From Gangs and Reporters to Terrorists and Headlines

The fourth of five responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena by scholar, artist, and educator Asif Majid.

In this series of time-delayed field reports, I reflect on my observations of the sociopolitical responses to the 2017 Manchester attack, responses that have taken place over the past year. They appear within the city of Manchester, across the UK, and around the world. All five posts, the fourth of which is below and the remainder of which are archived here, lead up to the first anniversary of the attack on May 22, 2018. The italicized portions of each post are my original thoughts, while the regular text represents more recent reflections. Much of this is linked to my ongoing research as a PhD candidate in the Anthropology, Media, and Performance program at The University of Manchester.

Media coverage is an odd duck. It tends to reflect the biases of mainstream society even more than it appears to. Reading between the lines reveals the intricacies of the implicit linkages and connections that are being made between news content and wider social narratives.

Take, for instance, a recent article in The Guardian about a report completed by David Anderson QC, a barrister with a history of reviewing terrorism legislation. The report was an evaluation of the intelligence held and decisions taken by MI5, one of Britain’s intelligence services responsible for preventing terrorism-related violence, in the lead-up to the May 2017 attack in Manchester. Anderson found that it might have been possible for MI5 to prevent the attack, as they had considered Salman Abedi a subject of interest who merited further investigation. (Incidentally, the meeting to begin this further investigation was scheduled for one week after the attack happened.) At the time, Abedi was viewed by intelligence services as potentially involved in gang activity rather than terrorism.

This isn’t the first time a link between gangs and terrorists has been made. Earlier in the year, a special report by The Guardian found that 16 individuals who recently joined Islamic State all lived in the South Manchester neighborhood of Moss Side. At a Moss Side community meeting that I attended not too long after the report was released, local youth workers and service providers were furious at the way in which the neighborhood had historically been tarnished with a brush of violence — the special report was no exception. In the 90s and early 2000s, it was the label of “gang violence.” Post-7/7, the attendees argued, the discourses that enabled a criminalization of (non-white) youth had swung: from gangs to terrorists.

I want to expand on a couple of ideas. First, the lack of clarity in the definitions around what it means to be in a gang and what it means to be a terrorist means that law enforcement agencies can slip easily across the two. In the case of Moss Side, the idea of being in a gang has been historically foisted upon the neighborhood by the police, regardless of the fact that it is no more or less of an issue than elsewhere in the city. The idea of being in a gang was amorphous in criminal justice definitions in the 2000s. Now, the idea of being a terrorist is similarly amorphous.

This leads to my second point. It seems, from the perspective of the police, the shift has been made between these two terms because terrorism is the new issue. Funding streams and public interest are thus more easily accessible if the police is fighting terrorism than if it is fighting gangs. From the perspective of the community members at the meeting, why the shift occurred is irrelevant. In their view, it was never a true statement that Moss Side was disproportionately violent or subjected to crime compared to other Manchester neighborhoods. So, it should never have been painted with the label of “gang violence” in the first place.

Indeed, the definitions used by local and national authorities to characterize gangs became based on numbers rather than any shared ideology or identification. Groups of more than three or four young people (of color), hanging out together in public, could be legally construed as a gang. Definitions such as these only furthered the marginalization of young people, including individuals like Salman Abedi and any networks he may have been a part of. Communities were and continued to be broken up, based on police suspicion and a historically unfair reputation that the Moss Side neighborhood has had to deal with.

Anderson’s report also claimed that MI5 knew about those who undertook the London Bridge attack, but it is the characterization of that information in The Guardian that most interests me. Even though The Guardian is considered to be a left-leaning independent journalistic outlet, it remains embedded in social contexts and biases. Describing Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge attackers, reporters Vikram Dodd and Alan Travis write, “He taught Qur’an classes to youngsters alongside his other co-conspirator, Youssef Zaghba.” Immediately, a linkage is made in the mind of the reader: terrorists are Muslim and influencing the next generation. Thus, there is an extremism problem within British Islam. The same, tired narratives repeat themselves.

These types of biases are commonplace across the political spectrum. Though the right is often demonized for holding such views, The Guardian’s linking of gangs to terrorists is an example of how Britain’s political left, in general, struggles to understand how to integrate communities of color into its public platforms. Much of this has to do with Britain’s inability to discuss race effectively, and is symptomatic of a wider society that is obsessed with class at the expense of race. Critical race theorist Paul Gilroy argues that much of this has to do with nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past, what he refers to as a “postcolonial melancholia” that undermines contemporary multiculturalism.

Whether connecting to youth as violent deviants or Muslims as violent deviants, constructions of terrorism in the British press are representative of the wider discourses that the country’s public is seeded in. Liberal viewpoints aside, the representations of British Muslimness as found in the press are part and parcel of the ways in which the public views such communities, and vice-versa. This loop, of the press reinforcing what the public believes and the public supporting what the press writes, goes on.

Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.