Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Community cares

Fears of gang warfare rose in a small area of London recently when a white teenager was stabbed to death, supposedly by Asian youths. Martin Smith examines the facts behind the headlines and argues socialists have an alternative to the misery and violence

This summer 15 year old Richard Everitt was stabbed to death in Somers Town, North London, allegedly by a gang of Asian youths.

Mods from the film Quadrophenia
Mods from the film Quadrophenia

The gutter press attempted to fan the flames of racial violence. The Sun ran a front page: 'Knifed to death for being white'. The Daily Mail followed up with: 'White boy, 15, is killed by race mob'. The 'quality' press was no better. Local people say that the Independent superimposed a photograph of the union jack over an Australian flag hanging over a block of flats in Somers Town, and titled the piece 'A community divided'.

But there is no evidence that it was a racist attack. Witnesses claim that no racist remarks were made. Even the police argue there 'is no evidence of a racial motive involved'.

Somers Town far from being a group of estates on the brink of war was, up until the murder, a relatively peaceful area. It is a multiracial community. According to the Camden Race Equality Council, Somers Town suffers from low to medium levels of racial violence (verbal and physical threats, excrement through letter boxes and minor assaults). Many residents believe it to be a good place to live. However, like most inner city areas, it has problems.

The estates find themselves surrounded by the wealth of urban renewal, whilst conditions on the estates get worse.

According to a recent Rowntree Foundation report on housing conditions in Britain's boroughs, Camden finds itself in the bottom 40. Over the last 15 years the area's main employers have shed jobs. The council has laid off nearly all its manual section. The post office intends to shut the local sorting office in October, and more jobs will go if rail privatisation goes through.

Unemployment stands at about 20 percent, but among the young it is nearly 40 percent. This, coupled with a total lack of youth facilities, has left a generation of people alienated, poor and with little to do. It is no wonder that many get involved in gangs. The press claim that there is a rising level of gang culture among youth in Britain. Even John Major has joined in, with his new pet hate 'Yob Culture'.

There is no evidence from either the Home Office or the youth services to back the claim that gangs are on the increase. The vast majority of working class kids do not belong to gangs.

In any case, gangs are not a new feature of British society. Many old people in Somers Town point out that there have always been gangs in the area. One local woman took great pride in telling me about the fights between her gang and others in the borough. My grandad talks of his days in West London in the 1930s. Rival gangs used to identify themselves by the colour of their neckscarves.

During the 1950s a number of films were made showing the growth of a gang culture, such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One.

During the relatively prosperous 1960s, mods and rockers fought each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, gangs of punks, skin heads and mods grabbed front page headlines.

According to youth workers, the vast majority of gangs in inner cities today are multiracial and are also under the age of 18. Despite high levels of unemployment and worsening social conditions, most young people drift away from gangs when they go into further education or start working and begin to have steady relationships. Their allegiances and friends change. A new report commissioned by the Home Office shows, however, that the richer the area the lower the levels of violence. Higher levels of recreation provision also have an impact on the levels of youth crime.

A new twist has been added to these arguments about gang violence. London's listing magazine Time Out has carried two articles arguing that a new phenomenon is developing: that of the Asian gang.

A second generation of Asians is now growing up in Britain. They rightly feel that they have every right to be here, and are not willing to be pushed around any longer. In the past few years we have seen a number of examples of Asian youth fighting back.

In 1992 a gang of five white men went on the rampage in Dmmmond Street (the heart of the Asian community in Camden). For more than half an hour the police failed to respond to telephone calls for help. By this time a gang of 15 Asians cornered the white men and beat them up. One was also stabbed with his own knife. The five white men and four Asians were arrested, with only the Asians charged. They were finally found not guilty by a jury.

However, the concentration on the rise of Asian gangs by some commentators is to turn reality on its head. The gangs are a response to racism and not the cause of racial violence. Blacks and Asians are far more likely to he attacked than whites. For example, of the 117 racial attacks reported to the police in and around the Somers Town area between January 1994 and July 1994, 54 victims were Asian, 28 were white and 13 were black. According to the CRE, this is typical of the national picture. The Metropolitan Police admits in addition that only 5-10 percent of ethnic minorities who are victims of racial crimes come forward. The police criterion for deciding what is a racist attack is that if a police officer, victim or third party believes there was a racial motive, then it is treated as such. This is open to the prejudices of those involved in reporting the incident.

The argument is further backed up by what has happened in the Somers Town area since Richard's death. The Monday after his death an Asian family was set on by a gang of 20 white youth. A halal butcher's shop was set on fire and a swastika was painted on the burnt out remains. Four Asian men were threatened by a group of white men with knives. Most of these incidents were caused by Nazis from outside the area, but they do help to explain why young Asians are in the gangs.

Britain is not anything like America, where large sections of the population live on the fringes of society. Gangs have become a conveyor belt into serious crime and violence. In some inner city ghettos young men celebrate reaching their 25th birthday because gang violence claims more lives of young people than illness or accidents. The welfare system in Britain helps prevent this scenario occurring.

However, socialists should not be complacent. Thousands of young people roam Britain streets and estates with no hope and future and are often drawn into petty crime and random violence. Frustration can also lead to young people and gangs drawing racist conclusions and directing it towards blacks and Asians. Socialists not only have to provide a vision of a better society but have to fight to draw young people into struggles and campaigns that mean they fight the system and not each other.

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