Luke Billingham – Luke is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and Head of Strategy at Reach Children’s Hub. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people.
Elizabeth Cook – Elizabeth is Lecturer in Sociology in the Violence and Society Centre, City University of London. Elizabeth researches family activism, fatal violence and voluntary sector responses to violence. She recently completed her first monograph: ‘Family Activism in the Aftermath of Lethal Violence’, due to be published by Routledge later this year.
Anthony Ellis – Anthony is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford. He is the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence: An Ethnographic Study (Routledge), which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.
Keir Irwin-Rogers – Keir is Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University. Keir was the lead criminologist to the cross-party Youth Violence Commission and recently co-authored the Commission’s final report (2020). Keir is currently co-authoring a monograph with Luke Billingham addressing social harm and violence between young people.
Before Coronavirus, England and Wales had been experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of a different kind. Serious violent crime had been rising steadily over a period of several years. Between 2015-2018 the overall rate of homicide increased by 39%. In 2018, killings by a knife or sharp instrument were the highest on record and both police-recorded crime and NHS hospital admissions confirmed that there had been consecutive recorded rises in violent offences involving knives or sharp instruments during this period. It was when writing for the Guardian in 2017 that the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, Sarah Jones MP, described this worsening situation as an ‘epidemic’. The most recent figures indicate that in 2019 the police recorded the highest number of offences involving knives since data of this kind was first collected in 2011, with a considerable number of these recorded offences taking place in the country’s large cities. The most recent data from the Homicide Index brings slightly better news with a decline in the overall number of homicides nationally. Nevertheless, killings in London in this period increased, while the number of women killed by violence in England and Wales has increased for the second year running.
Purported causal associations between crime, violence and the city have a long history. In his foreword to Frederick Thrasher’s (1927) seminal study of Chicago’s criminal gangs, Robert Park famously stated ‘It is the slum, the city wilderness…which provides the city gang its natural habitat’. Undoubtedly, the ‘city is a primary site of crime and deviance’ (Atkinson and Millington, 2019: 1), and today particular urban environments characterised by exclusion and marginalisation continue to provide the most common backdrop to presentations of violence. In recent years, dystopian images of inner urban landscapes populated by gangs of dangerous young men became synonymous with the country’s latest ‘knife crime crisis’; an association which both revealed and yet at the same time obscured the complexity of violence in contemporary society.
On the one hand, this association drew attention – if often in a sensationalist way – to the neglected, austerity-ravaged parts of cities like London, that are seldom seen amidst ascending skylines and visible wealth. The recent surge in violence has served as a timely reminder that there remain many groups of socially excluded young men who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’ (Badiou, 2016: 36), for whom crime and violence seem to offer the only feasible route to becoming visible, to feeling that they matter, and to accessing aspects of the perceived ‘good life’. More than half of recent recorded homicides occurred in the most deprived parts of the country, while the majority of those requiring hospital treatment for stab injuries in London were young, male, and from the city’s most disadvantaged communities. The various demands from across the political spectrum for tougher sentencing, zero-tolerance policing, investment in inner city areas, collectively conjured a sense of profound urgency to respond. While it is difficult to ascertain the overall effectiveness of the response so far, some of the most recent figures quoted above indicate very little has changed.
What is crucial in this respect is that the continued associations drawn between serious weapon-enabled violence and the less salubrious public spaces of cities, can obscure both the violence that occurs within intimate spaces as well as the connections between these differing contexts. Parts of cities quickly and easily become regarded as landscapes beyond the periphery of civilised life and subject to more intense forms of policing and control, while private intimate spaces are routinely ‘laden with the suggestion of civility’ (Atkinson, 2012: 250). The significant position that the domestic home assumed within the national response to the Coronavirus crisis served to reinforce this paradox: too often seen simplistically as a place of sanctity from the dangers of the urban streets, the home was shown during lockdown to be a place where intimidation, abuse and violence can occur with alarming regularity. As part of the Counting Dead Women blog, Karen Ingala Smith identified at least 14 women and 2 children who were killed in the first three weeks of lockdown (between 23rd March and 12th April) (Smith, 2020).
This unfolding crisis of violence and its complex relationship with the country’s large cities was the focus of our contribution to a new book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope (Anthem Press) published in June 2020. The book brought together academics and practitioners to reinvigorate a sense of the city as a space where more progressive and fairer futures can be imagined, planned and realised. In this vein, our particular contribution sought to identify the possible reasons for this recent surge in urban violence and how it might be addressed. In the intervening period between finalising our contribution and the publication of the book, the country, and the world, was fundamentally shaken by Coronavirus. The pandemic’s cumulative social and economic impacts brought forth a range of issues requiring immediate attention, but will also have considerable and lasting impacts in the long-term. While the national lockdown temporarily emptied the public spaces of our cities where violent confrontations between groups of socially excluded young men had been taking place, confinement to homes has led to reported increases in domestic abuse, with considerable numbers of predominantly women seeking support and refuge.
We argued in our contribution to the book that the recent surge in violent crimes is a highly complex issue and one that is entangled with inequality, the legacy of austerity, and a crisis of ‘mattering’, as these play out unevenly across the sub-geography of cities. The recommendations we made in the book were numerous: the country must learn from the successes of Scotland’s much lauded ‘public health’ approach to violence; re-invest in services that support and protect those experiencing domestic abuse and that provide children and young people with support; and reduce the rate of school exclusions. These changes – among others – could enable the young people who are needlessly fighting and dying in our cities to feel that they matter, rather than treating their lives, and those of their peers, as disposable, due to the trauma and diminishment they have often suffered.
Coronavirus has not diminished the urgency to address the issue of violence in our cities. We suggest, tentatively, that the pandemic’s impact on social and economic life could serve as a catalyst for further violence in the future. It therefore reinforces our plea to power-holders to comprehensively address this issue in the long term, rather than treating young lives with the same disposability that is too often felt by the young people themselves. The final report from the Youth Violence Commission recently issued a stark warning that the increased private violence experienced through lockdown, as well as unfavourable conditions arising from the pandemic’s economic impact, could have devastating effects on young people, including an exacerbated problem of violence. For the sake of those young people, we sincerely hope that all those in positions of power can develop a more effective response to our society’s violence ‘epidemic’ than they have to Coronavirus.
Keir-Irwin Rogers, Open University, email@example.com
Images courtesy of the authors