Listening To Young People, Not Criminalising Them, Is How We End Our Knife Crime Crisis

Going in ever harder on law and order is not working, and neither is making policy by what makes headlines
Jack Taylor via Getty Images

The latest moves by the Conservative government to tackle the ongoing knife crime crisis are cause for concern. Going in ever harder on law and order is not working, and it has not for years. If it had, we would not be facing an historic epidemic of violence. As a pregnant mother from South London expecting my first child in a matter of weeks, I fear for the future and for young people. I feel for those who have lost their loved ones – every death is a tragedy which ends a young life and tears a family apart, and it must stop.

As a member of the NUS National Executive, the NUS Black Students Campaign and a former president of Lewisham and Southwark College, I have long worked with and advocated for young people in South London. Contrary to the stereotypes in the media, they are some of the most intelligent and vibrant young people you could meet, yet their futures and their opportunities will be decided more by their postcode than by their capabilities. Realising their potential would benefit them and benefit society as they contribute their skills and ideas. Yet they are tarnished with the brush of suspicion and danger which makes headlines, whereas positive role models like the young people I work with are not deemed newsworthy.

Austerity means the social fabric that helps young people find positive alternatives is being decimated. Youth centres are closing, school exclusions have increased and the loss of the EMA, which was my lifeline to education, will lock those facing economic disadvantage out of further and higher education. Is it a coincidence that knife crime is rising as such measures create further damage? As opportunities for a brighter future are extinguished, we cannot be surprised that some will become vulnerable to gang culture in the absence of any other option.

The answer is to look to Scotland. Glasgow, once the murder capital of Europe, has more than halved knife crime incidents in the last decade because its approach acknowledged and took on the complexity of the problem: poverty and deprivation putting young people at risk. However, our Government is not paying adequate attention to the complex problems or solutions tested in Scotland – increased investment in communities, creating workplace opportunity, promoting role models and educating people on the fatal consequences of carrying a knife. Instead? They propose bringing in the Army.

The answer to knives is neither guns or the military. Neither is the answer the Home Secretary’s ‘knife crime ASBOs’, which can be slapped on children as young as 12 who are even just suspected of carrying a knife. Restrictions include a ban on social media, and breaking the ASBO can result in up to two years in prison.

The Youth Violence Commission has previously identified distrust between the police and communities. I myself had to challenge the excesses of Prevent, which impacts on Muslim students, and stop and search, which disproportionately impacts African and Caribbean students, at my college in Lewisham. Our students felt like they were being treated like suspects, not students in a place of learning.

Most parliamentarians who supported the ASBOs this month will never know the experience of being criminalised as a child, in school or in the work place, in the same the way many in my community do.Those carrying knives will be reached more effectively by their own peers than the elite peers of the House of Lords, who in turn should listen to Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who raised concerns about the measures imprisoning and criminalising children.

The Home Office criminalising young people as young as 12, perceiving them as suspects and potentially imprisoning them for two years will only make things worse, and the hundreds who have signed my community-based petition calling for a united response, not one that criminalises children, agree.

But I fear that our voices are going unheard. The well-paid commentariat or Conservative ministers who can casually call Diane Abbott a ‘coloured’ woman one minute, and preside over the Windrush scandal the next, will not be able to reach young people who need to hear a positive alternative. Writer and rapper Akala and Good Morning Britain weather forecaster Alex Beresford spoke more sense than the majority of so-called media ‘experts’ paid to have opinions.

The issue of knife crime demands a better response. It is the symptom of a deep problem which touches on a variety of factors from poverty, toxic masculinity, public health, flaws in policing and the penal system, to the destructive damage of austerity. Government must demilitarise its thinking, stop making policy by what makes headlines, stop making cuts and, most importantly, start listening.


What's Hot