We spoke to Sheldon Thomas, founder of Gangsline, to talk kids, gangs, and why Rihanna is a bad influence
The UK has a gang problem. Recent estimates put the number of young men and women involved in gang activity at 150,000. As social deprivation and youth disengagement levels rise in British towns and cities, the escape route of gang membership, and the sense of belonging it brings, is worse now than it has ever been. The riots in August 2011, despite the outpouring of disgust and anger by the wider public, underlined the volatile tinderbox of deprivation, inequality and unease which have been stirring throughout the estates of inner-city Britain for many years. A forgotten underclass with no hope who have been cut-off from society, a perfect breeding ground for gang activity.
“What we see is a disaffected underclass that the country has forgotten. Young people who have grown up in fatherless households with no role models beyond the gang leader or drug pusher.” Step forward Gangsline, a service that offers a dedicated phone line to current gang members who, whatever the social reason for finding themselves involved, find it almost impossible to leave. Almost. Its chief executive and founder, Sheldon Thomas, is a pioneering and inspirational individual. Even whilst speaking on the phone, on a cold dreary Thursday afternoon in mid-November, that much became blindingly apparent.
Much has been said about the reasons behind the surge in gang activity around the UK, but with government funding either cut due to growing austerity, or youth service initiatives dogged by risk assessments and a lack of credibility, finding a way to target the most hard-to-reach young people has proved nigh on impossible.
Gangsline, in theory at least, has started to buck this trend since Sheldon first founded it back in 2007. “It all started after a series of fatal shootings all over one weekend involving young black men,” he tells me. “I decided there and then that something needed to be done about it. I went over to Jamaica to see if I could engage with hardcore gang members knowing that if I could engage with proper gangs in Jamaica, a place with real gang problems, not just imitations, it could be done over here.”
For Sheldon, the real success came in securing the credibility needed to gain their trust. “It came by surprise really, as an ex-gang member you’ve got that credence that maybe other services haven’t got. It sounds funny them talking to me as if I’m Al Capone but they saw me as an old G, someone who was old school.”
What Sheldon saw, though, wasn’t just a London-centric problem. “After a while it became apparent that young white kids were starting to mimic black culture in both language and culture, especially up north. This imitation had started to evolve into gang issues but in places such as Croxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester it was generational criminality, young gangs who related to their dads and uncles who were already affiliated with crime. In the south they haven’t got these problems, it is more an imitation of this American, Jamaican, urban black culture thing.”
The reality for Sheldon, though, is significant, “Gang life is worse now than it has ever been. There is a shifting in age group, young nine- or 10-year-olds riding around on their bikes, dealing. Gang leaders hang outside the school gates ready to recruit, but the schools refuse to let us in so we can run awareness classes and education for fear of ruining the reputation of the school.”
According to Sheldon, gangs are evolving into much more worrying territory: “What we have also started to see is an increase in gang-rapes. Seven, eight, nine, 10 in a group targeting vulnerable young girls. The same girls who watch videos by Rihanna and Miley Cyrus and imitate their clothes and dress sense. The difference is Rihanna has 10 bodyguards. These artists are detrimental to the lives of young people. Music and the culture it promotes is rapidly destroying our communities.” In only July of this year, a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped by three teenagers who befriended her on the street in Walthamstow, whilst a recent Guardian article talks about the ‘normalisation’ of gang rape amongst some girls who associate themselves with gangs.
‘Artists like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus are detrimental to the lives of young people’
In light of such a horrendous reality, does the future hold any hope? ”What we see is a disaffected underclass that the country has forgotten. Young people who have grown up in fatherless households with no role models beyond the gang leader or drug pusher. There isn’t enough housing stock, especially in and around London, to move people out of the area so the thinking process, the strategy, has to look long term.”
For Gangsline, an organisation that relies solely on donations to survive, the future is far from certain. “We have got nowhere near enough money to do what we need to do, but we do it because we want to. We want to make a difference. We don’t just offer a phone line, but support, guidance and referrals to other key services. For most, though, it is sowing that seed of hope. A realisation that they do have a choice.”
With social mobility almost impossible for the young people associated with gangs, it is down to third sector services such as Gangsline to offer a glimmer hope. Hope for those whose presence is so far removed from even the lowest tiers of the working classes that society would prefer it if they simply did not exist. Gang problems have endured for centuries, and they aren’t going to go away any time soon.