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August 13, 2010 / jeni

Gangs of London

I live in Brixton, south London — an area historically prone to gang formation and violence. This summer has seen an uptick in violent attacks, including the murder of Zac Olumegbon, a fifteen-year-old boy who lived on my block. He was the thirteenth teenager to be murdered in London this year.

Anyone interested in the dynamics and geography of London gangs would do well to check out Gangs in London (and its associated blog). The website features detailed maps of London boroughs, with gang activity cross-referenced against areas of economic deprivation. The territories of specific gangs are marked in colour-coded blocks. (It’s not always clear how this data was arrived at, but at least for the areas of London I am familiar with, the maps ring true.)

There is also a lengthy and scholarly consideration of What Are Gangs? The author wrestles with the same normative dilemmas that confound us in the wider crime-conflict arena, noting the difficulty in reaching consensus on what constitutes a gang — especially in the UK, where the term ‘gang’ was adopted much later than in the United States — and the way in which the term somewhat uncomfortably tends to encompass a wide range of behaviour, from idle youth to highly organised criminal networks.

The discussion on definitions is an interesting reminder that even when dealing with violent criminal groups in our own cities, with fewer cultural and linguistic barriers to be overcome, we face significant obstacles to analysis and understanding. The problem is often posed as one of access — a lack of inside information on specific groups — and certainly this is a major issue. But even where such information can be developed, we may also lack the appropriate models and language to analyse such activity in a way that facilitates prevention and counter-responses. Luckily, there appear to be major efforts underway in recent years to address this particular issue.

(Of course, when it comes to gangs in less stable environments, we’ve got a entirely new set of analytical problems. For one take on this issue, see Max Manwaring’s Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency.)

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