I was born to immigrant parents squatting in an abandoned council block in Hackney in the nineties, when the borough was a very different place. Living in a council flat, a place with little support, I was surrounded by people that most would consider criminals. But to me they weren’t criminals, they were friends and role models - they were a part of my home. Being around them growing up, I became normalised to violent fights, gangs and stabbings - they were a part of daily life. And I know this story isn’t unique to me, it’s one experienced by millions of young people all across the country.
I was lucky. I had adults around me who were quick to notice that without any intervention I would quickly turn into a statistic ― another victim of violence in London. My parents moved me to Barking and Dagenham in my early teens, another forgotten and poorly invested in London borough. The violence and oppression didn’t stop, the rules changed instead. Again I got lucky. I had a few teachers who were forces to be reckoned with and a great group of friends to support me. But I had other friends who weren’t so lucky, and got caught up in violence. There were some who were stabbed or robbed and others who were involved in stabbing someone else.
It’s not until now, as a 25-year-old PHD student, that I can reflect on my childhood and see how unacceptable it was and still is for a young person to grow up surrounded by that.
That’s exactly why, after reading about a new wave of violent crime in the capital, I was prompted to start a petition on Change.org calling for Amber Rudd and Sadiq Khan to come up with a plan to stop increasing violent crime in London. I can’t take another death being treated as “just another statistic.” There is meaning to every person’s death - each is a life that has been robbed.
I have had 60,000 signatures on my petition so far. Reading through the comments you can’t help but be struck by the numerous stories from people who have had their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends and cousins lives stolen at the hand of knife crime.
In response to the recent rise in violent crimes in London Amber Rudd has announced an action plan. Whilst I was pleased to see that she was finally taking action, her plan heavily focuses on the punishment and criminalization of groups who already feel isolated, as opposed to prevention and rehabilitation - which in my experience would do a great deal more to tackle the problem.
What particularly worries me is her planned consultation on increasing stop and search. This may just add more fuel to an already raging fire. After being stopped and searched most days I got off the tube to go college, I can say from experience that they make young people disillusioned with the authorities. It feeds off stereotyping and immediately makes the person, who may not have done anything wrong, feel like a criminal. As a young person, this is alienating and sent a message to me that society does not trust me or want me to be part of it.
A lot of my friends that became involved in violence were seen as delinquents or menaces by adults rather than the impressionable children they really are. They were discarded by society and thrown out with no safety net to catch them. There wasn’t enough investment to building positive relationships with authorities or creating a strong enough framework to support them. A dance program at East London Dance was life saver - giving me opportunities that improved my life beyond anything I could have imagined as child. A place to express myself when I couldn’t in words and most importantly, it introduced me to a group of friends who shared the same hardships as me. Working with East London Dance gave me opportunities to travel, meet new people and experience things I had no chance of seeing in Dagenham or Hackney. The program was cut a few years back due to lack of funding. And that is the point -youth programs across the capital are being cut without any thought to the impact they have on the lives of young people.
As part of Amber Rudd’s action plan, she has given money to creating an early Intervention strategy. With this she has an opportunity to give funding back to youth organisations and services that give young people structure and opportunity - like I was able to receive. The plan could finally give investment to some of the more neglected boroughs of London, like Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Enfield. It could give young people a place to express themselves and provide education on the consequences of violent crime. If her strategy is effective it has to provide programmes that address the increasing alienation young people feel from the rest of society - and mend a broken relationship.
Since violent crime has been in the news, Sadiq Khan and Amber Rudd have started to speak up. A speech from an MP far away in the City of London is a start, but it could never impact my life in the way the wise-words and support from my youth worker Ed Stephens did. If government really want to tackle the violent crime problem, they need to understand that they can’t do this without the hundreds of Ed Stephens’ across the capital.