Concern is mounting about a recent surge in violent knife crime in Britain’s biggest cities.
Crime figures for the 12 months to March 2017 showed an 18% rise in violent crime, including a 20% surge in gun and knife crime. There has also been an increase in the use of bladed weapons in prison with 635 incidents recorded in 2016, up 29% on the previous year. There are almost two knife crimes a day in prison, a setting where security is supposed to be paramount.
The Guardian project, Beyond the Blade, has been mapping fatal teenage knife offences throughout 2017. Writing in April, the journalist Gary Younge laid part of the blame for the rise in knife violence on austerity which had led to cuts in youth services. Other commentators have put the blame elsewhere, from the rise of gangster rap to the decline in the use of police stop and search powers.
Gangs, grim estates and grime music are often given as the backdrop to a typical knife murder. Yet move outside of London, and that doesn’t seem to be the picture. And a spate of recent knife fatalities in the West Midlands suggest that the violence is not simply a gang issue. While some of the recent killings are gang related, many are not and it seems part of the problem is that knife and weapon-carrying has become increasingly normal for a significant number of young men. In the West Midlands, some of those involved in serious knife violence have had little contact with the criminal justice system before.
According to much criminological research, young men are often motivated to carry knives by anxiety and insecurity. Many are concerned about their own risk of being the victim. Respect and street kudos are also factors.
Social media can be a powerful platform for young people to craft identity, or to present themselves as tough and macho. I’ve seen platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram being used by prisoners to pose with knives and money. Pictures are posted momentarily and taken down instantly leaving little trace. To their peers, this re-enforces the idea that owning and carrying weapons is normal – and therefore sparks others to do so.
During my own research, I have interviewed many violent young men in custody who have been both the instigators and victims of serious violence. Frequently, this includes being stabbed. One thing that strikes me is how many of these young men see nothing exceptional in carrying and using weapons, viewing it almost as logical.
Offenders tell me that carrying knives is frequently about “self-protection”. One told me: “You never know who else will have one, but most people do now.” Another said: “If someone is going to stab me, I will stab them first.” As another man succinctly put it: “Nobody is bigger and harder than a blade.”
Such words tend to reflect an abdication of personal responsibility, a point made by the former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple in his recent book The Knife Went In. Dalrymple sees weapon-carrying as a symptom of moral decline, also making the point that murderers do not take personal responsibility for their actions.
Yet young men’s self-justifications for carrying weapons arguably mirror the dominant contemporary political and economic logic of our time. Consumer society tells them to indulge now and feel no guilt – to enjoy themselves and put their own interests ahead of obligations to others. At the same time, the importance of self-reliance, a political mantra shared by the Conservatives and New Labour, has trickled down to young people from on high – even when the money didn’t.
We should not be shocked that many young men have now internalised this selfish individualism.
On the outside
Men from cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester live within a stone’s throw of central city spaces that hold little real attachment for them. Most cannot afford to shop in the expensive designer stores and frequent the expensive, high-end bars that proliferate there. Many do not want employment in a sports shop on a zero hours’ contract or to be part of a service sector that will barely pay them enough to make ends meet.
Precarious, insecure work in the gig economy means that for many it is better to dabble in the entrepreneurial and sometimes violent world of petty crime – such as cannabis cultivation, arguably one of the few homegrown industries Britain has left. My own research also suggests that similar drug markets involving synthetic cannabis are starting to emerge and become well established in prisons. The only drawback is that disputes in such concealed, unregulated spaces tend to get resolved by violence.
Whether it is inside the walls of the prison or on the outside in the hollowed out communities of England’s inner city estates, there is no one single cause driving men to stab one another. Knife carrying isn’t all gang-related, but young men’s increasing reliance upon knives and weapons is not just a media scare either – and it provides a grim glimpse into the fragile state of young male mentality.