On 20th January, 2017, Djodjo Nsaka was found dead with a single stab wound to his chest near his university’s halls of residence in Wembley. At just 19, he became London’s first young victim of knife crime in the year.
With 35 under-25 deaths on record, 2017 is the worst year for knife crime in the UK in nearly a decade, and the third worst since 1977. Of these, 18 teenagers and children were killed by a knife in London this year, making it the city’s second worst year on record since the 1970s.
While discussions around London’s knife crime crisis abound, a look at data and interviews with people points to a simple explanation: government austerity created knife-crime. Negative reinforcement from the public made it worse. To make matters worse, London has now managed to alienate the same demographic it was trying to rescue from the clutches of knife crime.
How to Create A Public Health Crisis
Three days after Djodjo Nsaka’s death, 15-year old Quamari Barnes was stabbed multiple times near his school. A few months later, his assailant’s mother told the Guardian: “My son is totally responsible for his actions, but the preventative measures that should have been put in place were not there.”
“We often talk about crime being an epidemic. It’s probably not a bad way to describe crime and offending. Epidemics evolve, they grow and change,” says Patrick Green, CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust in London.
A look at UK’s knife crime figures since 1977 suggests that the epidemic has been festering regardless of changing policing tactics and implementing tougher strategies. Over the years, there were numerous attempts to attribute the reasons for the same to quantifiable factors: David Cameron blamed the BBC and the proliferation of hip-hop music. Tony Blair was more direct by saying: “We won’t stop this by pretending it isn’t young black kids doing this.”
While there are no figures breaking down knife crime perpetrators by ethnicity, there is an enduring explanation for why it’s prevalent among youths. Since 2011, government austerity has forced the UK’s youth to cut corners, thus fostering a climate of fear and desperation that forces them to resort to extremes.
In 2011, the government scrapped the education maintenance allowance – a weekly sum of£30 to students from low-income families attending schools and colleges. Education funding for 16-19 year olds fell by 14 per cent between 2010-14, and 603 youth clubs around the UK were closed down between 2012-2016. In London, 28 million pounds have been knocked off from the youth services in the past five years, leading to the closure of almost 36 youth clubs in the city.
Simply put, government austerity has made life harder for low-income young adults in London, many of whom treat these youth clubs and schools as mediums to escape an otherwise rough environment. This, XLP spokesperson Naomi Allen says, breeds fear, the biggest motivator of all: “A lot of these young people are growing up in (tough) environments, whether it’s broken down families, struggles and frustrations at school, and so on. They are struggling to feel in control of their lives and to feel safe, and one way to change that is carrying a weapon to protect yourself.”
Cuts to government spending have hit not just institutes and youth clubs, but also organizations actively working to curb knife crime among London’s young adults. The Ben Kinsella Trust, Green says, receives £5000 as funding for their programs. The XLP, according to Allen, receives none.
The problem, Allen says, also lies in how we approach knife crime: “We focus too much on how to prevent knife crime instead of looking at why young people pick up knives in the first place. How do we give them a safe place and someone to talk to so they don’t feel the need to carry a weapon?”
How to save a life
While there have been efforts to drive social change and curb the rise of knife crime, Allen says that the general lack of positive reinforcement and direct support for young people is disappointing.
“A lot of these young people do not have positive voices in their lives. If they’re not doing well at school, or having troubles in their community, quite often, the only voices they hear are the ones telling them that they’re not going to amount to much. If they keep hearing about their shortcomings, then that’s what they are going to become. We need to be telling them that they can be better than what they currently are,” she adds.
To facilitate that, Allen helps XLP run multifarious voluntary mentoring programs that provide one-on-one mentoring and help teenagers achieve positive weekly and yearly personal development goals. Another successful project that’s helped XLP change youth mentality is XLP Mobile, a mobile recording studio service operating in areas with a marked history of youth violence and knife crime. Apart from inviting young persons to share their music with them, XLP also helps them reform their thinking through their lyrics. Allen explains further in this recording:
Another way, says Ben Kinsella Trust’s Patrick Green, is to look to other countries for inspiration, particularly Scotland. Green laudes Scotland’s integrated approach to tackling knife crime, which starts at the grassroots by providing good role models to troubled teenagers.
Reactions to this suggestion, however, have been lukewarm. Emilia Gill, Development Officer at London’s JAGS Foundation, attributes this to the difference in the scale of knife crime in the two countries. While Scotland has historically had problems with knife crime in youths, London’s battle with the same transcends the boundaries of gender, class, and communities.
Gill also blames public apathy and reluctance to talk about knife crime out in the open as the reason for its rise.
While government efforts have been welcomed and lauded by organizations, the debate about whether they’re enough has endured. A lot of government intervention, Allen says, is reactive. That is, authorities kick into action only after an incident occurs. Even, the focus is on crackdown, not on treatment and positive reinforcement.
So, what should the future concentrate on? On expansion, almost everyone says. Apart from investment, Green says that it’s imperative to help small organizations expand to help create a supportive network throughout the city. Community outreach and partnerships with other organizations is also essentials.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Green adds, “Well, it also takes a village to ignore a child. We all have a responsibility to stop knife crime, as parents, teachers, and as a society. We need a society that supports our children so they live up to their potential.”
Interview with Patrick Green conducted and edited by Mohammed Bouabdallah
Interview with Emilia Gill conducted and edited by Evan Wu
Interview with Naomi Allen conducted and edited by Star Tang
Research and author: Lavanya Singh
Infographic by: Lavanya Singh
Subbed by: Evan Wu