Thanks to the media we are all aware of the murky world of gangs and weapon dogs, but few of us have had first-hand experience of life within London’s toughest and most violent areas. Here ex-gang leader turned poet and author Justin Rollins talks to Not So Dangerous Dogs about pit bulls, dog fighting and gangster rap…
What made you want to write a book on the issues surrounding status dogs?
Justin: The main reason for my writing of the status dogs part of the book [Status Dogs & Gangs] is because I was sick of reading the negative headlines about ‘pit bull type’ dogs. There is so much more that goes on behind the scenes of the status dogs issue; people are so quick to judge the ‘Bully breeds’ and as a dog lover I wanted to try to rebuild a positive image of them – especially the Pit Bull Terrier which many people don’t realise is the most poorly treated dog in the world as the result of ‘man’ using this strong breed for his own evil agenda.
In the book you mention the influence of rap music videos featuring pit bull type dogs. How much power do you think this has over the breed choice of ‘impressionable youth’?
Justin: As a mixed race youth growing up in London with no father figure, I looked to ‘gangster rappers’ as some sort of role model – not a great choice but I was too young to realise that at the time. Music videos from artists in the USA filled with anti-police messages, fast women, graffiti, gangs and of course ‘pit bull dogs’ were so appealing. The rappers looked threatening and having large muscular dogs at their side made them appear even more menacing – as an ex gang leader I know only too well the need to look tough, and having such a dog enhances that image.
I believe this mentality spread across the pond to the UK. You only have to watch the video for ‘Real Compton City Gs’ [a 1993 song by Californian rapper Easy E] with gangs on their block, tattoos on their necks and angry men pointing trigger fingers towards the camera, and compare it to any recent London-based gangster rap video and you will see how the image has spread. I believe that this is the reason the youths of today are walking about with pit bull type dogs.
Pit bull types and legal ‘bully breeds’ are often described as ‘devil dogs’ in dog attack articles. Do you think that the media is partly responsible for their notoriety and subsequent popularity amongst gangs?
Justin: The media always like to ‘hype up’ headlines to sell papers and create fear, although I am all too aware of dog attack stories and I’m still wary if I see a young kid with a large dog when I’m out walking with my own child. If people never watched the news or read the paper they would not have this inbuilt fear of these breeds or dogs in general. Just look at the photo that will be printed of the so-called ‘devil dog’: it will usually be a snarling beast. Where are the photos of the same breed in their family homes playing or sleeping with children? Yes, the media has played a major role in spreading the mistrust of these dogs, as well as impressing young, angry youths with the images they publish.
Illegal dog fighting features in your book and has hit the headlines recently following the airing of Channel 4’s ‘Going to the Dogs’ documentary. Why do you think the ‘sport’ still continues over a century after it was outlawed?
Justin: I think dog fighting is a disgusting thing. It angers me even thinking about it now and that is the reason I didn’t watch ‘Going to the Dogs’. I have had quite an insight into the world of dog fighting as a result of my interview with ‘Irish Frank’, published in my book. I believe it is still around purely due to nasty and evil people. You get angry men wanting to express their hatred towards each other through dog fighting, or to enhance their own ‘status’ amongst their friends and it sickens me. The most frustrating part is because the pit bull type is illegal in this country, once it is finally rescued by the authorities, sometimes after years of cruelty and abuse, 99% of the time it will be put to sleep. If another breed is rescued from the fighting scene it may get the chance of a fresh start.
Another reason this so-called sport still lingers around our streets is due to Asian gangs becoming heavily involved. In Pakistan it isn’t unusual for whole villages to come together to watch their version of a pit bull fight. The winners receive money, mobile phones and even televisions if their dog wins. The dog fighter will then lift his blood-soaked winning dog upon his shoulders and dance around as people play flutes. From this it isn’t hard to see why so many young Asian men living in the UK feel free to carry on with their ‘dog fighting’.
You also mention in Status Dogs & Gangs that you believe the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 should be rewritten, including the abolishment of breed specific legislation (BSL). What effect do you think this would have on irresponsible pit bull ownership – would their tough reputation suffer if they became popular family pets?
Justin: I would love to say that the pit bull’s bad image would fade away if the breed was legalised but in my lifetime it just won’t happen. Even in Hollywood films and cartoons the bull breed always plays the dopey, less intelligent dog or the ‘tough’ dog. Close-minded people will always judge and look down their noses at something, whether it’s a hooded kid lost on the streets that clearly just needs love and guidance or a large bully breed dog. Kids growing up in some parts of inner cities or estates feel isolated and often alienated from society – the reason they choose a breed whose own reputation mirrors how they feel.
Our current Dangerous Dogs Act does not appear to be effectively dealing with the status/weapon dog issue. What would you like to see in its place? Should legislators examine the wider context beyond the dogs themselves?
Justin: It’s not the dog, it’s the owner. What is going on in the owner’s life? The bigger picture is a social issue. Throughout history many young men in this country have wanted to fight back ‘against the system’ – we’ve had punks and the like fighting all over the UK’s streets, football hooligans venting their built up anger against each other and now you have another ‘urban menace’ – hoodies with weapon dogs. Legislators should look beyond the dog and at society in general. If you want to stop the young hoodie walking these dogs, introduce a minimum age of ownership: that would immediately stamp out teenagers parading their large dogs as some sort of status symbol.
For more information on Justin’s work, visit his website or follow him on twitter @JustinRollins7z