The recent media headlines about gun and knife violence in London brought into sharp focus an issue that, over the past decade, has disproportionately impacted upon Britain’s poorer urban communities. Unsurprisingly, much of the near hysterical responses – via opinion pieces, editorial comment and talking head interviews featuring former senior police officers, politicians and community experts – have focussed upon illicit drugs, gangs, UK drill music, and social media. At the centre of this national debate has been the concern about falling police numbers because of fiscal austerity.
But urban youth violence is a global problem that goes beyond policing and is best understood when viewed from a political economic/youth development perspective. Many young people around the world, as well as in Britain, are doing well and growing up in supportive and cohesive communities. Equally, there are large numbers of young adults who are increasingly becoming impoverished and cut adrift – socially, economically and culturally – from the mainstream of society.
Throughout the world marginalised youth are daily having to contend with a multitude of social ills and risks: crime, violence, substance misuse, fragile families, homelessness, and limited access to education and welfare services. However, it is not only poorer nations in the global south that are experiencing increasing levels of poverty and inequality. There is also a growing problem in richer countries like the UK where the longstanding effects of de-industrialisation and shrinking of the welfare state has been further exacerbated by austerity.
Since 2010, the UK has witnessed £18bn worth of public spending cuts which have particularly impacted upon youth services, social care, early intervention and housing services. During this period the focus of youth social policy shifted away from welfare and support and further toward surveillance and punishment. The most ambitious – albeit inherently problematic and misguided – social initiative targeting young adults was the £10m four-year ‘ending gang and youth violence’ programme launched in 2011. But by 2013 the Coalition government had cut housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, tripled university tuition fees and abolished grants for poorer students, disbanded the Connexions service, axed EMAs and decimated youth service provision.
In 1995 Strathclyde police established the ‘violence reduction unit’ to target all forms of violent behaviour, particularly knife crime among young males. The violence reduction unit adopted a multi-agency public health approach alongside tough law enforcement to contain and manage weapon carrying and violent offending.
I too share the belief that serious violence is a public health issue, as does the World Health Organisation. However, tackling it requires real political will and an acknowledgement that inequality and injustice lay at the heart of this problem (and many of other social ills). The neo-liberal agenda, where the surplus poor are inordinately punished by the state and/or pushed to the extreme margins of society, must be reversed. Rather than more policing and criminal justice interventions, there is pressing need for a progressive legislative plan and increased funding for the country’s beleaguered public services. This renewed vision will lead to the reimagining and creation of universalist and integrated service provision, tasked with improving the life experiences, opportunities and choices of all young people.
Lastly, we should not just focus on violence when it is viewed as a problem affecting disenfranchised BAME communities. Most violent crime, including sexual violence and domestic violence, is perpetrated by men of all social backgrounds and is a national and indeed global problem. What about international political violence carried out by western governments? When powerful white men like Tony Blair and George W Bush – the exception being Vladimir Putin – engage in lethal violence rather than diplomacy and negotiation to resolve international conflicts, it is viewed as ‘justified’ and ‘right’. However, the same politicians and media professionals who support bombing raids on Syria are quick to denounce young black males when they use a gun or a knife to resolve their ‘beefs’.