If we're to end this gun and knife crime epidemic, the government must stop closing youth clubs
Ministers say they will do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop violent crime – getting involved with the communities affected would be a good start
“I don’t want to see my friends all over the news.”
These were the heartbreaking words I heard from 14-year-old MJ on Saturday at the BikesStormz protest against gun and knife crime in London.
The event saw thousands flock to the capital on their BMXs and mountain bikes to spread a simple, yet powerful message: #BikesUpKnivesDown.
The BikeStormz ride-out movement has been running since 2014 but this year was the first it received the backing from the Metropolitan Police and the London Mayor’s Office.
Many of the youths at the event – most aged 8 to 25, often accompanied by their parents – understood the potential impact their presence could make: they were there to show anyone who looked at them as a threat that such preconceptions were wrong.
The message was clear. As MJ put it: “I’m here for fun, nothing else. We are not doing anything bad. I don’t want to be that kid who goes through life like ‘oh, I’ve lost a lot of friends’.”
In 2018 more than 50 people have been killed in knife and gun crimes in London alone – and we’re only in April. Last week, 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was killed in a drive-by shooting in Tottenham, then just 30 minutes later, 16-year-old Amaan Shakoor was shot and killed in Walthamstow. They were just two among half a dozen killings since the beginning of the month.
These statistics are scary. I grew up in north London, and while I never experienced violence during my time there, I can understand why violent crime has since soared.
Youth services are virtually non-existent. If you speak to these kids, as I did at the BikeStormz event, it becomes obvious that most of them have nowhere to go other than their homes or the streets. Hundreds of youth clubs have been shut since the beginning of this decade thanks to government cost-cutting, which has left many young people twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do.
And with kids increasingly out on the streets, attitudes towards them have changed. They are often branded dangerous yobs by media commentators.
But the truth is, too few talking heads actually go into these communities to speak to the youths themselves in order to find out what they’re thinking? If they did, they would find that most young people are incredibly switched on. They want change as much as we do: but no one is listening to them.
The number of police officers in the UK has declined by 21,000 in seven years, yet Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has consistently denied that police cuts are the cause of the increasing violence on Britain’s streets. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, also wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that evidence did not back up claims that reduced resources were the cause of more crime. But a leaked report from Ms Rudd’s own department suggests otherwise.
The only person who appears to be grasping reality over this mess is the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, who described Ms Rudd as having “stuck her head in the sand”.
Not only have Labour rightly highlighted the naivety of the government’s claims about police cuts, they also recognise the importance of rebuilding services that benefit young people day to day. As Rayner rightly said on The Andrew Marr Show, youth services, education, children’s services and wrap-around facilities have all faced cuts – yet all the evidence shows these are the services that provide young people with the support they need. And that’s what the government should be doing: supporting children and young people, not fighting against them.
Ms Rudd, Mr Javid and other ministers say they will do “whatever it takes” to stop violent crime. But they need to talk to the families of those caught up in these horrors, speak to their friends, and get involved with the community. Build a relationship. It’s fine to examine how laws can be tightened or how the police should prevent crimes day by day, but we should be examining the root of the cause, which is that too many youngsters are being left to their own devices.
Everyone – from kids on the street, to the top dogs in Downing Street – wants the violence to end. Why not work together?
The most beautiful thing I took from the BikeStormz protest was the sense of unity and togetherness. There was a remarkable show of solidarity between the youngsters and the Metropolitan Police as they rode side by side through some of the major streets of London. One teenager told me he was pleased that the police were supporting the ride, as previous years had seen the two “sides” butting heads.
London is regularly said to be a city of opportunity, which is “open for all”, yet when it comes to speaking to all communities, the government pays more attention to some than others. If London is open for all, why are young people in deprived areas being stripped of the support they need to realise their potential?
Why have so many safe spaces and youth clubs been closed down?
Why have communities from disadvantaged backgrounds been let down?
We need to know that the younger generation will be safe and will have role models to look up to. At the moment, the gap between have and have nots in Britain couldn’t be bigger, and plenty needs to change. But it’ll only change if the government not only hears, but actually listens too.