Echoes of Empire: Excavating the Colonial Roots of Britain's 'War on Gangs'.

AuthorNijjar, Jasbinder S.


The entanglement between notions of Blackness and gangs in Britain suggests that Black people exhibit some supposed compulsion for criminality collectively as well as individually. This commentary critiques the criminalization of (young) Black individuals as gang members and the corresponding racialization of anti-gang policing and punishment measures through Britain's history of colonial control and exploitation. I argue that the myth of collective Black criminality and the incorporation of clusters of Black individuals into an expanding prison labor market via joint enterprise relate to the criminalization and collective punishment of castes and tribes by the British colonial state in India. The resonance of Britain's destructive past in present-day antigang initiatives makes it even more necessary to abolish gang databases, to question the validity of the idea of "the gang," to review the convictions administered under joint enterprise and to repeal the doctrine of common purpose itself.


There it is, us. In another time, of course. But unmistakably us. --Howard Zinn, The Politics of History (1990)

It is widely acknowledged across academic and activist circles that over the past couple of decades, there has been a noticeable increase in media attention, academic research, and policy responses dedicated to youth gangs in urban Britain (Alexander 2008, Williams 2015, Wood 2010). Indeed, when responding to the 2011 riots that broke out across England, former Prime Minister David Cameron declared an "all-out war on gangs and gang culture" (Amnesty International 2018, 5). April 2018 saw renewed calls for more police on London's streets, tougher police powers, and more funding for law enforcement (rather than social services) to tackle gang violence. This law-and-order agenda reemerged after a string of incidents that have seen young people in London killed or injured by knives and guns. In response to these tragedies, the Home Office has announced the introduction of a new Offensive Weapons Bill which includes prohibiting the possession of certain weapons in public and private. The government has also launched its Serious Violence Strategy which continues a longstanding tradition of "total policing" by aiming to tackle gang crime through "a multiple strand approach involving a range of partners across different sectors" (HM Government 2018, 14).

Fear and anxiety over "the gang" explicitly and implicitly underlie popular and political responses to the loss of life through gun and knife violence. However, the reality of these tragedies is complicated--not least because what constitutes a gang is by the police's own admission contested, and because the perpetrators and victims of violence come from many ethnic backgrounds (Wood 2010). Yet, despite its disputed and complex nature, the notion of the gang is taken for granted and politicized as more or less "specific to, arising from and potentially encompassing, the black community as a whole" (Alexander 2008, 7).

This "race-gang nexus" (Williams 2015) points to a reconditioned and arguably more sinister, dangerous, and destructive version of what Paul Gilroy (1987) terms "the myth of black criminality"--one that suggests Black people now fulfill some supposed compulsion for (violent) crime collectively, as well as individually. It also signals a continuation of institutional racism in and across the British Criminal Justice System (CJS), two decades after the Macpherson report (1999) into the Metropolitan Police's calamitous handling of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence found the police to be institutionally racist. Macpherson's understanding of institutional racism was far from adequate, however, as he reduced the problem to one that implicated individual police officers, rather than the policies of policing (Bridges 1999).

The shortcomings of the Macpherson report have been compounded in recent years by attempts to reframe institutional racism as a problem of the past. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick (2012), declared that the force "can be proud of how it has been transformed in attitudes, practice, training and professionalism," and David Cameron claimed in 2012 that Britain is "less racist" than at the time of Stephen Lawrence's murder (Burnett 2012). Current Prime Minister Theresa May conceded in 2016, however, that Black people are "treated more harshly" by the CJS than whites (Travis 2017b). Furthermore, recent government-commissioned research into the treatment of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) communities by the CJS--The Lammy Review (Lammy 2017)--acknowledges that the disproportionate labeling of Black youth as gang members is a factor in conditioning racial disparities in arrests, charging, prosecution, and imprisonment. However, whereas symbolic acceptance of Black communities as criminalized and, thus, over-policed and under-protected is welcome, it is "the objective relationship which counts, not rhetoric" (Carmichael & Hamilton 1967, 6). In this sense, racism has always been, and remains, a definitive feature of the relationship between Black communities and the British CJS.

In this piece, I argue that any serious effort to expose and challenge the problem of institutional racism must include a reckoning with, working through, and illumination of the legacies of empire in and across contemporary antigang policies and practices. This means not only identifying racism as a formal strategy for policing the "war on gangs" in contemporary Britain, but also highlighting, understanding, and interrupting its enduring nature, given Britain's punitive and exploitative history of constructing, controlling, and punishing colonial subjects as criminal collectives. My argument rests on a two-sided analysis, with the first part examining official discourse about race and gang crime through Britain's colonial history of constructing colonized communities as networks of criminality. The second part situates the resulting power relation between Black people and the British CJS in a history of British colonial efforts to collectively control, punish, and exploit racial subjects constructed as criminal collectives.

The Enduring Discourse of Race and Collective Criminality

Before situating the racialization of gangs in Britain's history of empire, it is worth briefly illuminating the entanglement between notions of race and gang crime across the formal knowledge structures of policing. In October 2014, London's Metropolitan Police released figures revealing that of the 3,422 individuals registered in its Gangs Matrix database, a staggering 78.2 percent (2,683) were classified as Black, whereas a mere 439 were classified as white (Bridges 2015). As of May 2018, 3,362 people were in the database, with 89 percent from BAME groups, compared to 87 percent in October 2016(Gayle 2018). For Lee Bridges (2015), once we consider" such organised criminal activities as drug-dealing; sex and people trafficking; multi-handed robbery: fraud: theft (including auto theft) and extortion; football hooliganism; and racist violence, these figures are simply not credible." Furthermore, in 2016, figures from the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) showed that the matrix is overwhelmingly comprised of young and male "gang nominals" and that 35 percent have never committed a serious offense. This suggests that "mere 'membership' of or association with a 'gang' appears itself to be sufficient for inclusion on the database" (Bridges 2015).

This official construction of young Black people as the primary perpetrators of gang crime, which rests on "ad hoc and inconsistent standards and procedures" (Amnesty International 2018, 43) for adding individuals to the Matrix, represents the most recent phase in the formalization of myths about Black criminality. It undoubtedly signals an evolution in the discursive overlap between race and crime that has produced a succession of racist images, ranging from "the pimp of the 1950s, to the Black Power activist of the 1960s, to the mugger of the 1970s, to the rioter of the 1980s...

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