Nestled in between Peckham and Brixton, the South London district of Camberwell was a prime recipient of the wave of knife crime that swept the capital in 2018. 2019 was supposed to be different. A fresh beginning, a year of opportunities to replace a year of deprivation. But, just 4 hours into New Year’s Day, that dream was shattered. A young mother, Charlotte Huggins, became London’s first casualty of the calendar as she was fatally stabbed in her Camberwell home – with the second murder coming 2 hours after. A wave of fear has gripped the borough – and London as a whole. Strained police budgets and an absence of economic opportunities have strengthened the power of the ganglands, yet London’s knife crime trauma runs deeper than just the terror of the gang elders. And with a scarcity of solutions, escalation seems the only outcome.
22 days. Over the entirety of 2018, Earth’s 4th wealthiest city could manage a maximum of 22 days without a fatal or serious injury due to knife crime. A battle is raging between law enforcement and the criminal underworld; and with metal detector arches being introduced to Notting Hill Carnival for the first time in its history, victory is swaying in favour of the latter. 450 offences were gang-related; yet whilst these organised criminal rings often shoulder the criticism for London’s bloodshed, they account for only 25% of total knife crime offences. The problem must run deeper.
Camberwell itself epitomises the struggle of London’s poor; as the capital races ahead in finance and technology, with rocketing salaries for skilled graduates elevating central London to the upper echelons of global wealth, the remainder of the capital has been left devoid of opportunity. In Croydon, a nearby South London district, the Deputy Mayor of Policing and Crime Sophie Linden analysed 60 cases of murder and serious injury over the past year. Not one of them had been in mainstream education. The rungs of the social ladder have broken; isolated from the economic opportunities that lie in London’s hotbed of prosperity, hope is fading away. Without education, the possibility of climbing the income ladder is negligible. And when the outlook for the future is dominated by a cash-strapped household struggling to make ends meet, the allure of quick cash through illicit activities becomes ever more enticing. People are not choosing the illegal economy – they are being forced into it by the lack of opportunities surrounding them.
And the gangs have been quick to pounce on such opportunities. During a Brixton debate on youth violence, it emerged that gang members were waiting in chicken shops, offering free chicken to lure young individuals into the criminal underworld. For children with strong educational and earnings prospects the need for criminality to achieve their desired lifestyle is minimal; yet in a world devoid of hope and opportunity, the allure is difficult to refuse.
And mirroring this lack of hope is the hopelessness of government’s response, epitomised by Unity FC. Brandon Estate’s youth football club has been a beacon of ambition for budding footballers, providing a productive use of their time to work towards a future goal. But they still have to train at the park because of the council charge £60 an hour for astroturf pitches. The closure of 80 London youth clubs since 2010 epitomises the inherent failure of the cash-strapped council to nurture opportunities for the people. To solve this problem, money will be needed – and with a scarcity of private actors working for the common good, the Treasury will have to open its purse.
And the struggle of councils to contain the violence has been intensified by their declining presence. Camberwell now has just 2 policemen on day-to-day patrols and as a result, a power vacuum has emerged that the gangs are all too eager to fill. Home Officer Adviser Elena Noel cites the “wall of silence” as one of the greatest challenges law enforcement now faces – as the gangs strengthen their stranglehold on local communities, any cooperation with the police is a risk deemed too great to take. This has choked the ability of the police, with murder crime solving rates dropping from 90% to just over 50%. The gangs are winning. The absence of the top tier of the local hierarchy has cultivated a ‘kill or be killed’ attitude, with ever increasing numbers of youths carrying knives for protection. Greater police presence is essential to maintain the feeling of safety and prevent the gangs from growing ever more powerful in the community hierarchy.
Sadly, politics does not rule in favour of the poor. Jeremy Hunt’s desire for a post-Brexit economy modelled on low-tax Singapore symbolises the attitude of government; improve the national economy with disregard for the people, prioritising GDP figures over livelihoods. Serious investment in both education and extra-curricular activities is essential for providing hope; the key ingredient that can keep children from the prying reach of the gang elders, and lead them higher up the social ladder.
Social immobility is strong, but not immovable. And tackling crime with stop-searches only adds to the magnitude of the problem. Take a child and input family instability, fear, low educational quality and low future earning potential – is it any wonder they will lead a life of criminality? The friendship, brotherhood and cash benefits far outweigh any other opportunities on their horizon; this life may not be a choice, but an inescapable fate.
Knife crime is on the rise, but it is merely a statistic that represents the deeper problem at the heart of the capital. The towering skyscrapers and towering high-rise council blocks symbolise two different worlds inside London, a structural problem that has left the poor in a state of emergency. Whilst increasing police presence will stem the fear that grips the city, tackling the root of the problem – opportunities – is the only long-term solution. If not, expect 2019 to be a bloodier year than ever before.