Chuka Umunna MP’s speech delivered at an event hosted by Demos in Brixton on Tuesday 21st August 2018
This evening I want to talk about why our young people are killing each other; why politics is failing to properly respond to this; why this is an issue for all of society not just one part of it; and, why the key to reducing this violence is to empower our young people in a society that too often robs them of agency.
My main argument: the Golden Rule – that you do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself – is a two way street. We provide young people with an environment in which they can thrive; they abide by the norms, rules and values of society of which they are a part. This mutual obligation between society and young people has been broken. There can be no excuse for the violence but we won’t end it unless we renew this social contract.
Exactly 11 years ago – back in August 2007 – before I became an MP, I wrote in The Guardian that it had been a grim year for urban youth.
At the time I was a trustee of the 409 Project on Stockwell Park Road, literally round the corner from here – a charity that worked to prevent young people from getting involved in serious violence.
By August of that year 17 teenagers had been shot or stabbed to death in London.
It was grim, but here we are today, eleven years later, and already this year more than 20 teenagers have been murdered in London alone.
Following a fall in the number of fatalities and violent incidents between 2009 and 2014, the numbers yet again have been on the increase, with almost daily news stories about the murder of mainly young boys and men; parents grieving their dead sons; frightened communities demanding action; and our media producing one lurid investigation after the other about the growing threat of youth violence.
A lot has changed over the last decade but it shames our society that the bloodshed continues and we now need to take a fresh look at this problem because we have failed to stop the tragedy. So I welcome the national debate we’ve been having these last few months.
The Government has published its Serious Violence Strategy and established its Serious Violence Taskforce to oversee its implementation. It is chaired by the Home Secretary and I was appointed to sit on it, alongside the Mayor of London and others.
The cross party Youth Violence Commission, which I am also a member of and which is brilliantly led by my colleague Vicky Foxcroft, the MP for Lewisham Deptford, has published its interim report.
And the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, under the stewardship of Croydon Central MP, Sarah Jones, has been making an important contribution too.
What’s the problem?
So what is the problem?
To illustrate what is going on I’ll begin with an account of one incident which happened a few weeks ago not far from here.
On 25 July, two boys on a moped pulled up next to a parked car in Denmark Road very near to our local hospital, Kings College – its five minutes by car from here.
The moped passenger slid sideways off the seat and fell onto the road.
The driver shouted to those nearby “Help him! Help him! He’s been stabbed.”
Two men in the parked car jumped out to help and the moped driver just sped off.
The boy lay in the road, bleeding.
He died a few hours later.
His name was Laatwan Griffiths and he was 18 years old.
He also went by the name of Splash Addict or SA Harlem, and was part of the Harlem Spartans drill (rap) group based in and around the Kennington Park Estate.
A week later on 1 August, Sidique Kamara – also known as Incognito and a member of Moscow 17 – who was 23 was stabbed to death yards from his home on the Brandon Estate in Camberwell. That estate is Moscow 17’s base.
Laatwan and Sidique were reportedly good friends; Moscow 17 and Harlem Spartans are allies.
Back in May on the same estate, another member of Moscow 17, 17 year-old Rhyhiem Barton, had been shot and died outside his home.
A year earlier Sidique and another member of Moscow 17 had been cleared of the murder of teenager Abdirahman Mohamed who had belonged to rival drill group, Zone 2.
Zone 2 are at war with Harlem Spartans and Moscow 17.
Last Thursday, there was another incident involving up to 20 young boys fighting with knives, again not far from here.
Several were stabbed, including a constituent of mine.
Word is that this fighting was a result of the continuing tension between the groups.
This is a just snap shot of what is going on.
I have listened to the music of these groups.
You can watch their videos on YouTube.
I was almost moved to tears by the aggression, the talk of violence, the waste of lives, the senselessness of all of it.
The failure of politics to respond
This violence is a scar on our nation and yet British politics today is incapable of adequately responding to it.
The job of politicians, particularly those in Government, is to explain what this bloodshed on our streets says about modern Britain; to provide the leadership and vision necessary to galvanise central and local government agencies, and other stakeholders to act; and to put in place policies which will effectively end the violence.
We must make ending this violence a national mission. Westminster has failed to do so.
And lets be absolutely clear: this is not simply an issue of black boys killing other black boys in socially deprived neighbourhoods.
It must not be put into a box as if it only affects one part of society.
You see…we live cheek by jowl in this city – you cannot gate off your family from what is happening in the rest of the community.
Anyone with a teenage son worries when he is out – parents across London know this.
And what happens in one part of the community – indeed one part of the country – impacts on others.
The demand for illegal drugs from well off middle class people is a major driver of this violence.
Young people and children from this borough are being used to traffic drugs to other parts of Britain.
We are all interconnected – no-one is an island.
That is why ending youth violence must be a national priority for all of us.
This is the story our country’s leaders should be telling.
The populism of left and right both here and in Europe has reduced politics to simple, black and white, tweetable answers to every problem.
One side thinks the answer is to throw money at the problem and pull the levers of state.
The other argues for ever tougher sanctions.
Nothing illustrates the futility of these responses more than the issue of serious youth violence which is a complex and a very modern phenomenon.
Instead of relying on old solutions that don’t work, we need a paradigm shift in our understanding of serious youth violence and in the action we take to stop it.
That starts with understanding what is happening and why.
Popular explanations for the violence
Let me now give you three of the most common popular explanations.
The first is ‘knife crime’.
But ‘knife crime’ doesn’t explain serious youth violence.
It doesn’t make sense of the lives of these young people nor the causes that lead to the stabbings.
It does not explain why young people do not feel safe on the street.
Nor why many carry knives because they do not believe the police can protect them.
The second explanation – inferred or made explicit – is ‘black culture’.
I’m not sure quite what they mean but basically the problem we are told is the behaviour of young black men.
Those who put forward this explanation point to the disproportionate number of victims and perpetrators who are black, rather than white or Asian.
Even in Liverpool where victims are predominantly white, victims of minority ethnic groups have been overrepresented.
This interpretation is wrong.
Street violence is associated with the most economically deprived areas.
Their populations are disproportionately black and minority ethnic.
So of course one would expect young black people to be overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators.
Yes, there is a culture of ‘badness’ and ‘Road life’ that attracts black boys who feel excluded from society – but not exclusively so.
Some blame the families.
Some the attitudes of the youth.
Parts of our media play up racial stereotypes of black men and the myth of black criminality.
They point to global gangster culture that influences boys masculinity and attitudes to women.
They are now saying Drill music is the cause of knife crime.
Its aggressive visual style and taunting of rival groups certainly influences and exacerbates the violence.
But it is not the root cause of it.
The violence was around long before Drill came about.
The third explanation is that the problem is ‘gangs’, which has come to imply drug-dealing ‘black gangs’.
Back in 2011 David Cameron’s Coalition Government came up with an official definition of ‘a gang’ as a “relatively durable group for whom crime and violence is intrinsic to its identity and practice.”
This model continues to underpin official policy on serious youth violence.
It defines a single model of a street gang which distinguishes it from boys’ peer groups and from adult organised crime groups.
Politicians know what to talk about.
The Criminal Justice System, charities and state agencies can agree the target of their policy interventions.
This approach is leading to policy failure.
Critics argue that a narrow focus on gangs can be used to impose a model of behaviour onto young people’s relationships with friends, family and community.
There is a lot of worry that it reinforces the myth of black criminality.
Groups of black boys just hanging out become ‘gangs’ to be harassed, and the wrong individuals get criminalised.
Pigeonholing our young people in this way is counter-productive.
In any event, the way young people congregate and communicate has radically changed this last decade.
So after a decade of violence we do not have an agreed view of the problem, but there is a common thread running through most of the explanations given.
Serious youth violence has largely been concentrated in poor urban neighbourhoods affecting young people trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder.
For the last decade Government has been pulling the ladder up and abandoning them.
So society has been creating the conditions for this violence and we have been turning our backs on it.
Too many of our young people feel disrespected and disenfranchised by society.
Reciprocity is at the heart of my politics – the idea that the practice of give and take ensures a fair balance between different interests in society.
You receive the support and care of the community and in return, you contribute your share and abide by the accepted rules and norms.
Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.
I believe that this mutual obligation between society and the young people we are talking about has broken down.
They are leading parallel lives with their own values system.
I’m not excusing the extreme violence – there is never an excuse for it – but it goes to the heart of the problem.
Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime is not wrong; it is just that in 2018 it is not the right starting point for this conversation.
It is not the right way to frame this discussion.
The dispossession of young people
Young men and boys involved in knife crime are not innocent victims.
They must be responsible for their actions.
But there are larger forces at work that can make it harder to do the right thing.
London is a global city.
All around us is wealth, glamour and exciting culture.
People from around the world want to come and live here.
But our city can be a very cruel and dark place.
Over the last forty years inner London has been transformed by the commercial property market and gentrification.
Tory austerity and welfare reforms have dismantled public services and infrastructure.
We have let global market forces rip through our society, scattering people here and there, concentrating wealth and income, dispossessing those on low incomes.
People have been forced out by property prices or confined to social housing estates and neighbourhoods.
On one side of the street are two million pound houses, on the other side is a precarious community with huge social challenges.
Rich and poor live side by side, but light years apart.
People overwhelmed by poverty, or mental illness, addiction or family break up are concentrated in certain neighbourhoods and estates.
Some struggle daily to feed themselves.
Fathers without work or working in poverty can barely support their families.
Some mothers working two even three jobs as well as caring for their children.
Families under immense pressure and unable to provide their children with love and care.
In my view, family life – in all its forms – and emotional relationships are the building blocks of community and society.
Yet, these are hard places to bring up families and they are hard places to grow up.
I meet mothers and fathers who are towers of strength.
Their children full of ambition and promise.
But boys and girls need family support and guidance to make their way into adulthood.
And those who don’t have it are left to find their own path.
It is much harder to find a secure, good quality, job as a young person today.
Benefits, allowances and support have been withdrawn.
With no secure job, inappropriate education and no benefits, taking a wrong turn in life can feel like the best option available.
However, this on its own is not an adequate explanation.
We need to understand the ways in which boys get caught up in a culture of violence.
It doesn’t matter what their colour is, the dynamics tend to be the same.
Their friendships create a sense of family.
But it’s a family without parental authority and so without an arbiter of justice.
Each boy has to prove his worth and that’s not a problem when it’s about being good at football or looking cool.
But it’s much more serious if its disenfranchised boys without money or hope in the future, who lack self-esteem and feel disrespected.
In areas where legal authority is weak, a reputation for violence is seen as the only effective deterrent against attack.
Each boy must prove his own worth and protect his name in a culture of honour.
Respect has to be earned and it has to be seen to be earned.
Locally powerful criminals can offer boys an alternative path to respect and manhood.
And the illegal trade in drugs can provide the status symbols of money and women.
The promise of respect and money radiates out.
Boys who are desperate, boys who are looking to prove themselves or are bored by life, where they live, are drawn toward it.
The culture of honour and respect and the violence that goes with it permeates the whole youth culture, and with it comes the fear of shame.
Walking away from being disrespected means the shame of losing face and the fear of shame is a big cause of the violence.
Stopping the killing means preventing young men getting involved in this culture and helping them exit it, by having real opportunities to make connections to the wider world.
It requires two things.
Helping them make new relationships in which dignity depends on an inherent sense of self-worth, not status symbols and the opinion of others.
And helping them use their talent to find legitimate means of making money.
That’s how you empower them and society meets its side of the bargain.
Far too many of our approaches to tackling youth violence have been top down measures that work from the outside in.
Politicians and civil servants don’t want to take any risks and lose control.
So we repeat the same financial waste and failed interventions, imposing so called solutions that are not going to work but tick the ministerial and bureaucratic boxes.
Let’s have a paradigm shift and start from the inside and work outward.
The solution will be community building that is community led.
It will be state supported.
A multi-agency, national programme to transform the left out areas of our cities.
It will require national leadership from the centre which should set a framework.
In the Youth Violence Commission’s interim report we endorse the public health model, based on the World Health Organisation’s principles of treating violence like a disease, which has been used very successfully in Scotland. You cannot deliver that model without whole system, cultural and organisational change with sustained political backing.
Every relevant organisation and service will need to collaborate in a concerted effort to break down the structural and institutional exclusions that push young people into criminal behaviour and into the violence of honour culture.
And it does mean a heavy penalty for those who choose to continue on the path of violence.
There should be four strategic priorities to empower our young people to take the right course.
- Building community capacity
Young people caught up in road life and a culture of honour need relationships of trust and esteem.
They need real opportunities to make connections to the wider world.
It requires the full cooperation and approval of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and older trusted men.
This work has been ongoing.
Community projects and small charities have sprung up, turning youth at risk away from violence, helping them find a path into a better life.
But they are ad hoc, there is little coordination and they spend their time scrabbling around for bits of money.
We often don’t know how effective they are.
There is a need to professionalise their operations and provide a more strategic approach to their funding – this is not something that should be left to volunteers.
This is the frontline and we need to invest in it, to demand effective outcomes from it, and listen to those involved.
- Investment in community resilience
We must tackle the big structural problems with policies to boost the everyday economy of our poorest neighbourhoods.
We need to improve wages and skills in the low productivity sectors of the economy;
give more protection to workers in the gig economy;
rebuild pathways into work with support for young entrepreneurs, apprenticeships, and a national system of high quality vocational education.
We need investment in our public services.
Mental illness is a major problem amongst young men.
Let’s start at the beginning for the long term by providing pre-natal and post-natal mental health care;
supporting new mothers to bond with their babies and ongoing support for vulnerable small children;
improving mental health support in schools, making educational needs assessments more effective;
innovating alternative approaches to tackling disruption;
and providing more work placements so that we can reduce school exclusions.
And let’s expand the National Citizenship Service to broaden the horizons of young people.
And make sure there is more funding for youth centres and outreach workers.
- Increasing access to opportunities
If teenagers don’t listen to adults, they hear their cultural heroes.
Drill music came out of South Chicago and has been re-made in South London.
It’s bleak and nihilistic.
The young people producing it say it provides a commentary on real lives, on the street, however uncomfortable we may find this.
Be in no doubt: these are commercial operations that make money.
The intelligence I receive from the police locally and nationally supports claims that the content they produce can trigger and incite further violence.
Reciprocity means the drill groups who are now looked up to by young people have to end their tit for tat violence or lose the opportunity to make money. Its as simple as that. We should require social media companies to adopt a zero tolerance approach where their content incites violence.
But I do not believe banning this music outright is practicable nor will it stop the violence. There needs to be a dialogue with these groups on how they can set a better example – carrot and stick.
Above, I would like to see us provide other pathways and opportunities for young people to use their creative talents and to pursue positive enterprise.
Many business people complain about the difficulties involved in getting finance to start a new business – you try doing so as a young person living on one of my estates. Impossible.
- Reform the criminal justice system
Of course, we need more neighbourhood police.
It is ridiculous to suggest having more police officers – who the Home Secretary will need to enforce his new Offensive Weapons Bill – will not help to reduce youth violence.
But, this is not simply a police matter.
The police can’t solve this alone.
Law enforcement is necessary but it is not enough.
We need to overcome distrust of the police with more visits to primary schools, an emphasis on community safety and an increase in community policing with regular beat coppers.
Stop and search can create serious tensions between young black people and the police.
But there are times when it is necessary – it can and should be done without humiliating and degrading young people in the way we have seen.
I’m pleased that Police body worn cameras, which I campaigned for in this borough, are already making a big, positive difference to these interactions.
And our Criminal Justice System is failing.
It is failing to stop young men re-offending and it is failing to give them a second chance.
The recent report on the ‘Through the Gate Resettlement Services for Prisoners’ is a damning indictment of the chronic failure of the Community Rehabilitation Companies and the prison service.
They are simply not fit for purpose.
In short, these priorities, will help give our young people the capabilities they need to get on in life, and to take advantage of the opportunities our global city has to offer..
I want to end with this reflection. Most of what I have put forward this evening in relation to serious youth violence can be found the Riots Communities and Victims Panel report into the August 2011 riots. That was a different series of events, involving a wider demographic of people and yet so many of the causes and the solutions identified there were the same. Had there been the political will to properly act on the lessons learned from the August 2011 riots and to properly implement all of the Panel’s recommendations, instead of leaving that report on a shelf to gather dust, it is my we would not be seeing the amount of bloodshed on our streets today. It is a damning indictment of British politics.
Ultimately, though, this is our problem. These are our young people and we know them better than anyone else. They are talented, dynamic, energetic and full of ambition. Just look at the 4000 young people who rode on BMXs from London Bridge to Oxford Street as part of the #BikesUpKnivesDown campaign against this violence earlier this year. It is our job to bring out the best in them, so lets get on and do it.