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What’s behind gun and knife crime?

This article is over 6 years, 2 months old
After several recent killings of young people on London’s streets, media and politicians have been quick to blame “gangs” and to call for more power and resources for police. But, as Sarah Bates finds, the roots of the violence lie in deep social problems that can’t be solved by a clampdown
Issue 2599
Tributes for Darlene Horton, who was stabbed to death ion 2016
Tributes for Darlene Horton, who was stabbed to death ion 2016 (Pic: Flickr/Matt Brown)

Steven Narvaez Jara was just 20 years old when he became 2018’s first violent crime fatality. His family said “they pray to God that Steve’s death brings knife crime to an end.”

But a week of deaths in London show there’s no sign of these tragic deaths ending.

A recent spate of killings has ignited debates about crime, its relationship to gangs, and the role of the police.

Last week Israel Ogunsola was stabbed to death in Hackney, east London. A friend of his spoke to Socialist Worker about the “scary” situation.

“I don’t know why Israel was killed but he was not some big gangster or someone involved in trading drugs. It just feels like you can be a victim.

“I don’t want my mum to see a police car coming to the house because I’m the next one.”

Last week Labour MP David Lammy took to the BBC Today programme to plead, “Is life in my constituency worth less than life in other parts of the country?”

His comments followed the fatal drive-by shooting of 17 year old Tanesha Melbourne in Tottenham, north London. Just 30 minutes later 17 year old Amaan Shakoor was shot in the face outside a leisure centre three miles away in Walthamstow.

These were just some of the six deaths in the first five days of April. In the days that followed, a boy aged 13 was seriously hurt in an attack in Newham, east London, and another in his late teens suffered stab wounds in Ealing, west London.

Two 15 year old boys and a 16 year old were hurt in Mile End in east London and another 15 year old was stabbed in nearby Poplar.

Over 50 murder investigations have been opened in London 2018 as Socialist Worker went to press—and most victims are young and black.

Much of the media blame the emergence of “postcode gangs” launching “turf wars” for the attacks.

But Dean, who works with young offenders in London, says the reality is more complicated.


He explained to Socialist Worker that those involved with violent crime represent “young people with a real lack of opportunity.

“They know they would work long hours for low pay and have absolutely no rights,” he said. “And for them it’s much easier to get into organised crime.”

Tom Isaac, a youth worker who supports victims of stabbing at a paediatrics unit in London, says wider factors in a young person’s life have a big impact.

“Poverty is a big systematic issue,” he said. “If a young person’s mum is working nights as well as days, and hasn’t got time, they’re left on their own.”

Youth worker Rhammel Afflick agrees that “violence is linked to young people not having the basics.

“It’s no good convincing somebody that carrying a knife isn’t the right way of going about things if that person hasn’t got the basics around them—like coming home to a meal,” he said.

Sections of the establishments are keen to portray all victims of violent crime as gang members.

It is true that some who carry weapons do so because they are involved with organised crime.

Gangs lure teenagers in with money, and use them to sell or transport drugs and stolen goods.

A model known as “county lines” sees gangs use young people as drug runners to areas outside London.

Tactics by gang leaders have been compared to child sexual exploitation groomers.

Children as young as ten are forced to carry drugs to suburban towns, and face intimidation, violence and coercion.

London sees more knife crime than anywhere else in Britain.

Across the country knife crime appears to be on the rise after falling for several years. According to police figures, 38 out of 44 police forces recorded a rise in knife crime in the 12 months ending in September 2017.

This correlates with NHS data which say there’s been a 7 percent rise in hospital admissions for assault by a sharp object.

The Daily Mirror wrote, “The vile attacks were part of a national surge in violent crime just days after it was revealed the capital’s murder rate has become worse than New York’s for the first time in modern history.”

But this comparison is only true if you cherry-pick the statistics. London police did open more murder investigations in February of this year than those in New York.

But that may be a statistical anomaly—it is too early to tell if this will develop into a meaningful trend.


Nevertheless, the death of so many young people on the streets of the capital is causing a political crisis—the role of the police has become a central question. Stop and search is heralded by many as the most crucial tool over the fight against weapons (see below). Politicians insist we need more police.

But Israel Ogunsola’s friend asks, “Why would more police help?

“For me the police are the people who look at you like they think you’re a criminal when you’re just a group on the streets, and more if you’re black. I don’t see how more of them helps us.

“Maybe more CCTV would put some people off, but there’s loads of that already.”

Youth worker Dean agrees. Stopping violent crime is more complex than just giving the police more funding”, he said.

“The police are more of a hindrance than a help. You saw what happened up to the 2011 riots, all the riots have been preceded by massive campaigns of stop and search. People complain about cuts to the police but we need to talk about cuts to other services.

“Mental health services have been slashed, and many people excluded from school have undetected learning difficulties. And because school funding is not there, people will kick off in school, then end up gangs.”

Dean says that many factors in a young person’s life will influence whether they will become a young offender, with school exclusion being one of the most crucial.

“There’s a massive link between school exclusion and gang membership,” he explained.

“And there’s also a link between school exclusion, and young women who are vulnerable to child sexual exploitation.”

Franklyn Addo is a youth worker with Redthread, a charity that works with young people to rebuild their lives after being victims of violence.

He said with “increasingly scarce services, and impenetrably tight eligibility thresholds, some families have found it impossible to access help for their young people despite ardently seeking it.”

He asked people to “consider how other, more deep-rooted factors contribute to violence, such as geography, lack of equality of opportunity and relative socioeconomic inequality.” Dean agrees that the question of resources in an important one. “My area is a well-resourced borough in terms of youth resources, but it could be a lot better,” he said.

“Overall, young people are being failed throughout education, mental health. They are being failed in a whole range of ways.”

Two days after his death, Israel’s friend took part in a gathering at the spot he was killed. He said it was to “show he mattered.”

“Most of the time I don’t think we do matter. Young people who don’t do well at school haven’t got a lot going for them. It’s easy to go for easy money rather than a shit job without a future,” he said.

“There should be more money for young people, but the biggest thing would be hope.”

A failed, racist policy that offers no solutions

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows a police officer to stop and search a person without suspicion.

It has been used repeatedly in recent days and statistics show you are much more likely to be stopped if you are black.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott says random stop and search “has never worked, although properly targeted stop and search can play its part.”

Abbott speaks about how the policy “poisoned relationships” between cops and communities.

Abbott calls for treating violent crime “as a public health issue” and promises, “as well as recruiting more police, this is what Labour will do in government.”

Abbott is one of many who points to Scotland as an example to follow.

A 2005 United Nations study said that Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world.

In response to the huge numbers of violent crimes, the Scottish government set up and directly funded the Violence Reduction Unit.


The police work alongside those in the health education and social work sectors. Community leaders and ex-offenders are also engaged in outreach work.

An emphasis on early intervention means sometimes children as young as ten are involved. People convicted of offences are also given access to education and job opportunities.

Results show knife crime has fallen dramatically, with no recorded knife murders in 2017.

Just like the police who carry it out, stop and search is biased.

Police data shows that they stop and search black people eight times more than white people. This happens even though they are less likely to find drugs on black people than white people.

One in four black people searched for drugs were found to be carrying them, compared with one in three white people.

The Tories brought in limited reforms to stop and search, such as forcing the police to record the outcomes of each search.

These reforms were partly because police data showed black men were disproportionately stopped and searched.

These powers are a powerful weapon in an arsenal of tools that intimidate communities.

Writing in the Daily Express last week, ex Scotland Yard cop Peter Bleksley talks about giving “errant youths” of Peckham in south London “a thorough pat down”.

“This didn’t always make us popular among the youth of the day but we didn’t give a hoot.”

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