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Gangs, Drugs and (Dis)Organised Crime$

Robert McLean

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781529203028

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781529203028.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface

(p.vii) Preface

Gangs, Drugs and (Dis)Organised Crime

Robert McLean

Policy Press

About the book

The book provides a systematic overview of gang organisation as a means for gang business. While most books on gangs tend to provide descriptive accounts of gang behaviour, or analyse certain aspects of gang structure, or even locate gangs within the broader context of the social world in which they operate or originate, this book goes a step further in that the structural process that both influences and is itself influenced by gang activity is examined. Likewise, either consciously doing so or not, most books on gangs tend to focus on a particular gang type when discussing ‘gangs’1 or address the gang as though it were a whole. This is often to the detriment of other typologies, namely, those labelled with overly narrow definitions, such as peer groups or organised crime groups. Yet, this book accounts for the structural processes and activities carried out by gangs at various stages of evolution, beyond those group formations typically labelled ‘gang’, and makes considerable effort to discuss how the gang at one stage evolves into, or has some degree of relationship with, the gang at the next developmental stage.

Furthermore, when British gang scholars carry out gang research in one location (for example, London) they tend to discuss their findings in one of two ways. The first way tends to present the findings – regardless of where the actual research has been conducted (for example, London) – as though they are representative of gangs across the country, with variations being slight or non-existent. The second way is very much the opposite, with some gang researchers (particularly in Scotland) isolating their studies in the given context so much so that findings are thought to be completely incompatible with other gang studies from further afield, for example, Manchester. Therefore, this book looks to bridge this gap by providing an account of gangs in a very specific context while, at the same time, analysing how they are both unique and yet very much still the same (and thus comparable). By highlighting both differences and similarities, more effective policy can emerge.

(p.viii) Lastly, books on gangs also tend to be written by those at opposite ends of the authorship spectrum, with ex- or reformed offenders writing subjectively at one end, and academics taking an objective approach at the other. This book, however, adopts a hybrid approach to the gang phenomenon. Therefore, in summary, it is fair to say that adopting an authorship stance in the middle aids the book in its effort to give a full systematic account of gang organisation as a means for gang business in a specific context and yet still have far-reaching implications regarding the broader UK landscape.

Why Glasgow and why gangs?

Before proceeding, though, it is important to justify my reason, and process of thought, as to why I decided to study gangs, how I identified existing gaps in literature and, basically, why this research should be given attention, particularly given that I originate from anything but an academic background. To do so, I must – albeit reluctantly – give a brief narrative piece to demonstrate the unique insight that can be brought about by practical experience, as well as theoretical knowledge, and how one supports the other and vice versa. While some researchers stress that true scientific analysis can only be achieved with the removal of researcher subjectivity, others equally highlight that not only is this an impossibility in qualitative research, but having the ability to call upon personal experience to understand the socially constructed world is also invaluable (Mruck and Breuer, 2003). Likewise, in relation to the research that was undertaken for this book, being able to reflect upon personal experience and intertwine this with the findings that emerged from the field and knowledge of literature enabled the research to move beyond contemporary gang narratives and the conventional wisdom of gang research (this will be explained more clearly later). Please note that although some of the following section is perhaps presented in a vague manner, this is largely because it must be substantially censored for a variety of reasons.

Having grown up in one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing estates that has a long and synonymous history with gangs and gang violence, I was aware of the local ‘Young Team’ from an early age. In Glasgow, the Young Team is often an abbreviated term used to describe a group of young teenage boys who engage in territorial violence against other youths of similar age who stay outside the area of residence. These areas, or schemes as they are often known, vary significantly in size and can range from being literally a few tenement blocks, as with ‘Young Kimbo (p.ix) Kill’2 located in Glasgow’s Govan district, to an entire town or housing estate, such as ‘Young Garren’ (Erskine) or ‘Linwood Paka’ (Linwood) (see Figure 1).

Also, given that gangs are territorial-based outfits, membership itself is often ascribed through residence and peer association (predominantly male), as opposed to one having a willingness to join; you join simply through hanging around. Like many youths in the scheme, I had elder family members, and knew older teens in the area, who would frequently discuss their own gang experiences (past or present) with myself and friends. This was often done so in a way that glorified violence – the chase and thrill of fighting. Intertwined with Scottish banter, it was typically done so in a humorous way. In many ways, by the age of 12, I was more acutely aware of Glasgow gangs, membership and territoriality than the average academic. Miller (2015), drawing upon North American gang literature, incorporates Vigil’s (1988a, 1988b) conceptualisation that youths are socialised into gangs and gang membership via local cultures in Glasgow. This was very true for us, particularly as the group began to solidify in response to external threats – perceived or real – as we explored and narrated others’ stories with our own (see Klein, 1971; Sandberg 2010; Presser and Sandberg, 2015). It was a process of territorial othering (see Hallsworth and Brotherton, 2011). Essentially, by the age of 12, I was not a gang member who had undergone consensual ascription into the gang; rather, like every male in my scheme who hung around in large groups in certain locations, we became a visual reference point for other youths outwith the scheme who identified us as rivals – potential or otherwise. Even for those who did not hang around, rival outfits would say of them ‘They come from [area X or Y]’ and, at times, this would be enough to warrant an assault.


Figure 1: Teucharhill scheme, home to local gang Young Kimbo Kill (YKK)

Source: Historic Environment Scotland, © HES.

(p.x) Now seen as a gang by others outside and within the scheme, this regenerative process would also see us being labelled with the local estate or neighbourhood name, for example, ‘Young Govan Team’ from Govan, ‘Young Priesty’ from Priesthill or ‘Young Shortroods’ from Shortroods. Yet, rather than shy away from this label, we ascribed to it and adopted it as our own. When you lack economic and social capital and are similarly socially excluded from mainstream leisure activities deemed to be legitimate (primarily due to reasons related to poverty), then gang fighting breaks the boredom. Likewise, it can bring a sense of status, masculinity, honour, friendship and social bonding among youths – the latter points are, at times, all too regularly overlooked. A reputation, often acquired through the display of those masculine traits strongly associated with a working-class value system (such as being tough, aggressive and physically strong), means status among peers, and higher status means more recognition and social standing. Ultimately, in many ways, we simply imitated and sought that which wider society already ascribed to. The only difference is that we attained it, or attempted to do so, via different means, adhering to those social scripts most available to us (Varese, 2010). In our Young Team, we would fight everyone from our age range from all locations and even go to underage nightclubs3 in the city centre like Archaos to: (1) meet females; and (2) fight other Young Teams from the wider Glasgow league table, if you will, and spread our reputation beyond the local, if possible. At times, it was spread for the wrong reasons, though, that is, getting battered as opposed to doing the battering. Yet, come my mid- to late adolescent years, like many, I had matured out of territorialism. Yet, there remains an important distinction between the gang and territorialism. For those who (1) retained delinquency, and what was developing into criminality, as an integral feature of their identity, and (2) could access illegal markets by way of kinship and local reputation, the gang grew to serve a different purpose.

Fast-forward a decade or more and my life had changed rapidly. For reasons that I keep to myself and those I love most dearly, I had gone wayward and become involved in a substantial amount of trouble over the years. However, by age 21, I had become a born-again Christian and had ceased to partake in behaviour that was deemed ‘unlawful’, albeit, at times, fluctuating in and out of the desistance process, which, in reality, is lengthy. As part of this process, I had also begun to seek a legitimate career path. As such, I attended local voluntary courses to help improve my spelling and counting capabilities prior to attending college and subsequently university in the years to come. As part of my honours degree, I had to complete a dissertation that focused on Glasgow gangs, and with the help of my then lecturer Dr John Roger, I was eventually (p.xi) accepted for a doctoral study under the tutelage of Professor Ross Deuchar – a leading, if not the leading, contemporary scholar regarding gangs in Scotland. Nurturing my academic studies, Ross encouraged me to read up on gang literature, which I duly did. Yet, as I did so, I noticed that a large section of gang life went by unnoticed in a Scottish context. What happened to all the gang members once they moved beyond their mid-adolescent years? Why were gangs assumed to cease existence once territoriality ended? How about gangs involved in organised crime? The literature just went cold. I quickly realised that what Scottish gang literature had come to examine was not, in fact, the gang per se, but rather predominantly territorialism along with territorial othering, as well as working-class idiosyncrasy regarding protest masculinities, to which the gang was duly part of but not recognised as also existing externally from. Existing literature analysed in a very detailed manner the gang life that echoed so much of my own – as well as my gang peers’ – lifeworld, but only till approximately our mid-adolescent years, when territoriality no longer seemed important. For this reason, the gang as discussed by contemporary Scottish literature is referred to as the Young Street Gang (YSG). The literature failed to account for what happened afterwards and failed to progress beyond the YSG and towards other evolving gang forms. Where was the transition away from territorialism and towards those other social arenas described most regularly by Police Scotland as organised crime?

While the literature traditionally spoke of maturing out of territorial fighting in YSGs – with which I agree totally – this was a process for the many as opposed to the few (see Miller, 2015; Windle and Briggs, 2015). The YSGs that I had fought for (there were several throughout Strathclyde due to parental relocation) had predominantly consisted of a few individuals who were essentially core members, with the rest being the outer layer of the gang. For the core members, delinquency served as an integral feature to both their identity and that of overall YSG cohesion and purpose (see Hallsworth and Young, 2004, 2006, 2008). Often, for this few, offending had begun before YSG membership and would continue long after. Yet, most others, in many ways, drifted in and out of YSG association (see Matza, 1964). For the latter, outer layer, once territorialism ceased to be considered important – often coinciding with the ability to legally enter the world of work at 16 – then gang membership did end to all intents and purposes. Offending was rare and when it did occur, it was typically done so in relation to peer group delinquency. Delinquency was therefore only ever evident throughout young adolescent years, where street socialisation was most prominent. Yet, this was by no means the case for the few core individuals who were, (p.xii) in fact, the gang per se; without their presence no gang would exist, and no point of reference would be there for other associates to drift to and from.

Vigil (1988a, 1988b) writes about how youths are simply absorbed into street gangs via street socialisation; yet, a point that is all too often overlooked, particularly in the Scottish context, is that once there, some individuals will solidify into a gang core to which others will duly attach themselves. Thus, the YSG may be part of street socialisation and wider violent street worlds (see Hallsworth, 2013), but from this process emerges a proper gang that goes beyond territoriality (see Harding, 2012). Essentially, the YSG evolves as earlier loose associates drift away from it and the remaining core members solidify, age and become exposed to external threats beyond other YSGs, such as financial pressures, responsibilities to provide for family, pressures to work and so on. Thus, while most individuals cease gang offending during their mid- to late adolescence, for the few core members, the gang holds the potential to evolve and adapt in response to these new pressures (see Densley, 2012, 2013, 2014).

Having undergone this process and seen close family, extended kinship and friends (most unknown to each other and in various schemes) undergo similar processes, I felt that the current literature was lacking something significant. For this reason, I felt compelled to explore and detail those relationships that gangs and criminal trajectories, as well as the role that other gang typologies, may play in this process. The gangs discussed in contemporary Scottish gang literature are, by all accounts, territorial-based fighting outfits that have no leadership or hierarchical cohesion, nor are they involved in any crime-for-profit activities (see Patrick, 1973; Miller, 2015). As mentioned earlier, it is for this reason that I term them ‘YSGs’ as opposed to simply using the word ‘gang’ or ‘street gang’ (given that the drug-dealing gangs within the English literature are, at times, also referred to as ‘street gangs’, I thus wanted to be as clear as possible on what can be a confusing subject). However, this understanding and perception of gangs simply did not fit with my experiences growing up, and I believed the gang to be considerably more complex than it was being made out to be. For myself, there was more to the gang than just examining the initial YSG formation. Thus, I wanted to undertake research that explored the possibility of gang evolution in Scotland, particularly given that, in many respects, Glasgow is like those English cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham that have all seen their own street gangs becoming ever-more involved in aspects of organised crime such as drug dealing. Therefore, prior to conducting the research, I felt that it was arguable that YSGs in Glasgow also retained the ability, (p.xiii) or potential at least, to evolve into something more than territorial peer groups. Likewise, given that little is actually known about the activities that gangs get up to beyond recreational violence, I wanted to explore such things and shed light on them. This is what led to the study of gang organisation as a means for gang business. (p.xiv)



(1) (Serious) Organised crime groups are discussed under the umbrella term ‘gang’ in this book.

(2) Only the cottage housing (at the bottom of the photo in Figure 1) remains at present. Kimbo Kill members predominantly have residence in the neighbouring Drumoyne scheme, where many were relocated following demolition.

(3) An underage nightclub is a nightclub that only allows those under 18 years of age to enter. Often, these venues will run an underage nightclub during a particular time frame (say, 5 pm till 9 pm) and then an overage nightclub for those over 18 years of age (say, 10 pm till 3 am).