Waltham Forest Council has recently published a report called “From Postcodes to Profit”, which looks into the changing nature of gangs in this London borough.
The report concludes that gangs in Waltham Forest, as well as in the rest of London, are becoming more money orientated in the drug trade and less attached to specific territory, and are even having to take their operations outside of London in order to capture new markets.
The report links this to rising house prices and growing poverty in the capital. The crisis of capitalism, which has lasted a decade now, is the root cause of these changes.
Tory austerity has led to skyrocketing inequality, unemployment and underemployment. The sale of social housing for the profit of private landlords, meanwhile, has inflated house prices and is pricing working people out of the capital. In Waltham Forest, in particular, gentrification is accelerating this process.
Of course, these processes are not unique to Waltham Forest: they are representative of processes happening throughout London and the rest of the UK. We can only fully understand the conclusions of this report if we also understand this context.
From crime to enterprise
So what does the report say?
From interviews with professionals, young people, and ex-gang members, it seems that gangs now care much less about controlling particular territory and much more about making profits. This involves keeping a low profile and avoiding police attention.
The conclusion of the report is that some gangs are moving out of stages of “recreation” (where criminal activity is opportunistic, and the gang is peer-group based) and “crime” (where crime becomes a means of funding the gang’s activities, which become more organised) to a so-called “enterprise” stage.
This means that gangs are operating more professionally than before and are focusing on making profits through developed business practices. The report states that in Waltham Forest, one gang, the Mali Boys, has reached this stage and is dominating the gang landscape in the borough.
Again, this is not isolated to Waltham Forest; and the dominance of the Mali Boys is not a unique phenomenon. Across London, gangs are moving into the “enterprise” stage and becoming more dominant in their areas as a result.
What drives gang development?
The main driver of gang recruitment is poverty. New recruits join gangs as an alternative to employment, to make their own income, or to supplement whatever their family has. The crisis is putting more people into poverty, and in particular those in working poverty.
This means, firstly, that gangs are finding it easier to recruit. Secondly, growing poverty and a lack of opportunities for young women, combined with additional pressure to provide for their families, are forcing more of them into gang involvement. The crisis of capitalism hits working class women particularly hard. Women and girls are therefore increasingly more involved in gangs than at any time previously.
Crucially, the crisis requires gangs to become viable long-term providers of employment and income for their members. Attachment to a particular housing estate seems unimportant compared to finding a way to survive. And members find it hard to leave the gangs, whether due to threats of violence or the insecurity of the job market.
All this pushes gangs to become more professionalised and even more focused on profit-making to sustain their members over time. And this is what causes the development “from postcodes to profit” – from a focus on defence of territory for prestige to a defence of territory as a market.
In the search for new drugs markets, London gangs are spreading outside of the capital “across county lines”, and particularly to seaside towns.
The drive for profit therefore forces gangs to abandon their attachment to any particular territory. Why stay in a physical area where you are being priced out by gentrification and the sale of social housing? In a race to the bottom, it makes sense to chase profits wherever they can be found - whether in or out of London.
Violence and exploitation
The focus on making profits means that gangs must exploit their members, most of whom are children. The Times has reported that over 30,000 children between 10-15 years of age now say that they are in gangs. New gang members do the vast majority of street selling - but like in any capitalist business, the vast majority of the profits end up at the top of the hierarchy.
Gangs use any number of threatening and violent methods against their members to maximise their profits. This includes deception, intimidation, grooming, trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Girls in gangs are particularly vulnerable to the latter, but both male and female gang members are exposed to sexual violence.
Gang life provides no real alternative for the young people who get involved. Gangs recruit mainly from young people living in poverty, who are highly vulnerable to grooming and exploitation.
One feature of the “enterprise” stage of gang development is that violence becomes more a tool for protecting the gang’s business than as a means of solidifying gang identity. This has made gangs more ruthless, especially when it comes to their treatment of their own members.
An illustrative story in the report describes a new gang member, aged 14, being called in the middle of the night to take a sports bag containing £3,000 worth of crack cocaine across county lines to a seaside town, with the promise of £500 upon his successful return.
Upon arrival, he was attacked (by individuals who are likely to have been members of his own gang) and the bag was stolen. This left him in “debt bondage”: he owed the gang money and they could control him on this basis.
Partly as a result - and partly as a cause - of this kind of violence and intimidation, those involved in gangs are at higher risk of of mental health problems. These include conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder, anxiety disorders, psychosis, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts.
Despite all this, the testimony of ex-gang members reveals that those who join gangs continue to see them as a viable alternative to their pre-gang lives. And who can blame them? The future that capitalism offers is one of unemployment or underemployment, insufficient and overpriced housing and underfunded schools, hospitals and mental health services.
But the kind of violence and intimidation the debt bondage story reflects is integral to the operation of this new breed of professionalised gang. Young people’s involvement in such activity is an indictment of capitalism, which brings about the poverty and mental health problems that force those young people onto this path, and which means that they have nowhere else to go when they try to leave.
What is the council’s solution? The answer is, essentially, more of the same.
Currently, the council’s gang strategy, in keeping with London-wide strategy, is to work locally and with individual gang members, encouraging members to leave gangs, offering rehabilitation, and intervening early to stop young people becoming involved in gangs.
In response to the report, the council is allocating £806,000 over four years to its gang prevention programme, added to the £2.2 million that is planned for the programme over that period already. On top of this they are funding a task force with the capacity to seize proceeds from gang activity.
None of this is a fundamental change from what has come before. It addresses the symptoms of the problem but does not solve the problem itself.
The idea for a task force with heightened capacity to seize assets is a merely punitive response to a problem that has much deeper causes, and it will not help. None of these policies go anywhere near far enough in tackling the crisis in employment and social services that is driving the development in gangs.
That said, the inadequacy of the response of Waltham Forest council is nothing when compared to the Tory government’s policy, which is at best useless and mostly actively harmful.
The intervention, exit and rehabilitation programmes mentioned above can only work on an individual level. Austerity has left local authorities without the resources to tackle rising gun and knife crime and county lines operations. Cuts to social services and the sale of social housing stock are intensifying the crisis.
Now, the latest policy proposal is that the families of those convicted of gang offenses, if they live in social housing, are to be evicted.
Not only does this draconian policy unjustly punish the innocent (as well as disproportionately punishing the poor: only those in social housing face eviction), it exacerbates the problems that lead to gang crime in the first place. A family who are turfed out of their home because one of their children has become involved in gang crime is just put back into the same cycle of poverty and violence that got them there in the first place.
No solutions under capitalism
Neither the Tories nor Labour-controlled councils like Waltham Forest seem to have a solution to the problem. Gangs are becoming more ruthless and focused on money because, increasingly, there appears to be no alternative to a capitalist system that is slipping deeper into crisis.
To break the vicious cycle of gang life we need a system that can provide basic demands - demands such as full employment, with a 30-hour working week and a genuine living wage; the restoration of properly funded social services; and a mass programme of social housing construction.
It is clear that capitalism cannot offer these. Such demands can only be achieved by breaking with capitalism - by nationalising the banks and big business under democratic workers’ control.
Only with a real fight for socialism can young people be freed from the gang violence and exploitation that capitalism breeds.