London’s knife crisis

A CHIPS perspective – and a solution?


by Paul Maxwell-Rose

The threat of violence is an everyday reality for many young people across our capital, particularly for those we live and work alongside in Brixton.

Violence is sometimes experienced on the streets through knife crime, but it’s also in our homes, in interactions with authorities and police, on social media, and in many other arenas of life.

Our experience says that young people wish that this was not the case — they would much rather have the freedom to develop and flourish. However for those most affected the fear of violence means they have to develop a means to protect themselves.

Many hide their true selves under a hardened outer demeanour, find people to back them up, grow a reputation for violence themselves, or even carry a weapon.

Current press coverage is very focused on the young people themselves, often implying that they could (or should) make different choices to get themselves out of the situation. Even when a very young person is involved and therefore is seen as a victim, the blame is often laid on the older members.

Yet the truth is so much harder – it’s not an issue of good guys and bad guys – nobody wins in this world. Some older people at the top might be making a lot of money, but many are feeling just as trapped and desperate as the new kid just starting out.

Just last week at an event hosted by the Synergy Network I listened to a young man called Destiny tell his story of working his way to the top of a group dealing drugs when he was a teenager. When he started out it was hard, but he thought that those at the top had everything, so he wanted to be in a similar position But when he got there it was just as hard and scary as when he’d first got involved. He wished he could get out, but didn’t know any other life.

These lives are very hidden from the wider world, and many of the people involved – or affected – don’t want to speak out. When something huge is kept hidden for so long it will one day blow up – and we’re suddenly seeing that exposure now.

The fact is we are all part of the society where this violent and hidden world has grown and is destroying so many lives – and we must wake up to the fact that we are all partly responsible for it.

Dez Brown, CEO of the fantastic Spark2Life, who now employs Destiny to work with young people, said at the Synergy event, “We as adults are the custodians of the our society – our children are products of it. So we are the ones who have created this situation”

I see a key factor as the breakdown and disconnection of relationships across society – there is growing relational separation between people from different classes, backgrounds, and wealth levels; between communities and government; between generations; between authorities like the police and those the communities they are meant to protect or support; between the systems of education and the children in our schools…I could go on.

These are issues all of us are involved with, and therefore all of us are responsible for. Which means we all – together – have the potential to change it.

I believe the key to change is the rebuilding of relationships and the overcoming of the division and disconnection in our society. And we can all do that.

We must start by facing our fears: the further we are from someone, the less we understand about their lives, and the more fear grows. Whether we’re afraid the young men who hang out at the end of our street are dangerous, or whether our neighbours will think we’re weird if we try to talk to them, or whether we think no one will care or listen if we try to speak up about an injustice to our local government, there’s a lot of fear of ‘the other‘ around us.

Building relationships always begins with moving through our fear of ‘the other‘ and reaching out. If we all start to do that a bit more, then maybe we’ll start to re-form the web of healthy divide-crossing relationships which form the basis of a peaceful, healthy, flourishing society.

There are so many examples of brilliant people doing this around us who we can learn from. Dez and his team at Spark2Life build relationships and work with people in prisons, on the street, in schools, making deep, lasting (and transformative) connections which show those who feel marginalised by society that they have value, are worthy of love, and have a future.

Our amazing neighbour in Brixton, Pastor Lorraine Jones and her team at Dwaynamics show so much love to the young people who come to learn boxing. Their programmes give young people purpose, determination and passion, then help them to develop their skills to get into work and education. Most importantly it shows them they have value, opportunities, and a place in society.

We’ve had a privilege of working with some amazing young men in a local school – young men going through some really tough times. They’re involved with the criminal justice system, under threat of exclusion from school and many other things. But by taking the time to build relationships, through games and activities; by having fun together, and showing that these guys are valued through open, honest, mutual relationships, we and the school are starting to see them flourish.

We’re also starting some exciting new work, stepping up a focus on using Community Organising methods to build up relational networks in and across communities in Brixton. As members of South London Citizens we’ve learnt new methods for how to empower and develop community leaders. These methods help grow strong and active groups of people who are mobilised to use their relational power to bring about positive changes in their communities.

We believe this will fit perfectly with the practical and relational focus of CHIPS, enabling the communities we work with to cross divides, create that web of relationships, and work together to bring about the relational, societal and structural changes which are will lead to a reduction in violence. 

We all have a responsibility, and we can all be part of the solution.