Where turf wars take on a whole new meaning

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Red road in Springburn, Glasgow, is a well-known battleground. For years, it has been a no-go area for anyone wanting to avoid gang fighting and violence. But things are changing.

Youths from Sighthill will now happily play football with peers from Royston and other areas. No body is claiming that friendships have been struck up, but when they pass each other on the street, a nod or a hello is now the norm, rather than the previous confrontation.

The football and other activities are all part of Strathclyde Police's bid to reclaim battle grounds - hence the title Operation Reclaim. Springburn and Sighthill have a high proportion of asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom, along with local Scottish people, were too afraid to go out at night. When they did go out, gang fighting and violence was common.

"There were nine serious assaults in one night at one stage," says PC Harry Faulds. "So we got together with asylum-seeker parents and asked what we could do. We asked them if we provided police support in the local parks from 6-9pm, would they let their children out. They said yes."

The authority was approached to provide sports and games. But nobody expected them to be quite so popular so soon. On the first night, 200 kids came out. "For the first time families were using the parks to have picnics - parks which were known as gang meeting grounds," says PC Faulds. "Very soon, Operation Reclaim became so popular that the council could no longer cope with the demand, and didn't have enough coaches, so we got Sidekix involved."

Sidekix Ltd is a sportactivity, personal development and events management company that provides high-quality staff, equipment, activity programmes and service.

The project originally ran as a summer programme, and apart from a few sporadic fights in the first few weeks, the gang fighting stopped for its duration. PC Faulds says: "When the programme finished early in 2005, the fighting resumed. We decided to go for three-year funding. We asked for amp;#163;1.3million, instead, we were given amp;#163;1.1 million."

Operation Reclaim now runs in six sites across north Glasgow - Springburn, Sighthill, Red Road, Royston, Quarrywood, and Robroyston. From Monday to Friday in the summer, and Monday, Thursday and Friday in the winter, each site has two policemen on duty, with 25 coaches on any given night. "There have been no gang fights in these areas in the two-and-a-half years this project has been running" says PC Faulds. "Before that, they were nightly. At one point, 12 police and a sergeant spent an evening going from one incident to another. Operation Reclaim has totally wiped it out. In the first year, crime in this area fell 37 per cent."

Operation Reclaim attempts to cater to the needs of all ages with cricket, netball, and other sports available, but football is the most popular. A football league has been set up, with eight teams training during the week, with a game on Friday evening.

"At first, the youngsters would refuse to walk between areas, saying that we would have to provide a bus so they wouldn't have to walk through known dodgy areas. But this proved too costly so we made them walk. Now it isn't a problem," says PC Faulds.

"As well as coaches, we brought in ex-professional footballers to speak to the young folk. Some of these were what you would call 'anti-heros', guys who had had their own problems and who the young people could relate to."

Strathclyde Police say they never set out to target gangs, the idea was just to give the kids something to do, with the reduction in gang violence an added bonus. "We are pretty clear in our message," says PC Faulds. "You have a choice - if you are involved in gang fighting, there is no place for you here.

"One of the schools was having a lot of problems with racism and the headteacher was regularly calling us in to deal with it. That has all ended and we don't hear from her now. We have several refugees who are at college and university. Being involved in gang fighting would have gone against these boys when they were applying for leave to remain."

The team is also happy to work with schools. Paul Kelly is managing director of Sidekix. "We have had youngsters out on school work experience with us on the programme, and the feedback has been fantastic. One guidance teacher arrived with her crash helmet on, but what she saw blew her away. She was amazed at how well one boy was doing."

For some young boys, the club has helped provided ideas for the future, with the older ones training and mentoring them, are developing skills which have led to employment opportunities.

Last year, the Sidekix Trainee Programme was set up for 10 Reclaim participants aged 16 to 18. Over the last year, these boys have been taught various aspects of coaching, attending courses, gaining qualification and being mentored by an experienced Sidekix co-ordinator.

It is also hoped that girls might get involved. "We are going to ramp up the dance programme and introduce netball sessions for the girls," says Mr Kelly. "North Glasgow College has offered us the use of one of its beauty salons. Another idea which the girls are into is cheerleading. We have learnt lots of lessons along the way. Competition is within people, we don't discourage competition. Some may say gang fighting is about competition."

The club has enabled the police to challenge the ethos of gangs, bringing members of different ones together in a non-confrontational way. It has also opened dialogue about violence. "We have held two gang violence workshops, looking at memberships, actions and consequences," says Mr Kelly.

"One of our coaches, who is an international footballer, talked to the boys. He has had experience of gang fighting in his youth, and from as a parent, when his 17-year-old son was slashed."

Lasting two hours, and with an average of 16 boys attending, the sessions begin with them watching a DVD on gang fighting. Then the visiting coach talks to them and encourages discussion.

"For the first session, we invited known gang members. We looked to the influencers, the people who were domineering. We had boys who have community services orders sitting beside others who have stab wounds."

While the attackers sat beside those who had been attacked, other questions arose as to who should attend. "We had a debate about whether to make the sessions for different gangs or members of one gang," says Mr Kelly.

"In the second workshop we had four from each of the local gangs, and we found that this didn't work as well. When all the boys are from one gang, there is more discussion and they open up more. They don't want to lose face in front of boys from another gang."

The idea of using workshops to challenge gang culture and beliefs is being picked up in other areas of the city. Earlier this year Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced that amp;#163;200,000 will be used to deal with the gang culture in Scotland.

Some of the money is going into specialist training, with London-based charity Leap Confronting Conflict training police officers and youth workers.

Andy Mckay, detective chief inspector in Strathclyde Police's Violence Reduction Unit, says: "Last year, Leap Confronting Conflict was invited to provide training and workshops on gang violence. Throughout Scotland 72 people were trained, consisting of police officers and others working with young people."

The programme is being run as part of the unit's anti-violence campaign. The workshops look at the elements associated with gangs, and territorialism, covering respect and the fact that being part of a gang is a poor choice.

Role play is used to make participants think about how gang members think, but also as a tool to be used with gang members. Each person is given a role to play - witness, paramedic, police officer etc. It encourages them to think about how a police officer must feel, having to go to someone's door to tell them their son has been stabbed.

Many of the workshops have been run in schools. In the Easter holidays this year, 114 workshops run across Scotland, with nearly 10,000 young people attending. The workshops target at-risk ages - S2 and S4 being two.

The course uses other techniques such as word storming to discuss issues these young people perceive they face. The idea is to inspire people and provide them with ideas on how to work with gang members, and to understand how they think.

Over the last few years, Strathclyde Police has taken several steps towards reducing gang violence in Glasgow, with some very impressive results. With a worldwide reputation for violence, a change of culture would be welcomed.

"It is more than just about re-ducing gang fighting," says PC Faulds. "We now have the prospect of nine and 10-year-olds who have never seen gang fighting, whose older brothers have not been involved in gang fighting, and because of this are less likely to get involved."

Fighting talk

Joseph, 17

"I have been coming to the Operation Reclaim football sessions since they began. I love football and would play it 247 if I could. I like to keep fit and it is better than staying indoors.

"When I was about 14, I used to hang around town and occasionally get into fights - fists, not blades or anything. People used to get at me sometimes because of my colour, but not so much now. They are friendly once they get to know you.

"I have got to know people from other areas who I wouldn't have got to know otherwise. Sighthill is definitely a lot safer than it used to be."

Shaka, 20

"I am Kurdish and when someone attacks one of us, they attack all of us. We will always defend our friends. But if someone is nice to us we are nice back.

"A few years ago I did get involved in some gang fighting. I tried to walk away but they would just follow. One of my friends got stabbed and I suffered injuries in the stomach, leg, back and eye.

"I am now at university studying civil engineering and I think we have all grown up a bit. I simply mind my own business nowadays, and through the club I have got to know people from all over Glasgow. We are all friends.

"I am still dealing with my injuries. I am receiving treatment for my eye, and I will shortly be having another operation on it."

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