This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
They said that I was in a gang, the Church Road gang. But it wasn’t a gang, we all just grew up together, on the same estate, you get me? They couldn’t even prove I was in a gang, it was just because of my pictures [on Facebook], with people from the area. They just made it out like we was the baddest gang, but these people forget, the kids nowadays, especially around my area, we was growing up without no dad, and it was just the wrong influence. Most of the kids that grow up in that area there don’t go out of that area to make friends. So the only people we know are from the estate
This is Darel, explaining how the Metropolitan police read his friendships through the lens of ‘the gang’. For some people in contemporary Britain, especially for young black men and boys living in overpoliced urban neighbourhoods, friendships are dangerous. Not dangerous in the sense that your friends themselves endanger you; dangerous in the sense that the police deem your friendships dangerous and can criminalise you for them.
You might end up in prison for something your friend does, for example. Under joint enterprise laws, groups of people can be tried for one offence (usually murder), even when several of the defendants were not directly involved in the attack, or even physically present when it occurred. These charges are disproportionately brought against young black people, with ‘the gang’ as the narrative thread forging group culpability. ‘The gang’ label is not only used to secure group convictions, however; information on alleged gang-membership is now shared with local councils, housing associations, schools, and job centres. These forms of data-sharing lead to widespread discrimination and exclusion, impacting not just individuals but their families, some of whom have been threatened with evictions. Perhaps most troublingly, for those lacking British citizenship accusations of gang-membership increasingly lead to deportation. That’s what happened to Darel.
In the UK, gangs policing is worryingly opaque. It is not clear how an individual ends up being gang-identified, or how they can get themselves removed from the gangs database. There is no clear or official definition of what constitutes gang criminality, although ‘serious youth violence’ appears central to most accounts (especially in relation to ‘knife crime’). Researchers Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke found that while the vast majority of people on the gangs matrix in Greater Manchester and in London were black (between 70-80%), most ‘serious youth violence’ was committed by white people. Amnesty International, in their report Trapped in the Matrix, discovered that 40 per cent of people listed on London’s gangs matrix had no record of involvement in any violent offence in the past two years and 35 per cent had never committed any ‘serious offence’. In effect, gang membership doesn’t correspond to criminality. ‘The gang’ is defined as a ‘black problem’ and young black boys and men end up labelled as ‘gang-members’ based on the spurious, arbitrary and expansive forms of ‘police intelligence’. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the racist history of the police, but few have written about how the policing of gangs constitutes the criminalisation of friendship.
Why is ‘the gang’ is so effective when it comes to the work of racialisation? There are ‘grooming gangs’, ‘black gangs’, and ‘gangs of Romanian traffickers’. ‘The gang’ is a kind of floating signifier that can be filled with moveable racist content, qualified in different ways, mostly to justify new forms of authoritarian statecraft (longer sentences, citizenship stripping, deportation). Perhaps ‘the gang’ proves effective in processes of race-making because gangs are seen to provide alternative sources of group authority and social status. Gang-members do not and will not comport themselves to the nation; indeed, they refuse the nation and make meaning and fellowship otherwise. In this way, the gang becomes a refuge for the unruly, a hotbed of indiscipline and disorder, where masterless men rouse one another’s delinquency. But we should also recognise the romance surrounding ‘the gang’, which orbits precisely around the strength of this same fellow feeling: the sacrifice, loyalty, and protection. We often know that people in gangs are committed friends, but they provide one another with the wrong kinds of care.
If, as Sophie Lewis puts it, the nation is the scaled up counterpart to the naturalised private/nuclear family, then the reason gangs are so troubling is because they do social reproduction wrong. Unlike the nuclear family, such friendships cultivate the wrong mores and commitments, and this explains why the criminality of ‘criminal black youth’ is always explained in terms of problems with the ‘black family’, especially in relation to ‘absent fathers’ – an absence which is seen to feed ‘the gang’. Darel alludes to this himself in the opening quote, when he both reproduces the familiar (and problematic) trope of ‘growing up without dads’, while also pointing to the importance of friendship: “Most of the kids that grow up in that area there don’t go out of that area to make friends. So the only people we know are from the estate” (this also points to the geographies of violence, exclusion and heavy policing which enclose young black men within their neighbourhoods). The problem for Darel, as for many accused of ‘gang involvement’, was that the closeness and intensity of his friendships were not recognised in terms of care but in terms of criminality.
Darel moved to the UK when he was seven-years-old, and lived in West London throughout his primary and secondary schooling. He had not been charged with any criminal offences – other than possession of marijuana – but the police had ‘intelligence’ that he was involved in the Church Road gang, and he was deported largely on that basis (under a policy called Operation Nexus). After 25 years in the UK, Darel was banished to Jamaica, separated from his partner, and his six British citizen children, four of whom he was the primary carer for – waking them up, taking them to school, and preparing their meals while their mother worked full time. Once back in Jamaica, Darel was destitute and depressed, living with estranged family members and spending what money he had on phone credit to make video calls to his children back in West London.
Darel’s forced separation from his children and partner clearly demonstrates the immense violence of the UK’s deportation regime. However, we should be careful not to reaffirm the primacy of ‘the family’ here – seeking only to shift the goalposts so that families like Darel’s come to be recognised as proper and deserving. What if Darel did not have British children or a British partner? Indeed, what if his main source of social support had been precisely those friends who the police labelled a gang? I met several deported people in Jamaica to whom this applied, whose friendships constituted their closest ties – especially when they were younger, did not have children or monogamous partners, or were held in prisons and detention centres. This raises important questions: what is friendship worth, how might it be valued, and could it count in the context of immigration control? How might valuing friendship contribute to a wider critique of ‘the family’? And how might an appreciation of intimacy, friendship and care beyond the nuclear family provide a challenge to the ‘blood and soil’ thinking of race and nation?
Scholars such as Eithne Luibhéid have shown that, historically, immigration controls have been key sites for the regulation of gender and sexuality; liberal states do not merely recognise people’s relationships but actively define, enforce and legislate norms surrounding gender, sexuality and ‘the family’ at the border. For example, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’. This mirrors Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’. But what does ‘the family’ look like? If there are many different kinds of family, then what is so natural about it? What about the ‘families we choose’? What about friendship?
In practice, states define ‘the family’ in highly restrictive ways. Couples have to be monogamous and ideally married if they are to demonstrate that their relationships are ‘genuine and subsisting’. If not married they have to be in ‘relationships akin to marriage’, which means co-habiting and sharing financial responsibilities. In relations with children, biological parenthood counts for more than step-parenthood. And relationships between siblings and between adult children and their parents are deemed irrelevant. It is no surprise, then, that there is no such thing as a ‘friendship visa’.
For critiques of the family we can look to feminists and gay liberationists, who have long ‘drawn attention to the violence and degradation hidden within the walls of the nuclear household, and to the broader social and economic inequalities connected with it’, arguing that ‘the family’ is a site of social discipline and control, with often devastating and violent implications for women, children and queers in particular. Feminist and queer groups have also nurtured alternative, life-sustaining forms of intimacy, friendship and care – beyond and against the nuclear family. As Foucault reflects in an interview titled ‘Friendship as a way of life’, this is about much more than sex:
One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease, and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force. I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself.
Perhaps insights from critical intellectual and political work on gender and sexuality can usefully be applied to straight-presenting men facing deportation via the criminalisation of their friendships. Feminist and queer critique is about more than sexism and homophobia but rather a means of understanding the broad ways in which gender and sexuality organise the social world. And clearly gender and sexuality get mobilised in the criminalisation and deportation of black men.
In her piece, Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens, Cathy Cohen argues that marginal groups, “lacking power and privilege although engaged in heterosexual behaviour, have often found themselves defined as outside the norms and values of dominant society. This position has most often resulted in the suppression or negation of their legal, social, and physical relationships and rights”. For Cohen, queer politics should not only “privilege the specific lived experiences of distinct communities, but also search for those interconnected sites of resistance from which we can wage broader political struggles”. She goes on, “Only by recognizing the link between the ideological, social, political and economic marginalization of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens can we begin to develop political analyses and political strategies effective in confronting linked yet varied sites of power”.
Of course, this pursuit of connection and solidarity is the stuff of radical politics. It finds expression, today, in the work of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, and among those who steadfastly protest against the presence of the police at Pride: No Cops at Pride; No Pride in Cops. The queer critique of police, prisons and deportations deliberately includes people like Darel, on the basis of “linked yet varied” forms of oppression. This politics is revolutionary because it suggests “the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force”.
More specifically, it is the criminalisation of alternative forms of care and social reproduction – of friendship – that binds Darel and others like him to radical feminists and queers. ‘Gang-members’ and queers refuse the straight, white, nationalist loyalty required of model citizens. They refuse to comport themselves to the norms of respectability that underwrite nationalist fantasies, and they have been variably criminalised for it. McKenzie Wark, in her response to Donna Haraway’s controversial call to “make kin not babies”, urges us instead to “make kith not kin”. Kith, “with its nebulous senses of the friend, neighbor, local, and the customary”, offers a way of thinking about the necessary connections and coalitions we need to build in times of multiplying crises. Perhaps by recognising the different ways in which the state criminalises relations of friendship, care and kith, we can build new lines of solidarity. And make new friends.