Festus Akinbusoye is Chairman of Milton Keynes Federation and was 2015 Parliamentary candidate for West Ham. He runs his own business.
The Home Office announcement of placing information on chicken-boxes at chicken shops across the country, aimed mainly at young people to deter them away from knife crime looked quite cutting-edge.
That is, until commentators started carving it to pieces, saying it is racist. Their reasoning seemed to be that is somehow stereotyping black people as users of these shops.
Let me be clear. I am fully in support of us doing whatever needs to be done to help people drop the knives they feel a need to carry to keep them safe. I am all for consistent and practical measures aimed at engaging young people – where they are, to inspire them to better things as an alternative to being in gangs. So, as a public health infomercial, I support this Home Office initiative.
I know of families and friends who have been affected by gun and knife crime. Two have been fatal. One was just 16 years old, and the other in his early 20s. I too have witnessed, as a young man growing up in East London, a man covered in blood being chased by another carrying what looked like a machete. I couldn’t say what happened to this man, but the thought still haunts me some 20 years later.
There certainly isn’t a single solution to end violent crime on our streets. However, it is frankly just as ridiculous to turn violent crime into a race thing as it is to racialise solutions. Identifying a correlation between a specific crime and ethnicity will not cause any intelligent person to draw a causal link.
For example, and based on my experience of working with young offenders in and out of prisons, there is nothing yet that I have seen which causes me to believe that young black boys are any more violent or aggressive than their white or Asian counterparts. Nevertheless, data does show that a disproportionate number of young black boys are found with knives, and convicted of knife crimes, than their peers from other ethnic groups. The same couldn’t be said for other forms of crime.
I therefore do not buy the racism argument being levelled at the Home Office on this occasion, because the chicken shops being targeted are not just in predominantly black areas, but all parts of the country. If we are to treat gun and knife crime as a public health issue, engaging young people at the place where they are most likely to be found should be welcome. The use of iInstagram, for example, as a way of engaging young people on the subject of knife crime is a really good idea.
This is where I think the Home Office might wish to revisit this otherwise positive ‘chicken box’ strategy. Here is just one reason why. I live in rural Bedfordshire, where we do not have the typical chicken shops like the ones in our urban centres. Nonetheless, we do have growing concerns about ‘county line’ drug gangs moving their nefarious trade into rural areas. In fact, there is some evidence to show that knife crime is increasing at a faster rate in rural areas than in larger urban parts of the UK.
As alluded to earlier, this initiative may run the risk of assuming that knife crime and the gang culture that surround it are city centred – so resources are focused on those areas only. This will be mistake.
Additionally, while it is essential that this form of passive engagement continues – in chicken shops, social media, online and placed adverts, and so on – it is equally crucial that we invest more in support services within communities and for parents who might be struggling to keep their children out of gangs.
Far from taking away a parent’s rightful responsibility for caring for their child, it is about letting that parent know there is help available once it has been put in place. A quick search online will tell you there is not much support out there at all for parents who are worried about their child falling victim to grooming by gang leaders.
There are multiple reasons why people carry knives or join gangs, and there will have to be a multi-pronged approach to tackling these, including tougher prison sentences aimed at rehabilitation and reform. It is however perfectly sensible to also include in this deal useful information on chicken boxes, billboards and posters, alongside investment in community and home based support.
This is not about race, it is about keeping our communities safe.