Three days into 2021, during a gruelling COVID lockdown, 13-year-old Olly Stephens strolled out of his home in his sliders to meet a girl at his local park in Reading, an affluent town west of London on the river Thames. But the girl had lured Olly to the park, where two boys, aged 13 and 14, had arrived on e-scooters, the younger one armed with a hunting knife.
In broad daylight in the middle of the afternoon, Olly was stabbed to death through the back and chest, in a murder sparked on Snapchat. During the trial, the jury was played audio and video from Snapchat and other social media of the boys’ growing obsession with knives, of them abusing Olly, planning the attack and bragging about stabbing him after killing him.
On Friday at Reading Crown Court, the two boys, who cannot be named because of their young age, received minimum sentences of 12 and 13 years for murder. The 14-year-old girl, who helped set up the trap, received three years and two months after she admitted manslaughter.
“Snapchat played a huge part in documenting the boys' interest in knives, their communications with each other and their mutual friends, as well as the breakdown in the relationship with Olly,” said Ollie Sirrell, a reporter who followed the trial for the Reading Chronicle. “Ultimately, they fell out over a social media dispute in which Olly was accused of 'snaking' the two boys having screenshotted a message, which led to the falling out and that fatal day.”
Children stabbing other children to death on the streets and in parks with machetes and hunting knives is not normal. But somehow, in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, this shocking scene has become tragically common.
Amid a blizzard of street knife attacks, young people are now the most likely victims of murder. Homicides involving victims aged 16-24 in England and Wales have risen by more than 60 percent in the last five years, more than any other age group.
In London, the worst-affected part of the country, police-taped murder scenes and mobile phone footage of children attacking each other with machetes is disturbingly commonplace. During the first nine months of this year there have been 25 teenage homicides – about one killing every 10 days – compared to nine in the first nine months of 2012. The figure, already nearly twice last year’s total of 14, looks set to exceed the previous high for teenage murders in the capital of 29, set in 2008.
The youngest to die in the capital this year was 14-year-old Fares Maatou. He was wearing his school uniform when he was fatally stabbed in the head with a machete, supposedly for his e-scooter, outside a pizza restaurant in Canning Town, east London, in April. Two boys aged 14 and 15, who deny charges of murder, go on trial next year. Most recently, Alex Ajanaku, 18, was shot dead on September 1 at an unlicensed music event in Leyton, east London. On August 10, Stelios Averkiou, 16, was stabbed to death in a skate park in Tottenham, north London. In June, Jalan Woods-Bell, 15, was knifed to death on his way to school in Hayes, West London.
Victims and suspects of street murders are getting younger and younger, with many young teenagers killed – but also many charged with murder – this year. In August, for example, a 14-year-old boy was charged with stabbing to death a father in front of his daughter in Chingford, north London. As the attackers get younger, the weapons get bigger and more extreme, with many teenage killings carried out with machetes and zombie knives designed to disembowel victims.
It’s a national issue: A few weeks after Olly was killed in Reading, Keon Lincoln, 15, was shot and stabbed to death in Birmingham. An 18-year-old who denies any part in the murder will stand trial next month alongside four other teenagers aged 14 to 17 alleged to be involved in Lincoln’s death. Earlier this month, on the 9th of September, 16-year-old Rhamero West was stabbed to death in Manchester, and a 16-year-old boy has been charged with his murder. In August, Loui Karl Phillips, 15, died after he was stabbed in the chest in South Yorkshire. The list goes on.
Why is this happening? Closely linked in public discourse to the issues of ethnicity and drugs, this violence has been used as a political football by racists and government officials. Young Black men do make up a high proportion of those involved in these street killings as perpetrators and victims, especially in London, while many of those involved have used and sold drugs. But this is only scratching the surface of a much deeper story.
“These kids don’t have any reason to value life, even their own life, so it is very easy for them to do whatever they want to do,” Jhemar Jonas, 19, a youth worker and rapper from south London whose 17-year-old brother Michael was stabbed to death in 2017, told VICE World News. “London is a war zone. Everything around these young people is violence and gangs.”
A series of conversations with youth violence experts and young people conducted by VICE World News over the last four months point to critical factors that have snowballed in the last decade. These common threads and hidden drivers provide insight into the mindset of today’s at-risk youngsters and wannabe gangsters, while exposing the devastating consequences of what happens when a government turns its back on its most vulnerable children.
There is a blood-red thread, from the entrenched, antisocial conditions in society that have given rise to today’s culture of violence, to the individual incidents that spark each killing. It’s a line strewn with state negligence, claustrophobic communities, criminal exploitation and petulant brutality, and it’s what happens when children look to social media and crime in search of an identity.
In 2018, 16-year-old Cemeren Yilmaz lay dying on a street in Bedford after being attacked with a knife and a hammer. As he bled to death, telling his teenage attackers, “I think I’m going to die”, they filmed his last moments on their smartphones and then posted the video on Snapchat. Four teenagers, three of whom were 15 when they killed Cemeren, were jailed for life for murder in 2019.
One of the most pernicious influences on this lethal violence is not rap music, the drug trade, or absent fathers, but social media. And the app that keeps coming up in court cases and among youth workers is Snapchat.
The app, which now has nearly 300 million active daily users and scooped up $982 million last year in revenue, has become a toxic part of youth violence in Britain.
“Snapchat is the root of a lot of problems. I hate it,” says Natalie Gordon, a youth worker in Southwark, south London, specialising in gang prevention. “It’s full of young people calling each other out, boasting of killings and stabbings, winding up rivals, disrespecting others.”
Generation Z’s primary source of communication – half of internet users aged 15 to 25 use Snapchat – has been appropriated to become a bulletin board for youth crime, and a catalyst for and celebration of teenage murder. Beneath Snapchat’s fun exterior of video clips and messages that vanish after 24 hours is a parallel teenage world of humiliation, threats, weapon selling and gang culture.
When Snapchat’s founders came up with its slogan, “The fastest way to share a moment!”, they could never have imagined the platform would be used to broadcast teenagers’ last moments.
Not unlike the constant flow of street fight clips shown on adult tabloid news sites, this culture of violence is showcased on hundreds of localised Snapchat profiles, named after local areas, which are built specifically to cover the latest beefs, shamings and street battles. Inevitably teenagers on Snapchat are interested in the lives of others and are drawn into watching and following notorious profiles. Most children from a community or school will follow the same accounts. So while posts do not go viral across the whole of Snapchat like they do on Twitter, they go doubly viral among teenagers connected within local neighbourhoods.
A series of teenage murders over the last three years have been aided and abetted by the parallel world of Snapchat. Too often it’s where a beef starts and ends in horrific murder. There have been many cases where teenage stabbings and murders have been sparked by a row over Snapchat, such as the 15-year-old stabbed to death on a crowded bus on his way home from school and a 16-year-old boy killed after a series of lethal threats on a railway platform.
When a teenager dies, Snapchat lights up. Within minutes, the toxicity around a fatal attack hits the platform. Teenagers share Snapchat videos of themselves boasting about stabbing rivals to death, gangs declare that “blood points” against their rivals have been scored and oaths of revenge are broadcast. It’s no coincidence the platform played a part in the events leading up to Olly’s murder in Reading, with the killers using the app to show off knives and publicly declare their intention to harm him. This week, a mother described how she saw footage on social media of her 15-year-old son Tamim Ian Habimana’s killing in Woolwich, south London in July in a tragic case closely linked to Snapchat. Five teenagers aged 14 to 19 have been charged with Tamim’s murder.
“Some parts of Snapchat are 24/7 gang culture. It’s like watching a TV show on social media with both sides going at it, to see who can be more extreme, who can be hardest,” says Jonas, the youth worker whose brother was a victim of knife crime. “People getting chased with knives, live online, guys making themselves look scary. It’s not that Snapchat is causing this violence,” says Jonas, “but it makes things worse, because so many people see it, and these guys love using it to taunt each other, to show who's badder. You've got to prove yourself to Snapchat because these days a lot of people think if it didn't happen on social media, it didn't happen. Everything is recorded, even if it means people are more likely to be caught.”
Young people are also buying potential murder weapons on Snapchat. This month a gang was jailed after they were caught selling 128 hunting knives and machetes on Snapchat. Commander Alex Murray, the Met Police’s lead for tackling violence in London, told VICE World News: “We are very alert to how social media can, in some circumstances, drive violent crime in London. Disputes can now escalate from online platforms onto the streets, resulting in violent attacks.”
On Snapchat, it’s easy to get dragged into a violent, toxic vortex – where teenagers are filmed being stabbed and beaten and rival crews post up league tables of points scored for maiming the opposition – in a way that has never been possible before.
“Since I was 12, I’ve seen videos on Snapchat showing fighting, knives, threats, humiliation, nude shaming and girls getting sexually assaulted. It’s common,” said a 14-year-old girl from south London who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to protect her safety. “My ex-boyfriend was not into gangs, but one day we were out, and he got violated [a term meaning insulted or attacked] on the street. The abuse was put on Snap. So, he joined a gang to protect himself and get back his reputation. Now he has bought a zombie knife.”
Last year, when the girl was 13, she was accused by other teenagers on Snapchat of arranging for a boy they knew to be stabbed to death in south London, just hours after he was killed. Alongside her photo was #setupchick, with the message “you took away my brother” and “fuck that bitch”.
It went viral within her online community, although as police would later discover, the teenage girl had nothing to do with the boy’s murder. But within hours the malicious posts had received 100,000 hits and spread to Instagram, Facebook and the national media. She received hundreds of death threats, the windows on the family’s home were smashed, and she had to leave the country, missing out on school, for almost two months.
“I had to persuade my friends I didn’t do it, that it was someone who just wanted to tar my name, maybe because they were jealous? Luckily, they believed me, but every kid in south London thought it was my fault he died. I couldn’t go out, it was too dangerous,” says the girl, who is mixed race. Now 14, her family home is covered with security cameras installed last year by the police.
Since the incident, she has stayed off Snapchat, but because it was the driver of her social life, she says she doesn’t go out much anymore. Nevertheless, in June she was attacked by a girl who accused her of being a killer, and she was hospitalised. She says she still has to explain herself to strangers who ask her about being a “set-up chick”.
If it’s so enmeshed with violence, why do so many teenagers use Snapchat? “Snapchat is how kids our age communicate. Boys will ask you for your Snap, not your phone,” says the 14-year-old. “It’s secretive. The language we use is like a code, and adults find it hard to understand.”
Rival gangs use social media to keep a running total of the injuries and killings they’ve carried out on each other, by scoring points for different levels of damage and humiliation. The more damage you do, the more points a gang receives, with running totals posted up online on social media and YouTube to taunt the opposition.
“It’s like football stats such as goals, yellow cards, fouls, but instead they document how much they have violated each other,” says Jonas. “The scoreboard is cheekily leaked out on Snapchat to remind everyone of the score, how many times rivals have been injured or killed.
“People are nosey, so these scoreboards get lots of people flocking to see it online, although people are careful they don’t put too much detail because they know they are being watched by the police.”
For those involved in gang culture, Snapchat is the perfect platform for documenting street warfare. “When someone gets beaten up on a Snapchat video, to sustain their position in the ecosystem they have to counter that evidence with something more extreme, and social media provides space to do that. It is that phenomenon that's happening en masse,” says Ciaran Thapar, a youth worker in south London and author of Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City. “It happens in normal social media – people having arguments in real life over something someone has said on Twitter, for example. So, when you put that in a community with a lot of knives and trauma flying around, of course it becomes more extreme.”
Particularly since COVID-related lockdowns began in the UK in March last year, with little else for young people to do, the platform has become a petri dish of petty feuds, challenges, and threats, sometimes with deadly consequences.
“A culture of violence is spreading among young people, and they are learning this on social media,” says urban youth criminologist Craig Pinkney, director of Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict. “We all saw the kids chasing each other around with knives in Hyde Park. All the shit they’d been saying on social media over the last 18 months spilled out into the streets. That’s nothing to do with gangs, just people running their mouth online on lockdown.”
Evidence from Snapchat is often used in court cases to secure convictions, as with the case of Olly’s murder in Reading. But, despite a 20-strong specialist police unit set up in 2018 dedicated to monitoring gang-related online content, the amount of violent content far outstrips resources. Met Commissioner Cressida Dick outlined three years ago how social media platforms are enabling youth violence. Yet the companies that run these platforms appear to be slow to act and reluctant to cooperate when it comes to violent content. The 14-year-old girl said that during her “set-up chick” ordeal Snapchat refused to help her or the police identify the people who’d spread the rumour, although she says that Instagram was more helpful.
Pinkney says Snapchat has failed to regulate what children can see on its platform. The more young people are watching and engaging with violent content, the more violence and abuse becomes normalised. “Because of sites like Snapchat, gangs are normal now, knife crime is normal now, county lines are normal now. If you’ve got children who’ve not yet developed their identity, they are sponges for what they see on these platforms. It’s not just UK violence they are seeing; they are observing violent gang culture from all over the world, like someone getting shot in the head in Chicago.”
In 2017 Pinkney authored a report into the rising impact of social media on youth violence, which concluded that social media platforms “are being used to glamorise, display and incite serious acts of violence”. It recommended those running platforms have “efficient procedures in place to remove content that is deemed inappropriate in accordance with their own guidelines”.
But research by the nonprofit Catch 22 into the dangers of social media, to be published later this month under the group’s Social Switch Project, will show this has not happened. The report’s author, Faith Gordon, a lecturer on information law at Australian National University and director of the International Youth Justice Network, says that during the pandemic children have been subjected to a constant flow of violent content on social media platforms.
She said the firms running platforms not only appear to be turning a blind eye, but they are also slow to react when young people, or even police, flag violent or exploitative content. Faith Gordon believes that because of its powers of “amplification”, social media sites such as Snapchat have become a “catalyst for violence among young people”.
“We have been speaking to children as young as 10, and some of the content they have been seeing on social media platforms is extremely violent. They can’t unsee it and end up reliving that in their minds,” she said. “It is having a huge impact on them.” She says there’s a lack of redress for those who witness violence online. Children don't get much response from the social media platforms, so they’ve become disillusioned with the process. Interviews Gordon did with police officers revealed many forces have become frustrated at platforms not engaging swiftly enough to protect children.
“Clearly, Snapchat and other platforms could be doing a lot more than they currently are to address such harms and ensure robust redress mechanisms are in place,” says Gordon. “Snapchat and other platforms need to be more transparent about what their capabilities are. Young people find it difficult to block people within their own community. These platforms can be hugely challenging spaces for them.”
She says there should be pressure on the government to push the big social media companies to make sure their policies are in line with the UN children's rights convention, which protects young people’s rights to safely access the internet. “The UK government needs to be engaging with this problem. At the end of the day, these companies are profiting while children and young people are reporting huge, negative ramifications for their mental health and well-being, and these companies should be made responsible.”
Perhaps pure economics could force Snapchat to police itself better. Author and podcaster Chloe Combi, an expert on Gen Z who has interviewed hundreds of teenagers about their lives, believes the toxicity of Snapchat has fuelled the popularity of Tiktok, “as it’s viewed as a much more positive platform, that whilst imperfect hasn’t been marred like the worst parts of Snapchat”.
“All of the major platforms claim it’s impossible to clean up content or monitor activity. But I wonder how much they’ll maintain this claim of impotency if they lose more subscribers to new platforms and apps who are seeking out something more positive and less conducive to toxicity and violence?” said Combi. “The bottom line is usually the only thing that inclines them to clean house. Reddit is a good example of a platform that actually attempted to rid itself of the worst elements and had a bit of a road to Damascus moment, so it is possible.”
Responding to this investigation, a Snapchat spokesperson told Vice World News: “Violence, threatening behaviour and content that glorifies or incites violence are completely against our community guidelines and terms of service. We also prohibit the buying and selling of illegal weapons and all other types of illegal activity.
“We have taken deliberate design choices that limit the distribution of harmful content like this and starve it of oxygen on Snapchat. For example, we don’t have an open newsfeed and we proactively moderate content that could reach large numbers of Snapchatters. We encourage anyone who sees illegal content to use our confidential reporting tools in-app, so our dedicated Trust and Safety team can take appropriate action.
“We believe we have a responsibility to ensure our community has a positive experience on our platform, and continue to partner with best-in-class safety experts to understand this activity, and help develop our policies and materials to combat this behaviour.”
To some extent, we already know the root causes of why young people are killing each other on Britain’s streets. We’ve been here before. During the second half of the 2000s, youth murders spiralled. An attempt to curtail the problem by ramping up stop-and-searches and installing knife arches as part of a £3 million government anti-knife crime campaign failed. Youth murders kept on rising.
A series of studies dug deeper into the problem. A House of Commons home affairs select committee report published in 2009 found street knife attacks were clustered among young Black boys from broken homes, living in deprived inner-city communities. It said perpetrators suffered from deep trauma and low self-worth, had failed at school and joined gangs as a way of earning respect and money. The MPs who wrote the report recommended helping children from an early age, building trust with the police, and giving teenagers outlets such as sports and jobs to steer them away from crime. The government’s optimistically titled Ending Gang and Youth Violence strategy, published in the wake of the 2011 London riots, came up with a similar well-researched assessment of the causes and solutions of youth murders.
But nothing happened. Despite the government being armed with the evidence about what was causing these tragedies and how best to tackle them, attempts at preventing the next wave of killings barely got off the ground. Because in response to the 2008 recession, in 2010 the Tory-led coalition government under Prime Minister David Cameron introduced a programme of severe austerity measures, many of which hit the most deprived communities and the very welfare services that prevent children turning to serious crime. It was a programme that has been continued under two successive Tory governments, led by Theresa May and Boris Johnson. The resources needed to tackle the root causes of youth murders, so clearly outlined in numerous reports – such as helping vulnerable young children from an early age and strengthening youth services – were taken away.
So it was no surprise, with the catalysts fuelling this violence left to smoulder unattended, when youth murders began to rise again. By 2017, the number of teenage homicides in London had tripled in just five years to 27, exploding further in a series of tit-for-tat stabbings and shootings of teenagers in 2018.
The capital’s knife crime problem was swiftly weaponised by the far-right. Before marching in London, the Football Lads Alliance railed against “migrants” and “an epidemic of gang and knife crime” in the capital. Far-right columnist Katie Hopkins renamed London “Stab City” and US President Donald Trump labelled London Mayor Sadiq Khan a “national disgrace”. The Tory government was happy to join the attack.
Bizarrely, despite what they all knew from previous reports, cabinet ministers, police chiefs, and the mayor himself, desperate to deflect the heat, queued up to declare that the rise in youth killings was due to one key driver: the drug trade.
Their bogus narrative, that poor Black kids were killing each other over drug turf wars while supplying white, liberal, middle-class cocaine snorters, sounded clued up. Like something off The Wire. What’s more, the authorities could shift the blame, from themselves, to the “evil” trade in drugs, even if there was almost zero evidence to support this. Britain’s media lapped it up all the same, and it became a convenient reality. Cooked up by those in power, it was a clever diversion from the true drivers of youth killings and why they had escalated out of control: the almost complete destruction by the government, under austerity, of the safety nets that stop children from descending into mindsets and situations where street violence and murder occur.
Ministers and officials just needed to browse their own studies. A 2020 report by the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), a team of specialists set up by Khan to look into the causes of the outbreak of youth killings, came up with similar conclusions to the reports of a decade before. The report said extreme youth violence was strongly linked to poverty, social breakdown, childhood trauma, poor education and the influence of gang culture. On the influence of the drug trade, they weren’t so sure.
One thing the report was unequivocal about, however, was how the government’s decision under austerity measures to cut welfare, education and youth services had “increased the vulnerability of some London neighbourhoods to violence”, revealing that “reductions in public spending since 2010 and associated increases in caseloads, have made it more difficult to identify and seize opportunities to prevent violence.”
Khan, who has invested £70 million to divert young people away from crime, told VICE World News austerity has been a key factor in creating the conditions for teenage killings. “The causes of violent crime are extremely complex and involve deep-seated problems like poverty, inequality, social alienation and a lack of opportunities for young people. These are circumstances ripe for exploitation by criminal gangs and have been worsened by a decade of government cuts to the police and preventative services such as youth clubs,” he said.
In a statement, UK crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse said the government wanted to “divert young people from going down the wrong path, so programmes like our Violence Reduction Units focus on a range of early intervention and prevention programmes.”
“Protecting young people from harm requires a joined-up response and no one can do this alone," he continued. "We’re committed to making sure all parts of the public sector work together and will be making it a legal duty to collaborate and share information locally, to develop more holistic strategies for tackling violent crime.”
While Khan acknowledged that social media can be a driver to violence, neither the mayor's office nor the Home Office engaged with specific questions around Snapchat's role in fuelling fatal teenage violence.
A report also published last year by the Youth Violence Commission came to the same conclusion about the impact of cuts to crucial welfare services. It described how “serious problems with the provision of youth services” and a lack of investment in children’s early years, alongside exclusion from education, cuts to policing, a lack of decent jobs, unaffordable housing and child poverty had all made it harder to tackle the root causes of teenage knife crime.
In short, the problems identified a decade ago as key drivers of teenagers becoming involved in extreme street violence were left to fester, due to the government’s decision to subject the poorest communities to a funding deep freeze. But still, even though the authorities are well aware of the real causes of the violence, and the key role austerity measures have played in sustaining it, action and money has been thin on the ground.
Thapar, the youth worker and author, says the impact of austerity has been pernicious in the south London Brixton neighbourhood where he works.
“A lot of young people are fearing for their lives, and they don't have many places to turn to. ‘Austerity’ is an abstract expression that encapsulates so many things happening in the real world. Less special-educational needs teaching, fewer youth clubs, welfare being slashed, wages stagnating, your parents finding it harder to feed you and spend time with you, and more children ending up on the school-to-prison pipeline.”
On the ground, every day in the poorer parts of Britain, there’s a tug-of-war going on in schools and youth services, between those trying with scant resources to help children thrive and achieve legitimate success, and the short-term lure of gang life. At the moment, the temptation of gang life is far too strong for some.
“From working in schools,” says Jonas, the youth worker from south London. “I can see firsthand they are not built to cater for helping these young people develop. And if schools can’t support them, it derails them. A lot of these kids are very bright, but they don't get a chance to shine. Nine times out of ten, they have a family member or close friend linked to gangs or dealers. It’s actually easier for them to be led into crime, because schools are not supporting them to see there is another side to life.”
It is Britain’s Black community, mainly young people in London, that’s most affected by this deadly violence. Over a third of all homicide victims aged 16-24 between 2019 and 2020 were Black. Half of all Black homicide victims were aged 16-24, compared to 38 percent in 2010. But these homicides are not driven by ethnicity; they are instead a reflection of the structural racism that has been so vehemently denied by the government, and Britain’s most vulnerable children.
However, research by public health experts at Imperial College London into the risk factors of knife crime among young people in the UK, which spoke to 11-year-olds who carried a weapon to school, found ethnicity is not the key factor. “Homicide statistics suggest that you’re more likely to be involved in youth violence if you’re Black. But the systematic review results showed that when you control for other factors such as deprivation, adverse childhood experiences or victimisation, race is not a risk factor,” says study author Sara Haylock. “For example, Black people are also more likely to live in deprived areas, therefore increasing their risk of involvement in youth violence.”
A searing insight into the tough childhoods of those involved in youth violence was provided when, after a string of murders involving young people in the area, the south London borough of Croydon published an unprecedented two-year-long serious case review into the lives of 60 teenagers at risk of being involved in gangs and violence. It found many had led harrowing lives and faced bleak futures.
In a borough where one in five residents are Black, half of the most vulnerable teenagers included in the case review were Black. Half were known to social services by the time they were just 5 years old. Nearly one in five had a parent who had died. Half of them had been physically or sexually abused as children and had witnessed domestic violence. Most had absent fathers. Three-quarters had been excluded from secondary school.
By the age of 16, half were gang-affiliated and had been on “county lines” drug-selling missions outside of London. Many had committed serious crimes and 86 percent had gone missing for an average of 16 times. More than 80 percent of the boys had been suspects in a knife-related crime, three had been convicted of murder and more than a third had been attacked with a knife. During the two-year review, one of the boys involved in the review was stabbed to death.
“The children said they did not feel safe in Croydon,” the case review noted. “There was an overwhelming feeling of resignation among the children. They could not see an alternative lifestyle available to them. They lacked hope, aspiration and belief.”
The case review was also clear in its condemnation of government cost-cutting as a barrier for these children getting the help they so desperately needed before their lives became enmeshed in serious crime. It said the most consistent problem highlighted by teachers and social workers was “the limited availability of time and resources to do the work needed with children”. Some workers expressed how every time they heard on the news about a child being stabbed to death nearby, they were worried the victim would be a child they knew.
“Central to the findings of this review is that early intervention and prevention is essential. Yet these services have not weathered the funding cuts of recent years,” the case review concluded.
It acknowledged that the financial cost of helping children with such complex needs was high, yet the costs of not helping them were far worse. “The costs to these children, their families and communities, and to society as a whole, of not providing the support these children needed at a time when they needed most, is a cost that cannot easily be forgiven or forgotten, particularly by those whose lives have been blighted by the consequences of their actions or by the tragic loss of a child’s life.”
Part of the problem highlighted by experts is the distrust by young people, especially Black youths, of the police. Statistics have shown racial bias in stop and search, and while stepping up the tactic at a time of habitual knife-carrying and stabbings seems entirely logical, the downside is that it ultimately alienates the very people who most need to be protected by police.
Adam Elliot Cooper, a sociologist at the University of Greenwich, said in his book, Black Resistance to British Policing, published earlier this year, that stop and search has been ineffective at reducing levels of violence. He said it is largely a policy of moral panic “tied to the spectre of the violent, criminal black figure lurking in the cities, that enables politicians, the police, the press and eventually common-sense racism, to legitimise the policies necessary to ‘police the crisis’.” He says criminalisation and prison heightens trauma and harm, “exacerbating rather than ameliorating the social problems that lead to them being imprisoned in the first instance”.
Even so, the lure of gang life is strong. And part of that life necessarily involves extreme violence, often with the help of an arsenal of machetes and zombie knives that are widely available, no questions asked, from online outdoor sports stores. In some inner-city areas, the transition into gang life is an easy and tempting one for young men locked out of mainstream society. In these environments, says Dr Ebony Reid, a criminology lecturer at the University of East London who has studied gang culture, a strong reputation is everything.
“Respect is paramount to survival and must be managed. In the ’hood, this tends to be managed principally through engaging in territorial violence to establish respect amongst peers, violent retaliation to ensure one retains reputation on road, and through revenge attacks to minimise damage and shame. These young people fight quite literally to construct a reputation, and one way this is achieved is through the formal and well-codified system of competing for ‘stripes’.
“To win stripes and achieve this rank, you must be prepared and willing to engage in violence; you must demonstrate publicly and within the peer group that you can stand up for yourself, defend your reputation and honour among rivals who are equally competing to win stripes”.
Reid says most urban estates have a long history of territorial violence that have claimed the lives of many local young men. “The original protagonists for postcode warfare were well-known elders, now either dead or in prison, who fought primarily over loyalties to friends and notions of respect and disrespect. The ‘youngers’ seem to have inherited this ‘beef’ – where they are making claims to not only an imagined place but also some sense of imagined loyalty to their elders, despite having little or no knowledge of the history surrounding the brutal deaths of their peers.”
For sure, these young people have led tough lives, but they are not hardened, old-school gangsters. Ultimately, they’re children. One of the most shocking and perplexing aspects of the teenage homicide epidemic is how these young people mentally square the act of murder. It’s a concept that is genuinely hard for most people to comprehend, perhaps because many of these killings are so nihilistic.
What makes some teenagers put such a low value on life? “They don’t understand their self-worth, they don't value themselves,” Jonas says. “They don’t see a reason to be logical in terms of how they go about their life because they just don't care. There is no reason to care because they are not shown hope. They have no hope. They can’t do anything else.”
Reid says this violent mindset is not just nihilistic but also has a logic to it. “Their fractured egos, brought on by status frustration, lack of real power and negative childhood experiences, force them to desperately search for admiration and respect, but within impoverished environments in which they have limited socioeconomic resources at their disposal.
“There is structure and logic to the violence. Disadvantaged young urban men are conscious of their marginal position in wider society, and they thus create alternative ways, principally through badness, to achieve a viable sense of self-identity. Identity has to be managed, and they often employ violence in these scenarios to redeem themselves, retaliating against those who attempt to threaten their sense of self.”
But the most powerful driver behind these acts of extreme violence – more powerful than nihilism, machismo or gangsterism – is shame, according to Dinah Senior, a consultant in youth violence who has worked in prisons with dozens of teenagers serving life sentences for gang-related homicide.
“The dynamic between shame and violence is fundamental. The perpetrator feels they are the vulnerable victim of a public shame event – ‘He violated me’ – and they lash out. Shame is the most crippling of human emotions, and if you trigger that, anything can happen.”
This is not the only kind of shaming that causes such violence. “Racism and poverty are also extremely shaming. The feeling that you don’t matter, and that nobody cares. Children affected by this type of structural violence can feel deeply shamed by reactive or vindictive language used by teachers or by the police.”
Senior says very few teenagers have an ice-cold killer mindset, and those that do are deeply traumatised. “When it comes down to it, of course, they can’t cope with killing people. They break down like everybody else. I’ve had boys sobbing in my arms after sentencing when I’m alone with them in the cells and they can afford to be children again. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It is not necessarily the shamer who receives the backlash, says Natalie Gordon, the youth worker from Southwark. “Because some of these kids have been so disrespected all their lives, they have nothing to lose and they become soul suckers: ‘You shame me, I shame someone else to make myself feel better.’”
Natalie Gordon says that, even as adults, we can’t fathom how such young people can take lives and ruin their own in the process. “When people read about these killings in the papers the next day, they don’t see the lives these killers have led. They are angry. At the education system, at living in poverty in damp, mouse-ridden council estates, at racism. It’s not that they want to be like this; they have to be like this, because they are in so deep.”
But, leaving context, root causes and mindset aside for a moment, what is it that sparks specific acts of murder, in the days, hours or seconds before the fatal strike?
An analysis of street teenage homicides over the last three years reveals that very few, certainly in London, involved an argument over drug turf and drug business. This is despite Home Office data estimating that nearly half of all homicides in England and Wales are “drug-related”. But the Home Office’s definition of “drug related” is a misnomer. Far from being about drug turf wars, it is a catch-all for anything from the victim or suspect being drunk or stoned, smelling of cannabis, or having been caught selling drugs sometime in the past.
Instead, what murder trials in teenage homicide cases show is that most people are killed because of petty beefs, revenge attacks, to up the attacker’s status in a gang or simply because the victim lived in the wrong street. These are not military-style drug gangs killing people on street corners like something out of The Wire. After all, despite living traumatic lives, many of them are still children. But now, instead of fists and feet, their weapons of choice are foot-long machetes.
“A lot of this is tit-for-tat violence. Young people haven’t been taught about emotional intelligence; they don't understand the idea of peace and making things right in a civilised manner, because they are used to chaos,” says Jonas.
A youth worker from the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who did not want to be named because she is not allowed to speak to the media, says that teenagers’ everyday habit of carrying knives to protect themselves can escalate innocuous situations. “A lot of teenagers say they did not mean to kill the victim they stabbed, that it was not planned, it was a reaction because something had made them so angry. They say they did not know what they were doing, that they never meant to stab them. Some end up being stabbed by their own weapon that they’d carried through fear.”
However, teenagers are motivated to commit extreme violence and risk a long prison sentence. Because injuring an enemy can be a shortcut to impressing friends, gaining notoriety and being given a more lucrative role in a gang. Young people have been known to go out to hunt down rival gang members in opposition postcodes with the intent to maim, sometimes killing young people at random.
In April, for example, Theo Momodu was sentenced to life after plunging a machete into Joshua White in front of a young girl outside a shop in Hackney, north-east London, in 2019. Momodu, who was 17 at the time, had received a text from on older gang member inside prison urging him and other young gang members to “ride out” and attack someone in order to notch up “names on his blade”.
It seems the key question to ask amid this teenage homicide epidemic is whether society really cares enough to stop these killings?
Shortly before he was killed, one of the teenagers featured in Croydon’s serious case review asked a social worker who was trying to help him, “Where were you when I was 6?” And the aunt of another child stabbed to death in Croydon told the review’s authors: “If white children were being killed, do you think the government would care more and do something about it?” These are both telling points.
Dinah Senior says action will only be taken once society realises it is complicit in these young deaths.
“As a society, we don’t understand violence and why it happens. It’s like not understanding the COVID virus and how it's transmitted. We deceive ourselves that we are far away from it because it’s easier to hate violent teenagers who don’t look or sound like us than it is to acknowledge the role we all play in perpetuating shame and violence in a society that is effectively institutionally racist and structurally unequal.
“If we genuinely understood how responsible we are for these deaths, how as a society we are neglecting our duty of care by not addressing the causes of the youth violence epidemic, we would act. I would describe it as a form of child abuse. But we let it slip, year after year.”
Most of the experts and young people VICE World News spoke suggested similar options for stemming the violence. The entrenched inequality and structural racism brushed aside by the government’s woeful Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report published in March needs to be acknowledged and re-examined.
Children need to be allowed to flourish and build skills. They need to be given safe zones to talk about their traumatic lives. The 24/7 wall of violence and humiliation on social media, which now looks like the dystopian world portrayed in films like Battle Royale, needs to be addressed by those who profit from them. A long-term plan must be devised, to deal with knife crime as a wider societal problem, instead of just throwing money at one-off projects or coming up with stupid ideas, like one MP’s suggestion at a House of Commons briefing that a solution to youth killings would be to “blunt the end of knives”.
“Every time there is a rise in teenage killings, there is an inquiry, some government research, a report, which is all meant to solve the crisis. The same root causes that we all know are repeated every time and we go around the same circuit. But for all the reports, there is little action to show for it,” says Senior.
She says years of inaction have made the cycle of violence harder to stop. “For generations, people born into the communities where this violence is happening have seen this issue ignored. So, it gets worse, and more damaging, and each generation is less equipped to deal with it than the one before. These communities are like a child being continuously traumatised: If you don't stop and address the trauma, you get an adult with deeper and far more complex problems”.
Jonas says many young criminals and dealers are used to being labelled as trouble, so that’s all they are, but they have skills that can be used by society. “We need to help these young people realise their worth. If you put them in an environment that allows them to flourish, they realise new things about themselves they didn't know before. They start to appreciate themselves a bit more.”
Because it is so dangerous out on the streets for some teenagers, several youth workers, as well as the Croydon review, say there needs to be emergency safe places set up in every at-risk community, whether in portacabins in council estates, in schools or council projects, where young people can hang out, relax and talk openly to staff.
“We need to open both our hearts and minds to those struggling to overcome deeply traumatic life experiences,” says Reid. “This means taking seriously the roots of this violence, which can inevitably be traced to psychosocial trauma – poverty, deprivation, emotional neglect, pain, loss, abuse, and abandonment. These young people are trapped or stuck in a dangerous social world, broke, disillusioned and with an array of negative influences that prevent successful transitions into mainstream society.”
Pinkney wants a Glasgow-style, preventative public health approach to tackling knife crime transferred south of the border, rather than gimmicks. “It’s really quite sad: My son is 12, and kids are dying age 13 and 14. He just wants to go to the park to ride his bike, but now I have to say to him, ‘Be careful. Kids your age group that have lost their life’”.
“We need a 10–15-year plan that everyone agrees to,” says Pinkney. “We need to have a collective conversation, with government officials and youth experts, about what that looks like. But if it's not the priority, if the bloodshed of children is not the priority of everyone, sadly we are going to see another year of violence and have the same conversation next year and year after that.
“Until we start to say, like Chicago, Baltimore, and Glasgow have said, ‘Enough is enough’, and adopt a public health approach to this problem, we will forever have this conversation. Because if we continue to work in silos, and not as a collective, more and more of our young people are going to pass.”