London

The gang war being waged on Britain's streets

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Media captionThe BBC's Tom Symonds talks to young people about the truth behind Britain's gang culture

In British cities, especially London, a street by street war is being fought.

Unless you know what to look for, you wouldn't notice it but the casualties continue to mount, and no-one expects it to end soon.

Every so often a major battle results in national media coverage, usually when innocents are killed or injured.

For example: Agnes Sina-Inakoju shot dead in Hoxton in April 2010; or five-year-old Thusha Kamaleswaran, paralysed after being caught in a hail of bullets in Stockwell in 2011.

The stabbing in Oxford Street's Foot Locker store on Boxing Day 2011 was another occasion; a case which provides valuable insights into the gang problem.

Burning classmate

Seydou Diarrassouba was the victim, killed by a knife blow from Jermaine Joseph which was so hard the blade broke in two.

Both were involved with gangs, but Diarrassouba was a leading figure in ABM, the loose grouping of youths from Stockwell, south London.

Since burning a classmate with a chemistry tripod at school in 2007, Diarrassouba had been arrested for stabbings, threatening victims with guns, robbery, and threatening behaviour.

He was never charged as there was never enough evidence, never any witnesses. Gangs have that effect on people.

Joseph had tried to escape the gang life by moving from south to north London.

The confrontation, rooted in the 'bad blood' between the two, erupted when they met by chance during the Boxing Day sales. Diarrassouba went for him.

On Thursday a jury cleared Joseph, believing his account that he was carrying a knife to defend himself in the event his gang past might catch up with him.

But it brutally demonstrates the difficulty of leaving a culture that sucks in the very young, and won't let them go.

'Baby' gangster

Speaking to those who've experienced it, one factor stands out: For children growing up on deprived estates the gang can become the family.

Take 'Elliot', not his real name, now a confident 16-year-old trying to move on from doing time for being involved in a stabbing.

"I felt protected," he said when I met him in the park where he used to mug people.

Image caption Seydou Diarrassouba died inside Foot Locker on Boxing Day 2011

"If I asked the gang for something I would get it. Not like my mum."

Accepting that protection means starting on something akin to a career path - complete with job titles.

"You used to call you self Young this, Tiny that, Baby this. That's how it was. There were different levels."

"In the beginning no-one really had respect for you and if you started doing stuff, everyone's starting to know who you are. Everyone be on your case and have respect for you," he said.

Members might then hope to become an 'Older'. Gang middle management.

This is stage two in the gang lifecycle - respect has been earned but it now has to be defended and that means retaliating when attacked.

'Eye for an eye'

In east London I met another former gang member who proudly showed me the glass eye and scars that resulted from being slashed across the face with a machete.

After it happened, his friends were preparing to strike back on his behalf.

"It was the only option," he said. "It's just that someone has done something to you and you have to do something back. It's an eye for an eye."

Literally, in his case.

He decided to take another path and has now become a youth worker.

But once gang members are involved in violence and other crime, they enter stage three which might be regarded as a 'professional' gang life.

Crime and violence have become important for success and no regular job can compete with the rewards and excitement.

Many gang members who have survived say they either expected to die or be jailed in their 20s, if not earlier.

Britain's street gang problem is easily misunderstood.

It is nothing like America's, where gangs are far more organised and where guns are easily available.

Here, the gang can be far more chaotic. Less a paramilitary business enterprise and more a group of friends who defend their patch and enrich themselves through crime.

Often young people will say they first become a gang when they are labelled as such by the police because they often hang around together.

One senior gang member said only then did he come up with a name for his gang.

Those who work against the gangs say regarding it as simple crime just doesn't work.

'Belonging'

The Metropolitan Police has come down hard on the gangs.

The latest figures suggest 2,000 people have been arrested since the former anti-gun unit Trident was turned into a command aimed at tackling gangs.

Its head, Commander Steve Rodhouse, said: "We recognise that gangs join people together.

"They create allegiances and tensions that generate further offending, and we'd not really paid enough attention to that in the past.

So, really since February, we've given much more attention to the concept of the gang and the crime that emanates from it than maybe we'd done before."

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the think-tank which informed the government's gang policy, said that policy is still not enough.

CSJ's Christian Guy said: "It's only got us so far."

Gangs are about "belonging, about the fact they can earn thousands of pounds which they'd never earn down the local supermarkets, it's about the mentality that says this is the best I can hope for in life.

"I don't know how many children we have to bury before we start to genuinely get to the root causes of this crisis."

A growing force of former gang members is trying to do this, through mentoring or mediation - all of whom give the same message: "We need to do more."

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