Last week I, a black teenager from inner city London, was at Theresa May’s knife crime summit at 10 Downing Street. Sitting directly across from the secretary of state for justice, with Lord Leveson to my left, I wanted to drive home some hard truths: that it was reckless austerity, not some inherent failure in “black culture”, a lack of stop and search or too short prison sentences, which have landed us in this knife crime epidemic.
As Camden’s youth MP, for the last year I’ve been campaigning for politicians to address the root causes of knife crime. Knowing that my peers are being failed by today’s batch of chronically short-termist politicians I’ve been spurred to act. Luckily in November of last year I was privileged to speak in the House of Commons and to go on ITV to argue that “knife crime is rooted in poverty, inequality and a lack of opportunity”.
Last week’s knife crime summit was chaired by David Gauke, the secretary of state for justice. To give him credit where it’s due, at every point in the meeting I and the other young person present were asked for our views. But our words are likely to simply bounce off the walls of Downing Street, existing now as a mere echo in the machine of government, and unlikely to genuinely change policy.
Widespread moral panic has descended. But the seeds of this knife crime epidemic were sown in 2010, when austerity became the response to the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity has been an economic flop; Britain has had the slowest recovery out of the G20 countries. But the human cost has been astronomical. My generation being subjected to high levels of child poverty, closed youth clubs and money starved schools are political decisions, not economic necessities.
If the voices of my peers, neighbours and friends, who have had their futures liquidated by austerity weren’t drowned out by the roar of the House of Commons and the printing presses of tabloid newspapers our national debate on knife crime would be starkly different.
The pain, violence and destruction of closed youth centres, child poverty and schools starved of cash would be so clear and palpable that our politicians wouldn’t be able to hide in the logical inconsistencies they do today.
Drill music, a supposed failure in “black culture” and the reduction of police stop and search powers have been used to deflect away from the true causes of knife crime.
Am I any more likely to commit a crime than any other 16 year old because of the colour of my skin? Obviously not. The “black on black crime” myth is moral panic masking what is frankly racism. I’m yet to hear anyone consider race a factor in the knife crime epidemic in Glasgow between 1991 and 2002. When a black person commits a crime, in an act of grave dehumanisation, the universal indicators of crime, namely poverty, inequality and school exclusion, are thrown out of the window.
Plans to ramp up stop and search will do nothing but strain tensions between young people and the police. For many of my peers stop and search paints the police as a group to be feared, rather than those to trust. It’s a shameful, but widely unknown, fact that since 1999 Britain has had the largest prison population in western Europe. With the chronic policing of communities like mine – we, as a country, may be headed down a dark path to America style mass incarceration. Prisons are not a solution to social issues.
This year, like countless other London schools, £500 per pupil is being slashed from my schools budget. The wish by politicians to save money at the earliest possible point then goes on to cost our public services more down the line, as the criminal justice system is expected to deal with those let down by our schooling. Schools have been turned from ladders out of poverty into institutions that trap young people in it.
And none of it makes any sense. To put this all in context, it’s cheaper to send a student to Eton than it is to put them in a pupil referral unit. Why must the state only subsidise our failure, when they could subsidise our success?
To end this knife crime crisis Britain must be woken from the nightmare of austerity.