“I USED TO BE IN A GANG!”: When is a gang not a gang?

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With mainstream media and the Federal Government leading a racist moral panic about ‘African gangs’ apparently tormenting wide sections of Australian society, True Crime News Weekly correspondent Gary Johnston shares his experiences of growing up with youth gangs on the mean streets of Glasgow and wonders why some groups of young men ‘become’ gangs.

* * * * *

I used to be in a gang.

Glasgow, my home town, was notorious for its street gangs in the 1960’s and 70’s, random groupings of male youth who proudly – in my case somewhat reluctantly – declared themselves members of Gaucho, The Young Toi, The Mad Squad, The Remo and literally hundreds of other appellations which we’d typically tag on the side of buildings; ‘Remo Rule. OK?’.

Of course, to the lieges, using the word ‘gang’, instantly delivered us an appreciative level of credibility. So much more threatening and therefore satisfactory than, ‘bunch of bored young blokes with nothing better to do’, which is basically what they – we – were.

In truth, my participation was decidedly peripheral, affiliation being a considered decision on the basis that membership provided me a certain level of safety in numbers, protection and quasi-fraternity. The way I saw it, it was a bit like being in The Freemasons, minus the rolled up trouser leg, funny handshake and (alleged) obligation to shag sheep.

An old lag once told me that being in prison is like waiting at a bus stop in a very dodgy part of town; completely alone and thus, highly vulnerable. Being in a gang means literally waiting at a bus stop in a dodgy part of town and not being alone and that is a massive element in its attraction. Being a part of something. Even if that something, is nothing, much.

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I was reminded of my gang days this week when, this time of the year being a slow news period, politicians on the right side of politics decided to spread a bit of fearful unhappiness around by focusing on the so called ‘Sudanese gang problem’, which, the mainstream media would like us to believe, is terrorising the entire Melbourne community. So much so, that according to newly minted Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, Melburnians can no longer grab some chow at a restaurant due to the fear of becoming the latest victim of a violent African ne’er-do-well.

Now, there is no doubt that some – far from all – young men of African origin are choosing to associate when out and about in Australia’s most liveable city, but then, when you’re so obviously targeted as a dissolute troublemaker – Victoria Police habitually refer to such youth as ‘Monkeys’ and ‘Slims’; both wholly pejorative, racist terms designed for intent – can you altogether blame them?

Surely it makes sense to seek some sort of safety in numbers if the mere colour of your skin and cultural background carries with it a general assumption you’re up to no good, a supposition even the Prime Minister duly purported only the other day? (But then, Malcolm Turnbull, a man who treats Australia like a birthday present his parents bought him because he already has everything else, is in a hole and, as befits a spoiled little rich kid, anything he can use to dig himself out is undoubtedly worth a try.)

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Some young men of African origin have been guilty of violent crime in recent times, but no more so – in fact decidedly less – than youth of other backgrounds who, presumably due to their being far less recognisable, have not been racially identified and grouped together as lawless and out of control.

Most crime in Australia is – surprise, surprise, committed by Australians. According to the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency (CSA) over 70% of violent crime is committed by people born in this country who identify as ‘Australian’ in background. And whilst people from Sudanese backgrounds are slightly over represented in the statistics – this is offset by the undeniable fact that crime generally and youth crime in particular, has a clear and direct correlation with unemployment, poverty, disaffection and discrimination, all factors which many immigrants inevitably confront.

Furthermore, far from runaway disorder, the youth crime rate in Victoria actually fell in 2017, according to CSA figures.

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But of course, such facts don’t sell newspapers, extricate failing prime ministers or fire up keyboard warriors; already various Facebook groups advocating ‘sending them back where they came from’ have been established. Racists, like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, simply can’t handle the truth.

What is beyond dispute however, is that endowing the word ‘gang’ on any group of people, young or not, carries a definite opprobrium, performing a double whammy – inspiring fear in the general newspaper reading public whilst at the same time delivering a certain level of esteem in those who so identify, even if their activities, as mine certainly were, are confined to hanging out, trying to look tough and attempting to deal with terminal boredom.

That politicians – and the Prime Minister no less – think it acceptable to spread angst and panic by claiming that gang culture is out of control in Melbourne when the reality suggests anything but, for the simple purpose of scoring turd like brownie points, is utterly and hopelessly disingenuous, unethical and essentially, desperate.

But then, are we surprised? Hardly.

As we dissolute members of The Remo probably should have said – ‘Politicians Don’t Rule. OK?’

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