There is always a locus of engagement, a point where we are anchored. Multiple points maybe, for different contexts of our lives, but some place, or thing, that acts as the tether. If you are at school, the loci may be a building, if at work, it may be a uniform, or an office. Online it may be a space, or specific technology. In a community, it may be an idea, or for a congregation, a belief. Our lives, especially our social lives, are caught up in these points, and it through understanding the the loci of engagement, the nature of choice, the role of doubt, and the importance of ambiguity, that we may drive change.
This is the third in a series of four posts, exploring gang violence as a case study in change: looking at how we form, and are tied up within, social structures, and accompanying conflict, and how the routes to resolution may lie not in confrontation, but diffusion. It’s largely about power, and the mechanisms in which it is held. This is all reflective writing, ragged around the edges, prompted and informed by various people caught up working in different aspects of this space, from law enforcement, to the social and healthcare systems that pick up the pieces.
This web of engagement stretches around us, including the points where we are tethered to it: the social aspects of our families, our friends, our work, our church, and the geographical (or pseudo-geographic) spaces of houses, parks, offices, forums (or fora, depending on your proclivity). Against this backdrop, our everyday life falls either within known spaces, or outside of them. It is enacted out through known routines and rituals: greetings, formalised demands, thanks, purchases, procurement, civil dispute, celebration, entertainment, remembrance, memorial, transaction, and so on. And within this all, we are governed by types of formal, or social, power: promises, legal frameworks, reputation, authority, belief, hope, aspiration.
I get up (in the known space fo home, surrounded by known family), get the train to work (known public spaces, known routines), and spend my day (known spaces, known processes, known power, contractual bonds), before meeting friends (shared spaces, reputation, socially moderated), and so on. Within our known context, we are comfortable. And there are many types of known space. I am comfortable in mine, you are comfortable in yours. Gang members are comfortable in theirs. All the social validation, certainty, comfort, and reward that i get from mine, they may get from theirs. All the doubts, anxiety, and uncertainty i have in mine, they may have in theirs. Familiarity is everything.
The sense of dislocation we have in an unknown space relates to this familiarity: walking around a strange town, down unfamiliar streets, amongst people i do not know. Visiting a new office, starting a new job. These things disconcert us. The familiar is reassuring, the unfamiliar may be a threat, but the perception is contextual.
I remember walking around Harlem, New York, down streets that were unfamiliar, feeling threatened: sensing people watching me, feeling nervous at finding myself in a dead end street. These are guttural sensations, be they in London, New York, or the Outback.
In the first of these pieces, i explored conflict, how gang violence is entrenched in systems of social organisation, structural inequality, embedded power. In the second, i considered gangs as social structures, the ways that identity and purpose can be found within this, and the way that our actions and options may be more limited than we care to imagine.
Now, within these loci of engagement, we can consider individual choice: the spaces we grow up, the places we inhabit, are closely tied to the social structures and modes of organisation. Where we are impacts how we are. Indeed, impacts who we are, even if we subsequently find a new identity as someone who has ‘moved beyond’, ‘grown out of’. In other words, we can be successful within a system, or we can be celebrated as a survivor who has overcome adversity to escape a system (‘despite humble beginnings…’).
Our individual choice may be limited by context: for some people, joining a gang is the only obvious choice, and is contextualised by their social context, and their geographical one, as well as the context of the broader power structures that surround them, and the rituals of their everyday. In other words, we are overwhelmingly constrained by the familiar.
To change does not simply mean taking action, but rather requires us to reframe almost every aspect of the familiar. Which is why we do not often change. The chance of me throwing away my everyday reality and joining a gang is as likely as someone in a gang throwing away their everyday reality and joining me for morning coffee and a slice of cake: it’s not simply physical movement that is required, but rather a crossing of boundaries, both physical, power, and permission.
I have no permission to be part of their world, and they none to be part of mine.
We are entrenched in these systems, and to change may require space for ambiguity.
Look back to our understanding of gangs, and conflict: these are not dynamic systems, but rather interlocked ones. Systems in conflict can perpetuate that conflict in a surprisingly persistent way.
Change requires a pressure valve, an ambiguous space. It requires an edgeland.
Edgelands are unclaimed spaces, spaces that divide, the spaces on the edge of things. They are ambiguous spaces. Meeting ground.
Our everyday social systems are embedded within territory, be it my house, my town, my territory, my sports pitch, my turf. The edgelands cannot be claimed spaces, but rather shared or unclaimed ones.
Almost by definition they must hold no value, for if they held value, they would be claimed.
Edgelands are the spaces for doubt and ambiguity: a place we can visualise alternatives.
Gangs exist in a tide-locked relationship with other gangs, against a backdrop of conflict with authority. Gang versus gang. Gangs versus society. Police versus gangs. Multi dimensional structures of embedded conflict. It’s no wonder that people have to find their space: the system is so locked up that it’s almost impossible to define yourself except within the structure. You cannot escape, from either side.
It’s arguably as hard for a frontline police officer to suggest an amnesty or negotiation as it would be for a gang member: both represent established and stable powers. So we resort to role based violence, and role based control. But role based power is not nuanced, and hence perpetuates the conflict.
Here’s the rub: role based power contains the violence (as i explored in part one). I can write about gang violence, but largely i am unaffected by it. I do not walk those streets, and unless it infringes my spaces, it’s largely tolerated. If we were sufficiently provoked, we could double resources and try to crush it, but we do not, because there is something convenient about the enemy that we know. The system is surprisingly stable.
If we want people to express individual choice, and choose to renounce violence, we need to create ambiguous space for them to do so within. Within known spaces, little will change. And that’s what i will explore tomorrow, when i look at the diffusion of power.