Photo: Sky Atlantic

    What Gangs of London gets right about gang culture

    17 July 2020

    When it comes to stereotypes, people often split into two teams: those who claim that there is an element of truth in all stereotypes, and those who argue that stereotypes are simply short-cut helpers that people use to make sense of the world around them. I tend to side with the latter, therefore what I enjoyed most about Gangs of London, the Sky Atlantic gangster thriller is that it challenges many stereotypes about gangs in London with representations that chime with my own social research.

    For those of us who are not party to the inner workings of gang culture, the violence carried out by gangs can seem extreme and at times even irrational. But in dismissing the violence as irrational we fail to see its root cause: the torture, kidnappings, stabbings and murders that take place between gangs are far from irrational acts carried out on the spur of the moment. As Gangs of London shows, violence is carried out to achieve specific goals such as maintaining a reputation, asserting authority or meting out revenge. These acts are of often part of an informal justice system, which is entirely necessary for gangs who deliberately operate under the radar of the police.

    The media feeds the fallacy that gangs in London are just made up of groups of black boys wearing hoodies. Gangs of London challenges this stereotype with gangs that reflect multicultural London. The storylines include White Brits, Black Brits, Albanians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Turks, and Welsh travellers involved in violence and organised crime. One thing Gangs of London makes clear is the hierarchy in the illicit drug economy which is often missing from the media coverage on gangs. Those who are often most visible in the media coverage or on the street, are often at the bottom of a hidden hierarchy of dealers. It is just easier for the police to catch the small fishes than the big whales at the top.

    Gangs of London (Photo: Sky Atlantic)

    Another misplaced assumption is that women play subordinate roles in gangs. We imagine women cleaning blood stain clothing, setting up honey traps to ensnare the men’s rivals, and providing alibis for the men. Unlike their male counterparts, women are rarely portrayed as perpetrators of violence in gangs. Gangs of London challenges these stereotypes with strong female characters who carry out ruthless violence usually reserved for men. For example, Lale (Narges Rashidi) is a successful Kurdish heroin drug lord, a forceful leader in charge of the sale of heroin in areas of London. Lale is not only willing to use extreme violence but she is totally competent with a machine gun too.

    During my research, I met many adult women involved in organised crime selling drugs, with no Business or Marketing degrees under their belts, yet these women were skilled entrepreneurs and marketers, successful at promoting their product, generating sales and customer retention, and they seemed to be very much equal in status with the men.

    Parents are significant role models for their children and often we are encouraged to believe that ‘children learn what they live’ and negative parental role models always result in negative outcomes for children and young people. However, Gangs of London challenges that idea with Jackie (Valene Kane) who defies the stereotype of growing up in a family immersed in organised crime.

    Jackie has a career as an A & E doctor at a hospital, while her brother follows in their gangster father’s footsteps and the other struggles with heroin addiction, rather than learning what she lived as a child, Jackie learnt she wanted a different life.

    Whilst these individuals manage to resist the pressure to become embroiled in gang culture, who’s to say what we would do if faced with similar dilemmas? I remember one gang member shared with me that often during times of revenge, some members are hesitant and don’t want to pull the trigger and shoot but often when everyone around them is saying ‘just do it,’ it’s incredibly difficult to change your mind. His comment revealed something telling: which of us in the same situation would be strong enough to resist this peer pressure? In my experience, those involved in organised crime gangs are just not who you expect them to be if you read the media.

    Gangs of London does much to rectify the misconceptions about gang culture and, if you can stomach the violence, it’s well worth a watch.