By Junior Smart, Founder, SOS Project
"As we saw out 2018 – a year which will go down in history for knife crime notoriety – we entered 2019 with the terrible killing of a 14-year old in east London. Yet another young person has had their life cruelly and unjustly wiped out and a family have been left devastated as they try to come to terms with their loss. My heart goes out to the families who have lost their children; there is simply no way to replace the loss of a life. My heart goes out to the communities; many safe spaces such as the road or playground which once had children playing have now become memorial sites. My heart goes out to the children; they now have to know that someone they knew was murdered. They are the ones who tell us sometimes in words and sometimes in action that they are scared.
Communities are rightly scared and – sadly – it is usually the most disadvantaged ones who are at the forefront of the violence. The despair and anger brought about by the killings gives us an opportunity for positive change. In order to do this we must step back, look at what is driving young people to carry weapons and also remember that the vast majority who do so thankfully never have cause to use them.
Recently, there have been calls for greater powers of stop and search and increased prison sentences. From my own background and experience of working with disadvantaged young people for well over a decade, it is my belief that such a measure could backfire horribly.
Stop and search has a racial bias that cannot be ignored. Research released last year showed that black Britons are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than their white counterparts. Although stop and search is sometimes a necessary tool in policing, it needs to be intelligence-led to retain any credibility. Even when carried out by the most well trained, courteous officer someone undergoing a search feels a level of degradation and humiliation. Increasing its unwarranted use will further undermine hard won relations between the police and disadvantaged communities, increase suspicion and hamper investigations into crime.
A blanket call for longer spells in prison for anyone caught carrying a weapon is a blunt tool and would lead to further overcrowding in our prisons given the scale of young people who do tool up – and again I stress that the vast majority never use their weapons. Young people tell us they are not scared of going to prison. Their main fear is becoming a victim and this is the reason they carry weapons. If someone is coming at you with a knife are you going to be able to defend yourself with your fists? The fact young people feel they have to make a choice between prison or death shows how bad things have got.
We obviously need law and order on our streets. But policing and enforcement alone are not going to tackle this cycle of serious violence as it is a symptom of something that has deeper root causes. Poverty means disadvantaged families struggle to stay afloat above a raft of challenges posed by low pay and insecure employment with parents spending most of their waking hours at work to make ends meet. The youth clubs that were previously there to offer vital after-school engagement and activities in this situation are now gone or drastically cut back, leaving young people hanging around estates at a loose end – looking up to the older guys with the money and the girls.
The education system needs to look carefully at how it works with young people with challenging behaviour. Rather than shining a light on PRUs – many of whom carry out excellent work in different conditions – there needs to be a shift in thinking around exclusions which make many young people feel alienated, angry and worthless. We should not be surprised that those excluded from mainstream education then become vulnerable to drugs and exploitation.
As Home Office research showed last year, drugs are a key driver behind the wave of violence we have seen. Young people tell us they turn to dealing as they feel it is the only chance they have of earning money. When you are living off cereal with water because you can’t afford any milk, £200 for delivering a package seems like an easy solution to your hunger. Social media also plays a massive part in what becomes normalised to young people, it becomes hard to explain to young people what the ‘real’ reality of a lifestyle carrying drugs or a knife is when everything they see and hear on social media says otherwise. There simply needs to be more responsibility and more ownership from the social media companies who operate in an unregulated space.
There are stark choices facing many young people growing up in 2019 and hardline measures will only sadly perpetuate the cycle of violence. At grassroots, charities like ourselves will continue to work together with communities affected and lobby for change at Westminster. Ultimately, this is where the real power lies to make a lasting change through reversing some of the damaging effects of austerity and helping all young people grow up in an environment where they feel safe, valued and able to be part of mainstream society."