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"i’ve seen the systemic causes of knife crime unfold before my eyes" says youth mp athian akec

The 16-year-old student and Camden Youth MP writes for i-D about why the government's new campaign is a coldhearted response to knife crime when the root causes, austerity and racist policy, prevail.

by Athian Akec
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22 August 2019, 7:00am

Last week, the Home Office proudly presented an initiative to label serving boxes used by 210 chicken shops across England and Wales with anti-knife crime messaging. “They use real life stories to show people how they can go #KnifeFree”, the official Twitter account wrote.

The campaign was initially launched, on a smaller scale, by ad-agency All City Media Solutions and Morley’s, part-funded by the Home Office, after a young man was stabbed outside a Morley’s branch. They decided to try to reach the predominantly school-aged market of the chain with the message that it’s possible to break the seemingly inescapable cycle of fear and desperation that carrying a knife symbolises. Though acknowledgement was small, some of the initial feedback was positive. But this was before the campaign became framed as a governmental response to knife crime, rather than a local community initiative.

By taking the campaign into its own hands, and proposing it as a top-down solution to the problem, the government is abdicating responsibility for this crisis. By offering up token stories of redemption and correction they are sending the message that the state, and society in general, has no role in helping young people improve their lives. Instead, they suggest, it’s all up to the kids themselves. As a teenager raised in London and the Youth MP for Camden, it fills me with nothing but anger and rage. If the current scale of knife crime wasn't so tragic, it would be a novelty worthy of an inner-city take on Black Mirror. But funny this is not. Last year there were 285 fatal stabbings. 103 of the victims were under 24. During 2018, the proportion of murders affecting young people skyrocketed. Forensic squads, flashing lights and police tape no longer stick out on London’s streets.

To some, judging by the widespread moral panic, knife crime is something new. But just like the other political crises hovering over British politics -- namely the climate crisis and Brexit -- the disastrous levels of knife crime reflect a much longer downward spiral. Unlike climate change and Brexit, however, knife crime has no big protest movement, nor has it received much political attention in the lead up to this current crisis. While cuts to youth services, schools, rising house prices and massive increases in child poverty have to some simply been abstract political decisions, for my peers, friends and neighbours they have been defining features of inner-city life. Having always been interested in politics, I began to notice a disconnect between the political discourse on knife crime and the realities of my environment.

"Witnessing friends die before they even reach their 20s because of knife crime, made all too clear by the nearly monthly eulogies on my friend’s Snapchat stories, has become a traumatising but ever present part of life. I’ve seen the systemic causes of knife crime unfold before my eyes."

Nearly every one of my black teenage friends have been stopped and searched. Nearly every one of us know someone in jail. Witnessing friends die before they even reach their 20s because of knife crime, made all too clear by the nearly monthly eulogies on my friend’s Snapchat stories, has become a traumatising but ever present part of life. In my GCSE exam entrances I found myself as one of the few black teenagers sitting higher tier exams. I’ve seen the systemic causes of knife crime unfold before my eyes. But while MPs and government ministers -- strangers to this struggle -- only see statistics on knife crime, ethnic disparities in GCSE results and access to mental health support, I've seen how stop and search alienates communities from the police, how education attainment gaps limit opportunity and how the trauma of my community is internalised, not addressed through very stretched mental health services.

As I campaigned to be elected Camden’s Youth MP, my message to my friends, my school assemblies and my Twitter followers was this: knife crime is an issue that will not be solved through blind stop and search tactics. The counter narrative that knife crime is more about systemic failure than individual immorality, was one that resonated. I’ve spoken in the House of Commons, at Theresa May’s knife crime summit in Downing Street and on ITV, calling for the government to address the root causes of knife crime, namely “poverty, inequality and a lack of opportunity”.

All for what? An empty gimmick, a twisted racist joke -- not the investment in early prevention, poverty alleviation we young people, experts and members of communities directly affected by knife crime, have asked for. Eden Lunghy, a member of Take Back the Power, a group of young people with direct experience of youth violence and researching its causes, says: “These boxes are nothing short of a racist PR stunt that dances around the issue, showcasing how the government has no intention of dealing with the systemic issues that result in serious youth violence.” The situation we find ourselves in has been a long time in the making. Knife crime is the result of the last decade of failed economic policy. Austerity has been an inescapable nightmare for my generation -- closed youth clubs, money starved comprehensives and a housing crisis have pushed us onto a knife’s edge.

Ultimately, the Home Office’s push to make this a national campaign implies one of two things. Either woeful ignorance -- driven by both disregard for those most affected by knife crime, and a lack of diversity within the Home Office so that no one realised the crude stereotype about black people being peddled -- or a lack of political will to do anything other than use knife crime as a cynical vote-winning issue by ramping up stop and search and extra spending on prison places. The ad mishap reveals clearly the government’s ideology on knife crime. The boxes come with an extra dose of victim-blaming, implying that young people most affected by the state-induced hurdles of austerity, school exclusion and poverty -- particularly young men of colour -- should just follow “Shaun’s story” of self-redemption.

"Austerity has been an inescapable nightmare for my generation -- closed youth clubs, money starved comprehensives and a housing crisis have pushed us onto a knife’s edge."

Young people who carry knives can find purpose in music, drama or sport, but if they return home to an empty fridge and abject poverty, illegitimate means will still serve as the only way to avoid endless hunger and having to wear tattered hand-me-downs. Without giving young people who carry knives the opportunity to get qualifications and thus to find meaningful employment, and introducing rehousing programs that help young people escape their dangerous environments, the government could hurl millions at adverts all to no avail. Investing in youth services, more social housing and employment opportunities for young people is their only option of solving this crisis.

The government are not alone is their victim-blaming sentiment, of course. I vividly remember sitting on the bus some time last year, and hearing two middle-aged women saying that, in reference to a young man who’d recently been killed, “longer sentences would teach them”. Boris Johnson, since becoming Prime Minister, has announced the rollout of a mass incarceration inducing ineffective ramp up of stop and search, longer prison sentences and more police on the street -- all policies designed to placate fear not solve knife crime. Yet a report by the College of Policing suggests the supposedly “tough on crime” policies the Prime Minister is rolling out actually, in the case of young people, drives violent crime. “For juveniles (10-18 years), prison alone has been found to significantly increase reoffending, compared to non-custodial sanctions such as community supervision with victim reparation, and community surveillance and aftercare”, as quoted in the Guardian.

Marred by poorly-funded comprehensives and low Oxbridge entrance -- subsequently offering little opportunity to pursue law, journalism and politics -- people where I’m from rarely get into positions powerful enough to address our grievances and shine light on our struggle on a national level. But stirring up empty despair isn't the point of this article. To resist the wave of government policies about to hit our communities, we must mobilise. In the words of George the Poet: “artists should become advocates and audiences should become activists”. We must turn to protests on the streets. We must engage with the snap election around the corner.

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knife crime
athian akec