London’s Murder Epidemic: A Look Into the City’s Youth Crisis

“All day I cried. I didn’t cry just for my son, but for all those other people as well.”

This is what Abdullah Özcan told The Guardian when he was asked how it felt seeing victims of youth violence in the news, including his 19-year-old son who died in February.

Then there’s Patrick Boyce, the father of a 17-year-old boy who suffered permanent brain damage after being attacked with a knife.

There is also 17-year-old, Promise Nkenda, 19-year-old Lewis Blackman, 18-year-old Lyndon Davis and more—all young people who died because of violent crime, leaving behind mourning friends and family.

Unfortunately, it’s stories like these that are making headlines in the UK.

Youth violence in London have dominated the media. Headlines plastered on the Guardian, London Times and Daily Mail have overwhelmed readers with tragic stories of young people dying too soon because of gun and knife violence. Teens are carrying around knives and guns for their own protection. Gang activity is on the rise, and the Metropolitan police released data showing the murder rate has skyrocketed by over 44 per cent.

Craig Pinkney says the increase of guns and knives being used as weapons among youth have been greatly connected to gang involvement, an epidemic he is trying to help stop. Pinkney is a criminologist and urban youth specialist who works closely with troubled youth and helps transition them away from gangs and a life of crime.

A question experts are trying to answer is why young people are joining gangs at all. Pinkney says to think about why any person joins a social circle in the first place, like a sports team or choir for example. The reason is usually linked to the feeling of inclusion and a sense of belonging. Gangs offer these exact elements, but the problem with them is the violence that is inevitably involved.

Society plays a big part in driving youth into gangs, whether it’s intentional or not. Since 2010, more than £387 million have been cut from youth service spending all across London. These funding cuts have forced more than 600 youth centres to close down and have displaced over 130 000 young people out of interactive programs. 83 per cent of youth said these cuts have increased their activity in crime and anti-social behaviour, according to a survey conducted by Unison.

Gangs 101:
  • Gangs are street based groups who often engage in criminal activity and violence
  • Nearly one in four young people feel scared in public spaces, often times where gangs are active
  • London gangs are largely becoming more focussed on the drug market and profits rather than turf wars, according to London South Bank University

Gangs are filling voids that the government has created because of their budget cuts to youth services. Pinkney says gangs create family and help them with the burdens that society is unable to do right now. He refers to gangs as ‘surrogate families’, where youth are taken in as one of their own and promised they’ll be cared for. They are enticed with the promises of help that is not being offered to them from anywhere else.

“If young people do not feel they have the opportunity to make it for themselves in society, but a gang enabled them to do so, then who are we to tell them to leave?” he says.

Diminishing of youth services

He also says gangs themselves are not the issue, the problem is the violence associated with them. The question is, how do we start having gangs behave in which we can accept them in society? Pinkney says the government needs to reinvest in youth services and create different environments for young people to feel safe again.

Youth crime and violence is evident in boroughs all across London. Tasmin Gregory is the communications manager at St. Giles Trust, an organization that helps troubled youth steer away from life of crime. She says even upscale neighbourhoods like Kensington and Chelsea are crime ridden, despite its posh persona.

“Each London borough has its own issues even if it says it doesn’t,” she says.

One of St. Giles programs is called SOS Program, a service for young people that works to prevent them from becoming exploited and involved in crime. Through a series of sessions, adolescents learn about knife crime, the realities of prison, the impact on victims and more. They visit schools and create sessions that tailor to that particular group’s needs. The people running the sessions are young people who have made positive changes in their lives after having direct experience with gangs and troubled backgrounds.

A key element in their method is preventive measures. The organization goes into schools with interactive sessions to engage youth with the tools and knowledge they need to avoid getting involved in crime and violence. She also says dealing with someone’s problems and behavioural issues early is better than waiting for them to get worse down the line.

Gregory says service cuts are affecting the most disadvantaged communities, making things more violent. A study conducted by green party members of the London Assembly found nearly every council in the city cut its youth service budget by almost £1 million, with more cuts being planned for this year.

“That’s a key argument going on in the UK,” Gregory says. “Serious violence and knife crime shouldn’t be dealt with as a criminal justice issue because it’s a public health issue in society.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has faced a lot of public scrutiny in the wake of these violent crimes having surged the past couple years. He has invested £110 million into the police force in an effort for these crime statistics to be lowered. In addition to the money granted to the Met, he has also encouraged officers to perform stop and search procedures in the areas most affected by knife crime. This controversial practice has been known to target young black men in particular, and research shows the practice doesn’t directly connect to serious youth violence.

Meanwhile, money given to organizations that directly help troubled youth are not being funded to the same extent as the police force. The mayor’s website states £110 million is being invested into the police. Just over £52 million were invested into the Young Londoners Fund, community group initiatives and grassroot programs. Pinkney says if society provided these services and positively immersed youth into their communities, then entering crime activity would be less likely.

Voices of the young people

Voices often overshadowed in regards to youth issues are from the young people, something people are trying to change. Rhammel Afflick is the communications officer with the British Youth Council. It is an organization that has been around for 70 years, aiming to help young people have their voices heard by the government on issues they are passionate about.

Although young people are not involved in the formal political process, Afflick says it doesn’t mean they are not interested in speaking out on issues that are affecting them. Through annual votes, the organization conducts a poll called “Make Your Mark” where youth vote on which issues matter most to them. With those in mind, they lobby government parties and officials to make a change and influence political decisions.

One of the things the organization frequently advocates for is for the government to invest in youth services, especially after seeing how much the cuts have impacted those living disadvantaged lifestyles. Afflick says young people have remained less of a priority over the last few years and doesn’t see any signs of that improving.

“There’s this feeling that young people are naive and don’t know what they’re talking about or what they want, when actually young people do know what they want,” he says.

Although young people are not involved in the formal political process, Afflick says it doesn’t mean they are not interested in speaking out on issues that are affecting them.

Social media influences

Society often blames social media for displaying explicit and violent content to young people online. Gregory says social media definitely plays a big part by acting as the medium to sensitive content online. There are tons of violent and hateful videos being exposed to young audiences on the internet, so much that the government is vetting webpages. As social media continues to progress and young people remain internet savvy, it will only become harder to filter the content they see. Gangs often recruit online and gain followers from young people, posting violent and negative content for the world to see.

But there are ways to combat the negativity spread online. The UK government began a campaign called #KnifeFree, a hashtag aimed at telling young people they don’t need to hide behind a weapon to feel safe. Young people share their stories and experience by opening up the conversation and trying to relate to those going through what they once did.

Pinkney is also using social media as a tool to help young people. Through his YouTube channel, he creates content that showcases young people doing good in their communities. In “Don’t Get Gassed”, an episode talking about the realities of knife crime, he talked to two teenagers, aged 16 and 19, who feel the government needs to start funding more things for youth to get involved in the community.

One of the teens said, “if people weren’t so bored on the roads, then half of these crimes wouldn’t happen.” Pinkney says mainstream media continues to focus on the violence, bloodshed and negativity that exists in young people’s lives.

“There is so many beacons of light in our community and not enough light shed on them,” he says.

Afflick says the way young people and their communities are portrayed in the media play a role in how they feel about themselves. There are a lot of people doing good in their communities, turning their lives around and overall positive stories that are not being told to the public.

“Most young people aren’t criminals. Most young people contribute to society and most are engaged—so it’s imperative we reflect that.”