Amber Rudd’s resignation means that Sajid Javid is now at the helm of the Home Office’s ‘serious violence strategy’, launched in March to address an epidemic that has plunged major cities across the UK into a dark period of unrest. Calls for state intervention have primarily amounted to a six-week social media campaign costing £1.35m and further investment in knife prevention charities.
The social media campaign #knifefree, advertised via Snapchat, Twitter and other digital channels, centres around moving stories of how knife crime has devastated lives. But this campaign, coupled with increased funding for charities involved in victim support and community outreach, is in essence triaging a patient already in hospital. While immediate attention in the aftermath of knife crime is clearly important, more concrete proposals in change to social policy are needed to target the source of the problem. Of course, the fact this requires funding and political will makes this an unpopular avenue for a Conservative government that plans to slash £700m from police and crime budgets by 2020.
With 50 murders so far this year in London alone, the knee-jerk and lazy reaction of ‘more police on our streets’ steers conversation away from the festering cultural wound that creates the rationale for violence. What exactly are these police officers meant to do? Arrest everyone who looks like they might be carrying a gun or knife? Without fishing initiatives like stop and search – which has been proven to rely heavily on racial prejudices – this would be near impossible. Ultimately, support for such an initiative would (as it has before) alienate the very demographic most likely to be victims of street violence. How can you police effectively if nobody trusts you to keep them safe?
It’s this issue of safety that needs to be addressed. Statistics show that of the myriad of causes that lead to knife carrying, the most significant is fear of crime itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the presence of knives on the streets only reinforcing the need for them. And where conflict might have been resolved by other means, it’s clear that carrying weapons leads to use of them. More often than not the perpetrators have themselves been victims, seeing knife or gun carrying as the best form of protection. While the importance of hyper-masculine and armed figures in mainstream culture is often widely overstated, it’s clear the social capital in violence derives from its perversely ubiquitous presence on our streets.
The #knifefree adverts seem to pander to the idea that knives themselves are a ‘cool’ social problem, with young people sharing how long they’ve been free from the vice. In borrowing imagery and slogans usually used to discuss drugs, these adverts focus solely on individual choice in a way that is misplaced and dangerous, sidelining any real commitment to alleviating the social conditions that produce the fertile ground for weapon possession.
The adverts also do little to change the harmful perceptions of knives as being merely the product of ‘gangs’. For every criminal using a gun to commit burglaries, muggings or murder, there are people pushed to take up arms in hope of feeling secure. The problem lies therein – vulnerable communities feel safer with a knife than they do calling 999. And this is incredibly racialized: decades of social policy concerned with crime prevention have dangerously conflated violence as a fundamentally ‘black issue’. This has led to the criminalization of Afro-Caribbean communities in legislative statutes such as ‘joint enterprise’ which principally seeks to lower crime statistics by rounding up black youths like cattle and handing out collective punishment in breach of their right to a fair trial.
The prevailing logic seems to be that fewer thugs on our streets leads to fewer crimes. It’s no coincidence that these thugs are too often just black boys in hoodies. This is not to minimise the very real problems existing in black communities, but dealing with them requires a willingness by institutions to see the bigger picture. As a young black man in Britain you’re disproportionately represented in child poverty statistics, failing schools, prison and unemployment figures. This has all been exacerbated by Tory austerity that has cut budgets to lifeline social programmes and public services. Even legal aid has been decimated, exacerbating instances of miscarriages in justice. It’s a catch 22: young people are failing in a system indifferent to their needs and unable to reach out to tax-funded institutions for help.
While hashtags and social media ads may raise awareness of knife crime and reach a lot of people, they distract from the very real need for structural reform. Relying on charities to do what councils should be funded and equipped to speaks to a larger trend of farming out necessary services in hope of deflecting responsibility, and in this case blame. Scotland has come on leaps and bounds in tackling a pervasive knife-carrying culture, but we’ve heard no new ideas for tackling a deadly problem from the Home Office.
So what’s the answer? Young people need investment. The closure of youth spaces has forced children onto streets which have transformed into frontiers in violent clashes. We also need to appreciate the wider context: that cuts across the board have and continue to be chief motivators in accelerating the likelihood of violence in statistically disadvantaged communities. This fuels the need for a multi-agency approach to crime prevention, which has a track-record of working. As the death in police custody of a black man having a mental health crisis proves, we’re lacking interconnectivity between services; namely the NHS, schools and police. This has left many falling through the cracks where intervention is possible.
There isn’t much hope that Javid will do any of this, as his appointment is nothing more than ‘woke’ window dressing. The Windrush scandal that led to his predecessor’s demise was another glimpse into the chaos that rings loud throughout the corridors of power in Whitehall. It matters little who carries the whip to those wounded by its licks.