London’s knife problem
Twelve days into 2018, seven people have been victims of knife crime. London has a problem and isn’t too shy to admit it either. The legacies left by the tragedies of Damilola Taylor, Kiyan Prince and Shakilus Townsend have framed youth violence as a tragic, yet expected ordeal in our capital. The communities in already deprived areas left scarred by cycles of violence have become part and parcel of the yearly news cycle that is easier to avoid than confront head on. Discussing an issue so close to home is emotional because it requires a level of honest introspection into the problematic cycle we all play into, consciously or unconsciously. Identity so heavily tied to locality, also known as the concept of “ends” however, makes knife crime an issue too pertinent to avoid.
The overrepresentation of black males aged 15-21 in knife related incidents in London speaks to the harmful effects of hyper masculinity amplified by easy access to weapons capable of causing fatal injury. Silent strength is no longer enough to command respect. It is something to be taken, revered and its owner feared. The overexposure of boys as young as 11 to acts of violence have triggered a desensitisation process that wider society views as horrific. Existing in a fringe subculture has the power to temporarily remove people from social reality, shifting the goalposts of acceptable behaviour. This is why shaming has little to no effect. No one cares for the opinion of someone they don’t respect or care for. Following desensitisation is legitimisation. When these opposing standards of how an individual navigates conflict resolution collide, symbolic violence presents itself in the demonization of young black men as thugs, roadmen, etc. The othering and rejection of young boys is open to exploitation by media outlets obsessed with ‘edgy, on the ground reporting’, i.e. Channel 5’s ‘Gangland’. The simplistic judgements of “irredeemable savages” or “blameless victims” produced are overly simplistic conclusions to arrive at. Both risk skating over deeper nuances that require not only thought, but action.
Temi Mwale’s powerful -Tedx Talk on Youth Violence
Simultaneously, government policy has failed in responding to the effects, rather than the causes of our problem. Stop and search is constantly parroted as a solution, yet it is enforced by an institutionally racist police force that only fractures communities, rather than strengthening them. Harsher sentencing for offenders is an equally reductive, knee jerk reaction for those with conservative tendencies, a weak reaction to the effects of a much wider problem. Drug supply has ballooned in recent years, reflected in growing quantities being seized by the police. The open relationship between drugs and violence is one that desperately needs grasping, rather than sweeping under the carpet. The Economist 7th December 2017 produced a report on the increase in the supply, demand and potency of cocaine
The impact of austerity has left a generation without the necessarily safe spaces to escape the violence that may or may not characterise their daily life. Community initiatives need adequate funding and resources. Without it, mentorship schemes lose the infrastructure they need to be executed effectively and young boys end up without somewhere to “opt out”. Life in London is a grind for a lot of people, legitimate job or not. A precarious future combined with warped self-image that cannot see a future worth waiting for is no match for the immediate gratification of cash that is ready and waiting. To ignore the fact there are active choices made by those involved runs the risk of babying them, rather than trying to understand while holding them to account.
Art imitates life. At the centre of it all is drill, the sonic manifestation of inner city life that has managed to capture the imaginations of those within and without the subculture, myself included. For those of us who experienced the uncomfortable dread of social mobility through higher education, drill is an imaginary manifestation of “what if” we hadn’t. What if we had stayed where we used to be, with the same people? The open condemnation of violence by a government that has a history of war in other countries is hypocritical to say in the least. This hypocrisy leaves room for the rest of us to embrace what is often treated with scorn. However, while some of us are able to separate real life from lyrics, those who cannot run the risk of falling between the cracks. We all have role to help mend the cracks.
Realistically speaking, not everyone has the answer to knife crime. And that is okay. What isn’t okay, however, is the competition for ‘realness’ and a sense of authenticity surrounding the debate whereby trauma is used as an exemplar of strength. Taking part in some form of oppression Olympics that virtue signals “I’ve suffered more than you” robs people of dignity, isn’t productive and takes away from the real work we as a society must now do. What is productive is eroding this poverty of ambition, hope and find ways to make youth from deprived communities feel more like members of our society.
“If young people don’t feel they are part of our village, they will burn it down” Craig Pinkney