Caught up in a culture of violence
Some of our young people located at the heart of some of our urban neighbourhoods are caught up in a culture of violence, where carrying a knife or carrying a gun seems part of the norm of belonging. Far too quickly the gang, which initially provided sanctuary and protection, becomes the very tool which perpetuates a more violent response. All too often this deadly cycle of abuse is enshrined in a culture of silence, which feeds from the depths of fear.
In the UK we are probably witnessing just the tip of the iceberg and more young people will be targeted and murdered unless we can stem this culture of violence and encourage more to speak up and speak out. It almost requires amongst other solutions an innovative collaboration between the charities Childline and Crimestoppers, whom separately do much valuable work.
In London, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) set up Operation Trident in response to the Black communities’ demands to tackle the disproportional effect of gun crime. Yet, nobody would ever have predicted that the work of this dedicated investigative unit would be focussed on children and young people as victims.
A worrying trend over recent years is that an increasing number of those arrested as a result of the work of Operation Trident are under the age of 19 years. By criminal standards the time span from young people’s first offence to being charged with an Operation Trident type murder is relatively short with many not even on the MPS/Trident ‘radar’ in the first place.
Black young people at the heart of this culture of violence are particularly vulnerable because they suffer most, in my view, as a result of societal racism from poor self esteem, poor self worth and lack of a positive identity. This minority of young people who are otherwise unable to cope have very few positive role models in schools and for them all the evidence points to a future devoid of opportunity and hope. Their survival is thus on the streets, on our estates and neighbourhoods as glorified ‘Urban Soldiers’.
Often, young people’s first physical violent weapon is something called a “shank”; a sharpened piece of material, usually plastic or wood, made to resemble the sharpened point of a knife. Their career progression into the use of an actual knife and their conversion of an imitation or replica weapon into a deadly gun happens in quick succession.
There are many who want to blame parents or “rap music”, yet it would be my argument that it has been drugs from cannabis to crack cocaine, that has been most responsible for fuelling this culture of societal violence, visible on our doorsteps, from which young people learn. Although long overdue the Independent newspaper in its Sunday edition has recently publicly apologised for its pro-cannabis stance. Of course drug taking amongst adults and its effects are still only the symptoms and thus the cause lies much deeper still. A boycott of TV on school nights and dramatically limiting it at weekends might also help.
For young people we are collectively failing to provide them with the necessary emotional and cognitive prerequisites so that they can make informed choices and whilst even in spite of this failure many survive, far too many others fuelled with internalised self-hate, fall through the net. Our work with young people should be about empowering them to develop the necessary self awareness, actions and decisions, which lead to their betterment and not to their detriment. We need to urgently review the style and quality of input being provided to our children and young people in the name of statutory provision.
Earlier this month I attended the Home Secretary’s eleventh ‘Round Table’ discussions on guns, knives and gangs. The Home Secretary’s Action Plan is now well developed into a focus on powers, policing and prevention. I argued for a greater emphasis on the multi-agency approach; more investment and support for witness protection; preventative support for young people in new forms of street style youth work and greater respect for community, voluntary and faith organisations, which have provided in the absence of statutory support and resources the desperately needed out-of-school and after school provisions. Whilst the government appears to be listening, in terms of preventative action and work we still have a long way to go.
Claudia Webbe is a Board Director of London Crimestoppers and Vice-Chairperson of the Operation Trident Independent Advisory Group tackling gun crime across London. Amongst her list of academic and professional qualifications Claudia holds a professional qualification in youth work from the University of Birmingham, however her direct experience comes from her frontline work on the streets of Chapletown, Leeds; Handsworth, Birmingham; St Anns & Hyson Green, Nottingham; Dalston,Hackney and Brixton, Lambeth . She is a former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of two Race Equality Councils and an advisor to the Mayor of London.