Greater London’s hidden epidemic.
London is a mind-numbing oddity. It desperately wants you to believe that it is a utopia of human civilization, a prime example of capitalism’s potential. Instead, it constantly buckles under its own mirage, struggling to mediate between the lustrous shine of new developments and the old world of its post-war heritage.
No place best exemplifies this tussle than Loughborough Junction estate. It is only 10 minutes from the centre of Brixton, but the pin drop stillness would have you think it’s an island on the cusp of the world. It’s white/yellow blocks are mountains in the sky, a display to be in awe of, but this simply serves as a distraction from the problems underneath. The gallons of cream-colored paint struggle to hide a decaying set of buildings, with walkways, doors, and sideboards flaking like sawdust off a tree. Flats are bulging with the colour of community pride, but also with more than they can take; a large portion of Lambeth’s 1300 families living in overcrowded accommodation are estimated to live on the estate. The entire area is situated in Coldharbour ward, which is amongst the 10% poorest areas in the country.
However, if you skim round the corner, down by Akerman road is a different universe. The newly built Oval quarter, just north of Brixton, is a marvel to behold, the freshly tiled slabs of concrete stood majestically in the sun. Whereas Loughborough’s green space amounted to patches of muddy green earth, Oval boasts an intricately cut field in the name of Eythorne park. Chiseled stone seats line up with military-like precision, and the ominous silence becomes laughter over canned gin and tonics.
When we talk about the causes of youth violence, dialogue often gets lost in impassioned rants about lack of employment opportunities, poor education, material deprivation, or all three. Whilst poverty is certainly a massive contributor to the crisis, this does not explain why young Black men are particularly affected, despite Bangladeshi, Pakistani and some white English communities having similar, if not worse rates of poverty. Therefore, it is much more useful to analyse youth violence as a culmination of several factors that create their own cycle.
My juxtaposing illustration that starts this article may seem like aimless hyperbole, but it highlights a notable consideration. There is no denying that we humans are jealous creatures. Whether through scrolling past posts of people living the high life, or longing for clothes we’ll never actually use, our gravitation towards comparison rarely lets up. Evolutionary biologists theorise this comes from our innate desire to successfully transmit our genes to new offspring, and thus a need to remain attractive to potential mates.
Even though our day-to-day instincts are less animalistic, the idea that we must be valued by other people to survive filters down into many aspects of our subconscious. In a capitalist world where human value is measured by our material achievements, the existence of shiny new flats in close proximity that we can’t attain is likely to irk even the best of us. This is formally referred to as status frustration.
Status frustration leads young working-class individuals to create subcultures that invert mainstream values of society, turning socially deviant acts into ones that lead to status in the alternate group. These narratives ring loudly in London’s youth violence saga. In this case, the young black boys risking shame, incarceration, and death to sell drugs and defend postcodes are not enthusiastic about their situation, but more so eager to gain admiration from their peers, as drill rapper Skengdo said “when you have nothing, respect is everything”.
Violence in of itself is not committed because of inherently criminal motivations, as racist theorists like Charles Murray have suggested in the past. It is more so a physiological response to threats triggered by stress hormones. Yes, a few acts of violence are random or sporadic, but these are often committed by the irrational or unwell. In the context of youth violence, stress is scrupulously boiled in a pressure cooker environment.
When having to contend with damp soaked walls, 5 am rises just to have a warm shower, the 20th eviction warning coming through the door, expectation to thrive amidst constant class disruption, the fear of being robbed or intimidated by someone from another block, and the thunder of bullets flying past your window, survival-based decisions are inevitable. On my observatory trips to youth centers, some young people described picking up a knife as normal as tying their shoes. This is not to say the inability to have warm showers directly leads to young people being stabbed, but more so to show that poverty causes status frustration which creates an environment where delinquency is normalised and so young people are stressed to the point that they feel unsafe.
The final part of the cycle is most controversial but also equally necessary to speak about. Most of the stereotypes and assumptions we have of specific groups of people in society have been represented in the media in some way or form. Whether it is the smart Indian from the Big Bang theory, the Latino drug lord from Narcos, or the obnoxious prep boy from the Riot Club, media accredits our life experiences, norms and values through artistic expression, which help reinforce cultures in those particular groups. I call this cultural legitimation.
Unfortunately, the popularity of this media can be so significant that it dominates the narrative of an entire group. This is particularly evident in the Black British community, where despite less than 1% of its population having been involved in youth violence, the millions of views of drill artists flashing mountains of cash, driving revved-up supercars, and boasting of their violent escapades means thousands of young people aspire to their lifestyle. Whilst there is a plethora of Black TV shows, artists, and creatives who are not drill artists, they don’t speak to the kids living life in destitution, desperate for the life of Oval quarters’ inhabitants.
The result is a generation of young people get lost in the pursuit of glory, chasing lifestyles that provide temporary status, freedom, and wealth, but almost always lead to incarceration or death. Their families and friends are irretrievably broken by the events, either angry enough to take revenge, or too mentally damaged to pick their life up, which starts the cycle of poverty all over again.
Underpinning every element of this social crisis is the specter of racism. These children are barraged with daily social cues which remind them that they do not belong. The glare of the shopkeeper as they walk into the store.The clench of the bag in anticipation of contact. The awkward shifts at the request of a coffee. All before they enter the classroom, at which they are told to leave because their natural hair is inappropriate. No wonder that less than 2/5 black children receive a strong pass at GCSE. Through institutional failures, their lives are set up for the poverty that inevitably leads to violence.
Since starting work at the council, I always try to think; how can we tackle the root causes? I’ve seen our own central government flounder on the issue, pushing an ignorant-at-best chicken box campaign to encourage young people to drop their knives. As individuals, there is very little we can do… the solution is not just a quick win asking kids to do better; it would likely be a multi-billion pound project akin to leveling up the north led by central government. For reference, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which aims to eliminate the problems raised in this article for kids in Harlem, New York (by tackling poverty from the moment they are born), costs $75 million every year, for a population of around 116,000 people (around a 1/3 of Lambeth), which barely scratches the surface for the 700,000 children who live in poverty across London.
What can be done is to tackle each part of the cycle with the most relevant institutions and their respective resources. To tackle poverty, we need central government to commit billions to left-behind communities, both in and out of the M25. To tackle status frustration, we need to bridge the social chasm between the rich and the poor, through encouraging communities like Loughborough junction and Oval quarter to interact with one another. To tackle youth violence (or youth crime) requires us to understand the challenges of gen z youth, and in the short term, a culturally sensitive approach to stop and search from the Met. And to address the impact of cultural legitimation, we need to celebrate all positive forms of Black British media, but also court drill artists into the conversation. Above all, grassroots organisations must be at the forefront of dialogue, enabled to empower their own communities.
Written by Daniel Noruwa