Can Europe Make It?

Knife crime in an incarceral society

Many, if not most of the boys who are caught up in gang culture in the UK are in effect already incarcerated.

Angela McRobbie
9 March 2019, 12.06pm
Shoes of knife-crime victims at London protest, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

While we may never know the thoughts that run through the head of a young boy as he puts a knife into the flesh of a rival gang member, or indeed a random youngster in a park, and while we cannot begin to imagine the talk between groups of boys in the aftermath of committing such terrible crimes as these, we can be sure of the fact that there is a strong likelihood that they will be caught.

Footage recently shown on TV showed a group of teenage boys huddled in a stairwell and picked up on CCTV minutes after one of them had carried out such an act. Even with cuts to police budgets, when something like this happens, it is not long before arrests are made and suspects charged. This has prompted some commentators to express surprise that boys such as these no long fear imprisonment – a response further confirmed by some shows of bravado in court, or a seeming lack of remorse, or by stories run in the press about light sentencing and the laxity of prison regimes where inmates can continue to carry out the turf wars from behind bars.

But another way of seeing this is to suggest that many, if not most of the boys, who are caught up in gang culture are in effect already incarcerated. For sure they may be in possession of their freedom, able to get on a bus or train, able to drive a car or ride a moped. They may even feel themselves to be in control of certain streets or neighbourhoods, but as the sociologist Loic Wacquant pointed out in his book titled Punishing the Poor, this incarceral effect reflects the way in which whole communities find themselves entrapped as a result of material dispossession. Psychologically they are already imprisoned. Wacquant was writing about the ‘territorial stigmatisation’ of banlieue neighbourhoods in Paris far removed from the chic residential areas where most middle-class Parisians live – places where just by dint of postcode young people find themselves deemed unemployable. British cities are a lot less segregated, but this does nothing to lessen the hopelessness and fear of being a ‘loser’ that this instils in youngsters, especially young boys. Indeed in times of social media, the incarceral impact of on-the-ground poverty and dispossession gives to the more magnificent online identities – the daily postings in full gear and with dangerous looks – an almost magical effect. The one thing the boys do have is access to social media, to the glamour and drama of being able to film themselves and each other.

The one thing the boys do have is access to social media, to the glamour and drama of being able to film themselves and each other.

The drab landscape of having little or no money, and for young teenagers the shame of not having the right clothes or trainers, or enough money to top up the smartphone, rarely catches the attention of commentators, or if it does it’s an aside. Media attention and crime reporting have for decades focused on the mean streets, but what is really at stake is what happens at home and how young people at risk of offending experience the current hardship of the ‘parent culture’, (as back in the mid-1970s Birmingham School sociologists, myself included, labelled it).

One recent TV documentary programme on gifted children growing up in a tough environment demonstrated what multiple deprivation looks like for the young. A 13 year old boy was recognised as gifted at school, and he was dedicated to developing his talent so that he might eventually rescue his Mum and sibling from the poverty which surrounded them. In the meantime his mother worked on minimum wages as an hourly paid security guard, arriving home after her shifts to a flat so badly infested with damp that she could not sleep in her own bedroom. She was also reliant on the older boy to collect his younger sibling after school and this required a bus journey with a route through the neighbourhood of a rival gang, and viewers could see the fear on the face of the 13 year old as he boarded the bus and sat nervously looking around him upstairs. What the voice-over did not say was that, should the mother stop working so that she could do the school pick-up and be around to cook and oversee the homework, she would immediately find herself without benefits, sanctioned for giving up work, unable to put food on the table and possibly facing eviction. But who is going to speak up for single mothers to receive benefits while staying at home even when such a provision could be seen as a future investment in securing a better outcome for children from poor backgrounds?

Instead the thinking behind almost all debates about welfare payments over several decades has been to point to the moral virtue of work, a way of giving children the right kind of values. At the same time there are fewer opportunities than ever before for those with minimal academic qualifications and who are reliant on the low wage sector, to improve their chances with return-to-learn schemes or evening classes, so that they might at some point re-enter the labour market at a level where there is higher pay and more protection. This is then what we might understand as the carceral effect.

Glasgow’s ‘public health approach’

Recent discussion has pointed to the public health approach which in Glasgow has had an impact in reducing gang violence and especially knife crime. This is perhaps a concerted poverty alleviation programme by another name.

The public health approach in Glasgow… is perhaps a concerted poverty alleviation programme by another name.

There have been sustained interventions by multiple agencies including health professionals. Some young men have been lifted out of the carceral neighbourhoods and given safe hostel-type places to live in, well away from where territoriality kicks in – as Scottish rap artist and author of Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey, describes. Also available in projects like this have been the services of psychiatric social workers, and adolescent therapists. McGarvey tells how he even got help with claiming benefits he had no idea were due to him.

This kind of activity goes so much against the grain of contemporary welfare thinking as to be almost unimagineable as something that could be rolled out nationally. Evidence-based policy remains embedded in political culture as does the anti-welfare sentiment which has been so cultivated by the conservative press and wider media. In some parts of the social services apparatus as well as in workfare, payment by results systems are still in place, something pioneered during the times of the Big Society and captured in reality TV programmes such as one called ‘Benefit Busters’.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Glasgow approach is the non-stigmatising dynamic in place, where offenders, and youngsters in trouble, as well as their parents, do not find themselves implicitly or explicitly blamed for their own ‘bad choices’. To endorse programmes which do not promise quick solutions, and which require of their advocates and implementers a commitment to the idea of long-term public investment in the social good, would also mean nurturing as a matter of urgency a new model of welfare. That such a common-sense proposal should be so wildly unspeakable outside of Scotland says so much about what has been lost, the soul indeed of British social democracy and of a healthy polity.

Angela McRobbie contributed to Resistance through Rituals edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson and published in 1976.

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