As fight for Mark Duggan’s memory rages online, the streets remain in the grip of gangs

Under heavy manners. Lewis Whyld/PA Archive

The shooting of Mark Duggan and his involvement – or not – in a north London gang has become increasingly mired in controversy, with myths and half-truths circulating freely alongside uncomfortable realities. But separating fact from fiction is a familiar challenge for those of us researching UK “gangland”.

This challenge is made all the more difficult by how the issue has played out on social networking sites. From the “hard stop” itself to the mistreatment of Duggan’s family, the subsequent demonstration, the riots, and now the inquest, all were filmed and now are replayed endlessly on the internet, a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories and controversies. This effect has allowed community members, local youths and even those far removed from Tottenham to develop an emotional connection to the case – one which fertilises mistrust and feeds into a durable local mythology.

Mark Duggan has been portrayed in two strikingly different ways: the respected family man working in a local clothes shop, and the active member of one of the UK’s most notorious organised criminal gangs, the Tottenham ManDem (TMD). Divided portraits like these are not uncommon for those on the fringes of criminality, and are familiar to those researching the involvement of young people in British gangs. It is, of course, quite possible Duggan was both things at once, and that his close family only saw one side of his life. I have interviewed active gang members who attend church with their families on Sunday morning, only to sell crack cocaine later the same day.

The evidence presented by the police did try to establish that Duggan had had connections with criminal activity. The case held Mark had been arrested several times, and that he was a “known associate” of Darrell Albert, 32, and Junior Cameron, 30, both members of the Tottenham ManDem and both now currently serving life sentences for firearm offences (attempted murder and murder, respectively). In 2013, Kevin Hutchinson-Foster, 30, was also convicted of supplying a gun to Duggan.

Other aspects of the case may appear foggy, but the case as a whole has highlighted a number of pressing issues in the ongoing struggle with gangs. Among these are gangs’ increased levels of activity in deprived parts of London such as Tottenham, their increasing appeal for some young people, and the constant policing challenges presented by this emerging landscape, not least the frequent use of firearms in gang disputes. Each of these issues bears closer inspection – as does Tottenham’s link to the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots and the death PC Blakelock.

The bad old days?

In the 1980s, local gangs/groups were part of many local council estate neighbourhoods. They provided an opportunity to fight, build relationships, and “noise up” local figures of authority. But in 2014, local street gangs represent something much more menacing. Some of them have developed into hierarchical organisations involved in street robbery, Class A drugs, sexual exploitation of girls and young women, kidnap, abduction and serious youth violence –- in other words, the full-blown modern, violent street gang. This entity is quite different from the loose and largely harmless youth groupings fondly recalled by middle aged men. They are part of a violent street world where respect, status and rank are viciously contested in search of advancement and financial gain.

Few gangs exemplify this evolution as well as the Tottenham ManDem, which emerged from the system-built concrete box of Broadwater Farm Estate. Here, in the 1980s, localised cannabis dealing led to disproportionate police stop and searches of young black men. This in turn led to disorder, which was followed by heavy-handed police intervention – and the tragic murder of PC Blakelock. Despite the millions of pounds in regeneration funds that later poured in, limited life opportunities for many young people only heightened the attraction of gang life, even as it spiralled into serious violence, drug-dealing and criminality.

The gang subsequently fragmented, with junior members establishing two derivative sub-groups: the Star Gang and the Bloods. By 2008 the Metropolitan Police established Operation Dibri to focus on the now 100-strong TMD and its subsets which it believed responsible for cross country drug-running, supply of firearms, robbery of other drug suppliers, nine firearm murders, five attempted murders, and several incidents of grievous bodily harm.

This evolution of the gang into serious youth violence is mirrored across London and now extends to other large cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. It has also reached smaller cities such as Nottingham, where Assistant Chief Constable Sue Fish has noted that gang culture poses a significant challenge.

The evolution of violent street gangs in the UK also includes their proliferation. The Met Police claim London alone has approximately 250 active street gangs comprising approximately 4,500 young people, mostly men aged 16-24. According to police, they are responsible for almost a fifth of all serious violence in the capital, a further fifth of robberies and half of shootings. As violent street gangs have their crucible in areas of multiple deprivation, these gangs can now be found in some 20 of London’s 33 boroughs.

Such activity is addressed in London by Trident Gang Crime Command (TGCC), which represents a shift from Operation Trident’s original focus on shootings and what was termed “black-on black” crime. With its refocused remit, TGCC aims to tackle wider gang crime whilst actively coordinating partnership responses to divert young people away from gangs. Government Ministers have claimed a 25% reduction in knife-related wounding offences in the 33 urban areas given government funding to tackle crime after the 2011 riots.

In London, the Met Police claim success with their attempts to reduce serious youth violence, citing falls in serious youth violence of 30% from 2012-2013. But these figures must be taken in the context of falling crime rates in London and the UK as whole. Controversially, the efficacy of the government’s flagship “Ending Gang and Youth Violence” programme remains undetermined – and in the 29 areas it originally covered, the numbers of murders actually rose during the 2012-2013 period.

In many neighbourhoods, the figures for youth violence remain stubbornly high. This points to the police’s toughest challenge yet in tackling gang crime: building and maintaining public trust in the communities disproportionately affected by such activity. The Mark Duggan episode and the display of anger at the inquest indicate the Met Police and other forces have a long way to go in earning communites’ trust.

After all, Mark Duggan grew up on the discredited Broadwater Farm Estate in the 1980s, where the local black community were vocally opposed to policing styles they referred to as “heavy manners”. It appears such distrust has been transmitted inter-generationally among community members who still feel disrespected. I am told that some gang-involved young people view the police as nothing more than the “biggest gang in town” – which, if true, makes the death of Mark Duggan just another of London’s gang killings.