A new youth work video explores the myths and realities of Bengali ‘gangs’ in Tower Hamlets, east London. Claire Alexander, the author of a book on Asian gangs, discusses her involvement in the project.
It is now nearly two years since the outbreak of unrest that scarred previously forgotten towns and communities across the midlands and north of England throughout the spring and summer of 2001. Two years on, the protests seem to have achieved little. The young men at the heart of the storm remain now, as then, curiously elusive figures, their voices unheard and their needs unmet.
Asian young men in Britain are rarely discussed in public discourse outside the stereotypes that have sprung up in the nearly-fifteen years since The Satanic Verses affair brought Asian/Muslim youth dramatically to public attention. ‘The rioter’ forms the latest in a series of off-the-peg folk devils, which also includes ‘the fundamentalist’, ‘the underclass’, ‘the terrorist’ and, of course, ‘the Asian gang’. Each marks a reworking of longstanding concerns about Asian communities and Black young men in Britain, seamlessly fusing ideas of difference, dysfunction and the threat of violence. Photos of burnt-out BMWs and swaggering masked young men with petrol bombs merge with half-remembered images of bearded crowds and book burnings to mark this new enemy within.
The image of the ‘gang’ conjures US ghetto-style fictions of racially distinct groups, highly organised, hostile, anti-social and dangerous. ‘Gang’ members are pictured as Black or minority ethnic, working-class young men, who are unable to achieve status or success in mainstream society and fall back on an illusion of masculine strength, achieved through acts of violence and criminal activity with their peer group.
While it is possible, and necessary, to challenge this imagery, the uncomfortable fact remains that the idea of the ‘gang’ continues to provide a convenient and self-fulfilling explanation for the ongoing inequalities and violence that scar the lives of too many young men. And we should not overlook the attractions of hip-hop machismo on the streets of urban Britain, as a reach for some kind of control by Black young men themselves. But questioning the ‘gang’ stereotypes does allow them to be placed in context – to be seen not as a natural part of simply being Black and young and male and urban but as part of a broader and more complex process. But how does that help to bring about change on a practical level, for example through youth work? I recently had the opportunity to explore these issues, with the invitation to work on a manual to accompany a video project being produced by filmmaker, Ranjit Lohia, and youth worker, Muksood Shaikh, on ‘gangs’ in East London.
It’s a mug’s game video project
If I am honest, I had some initial reservations about the project: given that my writing was primarily concerned with questioning the mythology of the ‘Asian gang’, how could I be involved in a film about ‘gangs’? As it turned out, Ranjit and Muksood were struggling with the same questions – wanting to deal with the often very harsh realities of life for Bengali young men in East London, without falling back on the too-easy explanations around poverty, culture and ‘gang’ life. Most of all, they wanted to make a film which would offer these young men both a reflection of their lives that they would recognise and the tools to be able to look critically at themselves and make changes.
The resulting film, It’s a Mug’s Game, explores the myths and realities of ‘gang’ life in Tower Hamlets. It is a deliberately local film, made with a very specific audience in mind – the local Bengali young men and the schoolteachers and youth workers who work with them – but its approach has more general implications for work with young people and for policy-makers. Tower Hamlets has long been considered a ‘problem’ area, with high rates of racial violence, bad housing, educational underachievement, poverty, drug use and crime. Bengali ‘gangs’ have been a focal point of concern, with unemployment rates of nearly 60 per cent for Bengali men and rising levels of violent crime and drugs offences within the Bengali community. Young men, perhaps as young as 12, spend their free time in groups based on individual estates, and this has led, on occasion, to territorially based conflict. To call these groups ‘gangs’, however, is to attribute them a coherence and vicarious glamour that is totally unwarranted, and it is the more mundane realities of ‘gang’ life that the film explores and offers up for discussion.
The film presents what might best be described as a ‘career’ of ‘gang’ life, through the eyes of a small number of former ‘gang’ members, who reflect back on their involvement in ‘gang’ culture. This is cut with testimonies of victims of ‘gang’ violence, the police, youth workers and paramedics, and with dramatic reconstructions using local Bengali young men. By taking a ‘warts and all’ view from ‘the inside’, the film offers neither judgement nor justification, but a basis for engagement and critical reflection – sometimes shocking, but never sensationalist. The purpose of the film is practical, with a strong commitment to making changes at the local and individual level. It is designed to be used, not merely seen. As only one half of a dialogue, it offers more visceral yet empathetic insights into the lives of Asian young men that the traditional view-from-a-safe-distance approaches cannot, or will not, attempt.
It’s just a shame the young men of Oldham, Leeds, Burnley and Bradford never got the same chance.