‘Shall we go for a walk?’
Surely the most unwelcome invitation you can ever hear over a bank holiday in winter. I keep a list of excuses at the ready; though I must be careful not to claim a sprained ankle too often. So while others go and get chilled to the bone and think it does them good, I stay indoors and read.
This time I read an account of a young black man in South London reflecting on his former life as a gang member. It was a graphic picture he painted, but the key question, the one I was most interested in – what actually caused you to turn your life round? – seemed to be the only one he couldn’t answer. He mentioned a ‘role model’ and a charity; but he could not say what had made the critical difference and shifted his perspective on life so that he turned away from violence.
I have heard his story, or something like it, many times. He grew up in a family where violence was normal and mixed with people who also knew little else. He had carried a knife since he was fifteen. He was now in his late-twenties. This was not some ‘life style choice’ but a matter of survival on the streets where he lived. (I don’t mean he was homeless. He shared a house with his mother but he ‘lived’ on the streets.) All this was wearyingly familiar. Whenever people tell me to listen to those with the ‘lived experience’ of once carrying a knife, I hear something like this every time, and there is rarely anything new or revealing. What I really want to understand is what they can never articulate: what caused your radical change of mindset?
However, this particular young man did say something I had not heard said before – at least not quite in this way.
When I speak to people who have renounced violence, they often say that they carried a knife because it got them ‘respect’. This young person, however, put that a little differently. He said he carried a knife to avoid humiliation. In his circle, to be stabbed is to be humiliated and that is something almost impossible to bear. So you have a knife to make others think twice before attacking you – to get ‘respect’ – but if they do attack, you can retaliate in kind, though more violently, to wipe out the stain of humiliation. If they cut you on the leg, you will aim to stab them in the chest or neck. There is a hierarchy of wounding.
This is why most of the campaigns aimed at stopping knife crime by pointing out the risks and dangers, fail. Those who are drawn into violence are not lacking in understanding of what the consequences for them could be. They know the risks very well, but they balance the risk of being attacked for carrying a knife against the risk of not being able to defend themselves or being humiliated.
Last year we had more fatal stabbings on the streets of South Yorkshire. As the new year begins we have little reason to suppose the situation will change any time soon. Violence will continue, and perhaps the young man whose story I read gives further insight into why this will be. Depending on the mindset by which we each live, our lives are held by powerful psychological and emotional forces that drive our behaviour and are not always easy to manage or overcome. For those whose mindset is that of those who live ‘on the streets’, the fear of humiliation must be one of the strongest drivers of behaviour.
Nevertheless, people do change, and we must keep the exits in place for any that want to escape a life of violence, often associated with drugs and gangs. But what causes the change of mindset, the shift in perspective, and whether it is the same for all, remains as mysterious as ever.
The good gang
Continuing with the theme of violence, and especially its prevention, we are often asked to fund projects at a sports or martial arts centre, a gym or boxing club. Those who run these organisations tell us, correctly, that they help to steer young males away from the gangs and their drug-related criminality. I am given all sorts of reasons why they succeed in doing this, but the most convincing is surely the most obvious. What the clubs offer is something that the criminal gangs offer and use as a powerful recruiting tool: they offer friendship.
Whenever I visit these clubs I am always acutely aware of the crucial role played by the leaders. All through the time of my visit, I notice the way various young people will come over and have a chat with the leaders about all sorts of things – and the leaders listen patiently, without interrupting, and respond. They give the boys (and increasingly girls too) their full attention. Sometimes they will notice a boy or girl who is a little aloof, and they will go across and chat with them. If you come from a household where your father is absent, your mother is worn down with domestic chores and other children as well as a job, having an adult devote time to you is a rarity. The greatest gift the club and its leaders give is this quality time. If I could wish for one thing this year for all our young people at risk of being drawn into criminal gangs, it would be this: that they might find one of these good gangs to belong to.
Stay safe and well.