maintained through government policies.”
In consideration of the youth caught up in postcode rivalries in inner London, Gaskell’s warning is salient since “without a dignified, respected position of wellbeing, the perceived possibilities that citizenship can bring about are minimal, and the controlling aspects can be overwhelming “ [Gaskell 2008:225]. The notions of “dignity and respect are key to an holistic understanding of citizenship. Dignity and respect are intangible but crucial aspects of these entitlements, as they are central to an individual’s wellbeing” [Gaskell 2008:225]. With this much said, the reasons cited early in this paper for the territorial youth violence hold even more currency. In Gaskell’s analysis of the power of shame, which elicits fear, anger or contempt, after repeated accounts of feeling shamed, (as the estate youths do in these conflicted urban regions) through the maligning of their cultural identity and what Cantle avers as the abject failure of multi-culturalism (a ‘segregationist’ instead of an integrationist agenda) as a viable social policy in Britain, “the shaming eyes turn inward and individuals shame themselves” [Gaskell 2008:228]. In Benjamin’s words of 2005 regarding Tony Cantle (associate director advising councils on how to create sustainable communities), the Cantle report on the “underlying causes of the disturbances between Asian and white youths found people living ‘parallel lives’ and made 70 recommendations to government for tackling segregation and promoting ‘community cohesion’” [Cantle in Benjamin 2005]. One must remember, however, that is white-Asian animosity and violence exists mainly in working class areas of northern towns and cities such as Oldham and Bradford. One has this sense in the earlier discussion that the Finsbury Park regeneration effort for seven years did not reach to the community needs of youth invested in violence, but happened in tandem with this, akin to the premise of multiculturalism instead of integration and cohesion, which have since become the ‘mantra’ of many influential in the racial equality field.
Shillington  writes about Britain’s Caribbean community and posted a disturbing report recently about the role of knives in the continued spate of inner London black youth violence. He refers to a knife ‘epidemic’ in London, and mentions that a notable proportion of perpetrators are of Caribbean background, although whites and African youth are also involved. In a sobering reflection, Shillington reports that “since February 3, four other boys have died after being shot or stabbed in London. The Erhahon killing was part of a turf war, with gangs in his Thatched House area of postcode E15 clashing with youths from the Cathall area of E11. This is not untypical of gang rivalry in Britain’s inner-cities. Too many subscribe to 50 Cent’s philosophy of Get Rich or Die Tryin’” [Shillington 2010]. Perhaps the pseudo community such boys are a part of feeds their thinking in more powerful ways than they normally receive credit for; although one must perhaps recognise that Jamaican culture is itself riddled with gun and knife and street violence from gangs, usually connected to the drugs trade, and this may be where this culture originates. We tend to think that communities must be robust in their values in order to reign in our individuality and shape our collective behaviour. Ironically, that is exactly what appears to be happening relentlessly with so called estate gangs in postcode wars. Since “some prisons in Britain are so luxurious and well resourced, they are considered more like hotels, unlike the jails in the Caribbean,” according to Shillington . In other words, the power of the collective sub-culture is strong enough to render prison a “badge of honour” [Shillington 2010], and perhaps seasoned Caribbean gangsters influence British black youth on the street and inside prison. An extraordinary emerging trend has seen “Britain’s Caribbean community of sending wayward boys to the Caribbean to attend schools where discipline is stricter, violence less prevalent and teachers are generally more respected” [Shillinton 2010].
The concept of community is enacted in multifarious ways, as this essay discussion indicates. While it is imbued with positive attributes of belonging, shared purpose, identity provision, security, such attributes may be found in London’s gangs emerging in the renowned postcode skirmishes and wars. The deeper question is how society may provide viable and healthy alternative culture for disaffected youth, who find that their turf warfare serves a purpose to define themselves, in the absence of other taken for granted socially defining events or practices, and often in the absence of fathers or male role models at home – the gang is the male role model, it seems, for many young black males. Rather than exercising a punitive, zero tolerance policy toward miscreant youth, the British government and populace could recognise the needs of youth caught up in dysfunctional quagmires and provide meaningful alternatives where such youth can find constructive meaning and contribution.
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