07 Jun 2017

Rising Knife Violence Alarms Britain as Youths Take Up Blades

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LONDON — Ali started carrying knives when he was 14, long before his childhood friend was stabbed to death while walking down a well-lit street in South London in March.

“When you’re leaving the house, you don’t even think about it. You grab your keys, wallet, phone and knife,” said Ali, a 19-year-old student who provided only his first name out of fear that he would be approached by the police.

Ali said he had never been involved with the gangs and violence that are associated with the Surrey Lane public housing project where he lives. Nevertheless, like many young people in London, he said he carried a knife with the idea of protecting himself.

The trend of young men arming themselves with knives has become an enormous concern for the Metropolitan Police, Britain’s largest police force, which last month reported a 24 percent increase in knife crimes over the last year, bringing knife-related offenses to a five-year high.

Seemingly daily, the British tabloids have published stories of young men inexplicably knifed as they waited for a bus, or of being chased down and stabbed.

Last month two teenagers in London were stabbed to death within 90 minutes of each other, and in the same week the police verified a riveting video that showed a passenger disarming a blade-wielding man on a bus in North London.

Just on Thursday, the police thwarted a suspected terrorist attack in central London, arresting a 27-year-old man armed with a bag of knives. The episode took place near the Parliament building, where Khalid Masood stabbed a police officer to death in March as part of Britain’s worst terrorist attack in over a decade.

It’s not just an increase in knife crime that has officials worried, but the increase in people carrying the so-called zombie knives and machetes inspired by horror films that can be bought for less than $10 on the internet. While the sale of such weapons was outlawed in Britain last year, a thriving black market exists online.

The increase in knife attacks in Britain, where handguns are almost impossible to obtain, had been attributed in recent years to budget cuts to youth services and statistical anomalies caused by changes in statistical accounting. But police officials say this no longer explains either a sharp rise in overall crime rates or the growing prevalence of young men carrying knives.

“At the very root of all this are youths who tend to have been victims of violence in the past and do not want to become victims again,” said Patrick Green, manager of the Ben Kinsella Trust, an organization that works to reduce knife violence. “They sneak knives out of the kitchen drawer without being aware of the risks and consequences of their actions.”

The knife issue is a “broad and complex societal problem” the police say, that reaches beyond their control.

“The Met police can only solve the end result,” said Steve O’Connell, the chairman of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee.

“We know that if you are carrying a knife, there is a big chance of you becoming a perpetrator or a victim of a knife crime,” he added. “We need to persuade youths that they don’t need knives.”

But many young people who live in areas with high crime insist that carrying a knife wins them respect and lowers their chances of being attacked.

On a recent day in Battersea, a former slum area in South London, Ali visited a makeshift shrine of flowers, pictures and cards on the spot where his friend Malachi Brooks, 22, had been fatally stabbed.

There were still bloodstains on the sidewalk that his friends and family tried to cover with tea candles in the shape of his name. Ali has a tough demeanor, but his eyes started to swell with tears as he read some of the notes.

“Can’t believe this happened to you,” read one card. “You were the nicest boy, always smiling, never got into any trouble.”

The road was quiet, but it felt relatively safe, on a residential street close to Chelsea, one of London’s most affluent districts, where Prince George is scheduled to start primary school in September.

Jerry Conway, another resident who visited the shrine and described Mr. Brooks as “one of the good ones,” said stabbings were distressingly common in the neighborhood, but they mostly went unreported.

“People only really care about this one because the private school the prince is due at is so close you could spit on it,” he said.

“There isn’t really a lot of gang crime here, it’s more individual feuds that go back many years between the kids that grew up here,” Mr. Conway added.

“That’s probably what happened to the boy Mally,” he said, referring to Malachi Brooks.

Across the road in his family’s apartment, Ali stared out the window toward the shrine and said he was convinced his friend would have been able to protect himself had he been armed.

“I’m not a criminal, I’ve never hurt anyone, but you’ve got to do what it takes to survive,” Ali said, pulling out a knife with a fixed blade about three inches long from under a pile of magazines.

“I took this from a construction site and it fits in my belt,” he continued. “If I needed to use it, it would do the job,” he said, before throwing it into the wooden floor like a dart.

Lucy Holbert, a real estate agent who slowed down to look at the site of the attack from her car, said Londoners were increasingly investigating crime rates before buying or renting properties.

“Stabbings are on the front pages of newspapers every week, and they are no longer confined to certain dangerous pockets of London,” Ms. Holbert said. “It’s happening everywhere.”

Many young people are frustrated by the way the news media has sensationalized knife violence and failed to report it as a social problem that requires a social solution, said Vicky Foxcroft, a lawmaker who heads a parliamentary youth crime commission.

“Instead, we often see newspaper tabloid spreads or TV packages with big pictures of knives and hooded youths,” Ms. Foxcroft said. “While this can glamorize knife crime in certain people’s eyes and make it look like a ‘cool’ lifestyle, it can also distance members of the public that may not see this type of thing happening in their neighborhood, making it seem far-fetched.”

The common presumption is that knife crime mainly involves young people from poor communities who have been mixed up in gangs, but gang activity is present in only a small portion of serious youth violence over all, according to a recent report published by the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee. The report also noted that an increasing number of victims were young women.

Chris Wheeler, a boxing instructor from Peckham in southeast London, which has one of the highest rates of knife crime in the city, said that most youths get involved with knives out of boredom.

Mr. Wheeler said he started his gym to help give young people a sense of purpose. “They also look damn cool and hard while they’re doing it,” he said, “which is sometimes the only incentive for a kid to pick up a knife.”

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