The war on our streets: boys in UK knife crime are like child soldiers. They need compassion

A study from the Democratic Republic of Congo shows how similar the factors are that drive young men into cycles of violence.

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Youth violence is soaring in London, and worsening across the country. Last year, 39 children and teenagers were stabbed to death across the UK, the highest number since 2008. Last week the Metropolitan Police launched its 74th murder investigation of 2018.

One reason blamed for this surge, sparking a moral panic, is the rising popularity of drill music, an aggressive type of London rap. Of particular concern is the way drill is shared and consumed by teenagers on social media, often, its detractors claim, contributing to cycles of violence. 30 of its music videos have recently been removed from YouTube, and senior police have suggested that rappers inciting violence in their lyrics ought to be investigated as terrorists. Earlier this week the drill group 1011 (“ten-eleven”) from Ladbroke Grove in West London, were controversially banned from making drill altogether.

Anyone who works with young people in communities where violence is rife knows it is not mere music that has brought us to this tragic tipping-point. I have spent the last three years working with young people in schools, community centres and prisons in order to better understand and intervene in the cycles of disaffection that lead to normalised violence. Through my work, including hundreds of conversations with boys who find it difficult to engage in mainstream educational settings due to distractions in their lives, I have come to believe that we are headed in the wrong direction in our collective response to knife crime. We need to be dealing in less blame and more compassion.

Civic life in Britain over the last decade has been beaten to its knees, especially in parts of the capital city where, hidden beneath the glossy veneer of gentrification, families living in social housing rely on strained council services to survive.

Cuts to early-years support are pushing more children into care. Financial pressure in schools is leading to more pupils being permanently excluded, which has recently been linked to higher rates of violent crime. Funding cuts to youth services and community centres mean there are less safe spaces for young people. Households with children are the most likely to rely on food banks. The list of state failures is endless.

Neglected teenagers exist in closed, claustrophobic worlds that are invisible to most of us. Oppressive no-go zones, demarcated by lines of territorial pride and paranoia mean moments of heightened tension can easily convert into anger and conflict. Conditioned by the post-Thatcherite norm that we exist as individuals, rather than a cooperative body politic, British society under austerity has become a fertile environment for social illness. Youth violence is one of its most brutal symptoms.

It is tempting to frame young people’s violent behaviours as a modern cycle spun by their music taste or addiction to Snapchat. But obsessing over surface-level issues is lazy. As relevant as these trends are for understanding adolescent life, it is not helpful to consider them in isolation.

To realise a cure for any epidemic, its pathology must be diagnosed accurately. This is why a multi-faceted public health approach to violence, as has been called-for by politicians and other practitioners working on this issue, is necessary. Rather than thinking of teenagers who commit violent crimes as rogue agents of chaos, or treating drill rappers who are narrating their lives to the world as terrorists, we should identify and stem the harsh environmental forces that are further infecting the open wound of adolescent disaffection.

A recent report called Tug-Of-War: Children In Armed Groups in DRC by War Child UK, a charity that works to protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children in war, describes the “push and pull factors” influencing children to join armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It defines “push factors” as the negative circumstances that children escape by joining an armed group. “Pull factors” are the positive incentives that children anticipate for joining an armed group.

There are obvious differences between DRC and the UK: the former is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been mired by a deadly conflict over decades. However, the report’s findings might be used as a reference point for thinking about youth violence in London. In particular, it highlights the types of forces that drive vulnerable, unsupported young people – mostly male – to form territorial groups in impoverished pockets of the city. Boys I have worked with have admitted that they feel like they are “living in a war” or cannot leave their school gates without continually looking over their shoulder.

War Child’s report clarifies that there is no single reason that explains why children join armed groups, stating that “their participation is driven by a multifaceted series of factors that work in concert with one another, pushing and pulling children towards armed groups in different settings and circumstances.” The same is true in London, in which a diverse set of influences are at play in particular young people’s lives.

The main push factors are listed as: household poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity in the community, the chance of seeking vengeance, and a lack of hope that things will improve. All of these factors, in their equivalent form in the UK, play a role in driving younger teenage boys to identify with territorial groups.

Many young people in Britain do not live in an emotionally or financially stable home and have experienced the distress of seeing violence play out regularly in their community. They are often living in single-parent households where, despite their best efforts, the parent may struggle to put food on the table or set enforceable rules. Boys are commonly left to navigate unchecked hypermasculinity – appearing tough, fearless and emotionally unavailable – alone, from a young age, in the absence of consistent, relatable or positive role models.

Youth services are increasingly non-existent. The academising British education system, chasing data targets and saving on every penny, would rather get rid of its problematic students than engage with their complex lives (boys who are eligible for free school meals are over twelve times more likely to be excluded from school than girls who aren’t). Any given boy’s potential feeling of hunger and neglect, and a lack of options for making pocket-money apart from selling drugs under the influence of elders, make the idea of binding together with others like him, those who are locked in the same grapple with subsistence, the most attractive option.

Perpetual cycles of back-and-forth robberies, beatings, stabbings and shootings occur between teenagers living on tiny plots of land right next door to one another. These amount to revenge-acts between rival groups due to the constant need to uphold a local reputation. Little else can find its way into the inward-looking value-system of a lonely adolescent boy who is overwhelmed by all of these pushing forces. That’s why drill music, a narrative that tells struggling teenagers that their voice is worth listening to, is so powerful.

The main four listed pull factors in the War Child report are: the opportunity to live a better life, to protect one’s family or community, protection from the community, and as a means of respect.

Again, once translated, all of these can apply as incentives for boys to come together in groups in the UK. For gaining respect, the report suggests that communities in DRC have understandably come to both respect and fear members of groups who are armed with guns. A similar currency has developed on the roads of London, where possession of a knife for many boys has become a prerequisite for feeling safe and in control.

“If my man’s carrying a knife, I’m carrying a knife” one young person responded to me last year when I asked why he felt the need to carry a weapon. He is fifteen years old. It is a difficult logic to argue with when you consider how he has seen people in his community stabbed on a weekly basis for years, and knows that he cannot walk in any direction out of his local area without being targeted by other local groups.

This particular young person left his single-parent home last year, is currently living in care, and spent an entire academic year without any formal education after being excluded from multiple schools for non-compliance (“I get on with teachers, I just can’t sit in a classroom”). Many boys face charges for possession of a knife, but still won’t go anywhere without one.

There is an obvious need to take stock of how subcultural reinforcers such as drill music and technological developments like social media apps are loosening the fabric of young life in London and the UK. But we need to stop looking at this current surge in youth violence as a symptom of these developments alone. Instead, we should understand it as a result of overwhelming environmental factors that push and pull young people down a path of disaffection leading to normalised trauma.

If greater efforts were made to engage properly with young people experiencing the trappings of poverty, misguidance and neglect, we would come closer to treating this gaping wound instead of scrambling for tiny plasters. It is hard to see how much will change, however, until we as a society realise that public life should be cherished, not dismissed or actively torn apart by austerity.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth-worker and writer based in South London.