A man in a fluffy chicken costume using a megaphone outside Westfield Stratford City might not sound like the most earnest solution to youth violence – but after the Home Office's "offensive" attempt to combat knife crime last week, it seemed we'd already gone beyond parody.
The campaign – which includes chicken boxes printed with anti-knife crime messages and distributed in shops such as Morley's and Chicken Cottage – was widely criticised as offensive. Labour MP David Lammy told the Guardian, "The Home Office is using taxpayers' money to sponsor an age-old trope [...] the stereotype that black people love fried chicken. This ridiculous stunt is either explicitly racist or, at best, unfathomably stupid."
The chicken suit stunt – organised by Ndubuisi Uchea and Hayel Wartemberg, both 27 and co-founders of youth culture content agency Word on the Curb – was a direct reaction to the government's new initiative.
"We wanted to accord the same level of patronising sentiment to the Home Office that they accorded to Londoners at large," says Wartemberg, who wore the chicken suit and handed out free chicken. "[Wearing the costume] was supposed to be a satirical, humorous take on the issue, but with a serious outcome. [The Home Office campaign is] quite insidious to patronise, demean and undermine the grassroots knowledge of people who come from communities that are of high risk as a result of the ramifications of poverty, and then also for it to be racially insensitive and inflammatory."
Uchea and Wartemberg asked people to write their ideas for combating violent crime on the inside of boxes, to subvert the messages of "positive alternatives to carrying a knife" printed on the 321,000 boxes sent by the government to 210 chicken shops across England and Wales. "We're encouraging people to share their thoughts to change the rhetoric and solve this problem, which is a long-term problem," says Uchea.
The more than 100 ideas gathered – which the pair are delivering to the Home Office – ranged from investing in youth services, to education in schools, to funding family resources and facilities. But one that particularly struck Wartemberg suggested the introduction of interest-free business loans for young people.
"If you subsidise the cost of inspiring a young person – potentially if they've been kicked out of school or are in a pupil referral unit for whatever reason – who's trying to garner money in ways that might not be legit, it not only incentivises, inspires and motivates them, but also eliminates the cost of putting someone in prison," he explains. "It costs more to send someone to prison than it does to send someone to Eton."
Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, said the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign, which cost £57,000, "will bring home to thousands of young people the tragic consequences of carrying a knife and challenge the idea that it makes you safer".
However, many clearly don't agree. Uchea and Wartemberg's campaign isn't the only one launched in response to "the government's patronising propaganda". Another separate initiative is aiming to use chicken boxes to educate people on their rights if they are targeted by police powers to stop and search.
Dorothy Spencer, a community and youth worker, and Gabriel Monae, an artwork embroiderer, both 27 and from London, designed the boxes to include information on how to respond to police. They have set up a crowdfunding page, which satirical artist Darren Cullen is hosting on his website. In three days, the campaign has already raised almost £400, and all funds will go towards print costs. Spencer and Monae also plan to print stickers to cover the existing government-issued boxes.
The pair want to make sure it's not just the Tories who have information in chicken shops.
"[The stop and search boxes campaign] seemed like a good way to highlight the failings of the government's campaign, especially when Boris Johnson is on this parade of law and order and is trying to enhance stop and search powers," Spencer explains. "It's not the most expensive mistake they've made, but it's still a decent amount of money that could've been better spent reopening shuttered youth centres, funding community-based work and giving young people opportunities."
Spencer and Monae are approaching chicken shops to offer their boxes for free, as well as grassroots homeless outreach organisation Streets Kitchen and stalls at Notting Hill Carnival. "We'd like to mass-produce them, but we'd need a grand or two to do that," says Spencer. "If we don't get that, we'll make them ourselves – sit at home and cut out cardboard boxes."
The campaign also highlights the staggering statistics surrounding stop and search. Black people in England and Wales are eight times more likely than white people to be stopped; for Asian people, the rate is more than twice that of white people. Under Section 60 searches – which allow police to stop anyone in an area and time period where a senior officer anticipates serious violence – black people are 40 times more likely than white people to be stopped. The government's Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP), which saw a rise in Section 60 searches a decade ago, had no measurable impact on knife crime.
Spencer says: "Everyone knows it doesn’t work, everyone knows it's insanely racist; it never really leads to arrests, and when it does it's normally because people are resisting being searched and fed up of being harassed by police."
Uchea and Wartemberg will arrive at the Home Office today, taking with them the boxes featuring the handwritten messages from the public. They want to make sure the diverse suggestions of people on the street are not left unused. "We want to get the messages into the hands of decision makers," says Wartemberg. "If we go [to Westminster] and nobody pays attention, we'll go back on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday… we're banging on doors, saying, 'Listen.'"