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Nick Ryan travels the streets of London's East End, witnessing unique efforts to stem the tide of gang-related violence.


THEY CALL themselves a gang, but they seem barely men. Their name is taken from the estate around us, dark stairwells and closed doors just visible under a railway arch. We are close to Cable Street, the famous East London road once known for its sailors and brothels, and where Oswald Moseley's fascist party tried to march in the 1930s.

"You're a copper, innit?" says one blue-hooded youth. He sucks in through his teeth. The rapper 50 Cent booms on in the background. "Yeah...Mr Undercover Cop," he repeats. The others eye me with suspicion. They are convinced that a van parked nearby is an unmarked police vehicle – mine.

There is the sound of breaking glass as a taillight is put in. The smell of marijuana is strong. A car screeches around a corner, two Bangladeshi men in front, three white girls in the back. Good-natured insults are traded in 'Benglish' (a mix of English and Bengali) with the kids on the street. A door opens somewhere and a stream of young men, about 30 strong, flood out, all baseball caps and slicked hair. It is 9pm and Friday night is just warming up.

This is Europe's most powerful metropolis. Barely a couple of miles away the City glitters. Canary Wharf beckons from its needle-like point. Yet down here, here in 'the Abyss' as the American author Jack London once called it, life can be dictated by the street and estate.

Unemployment and overcrowding among the predominantly Bangladeshi population are high, drugs (particularly heroin) and prostitution evident. Everyone seems somehow related, through extended family and village networks that have travelled over from Sylhet in northern Bangladesh. One hundred years ago the East End was the centre of the Jewish community in England. Now the call to prayer sounds out from the towering East London Mosque.

Gangs have blighted this land, too – though you might say they are more typically 'groups', usually young men between 14-25, who 'claim' patches of territory (the same estates and alleys once associated with gangsters like the Kray Twins). They go by such names as the Brick Lane Massive, Stepney Terror Posse, Canon Street Posse and others. Whilst Gordon Ramsay and Hells Kitchen is being filmed from inside the old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane (the heart of 'Banglatown', as it is known, and a popular curry centre), a pub barely yards away had recently been petrol-bombed by local youths.

The Metropolitan Police feels that the crime problem among South Asians in London now warrants the creation of a special unit, similar to Operation Trident (tackling gun crime amongst the black community). The Met's Specialist Crime Directorate Assistant Commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, warns of "crime ridden ghettos" if the idea is not taken up.

"It's normal to get into fights here over drugs or a little local 'beef'. Maybe a girl. It's not racial, it's territorial," says 'Ali', a former Shadwell gang member. "Everyone smokes [hashish] but some of these kids are into it [heroin and crack] hardcore."

"Top shotta is the man getting the drugs," he explains. "They might meet barons bringing it in, then they give it to their little 'soldiers' to hand out." Such drugs are cut quickly and then hidden from prying (police) eyes. Heroin and crack get a far better price than cannabis, so economics dictates the situation for local dealers. I'm told that drugs are being dealt in literally every building, every block.

But there is a fightback. A community-led response to deal with the call of the gang. It has helped young men like Ali find new direction and new life.

Khalid is part of this team. He is a soft-spoken undergraduate, a polite young man whom any mother would be happy to call her son. He was once feared on the streets for his charisma as a gang leader. He now works for a project called the Rapid Response Team (RRT), set up by the local Tower Hamlets council.

Whilst Khalid's colleagues deal with prevention and mentoring using a series of mobile youth centres, or talk with community members, he is on the sharp end of the problem. At a moment's notice he might be called out by police or residents to help break up a gang fight or tackle anti-social behaviour. The young men look up to Khalid because he was once one of them. You can see it in their greetings as he walks up. His presence can calm things. But it isn't easy. When we first talked, he was dealing with the aftermath of a near-decapitation. The next time it was a shooting.

"These kids, they're out of touch with our culture: the elders have lived one part of their life abroad and don't understand the younger Bengalis around them," he says. Many parents still want to arrange marriages for their children or try to send them back to Bangladesh if they misbehave. "We are tight, close. But we are also confused." He tilts his head and sighs. "I have my father and mother's culture to uphold, and western culture too. I turn on the TV and I hear about Islamophobia. How do you balance all of these factors?"

Though the team deals with mass violence, anti-social situations can often be worse. As Khalid says: "We've had an incident where there's a single mother and she can't walk up to her flat because there are 10-15 boys who will hang around and urinate on the place, who take up all the stairwell. Now for her that behaviour is far worse than a full-blown fight."

The gangs are almost like a family. Because of overcrowding, and lack of identity, kids often spend a great deal of time on the streets. Educational achievement is low, muggings and street crime high. "Even our own aunties and uncles [Bangladeshi elders] have been mugged..." mentions one of Khalid's colleagues sadly.

Islam has a part to play too. It has turned around Abu Mu'min's life, another troubled figure now a father and social worker. "For most of the people you meet, those who've come out the other side, faith has been central. I'm sure a lot of young people are confused, but they want to get married some day, not remain the same. There's so many pressures, mental health problems too. You need spirituality: you look at the Creator and you feel peace."

The 34-year-old Mu'min works for BLYDA, the Brick Lane Youth Development Association. Situated in an old school building just off Vallance Road (the Krays' old stomping ground) it has respect on the street: it was founded by ex-hardcore offenders. One of its first acts was to mediate between a huge gang dispute involving hundreds of men and youths from Poplar and Brick Lane.

"This was back in '97. We'd have large scale fights taking place over the area. People were getting seriously injured. We're talking about axes, knives and hammers and some of the young people then are still serving prison time as a result. There was no hope. The police and the community didn't know what to do."

"BLYDA [or the Brick Lane Youth Club as it was then] came in and organised a peace conference at the only neutral ground, which was the East London Mosque. We had 150-180 on each side. They were preparing to get guns. Our members spoke to them and explained how it was important to work together. We managed to calm it all down."

From this was born the 'Aasha' gang mediation service, a neutral broker for when problems arise. Out of this success has come a mentoring service, a youth at risk programme and female mentoring project, Amaal. Wider problems still surround the area, though.

Community members say police racism is high. They point to the City institutions and Docklands, where on average salaries sit at £60,000. Few Bangladeshis work there. There is a vacuum in identity and opportunity that has made integration harder. Their forefathers were known as the men of the thirteen seas and seven rivers, crossing oceans of water to come here for a new life. Many secretly hoped to return. What life now beckons for their children?

This story was commissioned for The Big Issue magazine© 2004



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