Since 2012, there is emerging a counter-narrative to the predominant discourse of the violent black ‘gang’ which we argue has been (ab)used to justify the over-policing and development of harmful criminal justice policies and practices which deliberately target black, mixed race, Asian and other minority ethnic groups and communities across England and Wales. Of note, this body of work (including our own) has relied upon the re analyses of official criminal justice data and marginal ‘access’ to police intelligence sources. Whilst valuable, we have always recognised that official data can only provide a partial and incomplete understanding of the ‘gang’ and its relationship to violent crime across England and Wales. So while the contemporary panic surrounding the ‘gang’ sits to the fore of explanations for crime, and particularly youth violence and drug dealing, there has been little critical interrogation of the processes by which the police define who is or who is not a gang member and further how those so-defined are subsequently policed.
This question then was the central focus of a recently published report by the Stopwatch Charity entitled ‘Being Matrixed: the (over)policing of gang suspects in London’. This unique study sought to explore the lived experiences of those who are registered to the Metropolitan Police Trident Matrix, a database of individuals who the police ‘suspect’ of being gang members, gang associates or ‘at risk’ of gang violence. ‘Being Matrixed’ documents the stories and narratives of 15 people who were registered on the matrix, foregrounding their childhood and adult experiences of being policed. When read within the context of Amnesty International’s ‘Inside the Matrix’, Williams and Clarke’s ‘Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism’ and Stafford Scott’s ‘The War on Gangs or a Racialised War on Working Class Black Youth’ what emerges is a profoundly disturbing insight into the coordinated policing of young black and brown people across England and Wales. Further, in hearing the voices of the policed, the study reveals the incalculable personal and emotional harms imposed upon those young people who reside in police-defined ‘gang-affected’ communities.
Matrixed: legitimising a hostile environment for ‘gang suspects’.
So what is it to be matrixed? First, to be matrixed is to be what one respondent described as “gang branded” becoming labelled and constructed as a ‘gang-member’. Of concern here, gang branding was not a result of criminal or offending behaviour, but was the result of the individual’s non-criminal associations to friends, the (housing) estate or the communities where they lived. Second, it was within such spaces that the police and wider criminal justice agencies constructed ‘hostile environments’ as a deliberate strategy to contain or manage the risks associated with their suspiciousness. Therefore, to be matrixed legitimised being ‘policed with impunity’. Young peoples’ recollections spoke of being stopped and searched hundreds of times, being arrested tens of times with one individual disclosing being strip-searched “ten times”. The frequency of such police encounters drove one individual to describe the experience of stop and search as “normal as putting your clothes on…” Third and of more concern for research participants was the sharing of police intelligence, which was invariably the police’s own mis- and re- interpretations of their own community policing practices, between a wide range of statutory and non-statutory organisations. For Garry, “[t]he thing is what pisses me off is that they have the power to do stuff, extra stuff, and their power derives from intelligence. You can ask them, ‘What’s the intelligence?’ They’ll say they’re not allowed to tell you.” Such multi-agency arrangements comprising of the Police, Youth Offending Services, Probation, Local Authority departments (Social Services, Education), housing providers, the job centre, schools, VCS organisations, etc. are used to expose and exploit the ‘Achilles heel’ of socially excluded and marginalised families (Amnesty International). The overbearingness of being policed as a gang nominal extends suspicion to parents who were targeted, and at times threatened with eviction if they did not ‘remove’ their children from the family home. Others disclosed being excluded from school or college due to the intelligence of the ‘gang management unit’, while Bill was temporarily placed in a care home on the ‘guidance’ of another gang management unit. For those young people who bravely contributed to this study, to be matrixed served to accelerate criminalisation and deny their ‘victim status’. Collectively, respondents who were registered to the gang matrix were refused access to those (now sparse) social/community goods that may protect and insulate them from an array of socio-economic problems. To be matrixed therefore meant being subject to concealed abusive police and gang management powers, which resulted in increased marginalisation and eventual banishment from the estates and communities where they felt “safe”.
In conclusion: disseminating the findings
‘Being Matrixed: the (over)policing of gang suspects in London’ was launched on 19th September 2018 at Amnesty International House, London with a second event hosted by Naz Shah MP in Portcullis House, Westminster on 16th October 2018. In keeping with the core principles of the report, both launch events foregrounded the voices of young people who resided within policed states and who endure the pain of over-policing. Spoken word was delivered by Jamal Khan, Mr Reed and Brokenpen, words which echoed the everyday policing experiences of those who contributed to the Stopwatch report. Question and answer sessions further enabled disclosures from the floor where parents, young people, schoolteachers, (legal, youth and CJ) practitioners and campaigners spoke of their negative experiences of being ‘inside the matrix’. As a site of resistance, the upward trend in academic and police gang-making demands that we support community and activists calls for the complete abandonment of gang databases as a primary strategy to alleviate the harms that affects the increasing numbers of black, mixed race, Asian and other minority ethnic people and communities in London and across England and Wales.
Dr Patrick Williams is a Senior Lecturer at MMU, he tweets @patrickwillia17