Make gangs illegal – starting with the Hell’s Angels

It's been a violent summer in Nørrebro with more than 26 shootings. But this increase in gang activity arrives as gang membership and youth crime is dropping. Sociologist Aydin Soei argues that earlier intervention is a better tool than tougher penalties

“There’s another cop. That’s the fifth one on this block alone!” says a woman near the Red Square in Nørrebro to her partner, appearing shocked.

Anyone who has been close to outer Nørrebro in the past month will have experienced a district in a subdued state of emergency. Police patrol the streets in cars and motorcycles, or simply on foot. Helicopters borrowed from the Defence Command circle the neighbourhood, their doors open so that armed officers can take swift action.

The aerial surveillance produces a constant low-frequency drone that permeates the cobbled streets. While some families appear to go about their daily routines seemingly unfazed by the sudden police presence, not all of Nørrebro’s residents can block out the background buzzing.

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“Those helicopters are fucking annoying!”

One of them is Aydin Soei, a writer, journalist and sociologist whose work has focussed on crime in socially and economically disadvantaged residential areas, and specifically on angry young men – which is also the title of his second book.

“I lived on Rantzausgade when the gang conflict emerged in the autumn of 2008. That street was probably the place with the most shootings in the entire country. There were areas you just wouldn’t go if you were a young man with an immigrant background. Most of the people who were shot then had no connection to the gangs – and the shootings today remind me of that,” he says.

According to Soei, the primary goal of the shootings is for different criminal groups to show they aren’t afraid of entering the other’s territory. The groups aren’t concerned whether the targets of the shootings are rival gang members or innocent civilians – the key is the signal it sends.

Writer and sociologist Aydin Soei. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

A number of explanations have been given for the escalation of tension over the past few months, but according to Soei, it has mainly to do with one particular gang, Loyal To Familia.

“They are trying quite aggressively to expand their territory and to say that no one is above them.”

Their recruitment drive and territorial expansion is leaving rival groups – particularly those in the nearby suburb of Husum, the housing project Mjølnerparken, and in the northwest district –  feeling threatened and under pressure. But it’s also the culmination of feuds that have been building between the groups.

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“There is a notion within the gangs that one does not turn the other cheek. This gang war has been going on for nine years now, and the different members have been holding grudges and getting into conflicts all this time. And when you have people jumping from gang to gang, you end up bringing your conflict with you. So all of a sudden, you have a conflict that becomes the conflict of the entire brotherhood – and not just of the individual.”

Shootings are bad for business, but good for the ego
Since June of this year, there have been 26 shootings in Copenhagen. Soei argues that the source of this conflict is not simply control of the illegal cannabis market, which is worth around a billion kroner in Copenhagen alone. If it were, the gangs would keep a low profile, since increased attention from politicians and the police would only reduce sales.

Instead, these shootings are a testament to changes that have taken place within the criminal subcultures following the last gang conflict.

“Before 2008, it was considered extreme if you carried a knife as a young person. Then, overnight, the number of firearms exploded, and it suddenly became normal to see guns in these criminal environments. This also means that the generation that was around 10 years old at the time of the first conflicts has now grown up with firearms, shootings, violence and gang-related conflicts as a part of their everyday life. It’s become a part of their subculture – and they are more willing to turn to violence. So naturally today’s conflicts escalate much faster,” he explains.

Anti-gang initiatives and gangsters on women’s bikes
Earlier this year, the Danish government presented 35 concrete initiatives to combat criminal gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs. According to the Justice Department’s website, the ambition is to keep gang members incarcerated for as long as possible, while ensuring safety and peace for the average Danish citizen.

The initiatives are threefold, encompassing housing and urban renewal, education, and crime prevention with even harsher punishments. The latter also includes a series of exit programs for gang members who want to break free of their criminal paths.

Soei approves of the initiatives, especially if the main objective is to put an end to the shootings. But there is one big gap in the strategy.

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“The problem is that on the one hand, you have an ambition to get as many people into these programs as possible, but on the other, by increasing the penalties, you end up punishing those who have a real chance at getting out of these criminal environments,” he argues.

As Soei sees it, gang members who are higher up in the hierarchy use the members on the periphery to do the dirty work for them. They are used as cannon fodder, which is why you see 15 and 16-year-olds riding on women’s bikes and shooting people.

These young, peripheral members also happen to be the easiest to convince to join exit programs, because they have yet to develop a strong affiliation to the gangs.

“Unfortunately, you have these outer-circle members who are affected by the harsher punishments. And when they get out of prison, they often end up becoming even more hardcore, and move up the criminal ladder,” he explains.

This devolves into a vicious cycle – young foot soldiers end up in jail, where they are more likely to become hardened criminals.

Fewer gang members, but more organized gangs
Crime prevention can have a colossal long-term impact, according to Aydin Soei, and if that can be paired with getting more young people with immigrant backgrounds through primary school, there’s a chance of achieving lasting results.

“We’re losing a huge number of young men from disadvantaged residential areas who finish primary school without basic, functional reading skills. That essentially means that they’re not able to read and understand the meaning of a regular newspaper. If you combine that with living in a socially disadvantaged area, where you are more likely to take on a gangster attitude at an early age, you end up with a dangerous cocktail,” says Soei.

So why do so many young men seek this environment out, thereby destroying their future prospects? Soei argues that the answer is complex, but straightforward. The gangs offer a subculture in which recognition has nothing to do with one’s educational ability, exam records or labour market attachment. Instead, loyalty to the group and its values are the focus – especially the principle of not turning the other cheek.

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“Having an inflated sense of masculinity earns you credit in the gangs, and they overcompensate for the feeling of being an outsider in wider society. They feel like they don’t have the same future possibilities, so they adopt this gangster identity,” Soei explains.

But there is a paradox at the heart of the gang debate. 

On the one hand, gang membership is shrinking. Around 1,400 people are registered by the Danish Crime Prevention Council as belonging to a gang – a reduction of 400 members since 2013. In addition, the number of young people turning to juvenile crime is historically low, and the number of young people from socially disadvantaged residential areas who continue on to tertiary education is larger than ever. These are all success stories that don’t get enough media time, argues Soei.

On the other hand, existing gangs are getting more organised and violent. They have adopted the Hell’s Angels’ playbook, forming clear hierarchies, making patches for their backs, and establishing local divisions.

“We need to keep in mind that these gang-related issues have been around for a long time – not just in the wake of the immigration wave of the 1960s. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves. Hell’s Angels is a franchise on par with 7Eleven. If these street gangs attract kids from urban environments, then Hell’s Angels definitely attracts those disenfranchised ethnic Danish youths on the outskirts of the country,” Soei argues, adding he is not opposed to Justice Minister Søren Pape’s proposal to ban gangs.

“Sure, that could work. But we need to start with Hell’s Angels for good measure.”

The local community needs to take action
As an attempt to take back their neighbourhood, Nørrebro residents organised a series of peaceful marches. Soei approves, but argues that the local community needs to focus more on long-term solutions rather than on vague gestures.

“People need to put their money where their mouth is. By this I mean that the middle class needs to take action. Because Nørrebro isn’t the gangs. Nørrebro is people like you and me and the middle class that lives here,” he says.

Soei points to French suburbs that witnessed a middle class exodus after riots, with knock-on effects in the public school system on isolated children who were left behind.

“The Nørrebro middle class needs to actively choose the public schools, the local institutions and leisure centres and show that Nørrebro is a place where these values can thrive,” he says.

“The most important societal task that parents, teachers, and anyone else who deals with children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods has is to tell them that the gangsters that seem so appealing are not. Romanticising the gangs needs to stop,” Soei says, before heading off to pick up his kid from a local Nørrebro kindergarten. M

Features, News

By Hana Hasanbegović

Originally from the Balkans, Hana has a Master's degree in English, with a focus on literature and linguistics. @hanahasanbegovic

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