A recent spate of knife killings in London, often involving young black males, has led to much anguish and debate about solutions. Weyman Bennett argues that more stop-and-search or “bobbies on the beat” are definitely not the answer. Instead we must look to underlying causes in the way that austerity and racism have ravaged communities in cities like London.
In the first few months of this year there has been a series of murders, particularly in London and particularly involving knives and young black people. The heartbreak and pain experienced by the families and friends of those who have lost their lives will be enduring. And the consequences will be felt far beyond them into the communities affected, who will feel fear and anger at the loss of life.
Many different solutions are put forward by members of the community as well as by police and politicians. But one thing is clear: any solution which attempts to point the finger of blame at young people or at black communities themselves is not going to help.
It is necessary to begin by tempering some of the scaremongering over the number of murders in London, which we have seen from the Sunday Times and George Osborne’s Evening Standard. In April both papers pronounced the disturbing claim that London’s murder rate was for the first time higher than New York’s.
But this is stretching the facts — in reality the figure is neck and neck. In the first three months of 2018 police recorded 55 suspected murders in London, while in New York the figure was 54. Nonetheless this is worrying, because it means that the murder rate in London in the first quarter of this year is almost 50 percent of the total for last year.
In the whole of 2017 there were 116 recorded murders in London compared with 292 in New York — one and a half times more. So, there is clearly a worrying spike in murders so far this year, but it is too soon to start suggesting that London is some kind of murder capital — it doesn’t even have the highest murder rate in Britain, per head of population.
The media’s attempts to create a moral panic about violence on the streets of the capital are not helpful if we want to soberly assess the reasons for the spate of knife killings — and, crucially, to come up with solutions.
There are two factors that are crucial to understanding the context in which a rise in violent crime has happened. And figures suggest that violent crime rose by 20 percent in 2017.
The first is the economic crisis and the chaos unleashed by austerity. In 2007 some $7 trillion was wiped off the stock markets. The ensuing crisis in the banking sector led the US government to announce a $700 billion bailout, and the UK government made a similar pledge of £500 billion. The money to bail out the financial institutions has come from the state, taking resources from welfare and public services, which have been drained of funding.
Young people in Britain were some of the first to feel the impact of austerity measures. In the autumn of 2010 the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government announced that the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) — a UK-wide scheme that offered weekly finance to students from low-income households who continued into further education after leaving school — would come to an end in England.
Thousands of young people who would no longer be able to afford to study rather than work protested across the country and joined up with university students who were fighting tuition fee rises, culminating in a huge student movement.
But the government and its then education minister, Michael Gove, refused to listen to young people’s demands.
This frustrated anger exploded in the summer of 2011 following the police killing of Mark Duggan in north London. Days of unprecedented rioting swept across the country. A common refrain from young people involved in the riots was that at least they had forced people to notice them.
Another effect of the changes in compulsory education under the Tories is a rise in the exclusion rate in schools. The results-based league tables imposed on schools mean that the students who need the most help — those who struggle with work, or have ADHD or other behavioural issues — are excluded rather than given the support that they deserve, and that schools should be duty-bound to provide.
The crisis in housing, such as that created by gentrification and the freeze in council house building, has resulted in a severe shortage of homes with affordable rent and therefore growing rates of chronic overcrowding and inadequate and unsafe housing.
The impact of racism in this crisis is also clear to see. The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 exposed the way that BME and immigrant families — those who aren’t wealthy — are treated with disdain by privatised services such as the company contracted to “refurbish” the tower, which made a previously safe building unsafe.
A survey by the National Children’s Bureau last year found that two-thirds of local councillors responsible for children’s services said their local authority lacked the resources to provide universal services like children’s centres and youth clubs. More than 40 percent said they did not have enough money to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children. Half of respondents said this was mainly due to increased levels of poverty and hardship and cuts to other services, such as housing benefit.
Meanwhile, the rolling out of Universal Credit last year has led to delays and reductions in payments which have tipped even more families into poverty.
Another element is the crisis in health and mental health services. According to Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) mental health charities one in four young BME people between the ages of 12 and 21 suffer some form of mental health problems. A huge factor in this is the feeling of being left out, alienated from society. At this crucial time, mental health provisions have been slashed by over 40 percent in parts of Britain.
The second factor is racism. Racism as we understand it is the systematic pressure applied on groups of people with particular characteristics relating to their perceived “race”, religion, ethnicity or nationality. This is social and institutional — it results in discrimination in housing, education, work, as well as suffering at the hands of the state’s enforcers — namely the police, through stop-and-search practices which target black people in particular.
Under these combined conditions many families can slip into crisis and chaos.
The internalisation of this crisis means that those who face the greatest ethnic penalty in a racist society, far from immediately seeking solidarity with each other, can begin view each other as rivals and enemies.
This also serves to disguise the underlying causes of street violence, leading people from within and without the black community to look to solutions which are bound to fail.
One solution being put forward is the call for more stop-and-search. Especially for people heavily involved in communities where knife crime and violence is a big problem, this can seem like a necessary step to deal with a crisis.
Janette Collins, who runs The Crib project in Hackney, east London, has spoken about why protecting our young people should be made a priority. She is a committed advocate who has done huge amounts of work to help young people in a borough which, despite gentrification, still has pockets with high levels of poverty.
She told the Evening Standard, “We need to bring back stop-and-search. If people object to it, I ask do they want to see kids running around with big knives?”
But this is fundamentally flawed. Research by the College of Policing and Manchester University of ten years of data found that “higher rates of stop-and-search were occasionally followed by slightly lower rates of crime. However, the associations found were inconsistent and small in size, which provided limited evidence of stop-and-search having acted as a deterrent.” The “slightly lower rate” was recorded as a 0.1 percent drop.
Many politicians, in cohort with parts of the police, want to introduce “intelligence led” stop-and-search. Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick along with Trevor Philips (formerly the government appointed head of the Commission for Racial Equality) have called for more stop-and-search powers. They have been joined by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
However, figures show that there has been a spike in stop-and-search over the past five years, mainly under terrorism legislation provisions, yet it has clearly done little to end knife crime. The number of recorded crimes in the UK involving the use of knives or sharp instruments has jumped from 26,000 in 2014 to 39,598 three years later (2017).
Stop-and-search has proved to be ineffective because it does not address the fundamental factors behind the rise in crime. It does not deal with the cause, only the effects, and in fact it adds to the cause, because it creates an expectation among young black men in particular that they will be singled out by police whether or not they are involved in violence.
The numbers of young black men who become “deaths in custody” is the tragic indication of the scale of police victimisation. If you are young, male and black you are eight times more likely than average to be a victim of violent crime. Yet institutional racism means that “going to the police” is not a solution.
Alongside the calls for more stop-and-search is the demand that the cuts in police numbers should be reversed. These cuts in policing have been pushed through by successive Tory governments and are a major source of embarrassment for Teresa May. But it is her government’s austerity cuts in health, housing and education that underpin the rise in violent crime. Putting more police on the streets to harass and intimidate young black people will not act as a deterrent.
Knife crime should be made a priority in the spheres of education, health and social care. Young people should not be criminalised and locked up, as they have been systematically in the US since the Clinton administraton in the 1990s. This simply leads to a swathe of young people who have even fewer opportunities to gain a decent education or to expect to be able to get a good job.
We do not need more “police on the beat”, we need to fund our welfare services, our schools, our National Health Service. In other words, building social organisations and networks for young people to be involved in.
This is not a panacea, but gets to the heart of why young people find themselves involved in criminal behaviour.
Crime itself is a reflection of the social organisation of society under capitalism. Consider the ideology of capitalism itself. Capitalists compete with each other over markets, are involved in hostile takeovers, mark their “territories”, believe in the ideal of “self-improvement” — in Thatcher’s words, act as if “there is no such thing as society”.
Similarly, those involved in street level crime accept this ideology. A takeover bid by a corporation involves encroaching on a competitor’s area; a takeover bid on the streets involves trespassing on rival territory.
Crime is a reflection of the corruption of society, and riddles its institutions. In their 2004 book Untouchables: Dirty Cops, Bent Justice and Racism in Scotland Yard, Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn expose the link between drugs, criminal gangs and corrupt police officers. In Hackney there was the famous case of PC Ronald Palumbo, who was jailed in 1997 for his part in a massive cannabis smuggling operation.
In February last year the Evening Standard reported that “crime bosses are targeting ‘pockets’ of corrupt police officers in the Met in a bid to gain information or sabotage investigations.”
The Stephen Lawrence inquiry also revealed how deep is the institutional racism and corruption. The inquiry into the police cover-up of the teenager’s murder by a gang of racists revealed the endemic links between high level cops and criminal gangs.
Crime is a part of capitalism. The greater the poverty, the greater the inequality and the heavier the repression, the greater the level of violent crime. Around the world there were over half a million violent deaths involving crime in 2016, 68 percent of which were murders. The vast majority were in urban areas that are riddled with mass poverty and unemployment; where families and communities are torn apart by the constant crisis that poverty creates.
These social crises expose the deep structural problems created under capitalism. Stopping this type of violent crime requires short term social intervention by youth workers and targeted services, as well as properly funded health care and education, decent housing, and so on. But it also requires us to challenge the very way in which society is organised.
We a have a triple-headed crisis. First, it is an indictment of our society that we have a criminal justice system that incarcerates the poor while allowing the rich and powerful to escape justice. It is possible to legally buy properties through a tax loophole, and call yourself the minister of health, while at the same time shredding the mental healthcare provisions on which many people rely, and which are an important safety net for those slipping into violence.
Secondly, our society is characterised by an institutional racism that targets black people, generating deep levels of bitterness and anger.
Finally, we live in a system which has exploitation and oppression at its very heart. Capitalism constantly generates inequality, poverty and destitution, as well as periods of economic instability and crisis — such as the last decade — which add to people’s lack of hope for the future.
The complex arguments about the interrelation of crime and crisis offer little solace to those who have lost loved ones as the result of violent crimes. However, we have to reject the moral panics generated through the media, and supported by politicians and police, while at the same time explaining how violent crime is created by the structural organisation of society under capitalism.