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12 April 2019

LOOKING out on the modest crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square last weekend to stand against violent crime, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said that he wanted to deliver not only a lament, but “a great shout of encouragement to young people today”. He was speaking after a father who had lost his son to knife crime and who pleaded: “Let’s show our youth that the community loves and respects them, and they will love and respect us.” The rally brought church leaders and the families of victims together. Something more practical, however, something more local, is needed if “our youth” are to experience this love and respect.

A key element that was mentioned repeatedly on Saturday was safety. The chief reason that young people carry a weapon is fear. For a few, this fear relates to shoring up their standing among their peers: brought up in a threatening environment, they assert their identity by threatening others. For most, however, the fear is simply for their personal safety. One of the saddest sights is looking at the results of a knife amnesty — not because many of the weapons handed in are lethal (which they are), but because many are almost harmless. What induces a child to wander around with a butter knife in his or her pocket?

Youth violence is not new. There have always been bullies and children who will take advantage of their size, charisma, or recklessness to dominate others. Past generations, however, have been able to rely on their parents, or even passing adults, to intervene to prevent the worst excesses. In many communities now, parents are absent, or neglectful, or ignorant of their children’s behaviour. Other adults have been infected by fearfulness, treating teenagers as an alien race just when they ought to be befriending them. Race, incidentally, is a red herring. In an interview on Channel 4 News last month, the British rapper Akala, author of Natives: Race and class in the ruins of empire, pointed out that gang crime was not a new phenomenon. Interviewed by Jon Snow, who knows a thing or two about skin colour, Akala directed those who would present it as a “black issue” towards the monoculture of Glasgow, where, in 2005, murder figures were double the national rate. “The social indicators have remained identical,” he said, listing poverty, domestic abuse, lack of education, and expulsion from school. About half the people in young-offender institutions grew up in care.

These are things to lament, and to tackle with all the political will that the Churches can muster. In the mean time, though, there are many examples of encouragement, such as the work of Public Spirit, a group of young people in Croydon North Deanery, who have spent months building a campaign to improve relationships between their peers and the police in the area. One young organiser seemed inspired by Martin Luther King’s expansion on 1 John 4.18: “Only love, understanding, and organised good will can cast out fear.” Organised good will is a good target.

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