There is a better way to approach gang violence

Marta Cooper
22 August 2008

Marta Cooper (London, oD): 90 murders have occurred in London this year, 23 victims of which have been teenagers. It seems not a day passes without news of another fatality reaching us. But is knife crime really on the increase, or is this just what we're being led to believe by excessive media hype? Conflicting statistics make this a difficult question to answer: in mid-July the British Crime Survey claimed overall knife crime fell by 25% between 2006 and 2008. But the Department of Health reported 14,000 people treated for stab wounds in 2007, showing an increase of 20% since 2006; whilst there was a reported 72% rise in prosecutions of those possessing knives since Labour came to power in 1997.

Whichever set of statistics you believe, it is clear that the media hype around the issue is not helping - a view shared by youth workers and children at Dalgarno Community Centre in north Kensington, whom I interviewed about stop and search policy this month. "Media hype causes young people hype," as one worker said. "We are made to believe that everyone is carrying a knife and we will get killed if we don't carry one," added the Youth Area Worker. A reduced media focus on knife crime would, therefore, help to solve the issue.

The Government's response, meanwhile, has been draconian and will likely prove counter-productive. In addition to the police now being able to stop and search an individual without reasonable suspicion, a variety of ‘solutions' have been presented, from Jacqui Smith's nonsensical proposal that attackers visit their victims in hospital to Gordon Brown wanting to target ‘problem families' by putting parents on intensive ‘child supervision' courses. Whilst the first proposal was thankfully withdrawn when it was pointed out to the Home Secretary that recovering victims may be none too keen on the idea of facing their attackers, the second proposal remains. Its flaws are obvious: how, for example, does one specify a child who might be in trouble with the law in the future? What would "supervision courses" entail? And is there not something more than a little sinister about interfering in this way before a crime has even been committed?

Gordon Brown has also expressed his support for curfews in areas where there are 'problems'. What exactly constitutes a "problem" is unclear. It would, of course, differ hugely from person to person: one may feel threatened by seeing a group of youths congregating at a bus stop at night, while others would not think twice. Measures such as these are part of a trend in government policy towards marginalising and victimising youths. Curfews will simply increase resentment towards a government that has little, if any, confidence in young people that already feel disillusioned within society.

These knee-jerk responses by Government are certainly eye-catching and they may go some way to appeasing the more hysterical critics in the media. But they distract from more long-term solutions aimed at tackling the social and material deprivation that lead young people into crime in the first place.

The Thatcherian individualistic agenda that began in the 1980s, and has been continued enthusiastically by New Labour, has devastated communities and undermined the traditional family unit. With a lack of familial structure and governmental indifference, it is no wonder certain young people turn to crime to satisfy a desire that cannot be satiated by other means. (Some fascinating work is being done examining the similarities between street gangs and jihadist groups. Both, it would appear, recruit from the same sectors of disenfranchised youths. See the recent post in OK by Phil Groman for some good analysis of this).As a recent ROTA report shows, for young people joining a gang provides a sense of purpose and can reverse the sentiment of exclusion that they feel. This sense of purpose, therefore, needs to come from other sources.

A positive first step would be for the government to commit to improving the education system in this country: instead of immediately reacting that exams are getting easier each year that A-Level and GCSE pass rates increase, the government should praise its young citizens' achievements. For those who are not as academic, the selection of vocational qualifications and after-school activities should be expanded and made available to a wider age group. It is an issue of choice: young people should feel the government and the education system both support them enough and provide them with enough opportunities, so they do not feel they have to take what they see as the easy and lucrative way out through gang culture and crime. Children need to feel they can achieve something worthwhile in order to feel a sense of pride, belonging and self-worth. Children who come from poverty and desperation look to violence to satiate an urge that lies dormant in their bodies, undernourished by a disadvantaged family life or schooling.

Knife crime is not an issue that can be solved by punitive measures, either. Stiffer sentencing will not necessarily deter young people from committing a crime. At best it acts as an interim solution after the crime has occurred; it does not tackle why it happened in the first place. What is needed is understanding, counselling and mentoring, which is exactly what Camila Batmanghelidjh does through her youth charity, Kids Company. The organisation provides psychotherapy sessions, leisure activities, evening meals and shelter. It gives children comfort and a chance to be listened to - something that stop and search, prison and all the other draconian measures the government is proposing do not.

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