Knife Crime : Violence and Youth

Why knife crime flourishes

Hardly a day goes by without hearing about someone being stabbed or shot in the UK. More often than not it will be a young person, usually a teenager. According to government sources, in the year ending March 2019, there were 43,516 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument, in comparison with 40,215 in the previous year. 32 percent of this violent crime has taken place in the London area (‘Knife crime in England and Wales rises 8 percent over year’, Guardian, 18 July). Although there has been a drop in gun crime during this period, it is still high in comparison to previous years. What is going on here? Why is there is so much bloodletting on the streets of Britain?

There is no shortage of explanations. Street gangs that peddle drugs and the ensuing turf wars between rival gangs. Online squabbles on social media that blow up into deadly disputes. The prestige of handling a weapon. Police claim that young people think it is ‘trendy’ to carry a weapon (Yahoo News UK, 13 April, 2017). Fewer police officers on the beat and the decline in the use of stop and search. The fact that a disproportionate number of workers from an ethnic minority are affected has led some to focus on so-called ‘black on black’ crime.

Others cite cuts in youth services, the closure of Sure Start centres, reduced funding for youth clubs as a consequence of the government’s ‘austerity’ drive, that is in its attempts over the past few years to restore the profitability of British capitalism and improve the latter’s competitiveness in world markets in the wake of the economic downturn of 2008/2009 by reducing the cost of running the state machine.

What all these explanations miss is the root cause. Capitalism is based on minority ownership of the means of living and production for profit. Wealth is accumulated in the hands of the few and the majority is left in various degrees of relative or absolute poverty. In the poorer areas with high levels of social deprivation, young workers face a bleak future with low paid insecure work and high unemployment. As an escape from this drudgery, the allure of gang life is tempting. For these young people, the lucrative drug trade promises the lifestyles that capitalism encourages workers to aspire to, but at the same time denies them. Gangs are seen to provide protection and a sense of belonging in a tough and alienating environment. Some young people feel that the possession of a weapon provides some sort of protection in a threatening world. Poverty is the fertile ground on which crime flourishes.

There is no doubt that the increase in poverty and deprivation in the aftermath of the 2008/2009 economic downturn, exacerbated by cuts in public services, has fuelled higher levels of violent crime. However, knife and gun crime is a problem that predates the 2008/2009 economic crisis. The years of 2006/2008 witnessed a large spate of shootings and stabbings, which included the high-profile murder of Ben Kinsella in an unprovoked knife attack in Islington in June 2008.

There have been calls for more police patrols and the government has authorised an increase in the use of stop and search. There is little evidence that these measures will reduce crime in any meaningful way, and have, in many instances, only served to sow distrust of the authorities and have heightened tensions between young workers and the police. In addition, longer prison sentences, another demand, do not act as deterrents. On the contrary, they are more likely to turn out hardened and more savvy criminals.

In August, the Home Office launched its anti-knife scheme, in which thousands of takeaway boxes are supplied to chicken shops with stories written on them about young people who have given up knives and have gone on to pursue successful careers in sport and music. This is supposed to dissuade young people from carrying knives. As well as being ridiculous, it is racist in that it assumes that knife crime is a black people’s issue and that young black people spend a lot of time visiting chicken shops. As has been shown, crime is a social issue involving poverty and dispossession, not a racial one.

Restoring public expenditure on youth services may ameliorate the problem, but it cannot eradicate it. Expanding the powers of the state over the working class and initiating silly gimmicks will not solve the problem of knife and gun crime either. Only the working class can do this by organising consciously and politically to get rid of capitalism, a social system that generates human poverty and misery, and establish socialism, where the production for the profit for the few gives way to producing for the needs of the many and crime, in all its forms, can become a thing of the past.