In the shadow of the blade
SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: PETER ROSS
Children fight in the same gangs as their fathers before them, while doctors treat a facial injury every six hours. In a special report, Scotland on Sunday explores Glasgow's culture of violence and the scarred lives left behind
THERE will be blood. That much is certain. Right now, as you read this, young men are preparing to hurt each other with knives, axes, swords, broken bottles and bats, chains, chibs, coshes and clubs. Gang violence is an epidemic in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, where doctors treat a serious facial injury every six hours. Estimates vary regarding the number of street gangs in the city. Some place it as high as 170, more than London, a population six times as large, but Strathclyde Police believe there are 52 active gangs in their area, each with up to 20 members. They estimate there are between 200 to 300 gang members in the east end of Glasgow alone. That's not boys who merely boast an allegiance to one gang or another. That's boys who actually fight.
These fights may be impromptu rucks kicked off by a breach of the exclusion zone that is another gang's turf. Others may be arranged in advance by text message or over the internet, a use of technology at odds with the dark ages mayhem that follows. However the fight begins, the participants will almost certainly be drunk or high or both, and they will spill each others' blood on the same bridge, road or disputed patch of waste ground where their fathers and grandfathers spilt the blood of their rivals.
You hear stories of parents passing weapons out windows to their sons. This blood-letting has been going on for generations and the tragedy is it's about nothing at all. Yes, it's to do with territory, but none of these slashers and stabbers own the land they are so keen to defend. These schemes were run first by the council and then the housing associations. The gangs come from some of the most socially deprived areas in Britain, and they lack economic power. Their ownership of these streets is an illusion, but they believe it. Sometimes, as we walk past a big noisy group on a dark night, we believe it too. The truth is that they are likely to die young and poor, owning nothing but their scars.
When David Cameron came to Glasgow this month and talked about a "broken society" he will have had all this in mind. Gordon Brown, who spoke last week of people not feeling safe on the streets or in their homes, might have been thinking of any number of recent knife attacks. From London to Livingston, Bolton to Balado, Britain feels the blade at its throat.
Yet, there are people in Scotland unwilling to take a fatalist view. There is a growing feeling that enough is enough. Look at the statistics. According to the World Health Organisation, Scotland's murder rate for teenagers and young adults is five times that of England and Wales. About 3,000 people were seriously assaulted with a weapon in Glasgow last year, but only about 1,000 reported it because either they fear reprisals or they hate the police. There are medical people saying openly that it might be good that so many gang members suffer post-traumatic stress disorder when they are cut in the face if it means they are too afraid to leave the house and cause more mayhem.
Who wants to live in a country or a city with a silver lining like that? Not Detective Chief Inspector Iain Cunningham of the recently formed Violence Reduction Task Force, a unit of Strathclyde Police dedicated to cracking down on gang fighting and knife crime. "These people need to realise that the police are the biggest gang in town," he says. "We might have lost some footing, but it's still our law and nobody else's."
In other words, the fightback starts here.
"It's the police! Come to the door!"
That shout and the pounding of a black-gloved fist break the silence of this wet weekday morning in Castlemilk, scattering drowsy pigeons and echoing round the scheme. Plain-clothes constables in jeans and stab-vests are clustered round the entrance to a pebble-dashed flat; the officer in front, medieval in a visored helmet, grips a battering ram.
It's 7am, and the only other people up are bin men, their lorry emblazoned with the Clean Glasgow logo. The police are on a similar mission. They, too, want to clean the city. Clean off the blood. The officers of the Violence Reduction Task Force are used to early starts. More than 300 arrests have been made since their first operation, in Drumchapel, on March 21.
The plan today is to apprehend a 20-year-old man involved in a running battle between rival gangs in the east end of the city. Five other raids are taking place simultaneously. The police – two men, two women – are poised at the door with their battering ram and the crowbar they refer to as a "hoolie bar".
They are let into the flat, search the premises, and after 45 minutes bring out a young man, clownish in a baggy tracksuit, who is led, cuffed and cursing, to an unmarked car. His seized weapons – replica handguns, a heavy chain and homemade martial arts nunchucks – go in the boot. At other homes, police seize a machete and combat dagger. Then they drive back to Saracen Police Station in Possilpark, sling their stab-vests over the backs of their seats, grab a cup of tea and start writing it up.
The Violence Reduction Task Force is made up of 20 constables representing each of Strathclyde Police's eight divisions. There are also two sergeants, DCI Cunningham and additional manpower drawn when needed from elsewhere in the force. The unit is led by Superintendent Bob Hamilton, a no-nonsense 43-year-old in a short-sleeved white shirt, silver crowns on his epaulettes and a red Viz mug on his desk. He grew up in Airdrie and regards gang violence with a mixture of mystification and contempt. Neither is he interested in the idea that, for these young men, belonging to a gang can be a mixture of family tradition and cultural pride. He picks up a long list of gang names from his desk, saying: "To be honest, I don't care what they call themselves. But if they start chibbing each other, that's unacceptable."
He gives me the list to look at. One east end gang in particular catches my eye. The Wee Men don't sound very threatening. "There's a few of them called Wee Men," Hamilton says. "Unfortunately, Wee Men carry big blades."
The task force is the tactical arm of the force's Violence Reduction Coordination Unit which itself is part of the Violence Reduction Unit, a national strategic body set up in 2005. Superintendent Hamilton is in no doubt of the part he and his unit play in all of this. "Our primary role is enforcement," he says. "They should be scared of us on the street."
Hamilton would rather gang members changed their ways and didn't need to be arrested and put through the courts, and he is very happy to try to persuade them to contact the various partner organisations that attempt to rehabilitate offenders. But he wants gang members to understand that the police are there to uphold the law, not act as community workers: "We don't want to be seen as cuddly people who will take you hillwalking. If you meet us, there is only one place you are going to – jail."
This is tough talk, and there's a lot of old-fashioned policing in their approach, but the task force is a sophisticated operation. They are particularly keen to use material posted by gangs on the likes of YouTube and Bebo as a way of building intelligence about members. They have learned to read gang graffiti and identify who has been in a particular area by the marks they leave behind. They will arrest for vandalism, too, though. It's a zero tolerance approach.
Every day the task force receives a list of incidents recorded on CCTV. Speaking to local police and sometimes school liaison officers, they try to identify the individuals fighting in the footage. Next, warrants will be secured, and raids made. These can be quite heavy. They have a secondary function as a show of strength intended to reassure terrified communities that the police are back in charge. One operation in the Calton, intended to secure an individual who had fired a crossbow during a fight in broad daylight, was carried out by a firearms team.
"It's something we have used sparingly," says Hamilton, "but it's a strong message to send out, and I think that community that morning saw that we're not playing games here. If you are going about with lethal weapons, we will meet that challenge with lethal force as well."
Since the task force arrested most of the people they had identified as ringleaders, the crime rate in Calton has dropped; there have been around half as many serious assaults and attempted murders as in the same period last year.
To give me an idea of the sort of violent behaviour they are trying to stamp out, I am shown footage of a number of incidents. It's astonishing seeing the weapons involved. Knives, of course, but also metal crutches, a shovel, a samurai sword. "They play a lot of croquet in the Calton," Hamilton says, dryly, pointing his cursor at a mallet.
"We searched the room of one ringleader, who was 15 or 16, and brought out an array of weapons. There was huge thick swords like Braveheart, daggers and a piece of wood about three feet long with a scythe taped on.
"I think one of the reasons violence happens is because that sort of thing isn't challenged by the parents. His mum said to one of our officers, perfectly seriously: 'Ah, that's just his weapons.'"
The most gut-torquing bit of footage I see is of a teenage boy, isolated in a park, surrounded by a gang shouting and screaming at him. Again, it's broad daylight. One boy in particular assaults him, punching and kicking. Hamilton provides a commentary. "See that stamping on the head? Look, there's another one holding him up and, look, he kicks him right in the face again. We showed this to a consultant who told us that he went unconscious with that blow. You can actually see his leg twitching."
This image was taken from a mobile phone which the police captured. Someone filmed this. They wanted to be able to watch again at leisure. This particular incident illustrates a couple of interesting points about the task the police are facing. First of all, the victim did not report the crime, and second, there is often very little difference between victim and perpetrator. The guy who throws a brick today is the same guy who gets hit by a brick tomorrow. There's something very karmic about gang fighting in that regard, but it is frustrating for the police. Why bother trying to change that, though? If these young men – and it is almost always men; women will sometimes fight, but are more usually tasked with carrying weapons and shouting encouragement from the sidelines – want to hurt each other then why not let them get on with it? If it's a closed circle, gang on gang, and no one else is getting hurt, why intervene?
"Well, it isn't just gangs getting hurt," says Hamilton. "Innocent people have been stabbed by gangs who are hyper and full of drink. There's one video I've seen of a guy who was going out with his girlfriend for their engagement, and he gets out a taxi in Glasgow city centre, and somebody walks by and stabs him in the chest, and the guy dies. He had no connection to it. We can't let that go on."
It's impossible to think about this for very long without wondering why the young men are doing it and how they can bring themselves to do so. Includem is a Scotland-wide charity working with about 700 young people including gang members and other violent offenders. Their approach is for an assigned worker to spend a great deal of one-on-one time with each young person, as much as three hours a day, seven days a week, developing trust and challenging offensive and risky behaviour. The reoffending rates of the young people with whom they work are 14% compared with a 54% national average for under-21s.
Through Includem, I am introduced to Liam McKemison, 21, and Jamie Dunsmore, 22, both of whom have been with the project since they were 16. They have both spent time in prison and have, in the past, been extremely violent people. That life is behind them now, but they are willing to tell me about those bad old days.
"I had a brilliant childhood, so I can't blame it on that," says McKemison, who is tall and well-dressed, with soulful eyes and a golden crucifix at his throat. He grew up in Clydebank; "Little Ireland" is how he specifies it. "There's a lot of peer pressure just to fit in. There was a group of us. The Whitecrook group would fight Yoker, and then more people would come, and everybody would shout: 'Young Crazy Brazie' and that was the gang. We done everything together – went to school, hung about, went out drinking, took drugs, chased lassies."
He says that his violent behaviour escalated, Saturday by Saturday, as he felt he had to top what he had done before. In terms of who he assaulted, he was indiscriminate. "I didn't care. I was 'Mad Liam'. Everyone wanted to see me at the weekend. On our scheme, everybody knew my name. I felt famous and that everybody liked me. If somebody looked at me the wrong way, everybody expected me to do something."
Did he ever get hurt? "I've been stabbed once. It wasn't really that bad. But I got hit with a meat cleaver in the head and got 18 staples. I've had bottles, bats, every hard object you can think of hitting my head."
Did he use weapons himself? "I've never really carried knives," he explains with a fair amount of self-disgust. "I preferred to use a bat because of the clunk it made. That's how messed up in the head I was. I didn't like the aluminium baseball bats. I preferred the wooden ones. It makes a better noise."
McKemison is in favour of the idea, briefly floated and then retracted last week by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, that people caught carrying knives should be taken to see victims of knife crime. He thinks they should take schoolchildren to the morgue. "That would have made me think," he says.
Dunsmore, from Larkhall, used to carry a knife. "At first I said it was for protection," he says. "But if you carry a knife you are going to use it. I was 14 when I started carrying it. I was in children's homes and had no parents coming into my room, so I could keep knives and bats in there, and it just continued, even when I was working with Includem. I was with them for six months when I got done for attempted murder, though it got dropped to serious assault. A couple of boys were shouting at my sister. I fought one and he got the better of me. I thought: 'That'll be right,' so I went back down and stabbed him."
Dunsmore phoned Includem's 24-hour helpline and his worker persuaded him, after a few days, to give himself up to the police.
How is it possible to hurt someone like that, I ask. To go up to another human being and push a blade into their body must take quite a lot. "Not really so much if you're under the influence," Dunsmore explains. "That blanks everything. If I was sober I wouldn't have had the bottle to stab that boy. See drink and drugs? It's like a visor over your face. You'd need to be really dangerous to go up and stab the hell out of somebody while stone-cold sober. To even face all that blood."
Everyone I speak to agrees that drugs and alcohol are at the root of the violence problem in Scotland. Dr Christine Goodall, 45, is a lecturer in oral surgery at the Glasgow Dental Hospital. In association with the Violence Reduction Unit she has carried out studies looking at the correlation between alcohol and facial trauma. Specialist doctors in the west of Scotland see around 1,000 patients a year with facial trauma. Almost three-quarters of those injuries are sustained as a result of interpersonal violence, and 84% were drinking to excess at the time.
Goodall offers patients short counselling sessions during which a nurse tries to get them to understand how alcohol contributed to their getting hurt. These sessions have resulted in heavy drinkers cutting down. "But we are just trying to hold back the tide and stop people getting a second injury," she says. "That's not preventing the violence happening in the first place."
Superintendent Hamilton's task force have also been involved in tackling the alcohol problem, targeting pubs and off-licences which sell alcohol to minors. There are other reasons, though, why Scotland – and the west in particular – may be so violent.
Mark Devlin, 42, a maxillofacial surgeon at the Southern General Hospital, suggests that the breakdown in community spirit means young people no longer have much empathy, making it easier for them to inflict pain on others. Keir McKechnie, 42, a senior project worker at Includem, believes that these young men are lacking in self-worth and so are unable to see any worth in others; it's easy to destroy what you do not value. Alex Richardson, meanwhile, says they are simply bored.
Richardson, 48, is the head of Gladiator, an organisation in Easterhouse which keeps kids out of trouble by involving them in sport. He's a former gang member who escaped that life by becoming a British champion weightlifter. "I kept my weightlifting bar in the coal cellar," he recalls. "To me it was a broomstick that flew me all round the world."
I drive down Easterhouse Road with him, the streets bright with posters for the Glasgow East by-election, while he points out gang territories. "That's Bal-Toi," he says. "This is the Provy Rebels." Richardson sounds quite gleeful when discussing his own street-fighting days, remembering with a laugh the time in 1968 when Frankie Vaughan came to broker a weapons armistice, and how all the local kids stole knives from their kitchens because the media were paying sixpence to film each blade handed in. Earlier in our discussion he had pulled down his trousers and showed me his scars. Make no mistake, though – he loathes the gangs.
"I'm damn angry that it's still going on today," he says. "I heard an eight-year-old kid, a couple of weeks ago, graphically describe the doings that he's had and how he's bursted faces of other kids the same age. His sole reason for being in a gang? 'I'm in the Drummy cos ma da was in the Drummy.'
"We've got third-generation gang members now. Nobody calls their area by its name. You don't say Kildermorie, you say Bal-Toi; you don't say East Hall, you say Skinheids. Even people that have never been in trouble call their community by its gang name. So Sadie's 45 with a five-year-old grandkid, and Sadie's going: 'Harry bought a hoose in Skinheids today.' That's what that wean's hearing. Fifteen years later the wean gets stabbed to death at the bus stop and Sadie's going: 'I don't understand how that happened.' Well, it was because she's subconsciously told him he's to fight for Skinheids.
"The boundaries are mythically handed down from generation to generation. We're trying to smash those barriers. We put T-shirts on kids saying: 'My school's in Wellhouse not Torran-toi' with a big X through the gang name, belittling it."
Gladiator organises football matches and other sports events on neutral ground, bussing in kids from rival areas so they don't have to walk through dangerous territory. The idea is that if they get to know and respect people from other gang districts then the whole idea of territorialism will become meaningless for them.
It's a bit depressing to learn that Richardson recently made the hard decision to move out of Easterhouse as his two boys, aged seven and eight, were beginning to talk about gang fighting. That shows you how bad things have got – when even community leaders feel they have to leave the community.
However, it's ideas like Gladiator, Includem, the Violence Reduction Unit and all the other organisations out there, that are gradually gaining ground in this fight. There were less assaults with a bladed weapon in Strathclyde last year than the year before. To keep that happening we need to throw imagination and determination at the problem, and keep believing that brains and sweat will overcome those who cause the flow of tears. Yes, there will be blood tonight, and most likely tomorrow, but perhaps at some point in the future, even in Glasgow, even in poor divided Easterhouse, there will be peace.
'I've had my independence ripped away'
SCOTT BRESLIN, 23, FROM PENILEE
'I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was Saturday night, about 11 o'clock, and I was at my friend's house in Cardonald. A couple of friends phoned to say they had just been chased. It was stupid, but me and Ginger Jim went out to see what was happening.
We turned a corner and there was about 12 boys and girls outside the library. We started walking by, but they were asking: "Where are youse from?"
One pulled out a knife so we ran. My mate fell and I picked him up. Then I felt like a punch on the right-hand side of my neck. The knife severed my spinal cord. I hit the ground. My face smashed, my teeth shattered, my nose broke, and that was it – I was paralysed from the neck down.
When I woke I heard people talking over me. An ambulance was there. It turned out that when I was on the ground, another guy stabbed me in the arse. These two boys had just met each other and had been showing off. They were 19 and 20. Drunk or full of something.
I'd like to think they wouldn't have wanted this, but the one that stabbed me in the neck comes from a notorious family. His path was marked out before he was born. That's why we need to educate the parents and the children that how they're living isn't the way everybody lives. Anyway, he got 10 years and the other got four and a half, but their sentences were reduced and they're out now. I've no bitterness towards them, but in court they didn't show remorse.
I was in intensive care for three days, then the Southern General spinal unit for nine months, and didn't really speak to anybody, just sat in front of a TV with headphones on. That was my escape.
Since I've been back in my own environment I've been coming to terms with it, but I've had my independence ripped away. It takes two and a half hours for me to get up in the morning. I get bathed by two carers, then physio to keep my joints supple, then I'm dressed, and carers position me in my chair.
I'm hoping for a positive future, though. I'm at college three days and want to go to uni, then maybe work in radio. I'm my dad's only son, so that's been a kick in the teeth for him. But I'm trying to make him proud by living as close to a normal life as I can.'
Taking on Glasgow's knife thugs
Mark Devlin, 42, a maxillofacial surgeon at the Southern General Hospital, describes the human cost of the city's sickening addiction to violence.
"Within the last six months, I've fished an Irn-Bru bottle out of somebody's head. It smashed on impact and he had a soft-tissue injury, and as I got deeper and deeper into it, I realised that bits of glass were sitting against his brain. The wee Barr's Irn-Bru guy on the label was sitting waving at me from inside his head.
"The bulk of what we see is blunt trauma, and the majority of that is down to violence. The smaller and increasing number is down to sharp trauma – people who have been slashed or stabbed in the head or the neck, that sort of thing. Blunt trauma involves broken jaws, broken cheekbones, broken eyesockets, all of which can be caused by a punch or a kick. If you add a weapon to the equation – a stick, pipe or a bat – you get a more complex pattern of injuries. Often they might require plating of the fractures with plates and screws to hold everything in position.
"Some sharp trauma wounds are also complex. They might require facial-nerve repair. They might have been slashed through the saliva ducts and if that went unrepaired you would have saliva leaking out on to your face. A stabbing in the head and neck is potentially life-threatening because of the large blood supply to that area. So what can appear very little in terms of the size of a wound can kill you if it catches something. Sharp, heavy weapons like machetes or swords will, by and large, give you a complex injury not just of the soft-tissues. It will break your jaw as well.
"It's dismaying seeing the same young people, who have the potential to do much more, back again and again. I see parents coming in with young guys, and they're not appalled that their son is in hospital having been in a fight. I'm from Govan, and my mum and dad would have been beside themselves. They would have viewed it as a parental failure. The parents I see are more like, 'Oh, he was a bit unlucky'. This is not a problem because they don't have money or because there isn't a community centre to go to. It's a problem because of their attitude to violence."
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