The dilemma of knife crime in Croydon

By - Tuesday 19th September, 2017

Why does this happen in our town, and what can be done to prevent it?

Photo public domain.

The Croydon campaign group, Lives Not Knives, states on its website that one in twenty knife crimes in London occurs in Croydon. Sarah Jones, the new MP for Croydon Central, is to be congratulated for her initiative in establishing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on knife crime. Steve Reed, her colleague in Croydon North is a member. The catalyst for this initiative was the recent murder of fifteen year old Jermaine Goupall.

But the serious question that has to be asked is: why is there such a high incidence of knife crime in the borough?

Are there things about the experience of Croydon which are unique to it, even though some of the components exist elsewhere? There is certainly an underbelly in Croydon of a whole range of anti-social and illegal activities by residents, developers and businesses, some of which get publicity when the council is able to take action, such as fly-tipping, health and hygiene infringements, illegal smoking in premises and breaches of planning.

Is it a continuing consequence of not having seriously dealt with the underlining causes of the elephant in the room, the 2011 riots? Is it linked to the growth in social inequality especially in the north of the borough in recent years, or to the neglect of neighbourhoods in favour of the demands of the property developers in the town centre?

Moral panics over youth violence have happened before

Is the behaviour of some young people influenced by the complex interaction of the problems of living in these neglected neighbourhoods, including the physical look and feel of these places due to vandalism, graffiti, litter and fly-tipping, environmental decay, and fear of personal attack?

Understandably the murder of Jermaine Goupall shocked the local community. While young murderers are not typical of the great majority of young people, their actions and their trials raise questions about society’s attitudes and provision for young people, especially those who experience difficulties. 

Moral panics over episodes of youth violence have a long history. There were the seaside battles of the 1950s between the mods and the rockers. In the second half of the 1980s there were attacks on Vietnamese refugee teenagers. Occasionally there have been attacks by pupils from one school against pupils from another. Among older groups of young people, there was the country-wide drink-fuelled violence at weekends in town centres.

Do circumstances push some young people into violence?

For some, a complex interplay of factors seems to underline the current wave of violence and knife murder, including a lack of money, the need for excitement and a culture of hyper masculinity. Do circumstances push some young people into gangs and violence as suggested by the Kenny Report?

Other influences may be a sense of notoriety gained amongst peers or the baiting by other gangs particularly on social media and through the lyrics of certain genres of music put out on YouTube and so on. How can the excitement of drugs, guns, knives and reputation, and the coupling of this with music videos designed to get views be replaced?

Youth work is supposed to be about building self-esteem and confidence, developing relationships and skills, and life-long learning. It is about helping young people to cope more effectively with the transition through adolescence to adulthood and to understand and act on the personal, social and political issues which affect their lives, the lives of others and the communities of which they form a part. In the 2000s, while there was an increasing understanding that youth services needed to more responsive to what young people and their parents wanted, resources were drastically cut back, and the role of youth work increasingly came to be seen as crime diversion, crime prevention and community safety. But how are disaffected young people to be reached?

Key factors which emerged from seeking to understand knife crime in Lambeth in the 1980s and later was that there was a strong link between street robbery and truanting from school. There was also the contribution family tensions made to truanting behaviour.

Some young people have a public life for their parents and an entirely different private life

The parent support work of the Brixton Against Robbery project in the 1990s found that it was the first time that many parents had been able to share their anxieties about their seemingly uncontrollable children, and been helped to come to a better working relationship with them. Those involved were not uncaring, irresponsible parents – they were quite the reverse. Later experience in Vauxhall suggested that many young people have a public life for their parents and a private life their parents know nothing about, sometimes including gang membership.

Carrying knives does not always mean membership of gangs. Over the years it has been clear that many young people carry knives as they fear being attacked and want to defend themselves. Community and individual initiatives are welcome if they can reach those who might get caught up in the knife carrying and gang cultures. They may be able to engage with young people in a way that the police, schools and other agencies cannot.

Simplistic, knee-jerk reactions make matters worse

The Croydon-based Lives Not Knives campaign was set up by Eliza Rebeiro in 2007 when she was still a teenager. Others are seeking to develop special projects like the ‘community peace cup’ football tournament set up by Raymond Robb, of Ray’s Barbers in Whitehorse Lane. It will bring together staff and customers from six barbershops in and around Croydon.

Turning the tide on youth violence and the use of knives is a highly complex process with no easy answers. Simplistic and knee-jerk reactions could make it worse. Exploring this dilemma needs to be a key element of the work of Sarah Jones’s All-Party Group.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Croydon OldTown News

    Why mention Lives not knives ????? I don’t know what they done really to stem the bloodbath which is knife attacks in Croydon ???? If a charity own base is the location for multiple knive crimes then surely it’s not working but instead only focusing on making sure those involved in this “charity” are wining bogus awards and furthering they own careers !!!!

    • Sean Creighton

      If LnK has not had as must positive influence as you would have hoped for that may illustrate the dilemma involved in trying to deal with the issue and change attitudes which was the purpose of my piece. Have you contacted LnK to ask them what they think and are currently doing? It is very easy to critical of voluntary groups when they can only alleviate complex problems full of dilemmas in a small way. Of course it would be nice if they could do more but that requires them to have more support.