LONDON—This city’s been long-known as a multicultural haven, a world capital boasting a bustling population of brown and black Brits. But there’s a sad truth here, one that’s been growing in intensity: Most of London’s young people of color are more likely than not to know someone whose life has been literally cut down by a weapon more readily associated with the Victorian era: a knife. And the number of mostly male African-Caribbean teenagers being slain by knives in this vibrant city is growing at an alarming rate. The vast majority are victims of the youth gang wars that have escalated in the last couple of years.
Ask the family of Carl Beatson Asiedu. The 19-year-old student and aspiring musician had finished performing in a London night club during the early hours of Aug. 1 when he was stabbed to death by a gang of young men. The assault was unprovoked. Just a few days later, another stabbed teenager was found bleeding in another part of London.
Media coverage of these tragic incidents is bordering the macabre. National and London newspapers are keeping a tally of deaths of black teenagers, not so much on the sword but more likely on a rusty kitchen knife or a crude machete misguidedly carried as a weapon of machismo.
One London newspaper published a gallery of photos, pictorial tombstones, depicting the teenage victims, most of them killed by knives. In 2008, 18 of the 24 were of African or Caribbean descent. And we’re constantly reminded that Asiedu was the 11th murdered teenager in 2009 in London—the implication being that we should not be surprised to see more this year.
Knife bloodshed is not new here. According to a 2006 report based on “London Against Gun and Knife Crime,” a campaign initiated by the Greater London Authority local government: “In London. during 2004-05, only 2 percent of all recorded violent crime involved a gun and 5 percent involved a knife. The probability of serious injury is four and a half times greater when a knife is used to assist a crime.” However, families of young victims are incensed at how police treat knife crime with kids gloves compared with the forceful arm of the law on gun violence.
“We are appalled by the number of people killed through the use of guns and knives; we are further appalled that, although the number of people who are killed by knives is three times higher than those who are killed by guns, the legal system treats knife crimes less seriously than gun crimes,” stated a public petition submitted to the parliament’s House of Commons.
As the disaffected and disenfranchised male youths adopt gangs as surrogate families, a 2008 Minnesota Opinion Research, Inc. youth survey claims an alarming 31 percent of 11- to 16-year-olds carried knives in 2007, increasing to 61 percent among “excluded young people.”
In the two years since, matters have grown worse in London, where the last census figures estimate that 10.7 percent of the 7.6 million citizens are black. This compares with 2 percent of the U.K. population of 61 million.
And while youth crime has cut short lives of white, Asian and teenagers from other ethnic groups in London, violent killings among black teens is outrageously out of proportion to their representation in the total populace.
And yet it was the recently retired Sir Ian Blair, ex-boss of London’s Metropolitan Police force, who is reported in the London Times as saying: “There is no bigger challenge or threat to the whole of London, perhaps with the exception of terrorism, than youth violence.”
So what is going on in a capital whose citizens have grown up accepting that these atrocities were once the preserve of other countries?
African-American street gang war is common knowledge here. We’ve read about the bloody clashes between Los Angeles’ Crips versus Bloods. The popularity of The Wire TV series has introduced the rivalry of East and West side Baltimore gangs to the Brits. And where would the explosive plots of most Hollywood movies be without the gang violence in New York.
But while their U.S. city counterparts live and die by the gun, London gangs come bearing knives. And not all black victims of knife crime, or any violence, are the disenfranchised. For example, Asiedu was a university student involved in setting up a police anti-knife campaign.
Authorities’ attempt to control gangs of angry young men has become a Sisyphean task. After all, how do you reassure swaths of young adults and their younger siblings they can rely on hard-working but pre-occupied parents, disillusioned teachers or wary employers who equate black youth with trouble?
It says a great deal about this capital city that its patrons are not giving up. The government embarked on a multi-million-dollar anti-knife campaign last year. Families of violent victims, of any race, join forces to condemn gang wars publicly and encourage scared witnesses to come forward.
Various initiatives and ventures are being launched to discourage London’s black youth from turning to crime. A prime example is Kickz, which is being coordinated by the country’s leading soccer organizations. Reports indicate that crime in communities featuring Kickz drop by up to 50 percent. It has helped participants find jobs in soccer clubs, whose African-Caribbean millionaire players are among the country’s most influential individuals.
But ultimately, the solution must lie in getting education right—at home, at school and in the workplace. Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, the U.K.’s largest business lobbying group, wrote in London’s Sunday Times: “Skills matter more than ever in a globalized labor market, and yet 16 percent of young people leave education in this country without any qualifications. This … adds up to a bleak prospect for large numbers of unskilled young people.”
Give them the right scholarly support, and they will know their options in life are broader than hanging around on the streets, dealing drugs and having to maim another black kid to prove their manhood.
Juliana Koranteng is a London-based journalist.