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13 April 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:28pm

To solve knife crime, we must admit that violence and vulnerability go hand in hand

I was assaulted on the street. But the debate has only dehumanised kids who carry knives out of fear, in communities the government has abandoned.

By Holly Thomas

About six months ago, I was assaulted on the street. A man came up behind me in broad daylight, and tried to grab my phone out of my hand. When, automatically, I held on to it, he started punching me in the face. He carried on hitting me long after he had my phone, until I was on the ground, and only stopped when someone heard me screaming and came running.

Last Thursday, 5 March 2018, I circumvented Hackney on foot in the early morning before work. I walked from Bow through Victoria Park, to Dalston, then Stoke Newington, then turned to come back again. When I passed Morning Lane by the huge Tesco in Hackney Central, it was closed off with police tape, and a policewoman stood next to a car blocking the road. I looked past but couldn’t see anything, so I went a long way round to get home, which is by Mile End Park.

I finished work at six that day. I closed my laptop, put my coat on, left the house, turned the corner, and stopped. The air was full of sirens and someone – male – was screaming. At the end of the road, boys were running. A police car pulled up alongside one parked there already. When I moved closer, I saw two kids, both male, lying on the ground. Several others paced nearby. They looked very young, in their mid-teens. They were running their hands through their hair and glancing about wide-eyed as they spoke in agitated voices to the police, who were multiplying every minute, their cars coming from all directions. One policeman got that tape out again, and stretched it across the entrance to the park. One of the boys on the ground was covered in a silver blanket – the hand that stuck out from under it was shaking. The other was clutching his gut and crying. Then ambulances came, four or five of them, and the junction was choked with traffic as a small crowd congregated on the street. As the wounded boys were lifted onto stretchers and into ambulances, red stains spreading across their tops, one of them looked straight out at me, blank and still.

Teenagers don’t feel safe without knives, and it is killing them. Until recently, I lived on an estate a couple of minutes’ walk from the scene where those boys were stabbed in Mile End Park. The bashful young lads who’d offer soft chat-up lines in the lift or try to sell you a bit of weed sometimes were different creatures outside at night. One night, I was waiting at the bus stop with a couple of friends and one of the boys, who I saw every day, threatened to pull a knife on us. It was a pretty typical scenario. He said he wouldn’t because I “was cool”, then launched into a speech about how he had his designer clothes (they weren’t) “because of the streets”. He was clearly both high and selling as usual, as were the even younger kids who sat nearby all afternoon, watching their patch. It was heartbreaking because he was a nice kid really, but this shitty career looked like his best option. Something switched in his head halfway through his ramble about clothes, and he broke off abruptly and started begging: “You won’t tell my brother, will you?” Who knows if he even had a knife, the point is, he wanted us to believe he did.

After I got attacked my face puffed up absurdly, blotched with red and purple coagulation. I had two panda-like black eyes. An x-ray showed that the man had crushed the right side of my face, leaving a fist-shaped dent in my cheekbone. It took about six weeks for the swelling to go down, and I was concussed for three of them. The doctor said I was lucky not to have a more serious brain injury. There was CCTV all over the neighbourhood, and witnesses who saw the man cycle away. It happened minutes from a psychiatric hospital. Less than a week later I received a letter from the police saying they’d closed the case due to “insufficient evidence”. When I called up to ask why, I was told that there wasn’t a camera directly “on the spot where it happened”.

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I’ve never had reason to begrudge the police. I’ve barely interacted with them in my life until this point. I’m not angry with them, but I am furious that they clearly do not have the time or resources to investigate unprovoked attacks that leave bones broken. I’m furious that last week our Home Secretary claimed slashing police numbers has nothing to do with the rise in crime, and I’m furious that, for whatever reason, the possibility he might kill me was less important to this man than getting hold of an iPhone with a smashed screen. I am wary in a new way when I leave the house now, and I feel sure that were by some extraordinary chance something similar were ever to happen again, I would again feel lasting consequences, but the aggressor would not. I can only imagine how much more anger I might feel had it not been a random attack, if someone had specifically chosen me because of something intrinsic about me, rather than the fact I was holding a phone. And I wonder how different my reaction afterwards might be if violence wasn’t only expected towards me, but of me, and I were part of a community that already felt abandoned and undervalued.

For all I’ve lived on estates (apparently) full of people carrying knives, I’m at little risk of being stabbed with one. I’m not poor, or a gang member, or male, or (that) young. I don’t have to worry about postcode wars. I’m an employed white woman, I have a degree and a CV. There are options open to me before I’d have to break the law for my rent money. When I had a rough patch in my early twenties and couldn’t afford rent, I was able to sofa-surf for months. The removal of benefits for 18-21-year-olds last year had no effect on my prospects or choices, and I didn’t slip through the net when the Tories cut mental health trusts’ funding to pre-2012 levels. I’ve lived in areas with high crime rates all over London for ten years, but I’ve never been stopped and searched. I don’t need a youth centre because I have a job and can do things after work that often cost money, and there’s a comfortable home to go back to when I don’t feel like it. I’ve always been careful walking home at night, because as a woman I am at a particular kind of risk doing so. But I don’t carry a knife, and I am much less vulnerable to a knife attack than a teenage boy or girl who does.

Vulnerability and violence go hand in hand. People who already have the things they need do not resort to seizing it by any means necessary, and they do not feel the kind of kamikaze rage or hopelessness it takes to push a blade through another human’s skin, or pummel them to the ground. They don’t need to be part of a gang network for protection, and they go about their day unconscious of pressure to defend turf. London employment hubs like Shoreditch and Canary Warf are surrounded by disadvantaged areas full of people who struggle to find sufficient work. If you’re unable to get a job, the benefits system is perversely rigged against anyone who isn’t highly literate and able to keep apace with criteria that are constantly in flux. To access the most basic aid you have to be in acute need, which means your capacity to fill in thirty-plus pages of forms against tight deadlines, make several phone calls, and travel for an interview is likely very limited. Accessing mental health care, especially in severe cases, can be even harder, and the funding for that care since the last budget cuts is pitiful. Without family support, or an exceptional degree of effort, usually more than someone at their lowest could possibly muster, a person is easily lost. People are being failed by a system that’s meant to catch them before they get to this point, and it’s getting worse. If nothing is done about this, street violence in all forms will get worse too.

The three boys who were wounded in the Mile End stabbings are all alive. At time of writing two of them, who are both 15, are in hospital but stable, and a third aged 16, who was treated at the scene, has been arrested. There were nine non-fatal teenage stabbings between Thursday night and Friday morning. News coverage of the attack tended to set it in this context – they made up three of the macabre total. The reporting is correct but so impersonal, featuring quotes from the emergency services on their swift response, and commentary focusing on the implications of the spate of attacks for the general public, rather than the victims themselves. The only thing which gives an idea of the immediate physical reality of the event is a minute of blurry video taken by someone in a car nearby. It shows a group of boys clustered together, and as a couple start walking away one of them falls back, holding his belly.

At least 35 people have been stabbed to death in London since the beginning of this year. One person, when I told them what what I saw on Thursday evening, exclaimed: “It’s just so terrifying that your part of town is at the heart of all this.” It’s not though. Maps showing the distribution of stabbings spread north, south, east and west: it’s “normal” in so many places, and becoming more so. What’s unusual is walking out off your posh street and being confronted with it in the painful flesh.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last week about whether the London has become more dangerous than New York City. This feels irrelevant, really. Whether or not we measure up to some statistical benchmark feels dehumanising and impersonal, as though this is a question of big and small numbers, rather than human lives. Welfare cuts have increased the count of vulnerable people left to fend for themselves in ways that are often invisible to those who take their livelihood for granted, and the ripple effect is only noticed by many whose lives are more comfortable when they too feel in danger. The added gut-punch of a critically overburdened police force is damning proof that both cause and effect have been disregarded by the people in charge. If you have brushed with violence already, you’re left with poor reassurance of your future safety. We are being led by a government which does not have to live the consequences of its actions. If the adults aren’t providing security, teenagers will continue to feel they must defend themselves. 

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor living in London. She tweets @holstat.

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