An east London teenager who became a drug dealer and a knife-wielding member of a street gang lays the blame on the transformation of his neighbourhood into an ethnic minority “ghetto” where turf warfare flourishes.
“I fell in with the wrong crowd,” said Syed Miah, 19, who regrets his life of crime. “Before, it was mixed and you would get to know other people, but now no one meets anyone. You grow up with this mentality that ‘we’re Bangladeshis, whites are whites and blacks are blacks’.”
Miah became a full-time gangster when he was expelled from school for holding a knife to his teacher’s throat. He says he eventually earned up to £960 a week dealing heroin before being sentenced to 18 months in jail.
Miah’s account of the failure of multiculturalism encapsulates the growing debate over how ethnic minorities should be integrated into society. At last week’s Conservative conference, David Cameron, the party leader, warned that in some cities “we have allowed ghettos to develop—whole neighbourhoods cut off from the rest of society”.
He spoke of “parallel lives”, citing “communities where people from different backgrounds never meet, never talk, never go into each other’s homes”.
There are ethnic gang fights in Manchester and Birmingham and last week they spread to Windsor, where rioting erupted around an Asian-owned dairy and nearby prayer centre.
Last weekend, Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, 40, a maths and finance student, was stabbed to death in his block of flats in Hackney, east London. It later emerged he and his wife Veronique, who came to Britain 10 years ago as refugees from the Congo, had asked the authorities to improve security on their building because they were worried about loitering youths.
Nowhere is the ethnic basis of gangs more evident than in London, where the cultural patchwork is the most complicated in Britain. According to new figures, in the borough of Brent there is an 85% chance that any two people chosen at random would belong to different ethnic groups.
Bangladeshis, Somalis, Pakistanis, Afro—Caribbeans and Turks have all formed their own gangs who are as likely to fight each other as they are to attack or be attacked by white thugs.
Last year Lee Jasper, a policing adviser to Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, warned that one south London gang, the Muslim Boys, was the “most serious criminal threat” the black community had ever faced. It was accused of shooting a man, execution-style, after he refused to convert to Islam, and has been implicated in dozens of other muggings and attempted murders.
Tower Hamlets, Miah’s home borough, is one of the most ethnically diverse in Britain, with whites comprising just 51% of the population. It has been portrayed in books such as Brick Lane by Monica Ali as an area where there is tension, but communities manage to coexist.
However, there is now strong evidence of the extent of segregation in the area. A recent report by Bristol University found 40% of Bangladeshi children went to schools where at least 90% of the pupils were Bangladeshi, while 60% of whites attended overwhelmingly white schools. The report described education in Tower Hamlets as “highly segregated”.
Abdi Hassan, a representative of the local Somali community, recently complained to the council that segregation was fuelling violence. “There are many groups here, Moroccans, Irish and Algerians, but nobody mixes with anybody,” said Hassan. “Why do we have community ghettos? Why shouldn’t people want to interact with each other?” Some local gangs were set up to resist racist attacks but turned to crime. In one incident in 1994, a Pakistani was left with severe brain damage after an attack by eight white thugs on Whitechapel Road. Emdad Rahman, 39, one of his friends, said: “The whole community was enraged. I remember a lot of my peers thinking, ‘Right, if they’re going out Paki-bashing, we basically need to go out honky-bashing now’.”
Often the gangs fight over territory merely for the sake of it. One seven-year feud in the area began with a row over who would get the last doughnut at school and ended with men in their twenties beating, blinding and stabbing each other.
Miah’s story of growing up amid segregated gang violence suggests such divisions are now entrenched. He used to live on the Solander Gardens estate where he was a member of the 70-strong Shadwell Massive gang. He now has an antisocial behaviour order that bars him from the area after 9pm.
His two eldest brothers are studying law and sociology at university and Miah says he was one of the best pupils at school until he got “caught up in the wrong crowd”. “These boys were older and were taking and selling drugs. You just think, ‘I’m part of a big gang,’ and you just beat up everyone and anyone,” he said.
Joining the gang at 14 was also a way for Miah to gain respect. “Kids, they just like look up to you. They think, ‘He’s some sort of big shotta (dealer).’ (They) check out Mercs, BM(W)s. Now you will even get people’s numberplates that got ‘Gangzta’ written all over it, ‘Top Shottas’, ‘E1 Don’, silly stuff like that.”
An early victim of Miah was his history teacher at Stepney Green school. “He’d pissed me off the day before. I just brought a kitchen knife to school up my sleeve. When he started making those silly jokes again (about me truanting), I pulled out a knife.”
Miah held the blade to his teacher’s throat and pinned him to the desk before being restrained by his friends. He was questioned and released by the police but was expelled from school and fell into a full-time life with the Shadwell Massive, mugging, dealing in drugs and petrol-bombing the homes of members of rival gangs.
Now he is out of prison he is determined to change his life.
Many peaceable residents, however, are being pushed out of the area. Carly, 25, a white telephone receptionist, said that every day during her 15-minute walk to and from work she tries to “make myself invisible”.
Last month 30 gang members had an armed brawl in the area. In August Carly saw a gang pull a knife on a passer-by. When the police were called, said Carly, they stopped briefly at the end of the road and drove on. “I’m planning to move out now,” she said.