Hitting violent street gangs where it hurts
IN THE art room of a new-build community centre, a boy is drawing a map of his world. Head down, his lower lip bitten in concentration, he sketches a short street, a row of shops to its north, a park to its south, some wasteground to the west and an abandoned pub to its east.
The boy, who is 16 but looks 12, is charting the borders of his gang, his scheme, the only place he feels safe. But, distracted, he also puts two little stick men in his street. One is throwing a rectangle at the other, who is lying on the ground, curls of marker pen bleeding from his head. "What's that?" the youngster is asked. "That's a boy getting bricked," he replies.
There are 10 lads around the table scribbling their maps. Aged 16 to 20, they are all from the north and east of Glasgow and are all known for gangfighting. "Against each other," clarifies Craig Hutton, their police-funded mentor. "They would all have been aware of one another but they only met properly for the first time yesterday. You can feel the tension in the air."
Hutton, or "Big Craig" as the boys call him, works for a specialist training firm called Kando. What does he teach? How not to fight, in five intensive weeks. The first lesson? Gangs aren't necessarily bad; it's what people in gangs do that's the problem.
"We have guys here from different gangs," he says to the group. "I've seen you sitting together at lunch. So now you are on the Kando gang." One boy pulls his skip cap down over his face and plunges his hands deep into his trackie bottoms. Most look like Big Craig is already their "leader aff".
Hutton and Kando have been brought in by the police to try and wean a whole generation of Scottish youths off what the policy wonks called "recreational violence". They are the front line – the UN peacekeepers, they joke – of the most focused effort yet to tame a gang culture that has survived two world wars and countless attempts to re-engineer Glasgow's poorest neighbourhoods.
Started in secret a year ago, CIRV, the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, is already having a huge impact. It has already signed up more than half of the 700 most active members of 55 gangs in the city's east end and, beginning this month, dozens more in the north.
For the newly formed Kando gang, CIRV, pronounced "serve", started early last month at a gang call-in at Glasgow Sheriff Court. Police, using sophisticated intelligence systems, had identified those at the heart of the trouble and offered them the chance to get out. Or face the full wrath of the force.
After the call-in boys were offered the course at Kando, followed by special employability training and the chance of a real job, one of 60, paying 6 an hour, reserved exclusively for gang members. Some of those posts are as mentors, for recently retired gangfighters to help lure other boys out of the culture.
Some police officers admit to being nervous at the prospect of hiring one criminal – albeit a recently reformed one – to turn others straight. But most, with the support of partners in CIRV from education, health, social work, housing and careers services, are suddenly getting excited about the results. Combined with a parallel get-tough attitude that targeted 1,000 gang members across the city, CIRV has helped cut youth-related disturbances in Glasgow by almost a third (31.9 per cent) in a single year. That is 700 fewer cases.
But can the carrot really be as powerful as the stick in breaking up the gangs? Kelly Armstrong, a constable seconded to CIRV, thinks so. Her job used to be to race to gangfights and charge whoever she caught. Now in jeans and a jumper rather than uniform, she chaps doors, trying to convince boys to sign up to CIRV – and the chance of a job, training or football coaching in return for a pledge to stop being violent.
"I can understand why the public would be sceptical about projects like this," Armstrong said last week, as she sat in her unmarked Mondeo outside a former council semi. "They are going to ask why do people who do bad things get good things? A lot of people have written these boys off. They think they don't have any control over themselves. That they can't better themselves. That is just not true. A lot of them can, if they get the chance."
Armstrong is waiting for a boy from the Carntyne Goucho , one of Glasgow's biggest gangs. The lad isn't in but his dad is and he calls his son's mobile. Less than a minute later, a slim, smiley figure is sprinting down the road towards the Ford. "I thought I would miss you," the boy says, a bit out of breath. He'd quit CIRV under pressure from pals – who told him the promise of jobs wasn't real. Now he wants back in. He's not the first gang offender, said Armstrong, to leg it out of the culture.
The boy had been one of the Goucho gang that CIRV workers had taken on an army-sponsored break to the Highlands, along with their arch-rivals, the Haghill Powery. The two gangs sat separately on the bus on the way up. They sat together on the way back and their border has been quietish ever since. One of the boys celebrated his 16th birthday on the trip. "Somebody got him a cake. He said it was his first," Armstrong said. "I thought he meant this year. It was his first birthday cake ever.
"We talk a lot about needing attitudinal changes among these boys. But the police need to change our attitudes too," she added. "We can get quite cynical."
Chief Inspector Bob Stevenson runs CIRV. He stresses all the scheme's customers have form.
"They have either stabbed somebody or been caught with an offensive weapon. Some of these boys aren't playing at it. We are talking about the kind of guys who sleep with a gun under their pillow.
"Some have told us to Foxtrot Oscar, that they don't want to engage. I think we have made it pretty clear we are going to come down on them. It's like we always tell them. They might think their gang is big. But ours is bigger and harder: Strathclyde Polis."
If Stevenson has the carrot then Val Thomson has the stick. Thomson is the superintendent covering some of Scotland's most deprived neighbourhoods, including the Calton, Parkhead and Tollcross. "CIRV has had a huge impact," she said. "There has been practically no gang activity at times when CIRV is engaging with young people.
"They run a football scheme on Friday nights, now we don't get gang trouble on Friday nights."
But Thomson knew what to do to those who didn't sign up. Of the gangs targeted in Glasgow "B" division when CIRV began, only one refused to stick with CIRV. That was the Parkhead Rebels. This summer, they continued waging their decades-old war against the Tollcross Wee-Men and the Parkhead Border. In July, shots were fired. Thomson moved quickly, using new anti-social behaviour legislation to impose a dispersal zone across much of the patch, allowing her officers to break up groups of youths gathering in key battlegrounds such as Tollcross Park.
Violent crime in Thomson's subdivision – Bravo Alpha – has dropped nearly a third. There were 156 assaults, robberies, attempted murders and murders in the area between 1 April of this year and last Sunday, 25 October. There were 72 more in the same period of 2008.
Some of the people now working for CIRV used to be committing some of those crimes. They introduced themselves to today's gang members at the call-in at the sheriff court. But only after youngsters, mostly boys, a girl or two, were shown graphic photographs of the damage violence can do. One was a man with a kitchen knife plunged through his eye deep into his head. Another looked like a plate of passata topped with two lidless eyeballs – a gangster who survived a shotgun blast to the face.
The images fresh in their minds, the gangs heard from a killer, who asked not to be named, still in fear of reprisals. He told the gathered gang members, the odd girl now mixed with the boys, about Christmas morning, about watching his children enjoy their presents knowing his victim's family would not be.
Then came Paul Brannigan, 23, a former gangfighter from the east end. He got out of Polmont, Scotland's young offenders' institution, just over two years ago, after being locked up for firearms offences. "I thought for a time that the gang was my family," Brannigan told the hushed courtroom. "Then I went to prison. And I was left on my tod."
Brannigan helps at the Bambury Centre, mentoring young men steeped in violence. This is where guys wanting out of the gangs come after Kando, for employability training. There are 60 jobs up for grabs, all funded by the UK Government but only open to people willing to give up violence.
The Bambury is in Barrowfield, once one of the most deprived social housing schemes in Europe, right in the shadow of Celtic Park. Now it is mini-suburbia of redbrick terraces with only a few old tenements waiting for demolition.
"I didn't recognise Barrowfield when I got out," said Brannigan, who is from the area. "I thought it was something out of Home And Away. When I went inside I left a picture of myself in a lot of people's minds of a madman who ran about with knives and guns. Now I want to put something back in the place.
"I can help a lot of these boys. I know what it is like to be in a position where you have nobody and the only thing you have got is a gang. I know the emptiness.
"They maybe listen to me because they know I am not telling them any lies."
The CIRV rules are simple. Lateness isn't tolerated. A violent offence means being kicked off the programme.
Of the 368 gang members who have "engaged" with CIRV, only seven have been asked to leave. Another 25 have dropped out. Ninety-six have found jobs or training schemes.
Back at Kando, Craig Hutton has his group rapt.
"We all have that little Scottish voice in our heads telling us we can't do things. Don't listen to it," he says. "How do you feel when you are out with the gang?"
"Untouchable," the oldest boy answers, a 20-year-old with a supermarket barcode tattooed to the nape of his neck and a nickname to go with it. "How do you feel when you're on your own on a Monday morning?" "Like a pussy," Barcode says. "If I need to go up to the shops, it's torture."
Hutton latches onto to this. "You are all good boys. I can tell that. I have seen hundreds. Only three were real rockets that I don't think we could do anything for.
"You all say you would do anything for your mums. The irony is that you are the people who are hurting them most."
All ten boys fall silent. They know. Now they are ready to get out.
Barcode looks down at his map, so detailed it looks like a circuit board scheme. In the middle is the tiny patch of north-east Glasgow he can't leave safely without an escort, not to work, not to shop, not to date.
"We are prisoners," he says. "All because of our own stupidity. It is worse than jail."
Between The Powery and a Playststion
THEY are Powery, and they are not Powery. Steven Fraser and Daniel Whitelaw, both 17, and 18-year-old Robert Simpson still identify themselves with the decades-old gang of Glasgow's Haghill scheme. They just don't want to fight for it any more.
Is Fraser still Powery? "Aye and Naw," he says, mild manneredly, blinking dark brown eyes that seem much older than his years. "Aye because I still hang about with my pals. Naw because I don't really fight any more.
"We hang about in the house now, listening to hard core, based up songs, or playing FIFA on the PlayStation," he adds.
Fraser has been in the wars. He nearly died, spending two days in a coma after the Powery's main foes, the Carntyne Goucho, caught him on his own. "They smacked me with golf clubs. I had a blood clot in my head," he says. "I don't like to talk about it but, in a way, I am kind of glad it happened because it made me a better person, it made me think of what could happen to me and put me off attacking other people. It is why I am here today."
"Here" is the Bambury Centre, where Fraser, Whitelaw, Simpson and a couple of other Powery comrades are getting employability training and, if they stay out of trouble, a chance at a job. Fraser hasn't been up to no good since the beginning of the year.
His friend Simpson has been avoiding trouble for a bit longer. His last "rap" was when the police found pictures on the internet of the Powery – which gets its name from Haghill's electricity substation – standing brandishing an axe.
"Everybody can change," Simpson says, after showing two little nick scars on his scalp, each from a brick hurled at him in gangfights. "I don't see the point of running about like wee boys any more."
Whitelaw is supporting his friends. "I still back them up," he laughs.
'I've been flung off an M8 bridge but I'd never snitch'
THREE years ago, three men tried to murder Lee Noon. He didn't tell the police.
His attackers had thrown him off a footbridge over the M8. He only survived by grabbing some railings, hanging over the motorway before his brother and a pal pulled him to safety.
But the 22-year-old veteran fighter of ten years' standing for the Cranhill Fleeto was never going to complain.
"I would never snitch," he explained. "That goes with the package. If you want to gangfight you take what happens, you don't snitch. What would the point be of that?"
Noon, second from left in our main picture, is not long out of Barlinnie, the Victorian prison which looms over his home in Cranhill, in Glasgow's east end. He did four months after being caught carrying a kitchen knife – "out of stupidity", he said – and now he is lounging in a set of Rangers trackies and describing his efforts to escape gang culture.
"I haven't jumped with the Fleeto for a couple of years," he said, grinning uncomfortably. "I started when I was nine and I have seen everything.
"I've seen people be stabbed, slashed, shot, with real guns and high-velocity gas guns; I've seen people battered with baseball bats and golf clubs.
"I have been flung off a bridge," he said, still half-laughing. "I've been left hanging off a motorway bridge for dear life." Then he paused, his smile evaporating, and added: "I made somebody like a teabag, stabbed him. That goes with the package too. If you want to earn your stripes, you have got to make some wipes."
Noon has already graduated from one five-week CIRV course to wean him off violence.
"Now I just want to keep off the street and I can't be bothered with all that fighting any more," he said. "It happens every weekend where I am. You can't avoid it sometimes, but.
"Glasgow is full of idiots who would take a swing at you because you are from a different scheme. You go round the corner and somebody is ready to blade you. I'll have to live with that."
Noon doesn't want his six-week-old nephew to have to feel the same. He wants him to grow up to be a "wee geek, no like me". But he knows the lure of the gangs.
"When you are one of us," he explained. "You do what you need to survive. You either gangfight or you don't gangfight. If you gangfight, your gang is your family. If you need money, a wee bit of hash, a wee bit of skunk or plant, you know what I mean, anything at all you need, they're always right for it. They'll never let you short."
Now Noon hopes to become a mentor to youngsters trying to get out of gangs. "I was dirty but now I'm clean," he said, explaining why he had nothing to fear from telling his story.
The making of No Mean City
• 1870s: Glasgow's territorial gangs made the newspapers for the first time. Police call them Penny Mobs, because members pay subs to help each other pay fines.
• 1910s: Dalmarnock's Baltic Fleet, the oldest gang still fighting, is founded during the First World War. Girl gangs, or shawl brigades, make their debut, as their men go to war. The word "Ned" appears in the press. The Redskins become almost all-powerful, with 1,000 fighters.
• 1930s: Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe cracks down on the razor gangs, ruthlessly mobilising the mounted branch and "thugs in uniform" to break up fights. Many of the groups are viciously sectarian, including the Protestant mob of Billy Fullarton in Bridgeton, the Billy Boys, who war with Catholic gangs from nearby Calton. Some gangs still carry sectarian names, even if they are essentially territorial.
• 1950s: Gang culture expands into the new, peripheral schemes. Most of today's territorial gangs – various Tongs, Tois, Fleets and Bundys – are founded. Many of their territories have barely changed since.
• 1960s: Singer Frankie Vaughan comes to Easterhouse to make peace between the gangs. Images of youths handing in weapons, seen across the UK, stigmatise the scheme for a generation but fail to tackle the issue.
• 2000s: Mobile phones and the internet drive gang culture into the suburbs. Police announce there could be as many as 300 gangs across Scotland, half in Strathclyde.
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