When Richard Riakporhe was a kid, life was all about football. Walworth is one of south-east London's odd, half tucked away districts, caught between Elephant and Castle to the north and the Camberwell/Peckham bleed to the south. Growing up on the sprawling Aylesbury Estate in the early-2000s could be be tough, but for Richard – now 28 years old – it also meant access to nearby Burgess Park, the perfect spot for endless summer kickabouts with his younger brother.
When school came around, it was like entering a different world. Few kids question their environment; what's in front of you feels normal, however abnormal it seems to others, or may seem later. The popular guys wore designer clothes and had an easy time with attention and girls. It seemed natural to want yours, too. When Richard left the house, it felt like everyone who looked successful was involved in nonsense: drug dealing and all sorts of other things. Hanging around Walworth Road and the estates of Peckham, it didn't take long for him to find himself deeply involved in street life.
Richard was stabbed in the chest, aged 15, outside a party on nearby Old Kent Road. Some guy had come out demanding that he and a group of friends hand over their phones. He caught the worst of it, suffering internal bleeding that resulted in an operation to drain the blood from his lungs. By the time he was 18 he found himself even deeper embroiled. His parents were beside themselves; what would it take for things to change?
One day in 2010, Richard walked into the Lynn Amateur Boxing Club in Camberwell, following the encouragement of a childhood friend. He always had natural power to his punches, but the discipline required was something else. Before long, it was an obsession, pulling him off the streets and into a new life. Richard turned pro in 2016 and is now an unbeaten cruiserweight with a bright future ahead of him in the sport.
The first half of Richard's story may take place in a different London, but the essential facts remain the same as those evident in recent spate of youth crime that's been dubbed an "epidemic" by media and politicians – and for good reason: 135 people were murdered in London in 2018, the highest total since 2008, which saw 155 killings. Many of the victims were teenagers, or people in their twenties. Seventy-six were stabbed, 15 were shot and 41 were killed "by other means". Two-fifths of those killed were men under-30, often from the poorest boroughs, with young black men accounting for a grossly disproportionate number of deaths. This year has already witnessed 25 murders in the city, with the Metropolitan Police launching four murder probes within 24 hours in early March.
Competing theories have emerged, trying to explain away the current spike. Some have blamed it on a drop in the number of police on the streets, with total funding for forces in England and Wales falling by 19 percent in real terms over the last eight years, with the Met asked to make a further £325 million in savings by 2022 due to further government cuts. Others have put the onus on drill music and the corrosive effects of social media, or have demanded ever more stringent sentencing laws for those caught carrying a knife. The solutions offered tend to focus on criminal justice; tougher sentences for knife possession or beefing up a stop-and-search policy that mainly targets young black men. The Met's Commissioner even suggested that the armed forces might be brought in to help alleviate the crises – a statement mostly treated with the derision it deserved.
But the most controversial suggestion is perhaps the least well known. Knife crime prevention orders are the brainchild of Home Secretary Sajid Javid. In effect, the proposed legislation serves as an ASBO and can be applied to children as young as 12 who are "suspected" of carrying a knife, as well as "habitual knife carriers". The idea of a "suspect" is fuzzily defined at best, with critics believing it will almost certainly serve as a byword for young, black and working class. Curfews and social media bans will apply, and any child found to break these could be liable to up to two years in prison. To many, it smacks of a rushed, PR-driven sticking plaster – and red meat to the "law and order" Tory right – that will only serve to further alienate the communities it targets.
I meet activist Myriam Kane near where she lives, at a cafe just under Queen's Road Peckham station. Though she may be eight months pregnant, it hasn't stopped her campaigning on a range of issues in the local community. Myriam moved to Peckham six years ago, after growing up between Italy and France, and is currently an active member of the National Union of Students Black Students' Campaign Committee, as well as sitting on the NUS national executive council. Myriam recently launched a petition opposing the Home Secretary's prevention orders, which has attracted hundreds of signatures.
With her baby boy on the way, Myriam says she feels pushed to do more than ever. What sort of a society is she bringing him into, is a question she constantly asks herself. "[To bring a] young black boy up in this country is quite problematic and scary," she says. "It's a scary time that we're living in, with austerity and how it's killing us. There aren't any more youth centres in the area – in fact, I can't recall any apart from one, which might be closed soon as well. That's what we need more of, not 'bringing in the army', or creating a whole class of 'suspects' [through the proposed new legislation]."
The unacceptable rise is violence is not a fact of life, Myriam adds, nor something that can be simply policed away. "Why don't we have mentorship programmes, or more funding diverted into our local colleges?" she asks. "Why isn't there more conversation around child mental health, which is something we tend to talk down and ignore, particularly when it comes to children that have been involved in violence?"
Research by children's mental charity Young Minds shows that despite the government announcing an extra £1.5 billion in funding to support local authorities in relieving a universally acknowledged crises in treatment in 2014, many local authorities simply used the money to plug other "more urgent" funding gaps created by prior cuts to their overall budgets.
The lack of mental health provision is something Richard remembers from his own youth. "Akala made the point about social indicators [around youth crime], and I absolutely agree," he tells me over the phone. "Domestic violence, broken homes, poverty. These lead kids to do what they do. We don’t talk about psychological impairments and all sorts of undiagnosed issues. It’s only now, when I’m with my close friend, that we talk about people from the past and realise they had issues that helped to explain why they did what they did. We just thought it was normal then."
Austerity doesn't discriminate. It strangles the young as readily as the old. While Richard’s focus and talent found an outlet, he also benefited from supportive parents who stressed the importance of education. After completing his A-Levels he worked towards a degree in Marketing Communications and Advertising at Kingston University, graduating in 2015. But for many young people trapped in spirals of poverty and violence, the prognosis is grim. Funding for London's youth services has declined 44 percent since 2011, with 800 full-time youth worker roles eliminated in the same period. The worst is yet to come, with a further £1.2 million due to be cut from 15 of the city’s local authorities in 2018/19, despite the recently announced Young Londoners Fund, belatedly set up to tackle some of the damage already enacted. For Myriam, the cuts amount to wilful destruction by policymakers, who often have almost zero understanding of the communities they’re supposed to represent.
"Some of these young people have parents that are doing two or three jobs a day, just to put food on the table. These young people are on their own – there's nothing in front of them to aspire to," she adds. "Every time you're coming out your house you're being targeted by the police, and there's nowhere to go for support. When you go to college, there are sometimes metal detectors and police on the premises. You are being isolated from society. You're being treated as a criminal from a young age, even though you know this isn't what you deserve."
Myriam was president of Lewisham Southwark College's student union during her time at the college and was instrumental in banning Prevent – the controversial New Labour-era "safeguarding strategy" aimed at young Muslims at risk of radicalisation – from campus.
"[Prevent] targets young Muslims – but you haven't asked what's going on at home, or in the rest of their lives. Our Prevent officer said, 'Oh, if you notice a change in behaviour.' What about asking how they're coping with their coursework or mental health? But that isn't explored. 'Let's pass it to the government or the police instead.' It's wrong. Defeating Prevent in my college was a big thing. I am Muslim, I am an activist, I'm very vocal on a big range of issues. And mine and my peers' voices were being silenced. It shows you that surveillance doesn't work to help young people."
We don't have to look that far, or to that long ago, to see the success of a different approach. In the mid-2000s, Glasgow was known as Europe's murder capital, with 40 killings a year; double the national average. Most involved knives and came under the banner of "gang violence". The solution was to establish a pioneering Violence Reduction Unit, with powers to invest in communities, workplace opportunity and educating at-risk teenagers on the deadly consequences of carrying a knife. Rather than blocking off avenues out of poverty, they invested. The following decade has seen the city's murder rate halve. In 2017, 35 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Britain. Not one of the deaths took place in Scotland.
During the first half of 2016, I worked as a mentor for east London-based education charity The Complete Works. The brief was simple: to work on a one-to-one basis with children excluded from mainstream education, in an attempt to start the process of reintegration with their peers. Local authorities would refer kids to the charity, who would assign them to a mentor. I worked with *David, a shy, bright 16-year-old boy with an aptitude for maths, who was facing an upcoming court case, though I never asked the specifics.
For three hours each weekday morning we'd sit in a Hackney library, going through coursework and talking about the range and breadth of his interests, the surreal weekend developments in the Premier League or the latest mixtape from his favourite MCs. There wasn't much to do in the local area, at least when you came from his estate, he told me – and it was hard to stay away from the people who could draw you into trouble. I saw David the day after the court case, which had gone well. But any sense of victory was short-lived. He was worried, about the future and what it might hold. Several of the schools in the area had him marked as a troublemaker and were unlikely to take him back, while the prospect of a return to the local approved unit didn't help his confidence. Things were tough, both at home and on the street. He couldn't pretend otherwise.
There are thousands of children like David in the city, halfway to becoming the left behind. Ignored, until they become statistics or the focus of performative bouts of moral indignation by politicians or parts of our tabloid media. Adam Abdullah is a young person who has found a voice. In December of 2018, the then 15-year-old became Young Mayor of Lewisham, in south-east London. When we speak, he is clear about where anger and scrutiny should be directed.
"Nobody gets involved with knives because they’re fun or because [they listen to] drill," he says. "It is because of poverty. It’s because they grow up on an estate surrounded by people whose lives solely consist of that, and that alone. How are you supposed to trust authority when your first experience of it is when bailiffs came knocking on your sick mum's door? That’s what I remember."
Lewisham is one of the boroughs worst plagued by knife crime, with 561 recorded offences in 2018. Adam speaks with clarity and has no interest in mincing his words: "[Austerity] isn't just youth centres closing. It's cuts to the NHS, your mum's benefits and the budget of the school that you go to. It's the production of poverty. It's systematic, and it's handing our youth to their deaths."
Hopelessness is not an option. Despite a lack of funding, there are tangible things that Myriam believes can make a difference, if given the backing to flourish. She points to the national YouthBank initiative, which provides small grants to young people to invest in community initiatives. It's the sense of possibility that's important, Myriam explains: "[It might] just be a hundred pounds put on a card. A group of young people will get together and decide they want to start a small business project. It can be anything."
"It's not an old white man telling them how do it," she continues. "It's their peers from the same background, the same age. It's really powerful. It shows that no matter where you come from, you can still make it. The government could absolutely fund this if they wanted to, considering the amount they spend on wars and [ramping up] criminal justice initiatives."
It's pretty late in the afternoon by the time we leave the cafe. Walking along Peckham High Street, Myriam is off to find a reasonably priced buggy in preparation for her son's birth next month. We stop to say our goodbyes at the square that leads to the striking visage of Peckham Library, looking something like its best in the fading light.
The streets are still busy with people on their daily rounds; shopping and socialising, making their way to or from work. A couple of women stop Myriam for a quick hello and a few minutes of chat. Somewhere in the middle distance there's a collage of teenage sounds, as the kids from the local Harris Academy pour out into freedom. Tinny music playing off phones, laughter and shouts, nonsense and bravado; the usual adolescent cacophony.
It was mid-afternoon on the 7th of March when 17-year-old Ayub Hassan was found in west Kensington, on the other side of the city. He'd suffered multiple knife wounds to the chest and died soon after arriving at a local hospital. Ayub wasn't involved with gangs, or anything that might lead to an "easy" explanation – though his young life had been marked by violence. At 12, he was beaten unconscious and had suffered a prior stabbing, as well as a planned hit-and-run.
A family friend described a kind, handsome boy and diligent student with aspirations of becoming a barrister. Ayub was the sixth teenager killed by a knife in London this year.