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Knife Crime in London: a summary of an experts’ round table discussion

On the 25th May, 2022, a meeting of experts gathered in London to discuss ‘Knife Crime in London’. This is a summary of that discussion.

Introduction

  1. Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) hosted a roundtable afternoon discussion on May 25th, 2022 to address and explore Knife Crime in London. Eight expert speakers who work, research or teach in the field of Knife and Gang Violence gathered to discuss the rise in knife crime in London. A list of participants at the end of this document. This event was made possible by generous sponsorship from Lush.
  • Concern over the rate of knife violence in London is increasing; 2021 recorded the highest rate of teenage homicides in the capital city by a knife or sharp implement on record. The debate around ‘knife violence’, ‘gang violence’, ‘policing’ and ‘knife culture’ continues apace. The impact of such knife violence cannot be underestimated and is a daily tragedy in Britain’s capital city. Not only does it create a cycle of fear in neighbourhoods but it disproportionately impacts communities of colour, communities with higher rates of poverty and groups of young men.
  • This event gathered experts in the field of knife crime and violence reduction in order to tackle misconceptions that come with ‘knife crime’ and seek to create a greater understanding of what needs to be addressed in all sectors of community, policing, research and policy. The roundtable tackled topics of race, gender, music, class and policing powers.
  • The discussion was an important step designed to provide participants and experts an opportunity to engage in transparent and thought-provoking discussions on Knife Crime and Violence specifically in London. The main objective was to understand the context of Knife Crime better from those with experience in the field and cultural context and understand the faults and gaps in policy and research that prevent knife crime from decreasing. Knife crime should no longer be viewed singularly through a criminology lens but intersects across different fields which will be elaborated on further in the summary. Research on Knife Crime by AOAV can be found here: https://aoav.org.uk/category/knife-crime/.

Summary of the Roundtable Discussion

Each speaker had the chance to speak in detail about the work they do in regard to knife crime and elaborated on their views, ideas and experiences of knife violence. After each expert spoke, general discussions were initiated.

This summary will point out the major topics discussed and addressed.

Music, Fashion and Social Media

  • Participants spoke largely on the role that music, fashion and social media played in the increase in Knife Violence we are seeing in London today. Participants debated whether music was in fact an increasing factor or whether it was more about the image.
  • Participants agreed that the weaponization of music and social media led to a show of force and young people copying this violent ideology that it encouraged.
  • One participant was adamant that it wasn’t about music but about starting ‘beef’ (problems/arguments) with other groups of artists to make their music more desirable and interesting – creating a desirable culture of violence.
  • Participants agreed that weapons are now a fashion statement and that gang culture in England can be seen replicated all around the world and influenced by music. This has led to the fashion industry such as Nike and Adidas profiting off this glamourisation of violence. Participants agreed that they need to be held just as accountable as anyone else who incites violence.
  • Music videos from Grime and Drill music are violent and being distributed, commoditised, and glamorised because it is about fashion, money, and fancy cars and is produced to look good and desirable. Participants debated how this differs from radical terrorist group videos being distributed online and agreed that it is not glamorised solely because it is built on their beliefs in comparison to music videos that are built on desire.
  • There is a false perception of popularity and wealth in music videos that promote violence and gangs. One expert noted that a false identity is created and people who view the video desire to attain this false identity.
  • Music is seen as a way-out dealing drugs for people from marginalised communities however, it leads to them having a target on their back from the police and competing artists in the ‘gang/music’ scene. They either engage in violence which includes stabbings or resort back to dealing which also can be violent.
  • Participants discussed the role of social media in that people are more likely to talk aggressively over the internet than in person which leads to ‘keyboard warriors’ inciting violence. This has led to an increase in violence in comparison to if young people spent more time in youth clubs than online as ‘in-person socialising’ would not be as aggressive.
  • All agreed that everyone needs to be held accountable, including large organisations such as YouTube which profit off of aggressive music being streamed on their platform. One participant said ‘YouTube has blood on its hands for the deaths of teenagers in relation to gang violence and stabbings’.

Race

  • Participants spoke about race often while discussing other topics as race plays a huge factor when understanding Knife Violence, why it disproportionately affects young Black men and policing powers.
  • However, all participants stated that structural racism and subtle racism are predominant in England which directly affects Black communities and crimes that have profound stereotypes such as stabbings.
  • Participants agreed that Knife Crime is not a Black crime. Identity, moreover, should be the dominant focus (see more under family dynamics, class, education).
  • All agreed that the establishments in power are essentially ‘white establishments’ with histories of entrenched racism and classism which in turn, if unaddressed can promote structural racism and discrimination against poor communities.
  • When policy gatekeepers do not include those that the crime directly affects with a seat at the table but rather keep them ‘on the menu’, policy will continue to be biased.
  • Participants agreed that society is built on racism and companies profit off of this. For example, ‘black people killing black people is accepted’ but ‘black on white crime is viewed as unacceptable’. There was one case cited where an artist was dropped from a major sports-clothing manufacturer because he mentioned violence against women; other artists, however, were actively encouraged to mention violence against other Black artists. The music industry profits off this framing, and encourages violence in black music genres and gang culture because it increases views/hits and profile.
  • One expert pointed out that countries such as Australia and Bulgaria which see a lot of racism and ‘criminalisation of trauma’ are surprisingly also countries where drill music is very popular. There is, it was said, almost a desire to see black-on-black crime.
  • Participants concluded that promoting this form of racial violence only leads to a desire from young black men to participate in this particular music both for wealth and for popularity, these men are then encouraged to be violent towards other groups of young black men. They then become targets and engage in a form of gang warfare that includes stabbings. It is a vicious cycle.
  • Participants agreed that one of the main reasons gangs today are different and more violent than the gangs England saw in the 70s is that gangs are no longer based on identity and race politics but today are fuelled by desire, wealth and respect.

Respect

  • In areas of marginalisation, in the ‘ends’, in the ‘ghetto’, one participant stated that there is a high demand for respect but is in short supply due to not being able to attain other qualities that may make them ‘a man’. The marginalised have little and what is left is their respect which they will fight and kill over.
  • People will kill over someone ‘chatting up their girlfriend’ simply because their sense of respect has been violated.

Family Dynamics, Class and Education

  • All participants agreed that education is empowering to young people and keeps them engaged and away from a life of crime.
  • All participants agreed that there needs to be a change in education that encourages and educates young people to understand how systems of oppression embedded in our society can change. Young people are entitled to understand this as it affects them the most.
  • Some participants stated that poverty increased knife crime because when being placed in an unequal society there is a pressure to attain things and become successful however, due to lack of opportunities resort to violence to attain respect and wealth.
  • After debating, participants agreed that the focus should not be on poverty but on ‘unequal society’.
  • Why poverty doesn’t increase Knife crime: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. One expert pointed out that many middle-class white children were being referred to him for being caught up in gangs and knife crime. When looking at Maslow’s hierarchy, if emotional growth from the ages of 0 to 5 is not being properly met the child will not grow with the right emotional maturity. The majority of middle-class white children were found to be in a loveless household with both parents. Despite having both parents and wealth, they get caught up in the excitement of gangs and the sense of love and attachment they found in gangs which they couldn’t find at home.
  • Mistaken Identity: Identity is important when understanding knife crime. Some young people take on an identity to feel as though they are achieving something or to cultivate a sense of belonging. This identity can be found in a gang.
  • Epigenetics: Environment and behaviour can change the way your genes work. Participants argued that violent environments can affect children and lead to more violent personalities. Primarily, they spoke about this in relation to generational trauma – when brought up in a loveless household or a violent household, the parents’ own trauma is passed down onto the child creating a cycle of trauma.
  • Participants all agreed that focusing on single-parent households shouldn’t be the main focus instead we should focus on family dynamics as a whole regardless of class, wealth, race and single-parent households. Familial relationships are central to the debate to understand where violence has stemmed from or how it has developed.

Gender

  • A knife or sharp instrument is the most common weapon in Intimate Partner Violence and domestic abuse with 1 in 3 women killed at home by a knife.
  • The knife is weaponised and is an object that is present in all homes which tends to be gendered as it is used for cooking making knife crime not only a public problem but a domestic problem.
  • One expert stated that research shows the perpetrator will often kill a family member first rather than firstly kill randomly on the street.
  • Participants agreed that toxic masculinity is important to take note of and understand what varying communities see as what being a ‘man’ is.
  • Two experts agreed and stated that we have to look at gender in the historical sense: ‘the knife has been embedded in culture and part of masculinity for centuries and dates back to the stone ages’ for this reason masculinity has been embedded in not only behaving violently but by using a knife to increase and define masculinity.
  • Another point made was that working-class men who had strong physical bodies were more likely to receive an income, recognition and respect.

Policing and Policy

  • Participants all agreed that there is a lack of cultural competency in the police force. Police officers are unable to engage with young people due to a lack of awareness of the ‘lingo’ young people use around London and the cultural differences seen in varying communities.
  • Although there should be more racial diversity in the police force, participants agreed that even White officers cannot engage with White gang members. Therefore, the Met Police should focus on ensuring their officers are aware of cultural differences that can affect ‘lingo’ and behaviour.
  • One participant pointed out how policy makers promote stereotypes of Black people and of Knife Crime being a Black Crime such as ‘putting anti-knife campaigns on Chicken Boxes’. There is, it was considered, the outcome of a deep lack of awareness.
  • Croydon has the worst record of knife crime in schools and one expert found that young people in school internalise negative labels such as being a failure. There is little support – there is a 22-month waiting list to be seen by a mental health specialist. More needs to be done to support young people.
  • Statistics around Knife Crime are unreliable because if someone is found with a knife at the time of a different offence, it is recorded under ‘Knife crime’. Data needs to be more accurate to reveal the ‘true’ statistics.
  • One expert noted that where knife crime is most prevalent is not where the issue is most prioritised. He further noted that England should take on a public health model when dealing with Knife Crime similar to Scotland which saw success in decreasing Knife violence.
  • Overall, policy and policing are still situated around enforcement to decrease knife violence which is why knife violence is not decreasing. When enforcement is used, especially discriminatively, the only currency that exists in those communities is money or violence to find a way out. A cycle of violence is initiated.
  • Institutions that can actually make a difference in helping to reduce knife crime are built on racism and classism. No change can therefore be made without tackling this first and including those knife violence affects to engage in policy decision-making.
  • More safeguarding in ‘safe spaces’ such as schools to protect children from violence from police and peers that can encourage retaliative violent behaviours. This also includes teachers needing to be culturally trained.

List of Participants

Iain Overton: Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence.

Sabrina Lavrut: Researcher at Action on Armed Violence.

Amania Scott-Samuels: Criminal Justice Project Coordinater at Leaders Unlocked, an organisation that enables young people and underrepresented groups to have a stronger voice on issues that affect their lives

Raheel Butt: Founder and Director of The Compound Newham’s Street Gym CIC, the first-ever street gym in the borough which has successfully reduced the impact of Youth Violence and Urban Warfare in Newham.

Sheldon Thomas: Founder and Chief Executive of Gangsline an organisation that provides help and support young men and women involved in gang culture.

Tom Hodge: Project Manager at Lives Not Knives, a charity based in Croydon that aims to reduce youth violence by engaging, education and empowering young people.

Peter Squires: Professor [Emeritus] of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, where he worked for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, which directly examine gun-enabled crime and police armed response.

Elizabeth Cook: Lecturer in Sociology in the Violence and Society Centre at City, University of London (UK).

Jonathan Ilan: Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the Department of Sociology at City, University of London and author of Understanding Street Culture: Poverty, crime, youth and cool (MacMillan HE, 2015).

James Alexander: Senior Lecturer in Criminology at London Metropolitan University. Prior to academia, he spent 15 years working with young people, including developing and managing various training projects for unemployed young people and young offenders.