The London knife crime problem

The first two weeks of September often bring to mind the endless school adverts and household stress that comes with getting children back to school and back into routine. However, this was not the case in the borough of Camden. The first two weeks of September 2019 saw the stabbings of four separate individuals, all victims under the age of 25.

On the 13th of September police stood guard behind blue and white tape on the normally busy high street between Camden Town station and Mornington Crescent. Tourists seemed confused, commuters seemed frustrated and passer-by’s appeared numb to the sight of forensic workers burrowing away under flashing blue lights. Surprisingly, very few people seemed bothered by the little yellow and white tent flapping in the wind outside the currency exchange centre. Just a few shops up the road was the stationary store ‘Rymans,’ even though the lights were turned off you could just about make out what was written on a blackboard behind the shop window.

“It’s not too late, make sure your kids are prepared this winter.”

camden murder
Metropolitan police stand guard, Forensic tent can be seen on the far right

Newspaper headlines the next day were nothing out of the ordinary. The death of this individual did manage to make it onto the front page of the BBC news website for about an hour and a half. The same couldn’t be said for twenty-four-year-old Wilson Varela who was shot dead that Sunday, or for Shakira Mercedes, the twenty-two-year-old mother who was stabbed just a few days before. Some of the tabloids also covered the murders but only in minor detail. It was the local papers, sick of writing the same headlines, that really started to sound alarm bells and knock down doors.

The Camden New Journal ran a front page with pictures of the 22 murder victims that had died in their constituency so far in 2019, the Islington Tribune and the West End Extra also ran headlines condoning the violence. Journalists aside, many people were beginning to call out the Mayor of London for not visiting the area that had been so badly affected. The newspapers weren’t the only ones asking questions, Twitter was calling out Sadiq Khan to get down to Camden and start facing the issues.

While these headlines dominated the local papers, a smaller and slightly less dramatic event was occurring. School exclusion rates have been increasing over the past decade across inner city London, more so in recent years. In the case of Camden, the town council pledged to investigate why just under seven hundred pupils had been expelled from schools in under a year. Councillors in Camden stated they were worried about the knock-on effects for those involved and that pupils from black backgrounds were being hit hardest. Councillors also revealed that experts warned earlier in 2019 that there could be a possible correlation between the level of exclusions and a rise in violent youth crime.

The National Education Union reported that 5.4 billion pounds worth of funding had been cut from schools across England since 2015, and even though London has triple the rate of expelled pupils compared to the rest of the country, many argue that this alone cannot be the sole reason for London’s gang culture epidemic. There are a number of institutions that have been running for decades that aim to give excluded school students a second chance. One of these institutions can be found near Heathrow Airport, a school in Hounslow specialising in emotional and behavioural disorders (or EBDs.)

One teacher from the school has worked at the school for almost seventeen years and has noticed the changes in London’s youth throughout the years. “Yep, we unfortunately lost one of our students not long ago. They were stabbed. It’s absolutely horrible, just horrible.” She confessed, “We have to use metal detectors now, just in case they are carrying. Because of government cuts and the rise in exclusions in schools the kids pretty much know we aren’t going to expel them. There is a lot more drug use, if they come to class under the influence, we aren’t allowed to send them home. We pretty much just babysit them through class. That definitely wasn’t always the case.”

Teachers at the school have watched the number of students on roll slowly increase while the amount of staff has practically halved. One teacher claimed “The funding cuts have affected us as well. We have had to downsize to a site which I will say is simply not fit to purpose. Believe it or not the little things like reward trips used to be really beneficial to the students. I’ve always said you catch more flies with a pot of honey than a pot of vinegar. But at the moment we just can’t afford to give them any rewards, so we are stuck with punishing the bad instead of acknowledging and rewarding the good.”

Despite this, Some individuals believe that school exclusions aren’t to blame for the rise in gang culture. “One of the biggest things my students say to me is that they are bored. Because of their surroundings they have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Therefore, hanging around street corners in the inner city at night they are easy targets to be groomed into joining a gang. Schools finish at 3 o’clock. They need something to do, something to look forward to. That’s why I think if the government is going to make investments it should be to the youth centres. Youth centres are absolutely the way forward.”

However, London’s youth centres are not fairing any better than the schools. I remember interviewing former European Champion boxer James Cook at the Pedro youth club on the famous ‘Murder Mile’ in Hackney. On the wall was a newspaper article showing former Prime Minister David Cameron visiting the club before the London Olympics. Mr Cook raised his frail arm and pointed at the photo and in his heavy Jamaican accent said, “That man never gave these boys nothing. Not a penny. Its all just a show. These politicians don’t care about us. Sitting up there in their big offices, they have no idea what it’s like down here.” Somebody had drawn devil horns on Mr Cameron. Nearly a third of local councils have planned further cuts to youth services. Meaning it is expected that there will be a decline in funding of 80 per cent since 2010.

While the situation appears to be dire, there are small steps being taken that appear to be hopeful. Youth centres and boxing clubs are receiving a higher number of donations, such as the St Pancras Club. This gym kicked off 2020 with a donation of twelve desktop computers and desks with teachers from local schools volunteering weekends to teach English and maths. CJ Hussein, the head coach and club director exclaimed his gratitude stating, “This is how the club still runs. It’s the people that keep this place running. We get next to nothing from the council, but its donations like these that are going to make the world of difference to these kids.”

james and fighter
James Cook stands with one of his amateur boxers, many members of the club were former gang members

Meanwhile, the people of London finally got what they wished for. Sadiq Khan visited Camden by joining a weapon sweep on the seventeenth of October.

While strolling through the streets wearing bright yellow gloves and surrounded by camera crews, Sadiq Khan claimed he wanted to increase the amount of ‘Trauma informed’ teachers in London’s schools. In the hope it would give support to students who showed signs of struggle or unease before anything escalated. Mr Khan also stated he wanted to reproduce the Glasgow model, hoping less school exclusions would lead to fewer violent crimes in the capital.

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