Gender and race in making London’s Youth Violence epidemic

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Far-right organisations are increasingly billing themselves as the ‘protectors’ of women and children - and it’s working. From grooming gangs to knife violence, core ideas about gender and race cultivated by the far-right are being shoehorned into mainstream debate. Some of these concepts have been accepted into liberal and even nominally leftist commentary, shaping our thinking (and action) on urgent contemporary issues. This is the first essay in a series which tries to undo these myths, and propose new avenues for thought.

It has become a truism: London is in the grip of a disease. Peering out from front pages with disturbing regularity, we see its victims and perpetrators. The largely young, Black, male faces of the city’s ‘gang violence’ problem. They circulate, are discussed with equal parts grief, fear and demonisation, and disappear. Indeed the grammar of this repeated tragedy, of children killing children, has become chillingly familiar. Escalating numbers and ever-younger faces depict to the public an expanding, unmanageable illness. We are told, of course, that something is being done to stop the spread. Since 2016, talk of both positive messages and zero-tolerance crackdowns have been issued by police, City Hall and government. The number of deaths and assaults continues to rise.

Prescriptions vary along familiar lines. Opposition MPs routinely highlight the scale of cuts that have been made to youth services. They are no doubt shocking figures. Since 2011 - perhaps not coincidentally the year police killed Mark Duggan and sparked England-wide riots - cuts to youth services in London alone have amounted to £145 million. So far, the rhetoric appears focussed on the root causes of violence - that familiar trouble of young people with nowhere to go. But there are murkier statements. Chuka Umunna, upon being challenged by frightened residents about his plans to address knife violence in his constituency, discussed ‘tackling not just the economic but some of the cultural issues behind what is going on’. Though he did not expand on what ‘culture’ meant here, plenty others have been keen to elaborate. From editors arguing that ‘particular groups of people’ are responsible for violence in the capital to senior police chiefs describing attacks as ‘basically feral’, dog-whistles around the epidemic grow ever louder. Atop the list of cultural phenomena supposedly enchanting young men into life-threatening violence is drill - a music genre unheard of by most UK tabloid readers just a year ago. Drill is now routinely, often incoherently, dropped into descriptions of Black youth violence victims and perpetrators. It also regularly appears in what can only be described as hit pieces on otherwise unconnected young men, whose music is blamed with spreading violence in a general sense. It is worth noting that in Glasgow, where record homicide rates tapered off as those in London began to rise, race, let alone young Glaswegians’ music tastes, were scarcely mentioned.

The issue is gaining increasing attention from the far right, too. Katie Hopkins and Raheem Kassam respond to each tragedy not with condolences but rather exclamations about the ‘shithole’ that is ‘lawless Londonistan’, like clockwork. Extraneous references to Sadiq Khan’s race and religion appear as a matter of course. Most recently, a right wing PR stunt saw £58,000 raised to fly a blimp of the Mayor wearing a bikini - supposedly a protest to his ‘politically correct’, inadequate response to London’s rising violence (with a sideways swipe at his support for banning body-shaming advertisements). The ‘politically correct’ policing response is a right wing narrative that is gaining traction. In a recent LBC broadcast to his quarter of a million listeners, Nigel Farage attacked Theresa May, decrying her introduction of something he dubbed ‘political correctness in policing’. This was a swipe at her move to limit stop and search powers - despite ongoing use of the tactic. He pointed to the 900 officers responsible for tackling rising hate crimes as evidence of May’s ‘politically correct’ priorities. The dog-whistle here is deafening: do not bother prosecuting rising racist attacks, but please press on with wildly racist and demonstrably ineffective police tactics. In agreement, just this week Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘Centre for Social Justice’ released a report advocating for increased stop and search powers in ‘particular areas’ to ‘collapse gangs from the inside’. The document also claims to show nearly three quarters of Londoners support the use of stop and search.

So what is being done? For all the column inches hand-wringing over the disease, this ‘emergency’ of ‘contagious’ violence, public health approaches - popular amongst youth workers and proven to be effective in producing a drastic reduction of violence in Glasgow - are far from being enacted. Soft state responses frame the issue squarely in the realm of personal and responsible decision making.. The Home Office’s ‘#KnifeFree’ and Mayor’s ‘#LondonNeedsYouAlive’ campaigns have all but traded hashtags for substance, despite their staggering costs. Young people here are being pleaded with to ‘give up’ weapons and make ‘positive individual choices’ about their own lives. As others have better argued, such campaigns demonstrate an insulting level of understanding as to why young people might carry a weapon - namely, an entirely reasonable fear that they could lose their life.

With its harder edges, the state seems to be behaving in quite the opposite manner. Young Black men who are seen to constitute London’s epidemic are treated as representatives of a collective type - to be punished together. Stop and search is one widely used tactic, in which Black people are eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped. In the past few months there has been a slew of draconian legal cases against people who are tangential to actual instances of violence. On drill, artists have had multiple music videos removed at police request, as well receiving injunctions and Criminal Behaviour Orders (CBOs, the successor to the much maligned ASBO) that ban them from doing things as diverse as: entering specific boroughs, performing without police consent, gathering in groups of more than three, or mentioning any experience of violence in their songs. Perhaps most explicit, the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick complained to a radio host in May that drill was having a ‘terrible effect’ on violence in London, and lamented her ‘need [for] evidence to get these people locked up. What they say on the video may not be sufficient for a criminal charge’. Less than a fortnight later, a Met press release set out the force’s intention to use definitions of ‘glamourising violence’ from counter-terrorism law in their prosecution of drill musicians. There would no longer be a burden to prove artists were responsible for, present at or inciting a single instance of real-life violence to secure a conviction. That such criteria, if applied evenly, would preclude the performance of most Shakespeare plays or several upcoming shows at the Royal Opera House seemed inconsequential. Back on the punishment agenda, too, is the practice of evicting ‘gang members’ entire families from social housing. ‘Gangs’ here are identified using the Met’s ‘Gangs Matrix’, described by Amnesty International as breaching international human rights standards, an ‘entire system [that is] racially discriminatory, stigmatising young Black men for the type of music they listen to or their social media behaviour’. Indeed, far right calls for police crackdowns that fly in the face of political correctness are - in large part - being met.

At the heart of this dissonant response, where young Black men are instructed to make positive individual decisions on the one hand, and surveilled, policed and punished as a collective on the other, lies the violence epidemic’s very framing. Media and state response communicate and react to only a partial truth: some forms of violence become hyper-visible, others remain hidden. In the past two years, for example, the capital’s murder rate has indeed jumped by 44%, youth murder in particular up by around a third. While most of the media attention and state response to the capital’s general violence problem focuses on the decisions and proclivities of young Black men, they are far from the only population at risk. Over half of homicide victims so far this year were over 25 years old, and just over half were not Black. Though these murders do make it into London’s violence statistics, their faces do not regularly appear when media portrays this crisis. Moreover, in the same time period as London’s much discussed rise in violence, 37 other police forces across England and Wales have reported an abrupt increase in knife attacks. Outside of the capital, the vast majority of victims are white and, as the Home Office’s own data shows, it is in fact gender and age - not ethnicity - that are the strongest predictors of involvement in knife crime. Beyond this, some of the most urgent public outcry on the issue has been over the deaths of young women. Both 17 years old, Tanesha Melbourne and Katrina Makunova were killed in separate incidents on either side of London, in April and July of this year. Justifiably discussed as unspeakably tragic deaths (though later right-wing press were keen to report on Tanesha’s father being part of a ‘drugs ring’ with considerably less sympathy) both young women were counted and discussed as victims of London’s ‘violence epidemic’. Yet in terms of women killed in the capital, the girls were in the extreme minority. As per the horrifically usual, the vast majority of women killed this year have been murdered by their partners and ex partners. Most are well over 25 years old, indeed the most common age to be killed, in this year’s figures, is women in their 50s. They, too, are often stabbed.

What is this incomplete portrait of violence doing? Even for those young men whose neighbourhoods, music tastes and ‘gang names’ have been made excessively visible, it conceals a great deal. For one, the bounded and mystified ‘gangs’ in which young knife crime victims, and their killers, are placed rips away much context. The varied friends, family and overlapping communities in which young people live fall away. So too does these communities’ experience of loss. Indeed, often highlighted by those on the front line of the issue is the overwhelming absence of mental health support and caring protection made available to people who fear for their lives, have witnessed murder or experienced loss (and in many cases, all three). Masked, too, by periodic outcries over individual deaths is the scale and spectrum of violence young people experience. As one campaigner described, ‘the murders are just the tip of the iceberg’. In recorded figures, 1,408 stabbings took place in the past 8 months - this just in the nation’s capital. There are many hundreds more young people who do not seek out hospitals or police after an attempted attack. Cases have shown young people who have called on police for support when they know their lives to be at risk met with, well, nothing. In one reported case, a young refugee who asked for police protection was later killed.

This lack of protection from, and cooperation with, police is of course not exceptional: similar figures exist for domestic violence, rape, and assault. Although much ink is spilt over the lack of ‘trust’ and cooperation between police and ‘certain communities’, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of Britain’s population - across age, race and gender - do not contact police when they fear, or after experiencing, violent attack. Talia, the founder of Youth Realities, a youth-led organisation tackling abusive relationships, sees these issues as deeply connected. ‘The Serious Youth Violence epidemic is far deeper than 'gang violence’, she explains. ‘It's incredibly important we, as a society, adopt and acknowledge the depth of the violence and abuse faced by young people within their relationships, and begin to address the issue as one as pressing as the violence faced on the streets.’ Youth Realities’ own research shows a third of young people, both men and women, surveyed were affected by abuse. It is most often not that of sensationalised ‘gang-based sexual exploitation’ that makes headlines, but in utterly ‘normal’ circumstances: family homes, personal and professional relationships and from other adults entrusted with their care.

Indeed, when we reopen the question of violence in London, we see the bounded problem of London’s ‘virus’ in the context of many social sicknesses. Young men are also being killed by police in record numbers. Women and men are dying at an unprecedented scale in prisons, and on our streets for lack of shelter. Even for those housed, the world watched as 71 people lost their lives and hundreds lost their homes at Grenfell, after a persistent lack of attention paid to their safety. Indeed, as has been argued, state institutions responsible for caring welfare are increasingly mutating into tools of control, punishment, imprisonment and policing. Areas of potential support - hospitals, domestic violence refuges and yes, youth centres, are closing down. For youth services alone, the last 6 years have seen 80 projects closed, 800 full time youth workers cut and 95 per cent of remaining youth project funding going to David Cameron’s demonstrably ineffective vanity project, the National Citizens Service.

Sensationalised and sans context, London’s youth violence ‘virus’ looks like a crisis in young Black masculinity. It is often described and responded to as such. Though young Black men are disproportionately affected by the problem amongst young people, they are far from representative of London’s violence, let alone the whole UK. To trace how this restricted entity, this ‘virus’ has been defined as taking place amongst young Black men is to see how many of us are sick, and how ailing our institutions. ‘Gangs’, if the Met’s concept held any water, are composed of young, Black men living in a society undergoing an expanding crescendo of many forms of violence - including escalating racism - caught between shrinking and barbed avenues of support. Even the most sympathetic of existing government responses, those ‘give up the knife’ campaigns, do not begin to address this scale and complexity. Loaded cues of race and ‘culture’ facilitate a call for  corrective measures on the one hand, encouraging young men in tone-deaf campaigns to make ‘better choices’ than to kill one another and, to harass, silence, abandon and disproportionately punish those same men on the other. The gravity and urgency of this issue - of the loss, fear and normalisation of violence in many young people’s lives is real. The sensationalised, enclosed and hyper-visible portrait of their lives is not. In reproducing this image, we must ask what it facilitates. What does exceptionalising the violence experienced by young Black men do, for them and for anyone else? So far, all evidence shows that the state response to violence portrayed as endemic to this ‘community’ alone is one of collective, draconian punishment. It is a response that threatens to entrench the decimated arena of support available to young men, and to anyone living in our persistently and widely violent society.

Becka Hudson is a writer and organiser in London, involved with struggles around housing, criminal justice and young people. This series is written as part of the Women’s Strike Assembly, who are mobilising against violence, abuse and criminalisation - and the far-right’s dishonest and dangerous use of these issues.  The Assembly’s next meeting On Violence takes placeat The World Transformed festival and all are welcome. Details here