I got surrounded by a group of young men a few weeks ago. One pulled a knife on me, as three of the others were reaching into the back for their trousers. I have no doubt that the knife I saw was not the only one in the small 2m circle on a stair well in a tower block in East London they had surrounded me in.
I didn’t mention it on social media because I did not want a well intentioned wave of “glad you’re ok’s”. I’m OK. I got out of there unhurt. Those kids who surrounded me. They are not OK. They are hurt. They are hurting the hell out our city and it seems no one is engaging.
I didn’t want to add to the oh-poor-me narrative that distracts from the heart of the matter. But as I passed another police cordon today and found myself involuntarily exclaiming “No. Enough.” out loud, and as the press and police turn all their energies to the racial profiling which is stop and search, I felt the need to write a brief word. And it should be brief, because I, along with everyone else should be listening more than we are talking.
The problem of knife and gun crime on the streets of our cities are inextricably linked to poverty. Look at the map. Look at where these kids come from. Don’t pretend that underfunding youth services and lack of opportunities are not fuelling this stuff. We have sold out our young people in this country to a life of debt for stuff that previous generations spent and we’re telling them they’ve jut got to graft harder and buckle down. If you try to push people too hard, some are going to start to push back. Anger is volatile. It is explosive. It goes in all directions and inevitably some of those directions are going to be our own communities.
I have heard lots of people over the past few days saying they do not understand how the kids can be killing their own. Not “the enemy” but their own. And the answer is right there: we don’t understand: so why don’t we go and start asking the right questions and listening to the answers? Where are the politicians saying they are going to sit down with community members and listen to what people need them to hear? Where are the spaces for people to gather? Where is the funding for people to set up their own initiatives to ask questions and listen to each other? Because the problems come from the streets and I promise you the answers lie there too. This is never going to be curbed by someone storming in with condemnation and more police powers. The solutions lie in voices we are not giving air to.
I was speaking to a friend yesterday, the mother of a teenage boy in Hackney, she said the kids who surrounded me were probably school friends of her son’s. She has taught him the streets are tough, and the only way to hope to survive is you find the trouble makers, you get to know their names, you greet them, you shake hands with them, and then you move on. Never engage too much and make sure they all know your name and that you always treat them with respect.
That’s what we have forgotten: how to treat young men from disadvantaged backgrounds in this country with any decent level of respect. And we are seeing the results.
Many of us have heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child”, I remember someone during the Tottenham Riots telling me the second half of that phrase, which is not so popular is “If the children do not feel the warmth of the village they will come back and burn it to the ground to feel some heat”.
It is a longer story of how I got out of the stairwell, but the important bit you should know is that as one of them stepped aside to let me free, I looked him in the eye and made sure I said thank you.
I went back to the estate a few days later to make sure it was not an area I would be frightened of going to again, and saw the same kid and held my hand out. He introduced himself as John.