Litro investigates the world of gangs, in conjunction with our current Book Club pick, Russ Litten’s Swear Down, a crime novel in which a young gang leader is found stabbed on a Hackney estate. Patricia Duffaud interviews Jason Figaro, an ex-gang member and mentor, about his criminal past and the future for young people on the street.
In gangster films, the character of the reformed criminal, wiser for having turned his back on a life of crime, is a compelling one. Of course in films they often fall back into crime, go back just for one last job, and the whole film revolves around that tension – contradictory feelings pulling at the spectator. There wouldn’t be a story, otherwise. We want the heroes to stay clean, but it’s so gripping to watch them descend quicker and quicker into inexorable perdition as the ‘easy last heist’ spirals out of control. In real life, it’s the opposite. We’d like to believe in the reformed villain, to see some proof that breaking the law doesn’t always condemn you to a life on the margins of society. Jason Figaro is such a person. Now forty-one, he was in prison, on and off, for 13 years, for violence, assault and robberies. He was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, can’t think of a drug he hasn’t taken. He now mentors young gang members in East London. I talked to him about transgressing the law, and about his insights into the current generation of gangs.
Jason’s early path into transgression began in a feeling of rebellion, he says. With no structure at home, he revolted against the next authority figure, the education system, then against the police’s strong-handed methods.
“I was very anti-authority. I didn’t want people to tell me what to do. Because I had a very bad upbringing from my parents, you see, and if my parents couldn’t tell me what to do, nobody was gonna tell me what to do. So I just made it with my law. I didn’t care about nothing, really. I didn’t know the value of life. I wasn’t taught it. I was kicked out of school when I was 14, No other school would accept me. I was a really bad person. They gave me homing tuition and I flung that out the window. They put me into a special school, I refused to go. They put me in a school for bad behaved boys, I went there for a few weeks, I thought wow, this is a load of rubbish and I walked out. You know sometimes, at the age I am now I wish I could turn back the hand of time and just do things again. Obviously you can’t but what I can do now is make my future better.”
I ask him how much the money he made through crime played a part in his choice to transgress. There is a school of thought, expressed by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, that young offenders show “an entrepreneurial zeal” that is being channelled into the wrong things. But money doesn’t seem to have been Jason’s primary motivation. He struggles to remember what his biggest job was – a 12 grand robbery in a post office, maybe.
Rather than the cash, it’s the feelings of rebellion Jason remembers. Everything around him reinforced those feelings.
“I found the police very racist, back in the day. If you was black, you know what I mean, you were the criminal. That’s how it was. I was getting pulled up on the street three or four times a day. In the end, I was making complaints. OK, I told you I wasn’t sweet and innocent, but how can you pull somebody up, right, they’ve got radio so they know who’s been pulled up every time cos they have to do check up in the office, so they would say, oh, Mr Figaro was pulled up an hour ago. They would tell them but they still carried on.”
Jason is aware that the police may have thought they had reasons to stop and search him but feels the multiple daily stops and searches were harassment. The police also framed him for a crime he had not committed.
“I think it was in 1989, 1990, I was framed. I got two years in jail for something I didn’t even do. Because of my rap sheet, it looked like it fit the profile, so that I done it. My criminal history fitted with what happened that night.”
His treatment by the police pushed Jason further into a criminal mindset.
“It’s them kind of things that will get people to start rebelling even worse. You know, you come out, you come out with revenge. You think, if that’s how they gonna treat you, you just gonna go on a rampage.”
He tells me of his difficult years in London and Hertfordshire prisons.
“When I started going to prison, it wasn’t how they got prisons nowadays, because nowadays they got TVs in their cell, they got toilets in their cell. When I started going to prison we had to wee in a bucket and do our toilet in a bucket, make your own entertainment. We had to play cards or something like that in the cell! 20 years ago, it was really hard in jail. Really hard.”
These negative experiences of the law and its representatives meant Jason’s feelings of rebellion grew exponentially. In the end, the decision to stop drugs and criminality was a personal one, helped along by his Christian religion.
Jason feels that the one positive aspect of his past is that he can now teach young gang members that there is no future in being in a gang. Jason sees the benefit of his situation.
“I’m not proud of what I’ve done in my past, but I’m not ashamed of what I done because it makes me the man I am now. I can stand now and talk with a history of what I’ve done and show them, look, it does not pay off. It doesn’t pay off. The only way I could have gone was death.”
Another benefit born from his experience is that he can find ways to relate to these young people. When mentoring for Gangsline in Barking, he uses a direct, no nonsense approach:
“You know, when I talk to them, I don’t talk to them with kid gloves. I’m not gonna talk to them and say, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. I’m gonna tell them straight, tell them exactly how it messed up my life.”
His ‘”riches to rags” story, as he calls it, has proved effective. In a year, he’s taken three boys out of gangs:
“And they literally are not in the gangs any more. They want to do things properly. They’ve flung their guns away and everything. They’re still young, one’s only just turned 16, he’s a good boy. He’s still got a temper and that and he’s got issues with authority but I’m working with him”
He sees a clear difference with the gangs of his youth. He explains that the prime factor in young gang member is status.
“Nowadays it’s all about stature, right. They like to be recognised. They need to be noticed. They need to have power over other people. It’s not about who’s making more money, it’s about. ‘You come near me, I’m gonna hurt you’. Who’s badder than who.”
It is well documented that modern gangs are focused on tiny areas, and that a young person living in an adjacent street may be a mortal enemy. Jason agrees.
“You know Stratford? You’ve got so many different parts of Stratford. You got Maryland, you’ve got Stratford, Westfield, you’ve got West Ham Lane, now each part has its own gangs. Even though it’s one area, each part has its own gang. They can’t move in to that part of that area.”
Another new development since Jason’s youth is the proliferation of knives and guns. He describes the situation:
“Now back in my day, we would have a good fist fight. Now, it’s nothing to do with fists. They don’t know nothing about fists. They will pull out a knife, stab you. They will shoot you. I don’t know where they’re getting their guns from. These little boys, it’s unbelievable what kind of weapons they’ve got now.”
I ask how involved adults are in this new type of gang.
“Of course they’ve got connections,” Jason tells me. “They must have connections. And they’re gonna have elders which actually send them out to do things. And this makes them feel wow, I’m rolling with the big boys. But they don’t know; they step one foot out of line – let’s say one of the boys is selling drugs for one of the big men, yeah, if he’s short changed him 10 pound, he’s a dead boy. And his body won’t even get found for maybe, two three months. That’s how it is.”
How do the boys get involved in the first place, I ask?
“Sometimes you’re drawn into it. Sometimes you don’t even know that you’re in a gang. When I first got into a gang, I didn’t even know I was going…I thought I was with a bunch of lads, having a laugh.”
Here too, the police exacerbate the problem. “You get stereotyped. Some of the boys are not gangs, they’re just boys hanging out, but nowadays, four or more people in a group, that is what they call a gang. Even if they don’t do nothing. These boys, they walk down the street with their hood up, yeah, if you’ve got three of them, police will think that they’re gang members because they’ve got their hoods up. It’s a fashion. See, that fashion statement came from the gangsters in New York and all that. Because a lot of these boys in London they try to follow American gangsters. They watch too much of them gangster films and they think yeah, I’m gonna be Al Capone, I’m gonna be Scarface. You know what I mean? Nobody can trouble me. But they really haven’t got a clue.”
It’s a self-fulfilling, sinister spiral. The boys dress like gangsters, they get classified by the police as gang members, then balk at being suspected for no reason. Jason refers to them throughout as little boys, children, something society forgets when it recoils in fear of “hoodies”. Jason recounts one tragic case.
“The youngest person I actually spoke to was ten. And he was carrying guns. And you know what, four weeks later he was dead. This is how it is. Because these boys, they don’t value life.”
Throughout history, policing and controlling young men has always been tricky. Gangs such as the Mods & Rockers fought viciously and alarmed 1960s England. Societies constantly strive to find ways to control their youth. Anthropologists give detailed accounts of the transition rituals, first observed by ethnologist van Gennep in small-scale societies, marking the changes of status of its young people. Puberty, passage into adulthood, warriorhood, were occasions for rituals which helped the young men to bond and accept their new place in society. Large-scale societies have similar rituals, either religious like confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs or linked with education – moving to high school, gap years.
Today, the majority of young people who drift into gangs come from families whose financial circumstances make it difficult for parents to be present. Perhaps by befriending similar children and starting to break the law, they are seeking order and a sense of belonging. The extreme division of areas of London into tiny sub-sections shows a need for control.
The contradiction of the desire to enter adulthood and the childishness of the bravdo of “who’s badder than who” are reminiscent in their irrationality of the vivid, violent world created by the children in Lord of the Flies. At the end of the novel, the arrival of an adult returns them to being children. Perhaps that’s why mentors like Jason Figaro are successful – they are über-adults, able to bring the child to the fore and channel him into a more poised adulthood.