A new government crackdown launched in the wake of the UK’s knife crime “epidemic” will target gangs, drugs and ban “zombie blades”. But after a year of speaking to young people up and down the country, I believe the solution is in the hands of children and teenagers themselves. The people I encountered were intelligent and thoughtful. Young people are, in fact, the front line against knife crime in this country – and they need support.
I interviewed 21 young people who had a conviction for a knife related offence, or were known to have carried a knife. I also conducted focus groups with a total of 67 youths who lived in areas with high levels of violence. I travelled around London and Yorkshire for over a year to do this and spoke to children and teenagers in Youth Offending Service offices, schools, churches and council run youth groups.
My research found that young people who had carried knives came to deeply regret their behaviour and saw it as both stupid and harmful. Those who had not carried a knife and who did not offend sometimes challenged violence in their schools and streets – but there is little recognition of this in the media or in government policy.
A lot of media coverage focuses on the most extreme incidents: terrible and tragic events that cause severe pain and trauma to individuals, families and communities. But these are not always representative of the problem. Many recorded knife related offences are simply for the carrying of a knife.
Dividing young people into broad categories such as rich and poor, deprived and privileged also causes problems. It ignores the variety of individual circumstances in which they live and neglects the important role of sympathetic friends and adults in helping them to avoid offending.
Carrying a knife often started as a way to avoid becoming a victim and later developed into more dangerous activities such as street robbery and group fighting. Most of the people I spoke to who had carried a knife had been threatened, some on multiple occasions. Some had been attacked and a few had been severely injured. Others had gone to the authorities for help but had largely been ignored. One 17-year-old boy from London told me:
The one time I went to the police … when I was stabbed … they walked into the house and said how many people done it? I said so and so many people done it from that gang … and they all kind of looked at each other – as if it’s gang affiliated or whatever isn’t it? So they didn’t really care. But if it was just a normal person … they’d have taken it a lot more serious.
But at the same time, many took responsibility for their own actions and were very aware of the risks of carrying knives. Of course, going to prison – or the threat of prison – certainly encouraged a lot of them to stop offending. But for more than half of the people I spoke to, simply growing up played a vital role. Building or renewing relationships with sympathetic peers and adults was also important. When I asked one 15-year-old boy from Yorkshire if he was still involved in gangs and knife carrying, he responded:
No, no, no … left it behind … I had a preacher for a teacher. He was always pushing me on the right thing, challenged me, do this, do that … it’s people that push you. The environment changes, if you’re around positive people you’re going to be positive.
Those towards the other end of the spectrum who were living in or near to areas classed as “deprived” – but who were not involved in crime – were very knowledgeable about knives. Sometimes their friends had carried knives, usually out of a fear of victimisation. The decision not to carry a knife was often easier because of support from family and friends. This meant they were able to take a position between sympathy for, and objection to, knife carrying. As one young man from the Yorkshire focus group put it:
He pulled a knife out … I actually stood there and went “go on” … and he was like shaking … That’s why I just walked off … He’s my age, 14 … He said sorry though, he was alright about it … He was just a bit mad at the time.
Others actively challenged knife carrying among their social groups. In doing so they frequently benefited from the support of wise and skilled adults working in local government and charities. These adults were able to bring them together, build self esteem and show them that, even though they lived in difficult circumstances, they could still act with dignity and restraint.
No easy answers
Services for young people were being ruthlessly cut at the time of my research. It will be interesting to see if the government’s new Serious Violence Strategy makes good on its promise to provide more funds for such activities.
I didn’t answer all of the questions posed by knife carrying but I gained some insight into a complex problem. It is important to recognise that many young people do not offend and often find themselves trying to resist and confront those who carry knives.
Part of the answer is to provide more support to them and their families. Support needs to be broadened to better catch those who fall through the cracks and end up doing stupid and violent things, which most will ultimately come to regret.
Peter Traynor received funding for his research on knife crime from the Economic and Social Research Council. He is a (lapsed) member of the Labour Party and a sometime attendee of the West Yorkshire Guns Gangs and Weapons Forum.