Knife crime is nothing new, but in the last year something has changed. Police have reported a startling 16% rise in attacks in the last year, and last week five men were killed in just six days on London’s streets.
But as a national debate rages hunting for answers – police cuts? Austerity? A crackdown on aggressive rap? – there’s one group of people whose views are rarely heard: the survivors of stabbings themselves.
The reasons for this are complex. Victims are often scared to speak out, and are keen to protect their privacy, particularly if the incident was gang-related.
In an effort to understand what may be driving the surge in attacks, and to understand the act of violence itself, HuffPost UK has spoken to four young men who have borne the brunt of the blade.
We asked them what they think needs to change to stop the violence, and their insights are revealing and sometimes shocking. But they offer some possible solutions, too. To protect their safety, their names have been changed.
“One guy told me that if I got any blood on his clothes he’d stab me again himself.”
For Joel, who grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham, knife crime relates to a “way of life”.
“A lot of these young kids are willing to shoot and stab for gain. You can’t gain from the streets – the streets will take what you have,” he said.
Just over 10 years ago the 27-year-old was stabbed at a barbecue. He was attacked by a group of young men at a time when gang culture was “at its peak” in the city, he said.
“I didn’t make a conscious decision to be in a gang – it’s just something that I grew into with a lot of other young men, like me. Our mums used to go to each other’s houses, we’d eat together and grow up together – we were friends.”
Things haven’t changed much in the last decade in Birmingham, either. This year, the West Midlands region has seen higher rates of knife crime than the England and Wales average. Just last month, three people suffered stab wounds near the city centre following a brawl involving 100 youths.
It wasn’t until moments after that Joel realised that he’d been stabbed. “I put my hand on my back and saw my hand was full of blood. I looked at my arm and blood was squirting out. I was in shock. The adrenaline I’d felt while being attacked was quickly turning into pain. Obviously I started to panic and began asking people to help – but they were telling me to get away from them.
“One guy told me that if I got any blood on his clothes he’d stab me again himself. That taught me you have to be stone cold because that’s how people are.”
This lifestyle raised me
The attack didn’t come as a surprise to Joel – he’d long been aware of the bloody realities of gang culture. Like many young men confronting the realities of street life, he’d become desensitised to violence. “This lifestyle raised me,” he said. “My dad was involved in the same lifestyle. I’ve got uncles that have been incarcerated since I was child – I feel comfortable in the ghetto.”
But Joel turned things around. He stopped being involved in gangs at 21 because “things happened to make me man up”. He became a father, and he now attends university, where he’s studying towards a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management.
He says the recent increase in violence is linked to youth centre cuts, and a lack of male role models – “a lack of black fathers that are ready to guide the community and steer the youths in the right way”.
Local authority spending on youth services has fallen by 52% in real terms since 2012, according to Labour figures compiled by the House of Commons Library.
Government spending on youth services in England and Wales has fallen by 61% over the past six years according to the YMCA. Similarly, spending on youth services by local authorities is down by a third compared with three years ago in 2015.
“Since I’ve been stabbed, I’m never without my Rambo [knife].”
For 20-year-old K, from East London, youth centres are futile in solving the current problem. “When I went to youth centres it was only to play games consoles and eat food. I can do that at my friend’s house, order a pizza and bun a zoot [smoke weed],” he said.
Two years ago, K was stabbed in his back with a samurai sword outside his home over an altercation involving a friend. “Once I was taken into the ambulance, that’s when I started feeling pain. When I got stabbed, I didn’t feel pain – I just remember feeling warm. I was in hospital for about nine days and they put over 50 staples in my back which I had to keep in for over a month.
“The recovery process was the worst thing in the world. I was just sore and hurting. I’d never really taken into consideration how much I use my back – little things like laying down, sitting down and getting up – I needed help with; going to the toilet; if I dropped something, I wouldn’t bend over.”
K, an avid listener of drill music, a genre of rap, says he thinks the music has played a big part in the rise in crime. “Drill influences people to ride out [seek trouble] all the time. Before drill, no one in London had a ‘Rambo’ knife or one that’s bigger than six inches. People were getting stabbed but weren’t dying as much or were generally getting stabbed a lot less. The likelihood was that people would get stabbed with a little penknife, like four inches, that’s not really going to kill you.”
Now, drill music makes reference to 15-inch knives, he said, and “that’s what man are using on people, giving them the full force – a good ten inches of that knife”.
Recently, rapper Drillminister made headlines for defending drill music and insisting that it is not the reason for the wave of violent crime among teenagers in particular. But K refuses to believe it. “Drillminister is chatting the most shit. It’s brainwashing people with subliminal messages. It’s not categorically telling them to do it but the artists, and their lifestyles, is something that a lot of people aspire to.”
Though he listens to a lot of it, he says “there’s nothing positive about it. It makes me angry and inspires me to go out and do something crazy. I listen to drill because it’s music I can relate to because I am about that life.”
K now always carries a knife. “Since I’ve been stabbed, I’m never without my Rambo. I have to make the precautions to ensure that it doesn’t happen to me again.” He says it is alarmingly easy to buy knives through Amazon or marketplaces.
“The state of play on the roads is like Grand Theft Auto in real life.”
Neither of the attacks on Joel or K received much media coverage, and Daryl, 37, from north London, believes this is partly why wider society is so shocked by the recent stabbings.
“If it was written about more then people would probably understand the ongoing severity of the issue – but it generally gets brushed under the carpet. When someone actually loses their lives, that’s when the media frenzy kicks up,” he says.
Daryl was stabbed in the back 10 years ago during a night out. He was returning from a night out with his cousin and a close friend. If the blade had hit just a few centimetres higher, he could’ve been paralysed.
“One minute, I was running, and the next I am getting off the floor with my lip burst completely open. It all happened so quickly. I didn’t know I’d been stabbed until I felt that the back of my clothes were wet,” he said.
The situation now, a decade later, is no better, Daryl thinks. “The state of play on the roads is like Grand Theft Auto in real life. That’s how the kids are behaving nowadays. When I was growing up you knew who was a bad man. Now everyone’s trying to make a name for themselves – just because. There’s not really a reason behind this, it’s become more mindless.”
The impact on Daryl’s life has been significant. He doesn’t go out as much, he stopped socialising, and has started doing things differently. He now believes that there has to be a “massive shift in mentality” to solve the crisis, which, like the London Mayor Sadiq Khan has suggested, could well take a generation to address.
“How this happens, I don’t know, but it’s not going to be an overnight fix,” said the 37-year-old. “I think austerity has something to do with it – the young people need places to go and something to do. I think the youth services is a major key. Social media and technology makes young people a lot more secluded and insular.”
“Being stabbed has made me realise that life is precious.”
Denzel, 22, was almost disemboweled with a 14-inch blade in a vicious attack in Croydon four months ago, while walking through a park. He’s still recovering at home after being discharged from hospital.
As the father-of-one lay on the cold concrete waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he was thinking of his son. “The whole time I was thinking that I can’t die right now because I need to be alive and well for him. I was thinking about him constantly,” he said.
“Being stabbed has made me realise that life is precious, but you have to be aware of your surroundings and of people. Mostly, I’ve been in shock because I wasn’t expecting this to happen – I’ve been angry and disappointed because it shouldn’t have happened.
“I still get pains from the injury; I’m not able to do everything I need to do. I get pains in my stomach, it’s hard to breathe,” he said.
Though they are themselves victims of horrific attacks, the majority of the men interviewed in his article admit they too have carried knives to protect themselves. Though they have varied ideas of what needs to change, on one thing they are united – the rules of the game have changed.
“The days of having a fair fight are long gone and you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Joel said. “You can never be too careful.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.