After the riots in England last summer, Prime Minister David Cameron pointed to Glasgow as an example the rest of Britain should follow.
Cameron was talking about the Scottish city’s success in reducing gang-related violence over the past four years.
Glasgow though, borrowed much of its strategy from Boston and Cincinnati.
It’s after dark in the Glasgow neighborhood of Castlemilk, often a dangerous time in this gritty part of town. But this center, packed with 13 to 25-year-olds, is buzzing with the energy of youth who are playing pool, watching televison or even taking cooking classes. The center has negotiated with six local gangs to grant youngsters coming here safe passage.
Upstairs, 16-year-old Charles Lang is starting his online radio show. Lang grew up in the neighborhood. Here is what he considers normal; his list of people he knows who have been attacked.
“My father has been jumped, my cousin has been jumped me and my friend get jumped just before Christmas, my sister’s been jumped. It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think.”
And that’s just off the top of his head. Lang is happy to be able to come here, to go anywhere really. There was a time when he wouldn’t step outside his house at night and a time when he thought about joining a gang in order to fit in.
“Well I almost did get in a gang and I’ve witnessed gang fights, when I was twelve or thirteen,” Lang said.
In fact, gangs have been part of Glasgow’s violent subculture for decades. Then as now, young men arm themselves with knives, machetes or broken bottles and set upon each other in housing projects, parks and sometimes in the city center.
In 2004, Glasgow was the murder capital of Western Europe. That was when police intelligence chief Karyn McCluskey decided to travel across the Atlantic.
“We’ve stolen quite a lot from America and we’ve embraced the philosophy that no one is safe until everyone is safe. We’ve tried to get everyone involved and get everyone to realize they’ve got responsibility,” McCluskey said.
She met in the United States with David Kennedy, who is the driving force behind successful anti-gang violence initiatives in Boston and Cincinnati.
McCluskey returned convinced it could work in Glasgow. It was a new approach that mixed a zero-tolerance policing policy with broad-based community efforts; get gang members into education, work and a new way of life. She admits it was not an easy sell among Glasgow officials.
“But what these people were saying was “But these are African-American men predominantly who are being dealt with in Boston.” Well when I saw them, they were exactly the same as the ones we had in Glasgow. They were deprived, they had no aspiration, it was all about respect, a whole range of things that the violence came out of. Race wasn’t the key thing. “
What was key, she believed was reaching out to disaffected young men. With about one hundred and seventy gangs across the city, hundreds of them were at risk of violence.
Emergency room doctors estimated someone was knifed, often in the face, every six hours. James is one of them, the jagged scar near his mouth a telltale sign of his troubled past.
“By the time I was 12 I was carrying a knife.”James fits the familiar pattern. Growing up poor, both his parents were alcoholics. He said his father began beating him when he was five years old. James said he felt safer on the streets with the gang than he did at home.
“By the time I was fifteen I had already used a knife and I was doing a two year prison sentence. I cut a guy’s face with a knife and I went to prison for two years and then I got out and went back to running with a gang,” he said.
At the age of twenty, he was convicted after a man he was fighting with fell under and bus and died.
James is now thirty-three, out of jail and a father to a young daughter. He is also one of the Violence Reduction Unit’s secret weapons, lending some street credibility to a gathering labeled a “call-in” that began in 2008.
Gang members are summoned to a meeting. Along with stark police warnings and graphic photos of slashed faces, men like James deliver vivid, powerful stories about their traumatic past and what it’s cost them and their families.
Mothers of murdered boys also offer painful testimonies. At first John Carnochan, a grizzled veteran cop was not certain all this touchy-feely American style talking would work.
“And the call-ins, Karyn was always convinced were a key component of it. I wasn’t convinced, I thought this is to do with America, this is a bit too much of a theater for me. I am now absolutely convinced they are a fundamental part of how this works,” Carnochan said.
Deputy Chief Superintendent Carnochan now heads up the Violence Reduction Unit. He’s watched the numbers go down.
Among the 500 or so gang members who signed a pledge to work with the unit since 2008, violence offending has been cut nearly in half. Carnochan recalls one moment when he knew it was going to work.
“And a fellow stood up who was maybe 20 or 21 scars on his face, the stereotypical east end Glasgow man and he pointed to another table. And he said, ‘See the guys at that other table over there? I’ve been fighting with them since I was 11. I want to know why.’”
Glasgow’s success has led to plans to expand into other neighborhoods it hasn’t been able to reach. And Karyn McCluskey is now looking to intervene before boys ever get close to gangs such as a daycare centre that offers sanctuary for children who are classified as vulnerable.
It also offers parenting courses for young, often single mothers to try to break the cycle of violence. McCluskey sees this as a priority for a community where the problem is still far from being fixed.
“We will have to have huge resilience to keep this going. We’ll have to keep partners interested. So, I am delighted at the initial impact that we’ve had but this is a long journey we’re gong to be on,” she said.
Key to that will be continued funding and government support. Otherwise, she warns, the gains in Glasgow could disappear in the flash of a knife blade.