Does the girl gang coverage in media reflect the reality?

Bad girls make good stories. In recent months, tales of female gang violence and criminal activity have popped up in news, movies and music across the globe. But does the coverage reflect the reality? Are young women really getting more dangerous? Or are they more in danger than ever? HUCK reached out to three former female gang members from London, now helping to protect young people, to find out what’s really going down on the streets.

It’s March 8, 2012, and swarms of young people are making their way into the theatre at Westminster Kingsway College in Clerkenwell, London, for a ‘Tackling Gang Crime Conference’. Over the next two hours, these sixteen and seventeen-year-olds will watch clips from 2011 girl-gang film Sket, directed by Nirpal Bhogal, and discuss the issues raised with a panel of former gang members, MPs, teachers, social workers and film industry types.

A giggle of girls with gold hoops and artful nails sit at the back of the theatre whispering and chewing gum. In front of them a group of boys in hoodies and headphones sit low and bounce to their beat. To my right, a bunch of studious-looking teens wait quietly with notepads and pens. Each group has its own codes (dress, talk, mannerisms, accessories), which each member faithfully echoes.

“What draws young people to gangs?” asks the panel as the debate kicks off and several people pipe up. “Ratings I suppose,” says one boy. “The fact that a lot of older people are giving you ratings for doing things you don’t expect yourself to be doing. So you become bigger. You get more respect.” A girl also raises her hand. “I think people get drawn to gangs because they like the sense of feeling safe,” she says, “feeling like you have support by having friends around you that share the same interests, the same views, the same ideas.”

So far, so lawful. In fact, gang membership in this respect is as natural a part of adolescence as writing song lyrics on your shoestrings. But it gets problematic when, to quote dark high-school movie Heathers, your “teen-angst bullshit has a body count”. So what’s the story behind the ‘gangs’ we hear so much about on the news? More and more young people are dying on the streets of London each year but are crews like UntouchablesRaiders Posse and Get Money Gangsterz really at the root of the problem? How much is just fear and myth? And if it’s true that more girls are getting involved – why now? To get some truths about this storied world, I reached out to three women who went through gang hell and came out the other side.

Thirty-three-year-old Tracey Miller meets us at her sunny South London home during the Easter school holidays. Her two girls, nine months and fourteen, are upstairs listening to Nicki Minaj.

Tracey has worked as a mentor and advisor over the years, but now focuses her efforts on secure units and young offenders’ institutions where she feels she is most needed. She started “becoming a demon” when she was just twelve years old. “I grew up in Brixton in an Islamic household,” she says. “I didn’t understand Islam at the time so I felt very oppressed. My mum’s a manic-depressive and my dad’s incarcerated for life. I had no one to turn to so I took to the streets and became very wayward.”

After proving herself to her peers she became involved in a mixed-sex group that seemed bent on disruption. “Being in a gang was like having a family; someone to speak to,” she says. “And I could hide behind what I was really feeling. No one knew what was going on at home. I needed the adrenaline rush and boys were more into dangerous things. So we used to rob establishments: banks, bookies, anything like that. I was quite dangerous for a while. I’ve stabbed people, been shot, gone to jail. And that’s how I earned my respect. I proved myself many times. I wanted to be top dog, especially being the girl, it was a challenge for me.”

So, when does rolling with your crew turn into ’gang life’? ‘There are many definitions of what constitutes a gang,’ says Dr. Susan Batchelor in her 2009 Girls, Gangs and Violence report. ‘From a group of young people who spend time hanging out together in public spaces through to a strictly hierarchical, malevolent and organised criminal network.’ According to the Eurogang Network, a gang is any ‘durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity’. Research suggests gangs are territorial, making fast money from drugs, robberies and other illegal trade, they usually have identifiable traits (themed tees, hand signals, codewords, etc.) and are predominantly male with females taking up peripheral roles as girlfriends, carriers, honeytrappers or sex objects (gang members often rape females as initiation). So do all-girl gangs exist? “Yeah they do exist,” says Tracey, “you need to understand that there are young women out there who are just as angry if not angrier at life than I was who are willing to go out there and commit crimes all by themselves.”

Detective Chief Inspector Petrina Cribb, who manages the MET’s anti-gang mentoring scheme HEART, is critical of attempts to exaggerate the involvement of women in gang life. “I’m not aware of any data that shows that young women are becoming more actively involved in gangs,” she says. “It’s a good story that it’s a ‘growing problem’ but overwhelmingly, almost 100 per cent of gang members are men or boys. Women’s share of crime is relatively low and remains relatively low. When women do commit crime, they tend to get demonised by society.”

Batchelor agrees that there is a lack of evidence about girl gangs in the UK (the US has much more info due to a larger gang problem). But she acknowledges that it may be because girls and young women don’t speak up. Where there is information it tends to be written “solely from the perspective of young men,” says Batchelor. Often, ‘girl gangstas’ are oversimplified as sexually liberated post-feminist criminals or sexually exploited victims. But what about the more nuanced positions? Do some girls turn to gangs instead of police for protection? Perhaps young women in the UK feel let down by rape conviction rates, for example, which are so low? “Certainly the evidence is that girls are raped because they are associated with gangs,” says Cribb, “not turning to gangs because they have been raped… In a large number of cases the reason it doesn’t go to conviction is because the victims themselves don’t want to pursue it. The MET provides an excellent supportive approach to women. I don’t necessarily think that’s really understood by the public.”

Tracey agrees that the perception of police within certain areas of London is not good. “Young people think, ‘Why would you go to the police?’” she says. “This is your gang, this is your unit, this is what you live for. We were raised on the notion, ‘Informers must die.’ So you dare not inform.”

If girls do join gangs for protection, they certainly don’t find it. For Tracey, it was concern for her newborn daughter that made her drop out, finally leaving gang life for good at the age of twenty-four. But having children doesn’t stop everyone, as Jennifer Blake, now forty-five, can attest.

Jennifer “went off the rails” at the age of thirteen and didn’t quit till she was thirty-seven. “I had a wonderful family background,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I got to secondary school that all hell broke loose. I started rebelling against my parents and wanted to stay out late. I made new friends that didn’t have any discipline at home and could do whatever they wanted. I wanted to be a part of that – it looked fun.”

Jennifer, still living in Peckham where she grew up, became too difficult for her parents to control and was put in care until she was eighteen and she had her son. But that didn’t stop her. “I continued living a dangerous and reckless life,” she says, “from robbing people on the street to becoming a gang leader. I started dealing drugs, guns were involved. It was all about money and power… I saw a lot of friends get killed. [..] I went through domestic violence. I was kidnapped. I was tortured. […] I went through literal hell just to keep a reputation. I wanted to get out of it, but I was so used to that way of living. A nine-to-five job? No, not really, that wasn’t gonna sustain the way I wanted to live.”

Jennifer’s turning point came in the form of religion and she set upSafe’n’Sound (then called Eternal Life Support) in 2004 to help those dealing with similar issues. “We’re here to give young people an opportunity and environment where they can make changes in their own lives,” says Jennifer, sitting in her cool, bustling office. “We can guide them, we can direct them… We can support them every step of the way but they have to go through their own journey to become the adult they’re going to be.”

Reputation and identity are recurring themes in the conversation around gang culture, and they are particularly complex in a female context. “It’s hard for girls these days because the media tells them how they should look, dress, wear their hair and act,” says Jennifer. “Media and music brings the girls low self-esteem and sometimes it’s hard for them to keep up. Especially if they haven’t got the money… We live in a consuming world. You have to have the latest phone, the latest thing, the latest man and the latest man has got to be involved in some form of gang activity. That’s the mentality we need to get out of these young people. We tell them: be yourself. The most powerful thing and the greatest thing is being different. Wear funky clothes! Wear dem big glasses! And then you’ll probably start off a new trend.”

Remember being a teen? Image is everything. “I think there is something about the sort of flamboyant way in which girls dress, which is quite unique,” says Dr. Tina Rae who released the education aid Girl Gangs: A Programme of Education and Support for Girls Vulnerable to Gang Culture in March. “The Peckham Girls in South London, for example, who are mainly about thirteen or fourteen years old, wear golden sun visors, pink fluorescent leggings, red jackets, baseball caps, loads of bling jewellery, double earrings, rings on every single finger, and blue or green contact lenses. And in a way I can see that there’s a feeling of empowerment in that, being part of the group, being safe. But I would question the word empowerment here. This is making a clone of somebody, making them the same as everyone else in order to be accepted. And asking, forcing, or peer-pressuring them into behaviours that are not safe, that are not healthy and that can ultimately lead to breakdown.”

Tracey sees the same kind of motivation in the young women she works with. “We’re built up on this celebrity lifestyle thing and that’s what a gangster is,” she says. “He keeps himself current, he’s always got the latest trend: cars, gold, jewellery, phones. So the girls are attracted to that status… Also, because it’s documented quite a lot, it does seem cool. In a lot of music videos the guys are rapping about guns, drugs and women. The ladies in the videos are looking like Katie Price-types so we have a culture of youths that want to be Katie Prices and rappers.”

Peaches Cadogan of Reality Bytes, an organisation that helps young people embrace the positive aspects of youth culture, believes that everyone needs to take action to sort this shit out. “Each individual has a responsibility. Young people have a responsibility and I believe that we, as adults, have a greater responsibility to be able to lead by example and implement change,” she says. “If you’re not positively engaging, like the work we’re doing, it’s just going to get even more chaotic and more young people are going to lose their lives. There are more guns on the street now. These guns didn’t just miraculously fall to earth. They had to come from somewhere. How the hell do guns get past customs? You can’t blame that on young people!”

Jennifer also suggests that there are more sinister, organised forces controlling the streets. “The young people you’re talking about are not in gangs, they’re serious group offenders,” she says. “The gangsters are the ones on the top that you don’t really hear about. They’re using young individuals to do their drug dealing and so forth. The young people on the street just want to get involved because it’s ‘in’. Sometimes they don’t even get involved, they just find themselves caught up in it. They all go to the same schools and they all move together.”

‘Ratings’ from an older person can be significant to someone who hasn’t had much support growing up. Peaches, now thirty-five, was born into a difficult household in North London and she found a sense of self-worth from gang life. “I was getting praise on the streets,” she says. “I was getting hugged by people everyday on the street. My name was shouted from the rooftops. I had never had that feeling before.” She was also desperate to flee the traditional female roles she had been exposed to. “I ran away from home because I saw my mum being battered,” she says. “I was very angry and I sent that anger out into the public. I was the girl who was sent to deal with problems. I always used to stand my own ground, it was imperative that I could not be one of those girls that was being beat up or used by guys. Growing up in an Afro-Caribbean home, the women had to do the housework and the men could sit down and read the paper or go to the pub or bookies. I mean it happens to Caucasians as well, but I thought it was mad!”

A conviction in 1998 led to a two-year prison sentence for Peaches and it was there that she began to look at things differently. “I went to Clean Break [an independent theatre dealing with women in crime] and that saved my life,” she says. “I launched Reality Bytes in 2007-08 to help young people tap into themselves through the arts. Reality Bytes is about youth and community cohesion – that means nurturing, supporting, listening. That means giving young people aid where necessary.”

Peaches, who worked as a mentor on BBC Three’s Peckham Finishing School For Girls series, thinks the negative representation of youth in the media feeds into the way they see themselves. “Young people as a whole do not have a stable platform to have a voice to be heard and respected,” she says. “Half of them feel lied to, patronised, none of them really trust… I’m a communicator to help express what they’re trying to get out, but I’d like to see more young people have that platform themselves.”

There are many reasons girls, and young people in general, are drawn to gangs. Some are just a part of growing up, some more sinister. And the solutions can be equally as complex. Overwhelmingly, research shows that young people grow out of gang life, if they survive it, but with youth unemployment at an all-time high, funding cuts to community-based projects and the continued glamourisation of the ‘gangster lifestyle’ in the press and pop culture, positive outlets for young people in London are few and far between.

At the end of last year, Home Secretary Theresa Maycommissioned the Ending Gangs and Youth Violence report, which warned that there are as many as 200 rival groups in London alone. As a result, millions of pounds are being put into solutions that include a hardened Trident Gangs Crime Command to enforce crackdowns. But is more policing really what these communities need? “It’s a balance of prevention, intervention, reassurance and enforcement,” says DCI Cribb. “Certainly the Trident Gangs Crime Command has got a partnership and prevention arm to it. The police are doing really good work in terms of prevention. HEART, which provides group work and multiple mentoring for vulnerable young people, is a part of that.”

Critics are also quick to point out reports of racially motivated prejudice in Trident’s ranks. Although gang culture affects people from all different ethnic backgrounds (the breakdown in Glasgow and Liverpool, for example, is almost entirely white), Chairperson of the Trident Independent Advisory Group Claudia Webbe has warned against the lazy stereotyping that goes on: “Trident is heading a gang strategy, and we have to be cautious about that. First of all, problems with gangs are not necessarily to do with the black community. Youth violence affects all communities. Secondly the word ‘gang’ has to be used carefully. Youth violence happens, and oversimplifying it as ‘gang’ violence isn’t helpful.” Tracey echoes the diverse nature of the problem. “The secure units I deal with have no black kids at all so like you said it’s definitely widespread,” she says. “Truth is that only black people are speaking out about it.”

Peaches supports the police but feels frustrated by funding decisions. “Government are spending money willy nilly, but they’re not improving the agencies that do exist by helping them get the necessary support,” she says. “Communities should be telling government where money should be spent. And then you would start to see crime rates go down and education grades go up.” Jennifer echoes her concern. “If you take away places like Safe’n’Sound and places for youths, then that’s it,” she says. “The riots weren’t nothing. We cried out and said, ‘We need more support!’ for years and they did nothing. But then all hell broke loose and they could see the other countries looking at England so they wanted to introduce all these initiatives.”

Luckily, the amazing work of people like Tracey, Jennifer and Peaches proves that if you present young people with a better way of life, they will usually choose it. You just can’t expect this generation to play by society’s rules when society doesn’t offer them much in return.