England’s dramatic rise in gang-related knife crime has been called a “disease” by the UK home secretary, Sajid Javid, and amid the daily drama of Brexit the prime minister, Theresa May, has called a summit of 100 experts to Downing Street to discuss the issue.
As an academic whose research has focused on youth and gang crime – and as a lifelong resident of a council estate in Knowsley, one of the most socially excluded and poverty-stricken areas in the UK – I’ve had the unique chance to see over both sides of the fence.
I have read most of the theories and the recent government reports about why young people turn to gangs and crime. And I have also lived for four decades in a place void of real opportunity, where crime is common. So I know, through research and experience, that places such as Knowsley very quickly become hotspots for crime – not by choice, but because there is a lack of choice.
Why young people join gangs
My own PhD research in 2015 involved 44 young people on Merseyside, in northern England – both those who have joined gangs and those who chose to abstain. These young people were from the same areas and shared similar backgrounds, yet I found crucial differences which meant some were at greater risk of joining gangs than others.
Those young people who decided to join gangs and become embroiled in violence were doing so because they very rarely had a chance to go beyond their own neighbourhood. This prevented them from mixing with young people from other localities and limited their experiences and horizons.
As a result their friendship networks remained static and undeveloped – limited to the people they met at school and on the street. In places where work is scarce and poorly paid, and opportunities for further or higher education limited, young people see older peers earning money through crime, including drug trafficking and selling, and perceive this as a normal way to make a living.
Indeed, many of the young men I spoke to in my research referred to their activities as “graft”, and spoke not of being in gangs but in “firms”. This was particularly evident among groups located close to the city centre and the vibrant nighttime economy, where the demand for drugs was high.
By contrast, virtually every one of the abstainers I interviewed recognised there were very limited choices in their neighbourhood and actively sought out opportunities and acquaintances outside their area. These experiences provided these young person with more diverse attitudes and beliefs.
One particular gang abstainer spoke of getting bored hanging around the streets of Anfield with the same people and looking for a part-time work. As a result of getting a job at a phone shop and meeting young people from other areas, he simply drifted away from a life on the streets to activities which led him to further positive opportunities.
The media portrays gangs as groups of criminals void of empathy and respect, as opposed to young people looking for means to make ends meet. As a result, broader social issues are overlooked – instead reports focus on factors such as a troubled home life or behavioural problems as the main causes of criminal behaviour. Of course, this only serves to marginalise those communities still further.
Recent coverage of knife crime has followed a similar narrative, with violence being blamed on anything from grime music to the decrease in police numbers and powers, with very little mention of the important social aspects. Critics – myself included – argue that this only diverts attention away from what’s really affecting young people: marginalisation, poverty and lack of social mobility, all of which have been worsened by rising inequality and continuing austerity.
The story so far
As early as 2008, knife crime started to draw media attention, following a series of incidents involving young people in and around poorer parts of London. Following these incidents, the then-Labour government prioritised the issue of youth crime, with a specific emphasis on tackling gangs.
From 2008, government and police initiatives targeted teenagers and young people living in designated “hotspots” for violent crimes, as well as groups identified as “gangs”. The government’s strategy centred less on addressing social issues such as poverty and marginalisation, and more on damage limitation and seeming to be “tough on crime”.
In response to the 2011 riots, which saw people vent their anger at social issues including austerity, deprivation and marginalisation – first in several London boroughs, then in cities across the UK – the then prime minister, David Cameron, announced an “all-out war” on gangs and gang culture. The government had changed, but the political rhetoric had a familiar ring to it.
The main target of condemnation was not the austerity policies that left many working class people worse off, but the moral decline of young people and the nefarious influence of gangs. But then, as sociologist James Densley observed, “had the government blamed the riots on social exclusion and social deprivation, it would have implicated itself”.
Meanwhile in Scotland
Scotland has taken a remarkably different approach to England, starting with an initiative developed in Strathclyde in 2005, which involved police setting up the Violence Reduction Unit (VDU). The unit treats knife crime as a public health issue, working with police, health, education and social work professionals.
The approach was created by three surgeons who founded Medics Against Violence, which focuses on addressing the consequences of stabbings for victims, families and the offender themselves. Added to this are programmes such as No Knives Better Lives and Mentors for Violence Prevention, which seek to support young people to generate better opportunities for their future.
The results have been dramatic: over ten years, the number of hospital admissions due to assault with a sharp object in Glasgow fell by 62%. These are small but significant steps. At least in Scotland, there are signs that politicians acknowledge the major role that environment and opportunity play in shaping young people’s actions. If only their English counterparts in Westminster would do the same.