He had graduated in pain: first the school dividers had been left behind, next the razor

–          Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

Knife crime is a recurring feature of the history of British criminality over the past century, and it is an issue that has inspired a great deal of moral panic. Here’s Matthew Parris writing for The Times on the cultural scare over “Teddy Boys” and their flick-knives:

“I’m old enough (just) to remember the post-war British moral panic about ‘Teddy boys’ and flick-knives. This was actually an era when poverty was on the decline. The Teddy boy craze involved a ‘ducktail’ hairstyle that horrified adults, and, associated with the look, rock’n’roll and the carrying of flick-knives. There were inevitable stabbings.”

Before the Teddy boys of the 1950s, there were the racecourse gangs (race-gangs) of the twenties – the Birmingham Boys, led by William Kimber, in the Midlands and, in the South-East and London, the Sabini Gang, led by Charles “Darby” Sabini, which competed for control of the bookmaking and betting industry. It took over the day-to-day running of race courses, and operated with virtual impunity from legal censure. The police were in cahoots with the betting trade – with ex-policemen regularly taking jobs in bookmaking after retirement, notably Frederick “Nutty” Sharpe and Tom Divall, formerly high-ranking officers in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Competition for business between the gangs often spilled into open violence on the streets. The News of The World splashed on the turf wars for three consecutive weekends in August 1922 – “Razors and Revolvers”, “Shooting Sensation”, and “Wild West Scenes in Streets of London”. In August 1925, the Daily Express ran a feature on “gang outrages” of the past year, including a pitched battle between forty men with razors played out on Shaftesbury Avenue. In the same month, Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks used an interview in the Daily Express to declare “war on the race-gangs”.

Contemporary mugshots of the Birmingham Boys, led by William Kimber

The mythology of the “race-gangs” passed into fiction – Graham Greene set his 1938 novel Brighton Rock in the world of razor gangs based at Brighton Racecourse. Recently, hit BBC show Peaky Blinders has traded off the popular picture of the race-gangs as demobbed soldiers brutalised by violence. Part headcase, part demonic – the British knife-wielding gangster has inspired as much folk-terror over the last century as the folk-worship devoted to the early-twentieth century American mob, where Robin Hood-style myths grew up around leading criminals. Bank robber “Pretty Boy” Floyd, for example, whom Bob Dylan, over half a century later, felt able to describe in these florid terms: “There’s something unbound and not frozen in the muck about him.” Or the romance of the Italian-American gangster: Marlon Brando’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s death-mask face, Tony Soprano and his therapist.

The outsize mythology of the blade and the villainy of the British gangster sit uneasily with the more prosaic root causes of violent crime. After the First World War, high unemployment among men, fuelled by the loss of segments of heavy industry to the Imperial dominions, and the aftermath of a brutal war of survival, had left plenty of young men without a job and without status. For many, the attractions of easy money and derring-do in male company must have proved irresistible.

I’ve never seen anything like what is happening now

–          Peter Kirkham, who served as a detective in the Metropolitan Police from 1981 to 2002

Today, we have our own upsurge in knife crime. In 2017-18, there were 285 knife-related homicides in England and Wales, highest figure since 1946. Although a significant proportion of those offences occurred during domestic rows, police statistics show that knife crime makes up a significant proportion of an upward trend in the most serious forms of violent crime.

Last year, 134 individuals were murdered or unlawfully killed in London – the bloodiest total in the last decade. Of those, 76 victims were stabbed to death.

It’s easy to over-explain knife crime (at what point does a stabbing become a symptom of a knife crime epidemic?). Some of the recorded murders were gang-related; some were nothing to do with street crime or organised crime. But it remains true that knife crime has become a central feature of the patchwork of styles and mythologies that give low-level street crime, serious organised crime, and middle-order gang hierarchies their definition.

I spoke to ex-police officers who have worked to combat violent crime over the past couple of decades. They chart the changes and their stories illustrate the evolution of the modern gang problem in parallel with the adoption of the blade and the knife as tools of choice.

Chris Hobbs joined the police in 1978 and went on to work on Operation Trident as an officer. Operation Trident was set up in 1998 in response to a series of well-publicised shootings (and pretty nasty murders) in London. It was a specialist unit built around four teams with a coordinating “Intelligence Unit” at its centre: a murder squad to follow up reports of shootings, a shooting team for non-fatal shootings, and two pro-active teams working on the possession and supply of guns.

“Jamaican gangsters started to come over in the eighties and nineties,” Hobbs says: “There were no visa restrictions.”

Jamaican gang culture was highly organised at that time – criminal groups, who made their money from the international drug trade, took care of law and order for large swathes of Kingston, with each gang-controlled area replete with a holding cell made from an old chicken coop and rudimentary street courts. Gangs gave “protection” to local businesses from extortion by other gangs – and they expressed their identity through songs of loyalty and belonging – written by famous DJs – and custom-made flags for each gang.

Hobss continues: “They set up drug-trafficking organisations from the Caribbean into the UK, using usually what we call ‘swallowers’, people who recruited from Jamaica’s poorest areas and given packages to digest. There could be as many as thirty or forty ‘swallowers’ on each flight coming in from Jamaica.”

In 2002, Hobbs was enlisted to take part in Operation Airbridge – which coordinated customs officers, police and narcotics officers and set up liaison officers in Jamaica.

“That operation was extremely successful. It then developed into an intelligence gathering operation on guys going backwards and forwards on business – from Broadwater Farm, London Fields and South London gangs. They would be popping over, doing business and arranging shipments then coming back to the UK.”

In 2005-6, Operation Trident recorded 37 shootings in Hackney, more than anywhere else in London (the next worst was 34 in Southwark). The shootings derived from historic (and well-known) rivalries between gang groups and their affiliates. The Tottenham Man Dem, based in the Broadwater Farm estate, have long clashed with the London Fields Boys, the controlling force in Hackney (apocryphally said to have been founded in 1997 after the murder of Guy Dance-Dacres, a sixteen-year-old boy, outside a nightclub in Clapton).

Long-established Turkish gangs also feud by dint of their area affiliation – the Tottenham Turks and the Hackney Turks: “They’ve been at war for twenty years and they are aligned with respective gangs in their areas and often hired black gang members to carry out hits,” Hobbs says.

Throughout the nineties and early noughties, the gang structure was relatively well defined, with a strong international dimension. Those links are not as strong as they were – second and third generation Afro-Caribbean communities have few personal links with the Old Country. Between about 2000 and 2006, the Met had four liaison officers stationed in Jamaica to mount investigations and coordinate with customs officials; there is now one liaison officer stationed out there.

Hobbs tells me that they are still in business: “You still have these long-established gangs with people sitting at the top who I could name but I’m not going to, who have done it, got the T-shirt, have been inside, who have done some pretty dreadful things, and are still there.”

Some of the groups have a Godfather figure with high status. Notorious criminal Mark Lambie was known popularly as “The Prince of Darkness”, when he headed up the Tottenham Man Dem on Broadwater Farm Estate for many years. In 2002, at the age of 31, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the kidnap and subsequent torture of two men with a hammer, boiling water poured over the genitals, and an iron. He was a figure of much mythologising – known as an Obeah man, a practitioner of black magic in Jamaican and West African folklore who could never die.

Those gangs followed an affiliate structure with three tiers – the Faces at the top, the Elders (top gang members), Youngers, who could be anything from being petty criminals to freelance guns for hire, to Shotters (predominantly drug couriers and errand boys). There might be thirty to forty affiliates in operation at any one time.

Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society

–          Michel Houellebecq, Whatever, 1994

Twenty years ago, those affiliations existed in parallel with white organised crime: crews such as the Clerkenwell crime syndicate which drew income from traditional sources such as armed robbery or hold-ups. In the nineties, CCTV installations, robust sentencing, and the potential for a high mortality rate in shoot-outs with armed police meant that they moved away from a role in street crime.

Other white gangsters still take a dominant role in the wholesale wing of the drugs trade but, according to Peter Kirkham, who served as a detective in the Metropolitan Police from 1981 to 2002, “they realised that they could step back from being caught and getting their hands dirty and then a new retail lot came in below them”. They moved into trafficking – through West Africa and Southern Africa into Southern Europe. “They are heavily involved in moving cocaine around – on the South Africa through Spain route for example,” Chris tells me.

This is a buoyant industry – in the first quarter of 2018, the National Crime Agency recorded a 294 per cent increase in seizures of cocaine at the UK border compared with the first quarter of 2017, with seizures made in 2018 almost twice as large in volume as those in 2017.

Kirkham continues: “So, we sort of had the world of Tesco and Sainsbury’s and then all the little players came in, organised up to the level of Londis. They were sourcing their drugs from the big players who were importing it and producing it. But they were then retail operations. Once you’ve bought it from me, I don’t care what you do with it.”

The gang – with its hierarchies of respect and its primitive democracy – has morphed into a node in a criminal corporation, with an ever-expanding retail operation, and a wholesale operation divorced from its lower echelons. Hobbs says: “Some of the top boys used to be deadly rivals but now they all talk to each other and do business with each other, even though their youngers are happily stabbing each other on the street.”

There are now myriad smaller groups that deal in street crime (moped theft, low-level dealing, petty fraud) – in Hackney there was the Fellows Court Gang, made up of five to ten members, or the Hoxton Boys, who feuded in the early years of this decade, or at the larger end of the retail spectrum, the Holly Street Boys in Hackney, who have a historic conflict with the London Fields Gang. In South London, Moscow17 and Zone 2 have a larger pool of affiliates.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) scrutinises Albanian gang elements – they’ve found that they now make up a prominent feature of this new criminal economy as effectively “middle-tier” operators, acting as good faith partners between different nodes of the corporation, between the gangs involved in street crime, long-established Faces with a powerbase in a local community and mastermind-type figures, involved in serious organised crime.

Although Albanians are said to make up just 0.8 per cent of organised criminals in the UK, the NCA’s 2017 annual report confirmed that “criminals from the Balkans are increasingly expanding their network of influence, forming direct relationships with cocaine suppliers in Latin America. The threat faced from Albanian crime groups is significant. London is their primary hub, but they are established across the UK”. Indeed, they are well-connected, with the so-called county lines drug dealing operations which operate across England, moving high volumes of drugs from urban centres to villages.

In the nineties and early noughties, the street scene was relatively opaque, operating on a well-defined hierarchy, roughly, Faces, Olders, Youngers and Shotters, with an international dimension that extended to Jamaica. But that is no longer true – the gang problem has morphed into a cipher for London’s pole position in international trade and its shadow, the international drugs trade. It involves a far more diverse patchwork of ethnicities, economic connections and gangster cultures.

Simultaneously, on the ground in London at street level, gang members have become steadily more violent and vengeful, their allegiances and feuds glamourised in music and amplified by social media. That upsurge has its roots in conflicts that took place more than a decade ago.

Over the years, things change in the hood. I used to have a lot of respect for Durrty Goodz

–           Shaba Shah aka Shak

On 4 November 2005, a 21-year-old music producer, Richard Holmes, was shot dead by associates of the rapper Durrty Goodz (full name Dwayne Mahorn) in Chingford, East London.

Shak, 16, a rising star of the London grime scene and a friend of producer Richard “Richie” Holmes, released a song that implied Goodz had turned his back on the street because of his new found success – Goodz had been signed by the label Polydor earlier that year.

For Shak, in his lyrics, life is a calamity – “Over the years shit changed on the block / Shit became catastrophic but the shit never stops,” runs the chorus of Over The Years. Man “on the block” is stripped to his bare elements, hungry for power, violent to the core, but tenacious and far superior to “snitches” (informants to the police) who deserve to “drop” (‘be killed’). He contrasts a period of relative prosperity on the estate – “for all the top shottas (‘low level gang members’) licking shots (‘dealing’), it was easy” – with the malaise of the present where there are new players on the scene who flash their new cars (“I see the Astras, the bullies”) and care little for those in power. The first line of the chorus runs: “I used to have a lot of respect for Durrty Goodz.”

This was a perception shared by gang affiliates in Chingford: “He’s distanced himself from the gang. The young guys don’t see no love coming from Goodz,” one former gang member told the journalist John Heale.

Goodz confronted Shak and asked for an apology: “I am a 24-year-old man. I can’t have a 16-year-old saying things like that to me.”

Shak refused to apologise. The former gang affiliate continues: “You see, Shaks is a Younger. If you’re a Younger, you don’t do that.”

Richard “Richie” Holmes, a friend and supporter of Shak and member of the Piff City gang in Chingford, Waltham Forest (an area with a long and bitter history of gang violence) turned up with some of his own crew in an attempt to intercede on behalf of Shak.

Goodz decided to call up his half-brother Crazy Titch (full name Carl Dobson, 23) who arrived armed to the teeth. Holmes was shot in the back with a handgun and in the leg with Mach 10 machine gun.

In the subsequent trial, Titch was identified by a witness – a fan who recognised him from an appearance on television.

For Shak, life is denuded of value beyond power and the articulation of power – the corollary of this is that snitches who show no respect to the gang hierarchies deserve death. In a sense, Goodz was quite right to conclude that Shak, in writing this song, was not dealing in fine words or debate, but had implied that Goodz no longer deserved respect, that he might deserve death.

What could Goodz do? His life was now at risk and he had to retaliate. Shak was right: “The shit never stops.”

Shaba Shah aka Shak poses for the camera / YouTube

The murder of Richard Holmes became a model for many of the gangland stabbings and killings that have played out over the last decade against a musical backdrop of drill music. Drill is an import from Chicago and one generation downstream from the Grime genre of the noughties. It is broadcast over social media in real time, on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, with conflicts played out before an audience of millions.

Peter Kirkham tells me: “It’s the ‘call-outs’ on tracks – taking the piss out of other gangs – that really wind up the situation. It is clear incitement to violence. You can see a drill star with a following and a drill music producer, who are involved in a stabbing and then stabbed. You see it all the time.”

Moscow17, based on the Elmington and Brandon estates in South London, has been engaged in a well-publicised conflict with Zone 2, a Peckham-based group. A series of tracks over 2017 and 2018 featured various self-described gang affiliates mounting a series of open challenges to each other, articulated in a vocabulary of extreme violence – “shanked” or “splashed” (‘stabbed’), “rushed” (‘attacked’), caught “slipping” or “lacking” (‘in a rival’s area’), “opps” (‘enemy gang’), “violates” (‘mocks’) – that speaks to a stark ethic that depends solely on naked power and its frank and repeated display. Several killings have been linked to the feud – some of which were pre-figured in those exchanges – including Rhyhiem Barton, 17, known as GB, and Siddique Kamara, 23, also known as Incognito.

Conflicts play out over Instagram Live and Snapchat (which allow for instant reactions by other users). Here are just a few examples from last year: “Kwengface (Zone2) Sends For Loski And The Rest Of Harlem Spartans”, “Loski Violates Kwengface (Zone 2) and Digga D”,  “Duppy (1011) Violates his Opps On a Freestyle”. 1011 refers to a Ladbroke Grove based gang, which produces drill music. Five of its members were arrested in late 2017 as they prepared to attack rivals from the 12 Worlds gang in Shepherds Bush.

Respect is still all-important – but things are different from how they were in 2005 for Shak and Goodz. Word of mouth, a phone call even, allowed for some period of reflection, a chance for combatants to cool off, but in the contemporary arena, with social media rife, combatants are borne along by something not of their choosing – a series of contiguous impressions that determine how to live, and how to die.

Perhaps the only way to represent the workings of the economy is to understand what it leaves behind, to follow the trail of parts that fall away, like flaking of dead skin, as it marches onward

–          Robert Saviano, Gomorrah, 2007

In my previous piece for Reaction on this subject, Knife crime wars – the global roots of a national tragedy, I argued that the “knife crime wars” derive from the convergence of three interrelated phenomena – the vibrancy of the international drugs trade, which facilitates economic opportunities to ambitious, young men deprived of access to the regular jobs market, the development of a gangster culture that is transfixed by power, and the display of power, and the progressive withdrawal of the modern state from its obligation to keep order on the streets and to protect its citizens.

The second phenomenon – the modern gang problem – developed from a lifestyle and set of experiences rooted in the Jamaican diaspora into a cipher for the rising tide of globalisation and the nascent role of social media in shaping the experience of violence, played out against a background of urban decay. It might seem a far cry from the razor-gangs of the twenties that spawned the popular image of the malefic British gangster, but there is a vital common denominator: young men, like Shak, for whom “the shit never stops”.