The establishment is in a panic over knife crime. A recent Daily Mail article gave the impression that ten year olds are terrorising people with machetes. Tabloids and politicians talk of a “knife crime epidemic”.
Violent attacks do happen and they are horrific. And poorer people are much more likely to be victims of crime. Many people are genuinely frightened by what can seem like an increasingly violent society.
Yet although the number of recorded knife attacks has risen (see right), they remain rare. Our rulers are whipping up fear to further a right wing, racist agenda that has nothing to do with keeping us safe.
They give the impression that working class people—and particularly young, male and black working class people—are responsible for violent crime. And then they say we need more police, more prisons, more stop and search and harsher sentences to deal with it.
From The Sun newspaper to Jeremy Corbyn there is agreement that increasing police numbers are the way to cut crime.
But more police won’t stop crime because that isn’t their job—and because crime is built into the system.
More police will mean more harassment and bullying of poor and vulnerable people—and more of them crammed into prison.
National Audit Office figures show there is no link between the rate of imprisonment and recorded crime. Throwing people in jail doesn’t keep others safe or rehabilitate criminals. It is a mechanism for repressing ordinary people, and entrenching oppression.
Black and minority ethnic (BAME) men and women make up 26 percent of prisoners but just 13 percent of the population.
The 2017 Lammy Review found that some 40 percent of young people in custody were from BAME backgrounds.
In the short time since, this has risen to over half. The number of Muslim prisoners doubled between 2002 and 2017. Over half of all prisoners have been excluded from school. Nearly a third of people assessed in prison in 2016-17 said they had a learning disability or difficulty.
More police and harsher prison sentences won’t stop crime or violence. They are part of a system that encourages it.
As professor of Black Studies Kehinde Andrew put it in an article for The Independent news website this month, “Young people who see a future for themselves in society do not stab each other.
“Knife crimes are a symptom of the problem. An increased police presence—the Labour Party’s official position—means that many more young people will be arrested. Once you are trapped in the criminal justice system your life chances plummet.
“It truly is a shame to see the Labour Party indulge in the dog-whistle politics of law and order.”
The truth behind the statistics
Knife crime figures don’t always show what you might think.
The police recorded an 8 percent rise in offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in the year ending September 2018.
But the Office for National Statistics pointed out, “The weapon does not have to have been used in the offence, only present, for it to be flagged.”
Police figures are also affected by changes in recording and policy.
NHS admissions for injuries caused by assault with a knife or other sharp object across England rose by nearly a third between 2012-13 and 2017-18.
But it’s still very unusual for a violent incident to involve a knife. In the year to March 2018, 79 percent of violent incidents in England and Wales involved no weapons, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) has found “continued falls” in violent crime over the past two decades.
Some 4.7 percent of adults said they had suffered a violent crime in 1995. In the year ending March 2018 that figure was 1.7 percent.
“Violence without injury” accounted for 42 percent of police recorded violence against the person offences in the year to March 2018.
Hospital admissions for assault in England rose by 7 percent in the same period, but they were still 33 percent lower than the year ending March 2008.
The poor are made to pay while the rich go unpunished
Violence is built into capitalism. But much of it isn’t considered criminal. Our rulers send people to kill and die in wars fought for their interests.
Many more people die because they can’t afford to heat and eat during the winter than die from knife attacks. Over the winter of 2017-18 there were nearly 46,000 excess winter deaths among people aged 65 and over, or 379 older people a day.
This isn’t called a crime. Others die because of the poverty and despair caused by Tory benefit reforms, or because they can’t access the health care they need due to cuts. But these are not called crimes.
Things that are considered crimes are linked to the wider system. Poverty and alienation can push people to desperate acts.
For instance, crime rates soared during the depression of the 1930s, and during recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s. During the 1950s, when capitalism was booming, recorded crime fell every year.
Most of the time, the crimes and violence of the rich and better off remain relatively hidden. Outcries over crime are aimed at working class people.
Moral panics over crime and the behaviour of young people aren’t new. Similar panics—about knife crime, gun crime, anti-social behaviour, drugs, “mugging” and even rock and roll—have recurred for decades.
Painting ordinary people as dangerous thugs is useful to our rulers. It is used to justify repressive state machinery but it also plays an ideological role.
It encourages us to fear each other and to see each other as threats, not as allies.
It encourages us to feel hopeless about human nature and discourages us from thinking we can create a better world.
It distracts us from other issues.
And it helps our rulers to blame individuals for problems in society rather than looking at the system.