Will (not his real name)
Growing up exposed to knife crime
Please note: this article includes mature themes, including discussions of violence.
Let's get this out of the way - I’ve never carried a knife, or even been threatened with one. I’ve led a comfortable life so far and never truly feared for my safety. But as someone who grew up in south east London and attended an underfunded and failing comprehensive, several of my formative years were periodically interrupted by gang scares and other potential attacks.
Someone would hear from someone that such-and-such a gang intended to shank one of the Year 11s for supposedly doing xyz, and pandemonium would break out. It might sound silly, but the threat was real enough to invite a protective police presence at the school gates as we ran to catch the bus. As if the prospect of ‘happy slapping’ wasn’t scary enough...
One time, I was accosted by a taller, older outsider at the bottom of the school field. He put his hand forcefully in between my legs and demanded my phone - which luckily, I wasn’t carrying at the time. Needless to say he didn’t need a knife to make my classmates cough up. We only plucked up the courage to call 999 when he was long gone. This was the kind of thing we worried about on a daily basis.
While I accept Lynn Perry’s point that knife crime affects all parts of the UK, these incidents - on top of the amnesty bins and the moralistic assemblies about peer pressure - always felt like a very London phenomenon. Or at least an urban one.
As an awkward, floppy-fringed teacher’s pet, I was (unsurprisingly) desperate to move schools. I didn’t want to be nervous when I walked down the corridors every day. I wanted to focus on learning stuff and getting good grades. So as soon as I reached 16, I started looking at other sixth forms and colleges. And what happened? One of the first open evenings was interrupted by a mass fight between rival groups - in which someone ended up being stabbed in the leg. Not the best first impression, to say the least.
I knew this place had a bad reputation. Like my own school, it wasn’t doing very well academically or financially. And like mine, people referred to this school’s students as a shorthand for dangerous or disruptive. But I'd wanted to give it a chance. ‘Bad’ schools often get worse because they’re labelled failures so they’re not seen as attractive prospects for investment. No one wants to go there unless they have to.
Reading Lynn’s piece, I’m so glad to hear that Barnardo’s are consulting young people on this issue - and hearing from them that stop-and-search and harsher punishments aren’t the answers. Lynn is right to say that it's not helpful to assume knife crime is a problem of specific socioeconomic groups - but she is also right to emphasise that unemployment, insufficient housing, and lack of youth services have an impact.
I agree, too, with her call to abandon the unhelpful victim/perpetrator binary, which still persists in media coverage (and many people’s heads). TV shows like Top Boy have shown that many knife-carriers are ordinary people who are drawn into carrying weapons for ‘protection’, or take part in gang activity because criminal transactions are woven into the financial fabric of the estate.
County lines activity proves that people across the UK are facing similar challenges - despite my feeling at school, it's not just Londoners. So, as Lynn says, it’ll take people from across the UK - and across different sectors - to change things.
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