We need to talk about serious youth violence

We need to talk about serious youth violence

As the Government launches yet another 'crackdown', co-author of the Holding Our Own report Emmanuelle Andrews explains why it's only destined to bring more harm.

This week, policing minister Chris Philp announced a new operation set to lead to ‘thousands of arrests’ in the name of tackling so-called knife crime. It should be clear to everyone by now that these kinds of ‘crackdowns’ don’t work – and ramping up policing only serves to harm marginalised communities – particularly young Black men and boys. Despite this, politicians from both major parties are only increasing the harmful rhetoric around violence and crime.

This escalating rhetoric – and the corresponding increase in harm to our communities – is why a coalition of grassroots groups and campaigning organisations recently launched ‘Holding Our Own’. The report is an urgent intervention that builds on decades of work by organisers and activists calling for non-policing solutions to what gets called ‘serious youth violence’. Within it, we show that overpolicing is covering up a failure to tackle the root causes of social issues, like poverty and inequality – and that young people are being harmed and dying as a result.

But while we call for alternative solutions to violence and harm, it’s also crucial that we don’t take the idea of ‘serious youth violence’ for granted.

The government, the opposition, political establishment, mainstream media all perpetuate a narrative about serious youth violence – one that is racist and ignorant of its root causes, and also a deliberate misreading, misrepresentation and manipulation of the evidence surrounding the issue. For years, activists and academics like Stuart Hall, Tottenham Rights, Aviah Day and Shanice McBean have been uncovering the ways in which crime statistics have been manufactured to create a moral panic about rising levels of crime. In ‘Policing the Crisis,’ his study of the panic around ‘mugging’ in the 1970s, Hall wrote: ‘statistics - whether crime rates or opinion polls - have an ideological function: they appear to ground free floating and controversial impressions in the hard, incontrovertible soil of numbers.’

For our part, NGOs like Liberty aren’t innocent either. Even with the best intentions, organisations working in criminal justice, youth justice, and human rights have taken the category of knife crime as fact. While working on the Holding Our Own project, the fear of contributing to the problem literally kept me up at night – by using the language of ‘serious youth violence’, how much do we risk failing to challenge the assumptions that language carries - and thereby perpetuating the racist discourse that surrounds it?

"Holding Our Own is an urgent intervention that builds on decades of work by organisers and activists, and calls for non-policing solutions to what gets called serious youth violence"

Read the report

Serious youth violence plays a specific role in policing and the criminal justice system – but also in the imaginations of the public. By tapping into people’s fears (predominantly of the white, middle classes – in our cities and beyond), and defining ‘safety’ as safety from ‘thugs’ (and we all know the racialised and classed narratives that underpin such terms), those who push policing as a response to harm can paint anyone arguing for alternatives as part of the problem – as undermining the reality of what happens when a young person is murdered or critically injured.

That could not be further from the truth. We recognise the harm that many young people are facing today as a human rights issue – and the failure of the government to tackle its root causes as an abuse of children and young people’s human rights. But we are clear that ultimately this harm is perpetuated by the state: by the police, and by government neglect.

And let’s be clear about something else: those perpetuating the racist knife crime narrative do not care actually care about serious youth violence, about the overpolicing of black and working class communities, or the conditions that contribute to interpersonal violence and societal inequality.

Instead, serious youth violence is used as a tool used to justify the policing of predominantly black communities – from the practice of stop and search, to the use of dangerous weapons like TASER – and as a way of diverting attention from the government’s chronic and fatal neglect of our communities.

In the Holding Our Own report, we’ve tried to articulate all of this stickiness: that what gets called serious youth violence is a social construct; and that, at the same time, young people are being harmed and even dying – and successive governments have worsened the issue rather than tackling its root causes. We’ve also tried to grapple with the tensions: that as an issue, serious youth violence is laid at the feet of young black and working class boys – making it hard to disentangle the harmful narrative about knife crime from issues of race.

We know there are no easy answers. But there are bold alternatives that we know work. It’s high time that we stop pretending that we can police our way out of social issues, stop using young black boys as political fodder to justify harmful policing practices, and start giving communities the things they really need to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

The demands in the Holding Our Own report are life-affirming – from building an education system based on care and support, to investing in the knowledge and skills in our communities. They centre Black joy, friendship and creativity, and the hopefulness that can come when we work together to imagine and campaign on a platform of dismantling oppressive institutions, and building pathways for radical change, grounded in community care, healing justice, and love.

Emmanuelle Andrews is Policy and Campaigns Manager for Liberty and a co-author of the Holding Our Own report. 

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