It was a light, early evening in a quiet side street in east London. Just as I was about to sit down to start writing this, I caught sight of a group of boys wearing balaclavas hiding behind a van a couple of metres from my front door. The group, who were black and in their mid-teens, saw someone at the end of the road. Shouting abuse, they started chasing him. As he began to run, one of them unsheathed a machete.
Around 25 minutes later, during which time a neighbour in pyjamas had trundled her bins out for collection and another had unlocked his bicycle and cycled off, the boys were back. They looked agitated. One of them hid the machete under a car and they walked off. Later, I found out a boy had been seriously wounded half a mile away and taken to hospital. Luckily it had not been fatal.
Some are not so lucky. This year has seen a flurry of street killings of teenagers — one every fortnight in London alone — most often by other teenagers.
Three days into 2021, Olly Stephens was stabbed in a Reading park. He was 13 years old, as were the girl and one of the boys charged with his murder. The other boy was 14. A few weeks later, Keon Lincoln was stabbed to death in Birmingham, at the age of 15. Two boys, aged 14 and 15, have been charged with his murder. On February 18, Drekwon Patterson, 16, was chased and stabbed to death by a gang of youths in Wembley. On April 23, Fares Maatou, 14, was fatally stabbed in the head with a machete while in his school uniform. He was outside a pizza restaurant in East London, at 4pm. Again, two boys, aged 14 and 15, have been charged with his murder.
The list of children killing children gets longer by the day. Just last week, two teenagers were arrested after a 16-year-old was stabbed to death outside a school in Luton. On Thursday a 17-year-old was killed in Streatham, south London and on Friday, a 15-year old was stabbed to death during the school run in Hayes, west London. A 15-year-old has been charged with his murder.
Yet amid all this bloodshed, little is being done. Since street homicides involving young people started escalating in 2018 — most notably among black, working-class Londoners — politicians and media-minded crime chiefs have given us the usual spiel: it’s drug turf wars, middle-class cocaine snorters, rap music… But while these explanations may sound good, they are wafer-thin on evidence.
The Home Office now has a Serious Violence Strategy, London’s Mayor has a Violent Crime Task Force, and police in many cities have stepped up stop-and-search for weapons. But, just like the last time there was a panic and a clampdown (a decade ago), the deaths keep on coming. This time, though, the people involved in the killings are getting younger.
Amid this blood-soaked landscape, youth worker and writer Ciaran Thapar’s new book, Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City, stands out. Thapar is at the front line of this most recent rise in street killings, supporting young people at risk of joining gangs in Brixton, south London. He is immersed in his neighbourhood, where he builds trust and friendships over time, and his book is partly the product of this. Cut Short follows three teenagers and a community centre manager he knows and looks at the knife crime phenomenon from street level, rather than top down.
For the boys he meets and works with, the threat of serious violence looms large from the moment they walk out their front door. A wrong look, a wrong answer, and in a split second they’ll be in a life or death situation. Jhemar, whose older brother is stabbed to death during the course of the book, compares picking up a knife before going out to putting on a pair of shoes. Most kids do not carry knives with the intent to kill; they carry them with the intent to save their own lives.
Territorial feuding is partly to blame for the violence. When one of the boys, Carl, is shot at, it’s because he was “standing in the wrong street”. According to Thapar, the “hyperlocal and ever-shifting” feuds are turbocharged by social media. Shaming, beefs, abuse, rivalry — even the Zombie knives and machetes — are glorified 24/7 on Snapchat and IG. But in London in particular, these territorial wars are rarely about defending drug turf, as it was a generation ago. A former gang member tells Thapar: “It’s less about money now and it’s more about emotions. It’s more mindless now.”
Nevertheless, a The Wire-style drug turf war narrative is pushed by everyone: from London mayor Sadiq Khan and Met Police chief Cressida Dick to successive Home Secretaries and the otherwise clued-up Labour MP David Lammy. It’s super convenient, because it allows them to deflect responsibility away from the real reasons teenagers are killing each other and onto people they say are fuelling the drug trade, in particular “middle-class cocaine snorters”.
Yet it is duplicitous to make this link. The teenagers being killed in London are far removed from the powder cocaine trade. Apart from cannabis, the drugs they are most likely to end up selling, sometimes out of London on “county lines”, are crack cocaine and heroin, mainly to semi-homeless, addicted drug users, not the middle classes. Even if everyone did stop snorting coke, teenagers locked out of mainstream jobs would still be recruited to sell crack, a far more lucrative version of the drug.
Besides, when you look at individual teenage homicide cases, it’s clear that the vast majority are not killing each other over business. It’s about insults, bullying, resentments and arguments. Once these would have ended with a black eye — now they end in the morgue.
In 2018, I interviewed Jason (not his real name), who had been relocated to a secret address by Operation Trident (the Met Police unit set up to tackle gang violence involving black offenders), after he was run clean through with a machete when he was 17. It was a surprise to his family and doctors he survived. “No-one fist-fights anymore,” he told me. “It’s hard not to get involved, most kids your age carry a knife or machete, so you have to.”
There are many examples of petty beefs turning into deadly clashes. At the Old Bailey last month, a jury heard that Kayjon Lubin, 15, was stabbed to death last December in Beckton, east London by two 17-year-olds who believed he had taken their e-scooter. In September, a teenager who was 15 at the time was jailed for stabbing to death another 15-year-old, Baptista Adjei, on a packed bus in Stratford, over a Snapchat argument. Osman Sharif, 16, was hacked to death with a meat cleaver in a Tottenham street because of a row over some laughing emojis. Syed Jamanoor Islam was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old in Mile End in a feud that started with eggs being thrown by the victim’s brother as a joke.
But whatever specific incident sparks the individual killings, the truth is that these teenage deaths mark the end point of a process, a grim assembly line. On the whole, the victims and perpetrators involved, as academic reports into youth violence have always told the government, have similar backstories. These are not just any children, they are children who have usually suffered continuous trauma and have been rejected, shamed and belittled all their lives: at school, sometimes at home, by the police and even, as their neighbourhood becomes gentrified, by the well-off homeowners who fear passing them in the street.
They are known to social services from a very young age. They live in council housing in deprived areas. They have been excluded from school and have ended up at a Pupil Referral Unit. Many have experience of the care system, have been victims of abuse, and have absent fathers. In London, an overwhelming proportion are black, mixed race or from other ethnic minorities. Jason told me: “When I was younger no-one showed me respect. To get respect I turned into a monster. I’ve witnessed a lot of people die. It’s a normal thing. I’ve lived in care, I’ve lived everywhere, and most places I get looked at like something is wrong with me. So black kids have to be tough.”
As Cut Short points out, if the Government was sincere about tackling these deaths, it would be looking into the “trauma, fear and exclusion of young people”, it would drill down into “how unsafe and alone” they feel, and seek to expose the “failures of the state to care for its citizens”. But why bother, when you can solve the problem in one fell swoop by, as one MP stupidly suggested at a House of Commons briefing attended by Thapar, by “blunting the end of knives”.
They might live in claustrophobic neighbourhoods made worse by the intrusive and violent world of Snapchat, but these kids aren’t stupid, and what is happening in the political world is not lost on them. Tony, who runs the local community centre, described by Thapar as a “tiny island amid a sea storm”, says he believes that the nationalism and xenophobia around Brexit, and scandals such as Windrush and Grenfell, make young people in areas such as Brixton “feel like they don’t belong … it sends the message: you are not wanted”.
Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder — when faced with the Government’s abdication of responsibility for them — whether black working-class children who have led highly traumatised lives really are not wanted. I have no idea whether Jason has managed to escape the clutches of gang life. Or whether he is still alive. But what he told me should be beamed onto the walls of Parliament — along with the testimonies from Cut Short: “Most teachers told me I would end up dead or in jail. I got told I was worthless. It breaks your spirit. A lot of black kids get their spirit broken. Schools give up way too early, they kick you out from an early age. No school I’ve ever been to has helped me … Youth clubs are good. Even two hours talking to people, it’s support. But they shut down youth clubs and instead they spend all the money on a week-long knife crime clampdown.”
Cut Short ends with an appeal to the Government to treat youth knife crime violence as a public health emergency — just like Covid-19. It also calls for society to help out. “Start with something small. Walk into your local community centre, youth club…drop your defences. See what happens.” Given the subject matter, the book is surprisingly hopeful. By the end, with the help of various mentors including Thapar, the three teenagers are able to jump off the conveyor belt and create new chances for themselves — getting into university or making music. People have actually spent time with them; they have given them the confidence to step away from such a dangerous life.
Every time we hear about another child being stabbed to death, it should stop us in our tracks. We should hear the sound of a tolling bell each time. It should serve as a reminder that this death, this family’s grief, and this teenager sentenced to life behind bars, are all symptoms of a society that simply does not care enough. We might comfort ourselves by thinking that these children, who lie bleeding to death on the streets they grew up on, are different, that they are not like us. But they are our collective responsibility. Until we accept that this violent epidemic is a reflection of something toxic at Britain’s heart, it will only get worse.