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Young Black London 6
Photography via Adobe Stock

This is what it feels like to be young, criminalised, and black in London

A wave of stabbings has led to calls for more police, yet we’re still overlooking how toxic the relationship between The Met and young Londoners has become

Nobody knows how brutal London can be more than young black boys growing up amid a stark rise in violence on the streets. They grow up under the claustrophobic glare of the police, and a media industrial complex that casts them as villains. They’re always being watched – and yet, they’re never listened to, despite the fact that they’re more likely to be the target of violence.

Over the last three years, the city has seen a sinister upward trend in violence, and this week we’re seeing more moral panic over a recent spate of teen stabbings across the country. Dazed has uncovered data from the Metropolitan Police which shows that violent incidents have jumped from over 27,000 to 30,000 between 2016 and 2017. Last year, out of the 135 people murdered in London, 76 were stabbed, and 15 were shot. Our Freedom of Information request also showed that almost 46,000 people under 30 had legal action pursued against them for violent crime during the same time period. Based on these troubling trends, tabloids like The Sun splash panic across their front pages, declaring: “WE’RE ON A KNIFE EDGE”. No matter how you look at it, this is an enormous loss of life, both through the mounting body count and the debilitating impact of getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

In times of panic, the solutions offered become more extreme. That’s why we’re seeing stories where officials are saying the military are “ready to respond” to this social issue, rather than any more reasoned, long-term plans, like improving resources and communication with schools and youth centres. Recently, the public learned that the Metropolitan Police have set up a ‘gang matrix’ database, with the aim to predict which young boys will commit serious crimes. That doesn’t mean that the boys whose information is in the database have actually done anything wrong – over a third of them have never committed a serious offence – but they’re already being monitored as if they have.

The gang matrix started in 2011 after the shooting of Mark Duggan sparked riots on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester for five chaotic days. Some have reportedly earned their place on the matrix for watching and sharing grime music videos; others, by being victims of attacks. Unfortunately, it’s not shocking to learn that even though only 27 per cent of perpetrators for youth violence are black, they account for three-quarters of this shadowy matrix. Amnesty International has called the database “racially discriminatory”.

“The idea that this issue is the preserve of black communities is not borne out of police data” – Patrick Williams, senior lecturer at MMU

The caricature of the ‘bad black boy’ is pervasive. Whenever there’s a news segment about attacks, especially when knife-related, the panel speaks of the issue as if it is a uniquely black one. Just look at the recent Victoria Derbyshire interview with AJ Tracey that aired on February 12. The west London rapper appeared on the show to promote his music, but ended up being cross-examined. “It’s almost like a bit of a shout-out to gangs in London. There does seem to be a lot of, you know, guys hanging out,” the presenter said. “All my videos just have my friends in it,” AJ replied, in a fatigued tone of voice. His lethargy was reflective of how tired the discourse has become. Throughout 2018, rappers like AM and Skengdo from the drill scene were blamed for spreading a murderous agenda, and prosecuted for simply playing their music. By February 15, the Metropolitan police had YouTube remove over 100 music videos. It’s a reach to suggest that when more than a few black men gather together they become a gang, but it’s one that extends as far as the long arm of the law.

“The idea that this issue is the preserve of black communities is not borne out of police data,” Patrick Williams tells Dazed. He’s a senior lecturer looking into the criminal justice system at Manchester Metropolitan, who helped compile a report for Stop Watch, a team working towards accountable policing. He’s opposed to the gang matrix. “There's a similar proportion, if not a higher proportion of street violence perpetrated by white people nationwide – that's the police data.” Remember, London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s true that in the capital two-thirds of offenders are people of colour, and victims are also disproportionately black. But, just over half the population of this large city is white, compared to 86 per cent of the UK in total. Proving that people are not racially predisposed to stab others, on the whole, most of the people who die as a result of a knife injury in Britain are not black. Figures for the whole of the UK show that two-thirds of knife crime is actually committed by white people overall. In fact, one of the highest murder rates per capita in the UK is not inner city London, but the tiny, extremely white (almost 99 per cent) population of the Scottish district of Renfrewshire and Inverclyde.

However, year on year, the conversation around the national explosion in brutal crimes is used to justify a rise in the stop and searches of black men and boys in the capital. You’re now eight times more likely to be on the end of this invasive measure if you’re black. Williams’ research at MMU delves into what it feels like once the police decide you are likely to join a gang. “Some individuals I spoke to reported 200 to 300 times that they’d been stopped and searched. Young people who were ‘matrixed’ were also more likely to have what we defined as a hostile environment created around them,” he explains. This includes being excluded from school, or even their parents being threatened with eviction.

Despite the damning reports from academics and human rights charities, it’s still really difficult to find much media attention given to the everyday impact of being trapped under the eagle-eyed glare of the police when you’re young, black, and haven’t even committed a crime. Youth workers I contacted were reluctant to let their mentees speak to the press – and who can blame them, when these young people are already under surveillance for no reason? Some young men I questioned online laughed at the idea that a journalist wouldn’t paint them as a criminal – and, they reasoned, even if I didn’t, sharing stories of police harassment would only make them more of a target. Despite this culture of silence, eventually 18-year-old Joshua* agreed to share his experiences. For such a young man, he has a worryingly jaded disposition, but as he tells his story, it’s clear why.

“Everything you do makes you look suspicious,” he says. Since his early teens, Joshua says he has been searched countless times in the streets by police. They frequently knock on the door of his family home to talk to his mother. When on his way home from work, or when he is hanging out with friends, he tells me he has been subjected to degrading stops and questioning. And lately, it’s been getting worse. Joshua says that there’s been a definite increase of police car patrols in his area targeting him and his friends over the last year. “There’s a police officer that knows me, he always harasses me,” Joshua says. “He knows exactly where I live. One day, he sees me in my sliders on my bike with a shopping bag, half awake. He opens the door of the van and just missed me, he almost hit me off my bike. The worst thing was he had a smile on his face, he's just loving it.”

“They’re basically hunting us every day” – Joshua, 18

More recently, he was “dragged out” of his friend’s car and subjected to a humiliating strip search. The Metropolitan Police has been using this method more than any other force in the UK. Black and minority ethnic detainees, including children, accounted for more than half of those who were strip-searched in 2017, and a watchdog recently said that it’s often not “properly justified”. “They found nothing,” Joshua adds. “They’re basically hunting us every day.”

Joshua was added around to the gang matrix database at the age of 14. “I was only targeted because of the school I went to,” he says. “It wasn’t fair at all”. As a result of being targeted by police from a young age, Joshua has said that he feels they’ve “excluded (him) from society”. “Sometimes I wonder, why me? I see (white, middle class) kids the same age in Clapham, they're high, you can see it in their faces, probably got drugs on them.” Joshua’s suspicions are not unfounded: black people are nine times more likely to be searched for drugs, despite having lower rates for substance use. “Yet if I’m seen with my friends in the street, (police see it as) a gang meet up.”

Aside from the fact that stop and search tactics are making young boys like Joshua feel like they don’t want to leave the house, they’re also just ineffective. Even Bill Bratton, the ex-commissioner of NYPD, wrote in the Telegraph in December that to fight violent crime, police chiefs in the UK need to “practice precision” rather than “simply stopping and frisking thousands of young black men”. “Not only will this be a more effective strategy in crime reduction, it will allow the police to maintain their relations and reputation with the community, particularly minority groups.”

South London youth worker George Turner says that by predicting who will cause trouble, the police can run the risk of instigating a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Turner explains: “I think there's real frustration in the police because of the cuts. They need to take it out on someone and, unfortunately, they take it out not on the people who are creating those cuts, they take it out on people who are more vulnerable and easier.”

A lot of people who are on the gang matrix, which George has seen copies of, remain totally unaware that they’re being monitored by police. However, it can be shared with other agencies that oversee public services like housing and employment, potentially stigmatising them and hindering their social mobility. One 14-year-old boy in east London, Corey Junior Davis, was added to the matrix by authorities in 2016 for being “easily influenced” and “associating with troublemakers”. His name leaked in a major data breach, when pages of the database were shared on social media in January 2017. By September, Corey had been shot in Forest Gate, leading an anti-gang campaigner to say that the police is putting young boys at risk

George tells me he has seen first hand how getting caught up in the matrix affects families; he recalls how one parent was being harassed even when their son had died months prior, because his name still remained on the database. Asked whether he’s seen the police harassing the boys he works with, George suggested that police are far more polite when they know he’s around. He also highlights the kind of policing methods that he has seen prove effective. “I've got another young person I've worked with where there is a sergeant from the safer neighbourhood team took a real interest,” says George. “He sat down with us, met with us, helped us go through an action plan of how to keep this kid away from going into prison and it worked really well, because he was invested in, he felt supported. The issue is, that's not your average copper.”

So much media coverage has been devoted to the rise in violence, with little perspective on the environment that young people live in. Policing in London has become increasingly aggressive. Recently, the force announced that those suspected of getting involved in gang activity would face a social media ban, which if broken could lead to jail time – even if they are minors. Even more troubling was the fact that despite how much the UK prides itself on the fact that we rarely see guns, in December, the Met police pushed ahead with plans to increase armed patrols on the streets to tackle knife crime. You’d be forgiven for believing that this might lead to an increase in black boys being shot, as the general use of police force rose by 79 per cent last year, and black people were more likely to be on the receiving end.

“It undermines the guardian mindset the British police are supposed to have, they’re supposed to be so radically different to America. It just seems like they're moving in exactly the opposite direction” – Alex Vitale, sociology professor and activist

Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn-based sociology professor, who wrote a book called The End of Policing, says that “in a period of crisis, institutional actors use that panic to bring in stuff that they always wanted to do, but lacked the political support for”.

“There's been a desire in parts of the police services to include more armed police, it’s been in the wings, and they're using the knife crime thing as the wedge issue to get it in, even though there's no direct relationship there,” he says. Ultimately, he believes that defining youth crime as a gang-related issue doesn’t solve it. “Everywhere I go in the UK, everywhere I go… line officers, supervisors, people who train police – they’re concerned about this new direction.”

“It undermines the guardian mindset the British police are supposed to have, they’re supposed to be so radically different to the American warrior mindset,” he continues. “It just seems like they're moving in exactly the opposite direction.” Vitale has been instrumental in raising awareness about New York’s gang matrix through grassroots activism over the last couple of years. After he’d heard anecdotes that people were denied bail based on their place on the database, he started fighting for more transparency in police tactics.

Violence is not happening in a vacuum. When the government continues to cut, young boys bleed. When people feel like their prospects are low, crime will continue to climb. In all the conversations happening around the state of crime in this city, the voices left out are the demographics singled out as the root cause. Throughout my conversations for this article, nobody could offer an outright solution to the knife crime epidemic – it’s too complicated for that. However, they all unanimously agreed: deciding that black boys are to be stopped, searched, stripped, and monitored is not the answer.