What would you say if a young person asked you this question? At a BRAVE (building resilience against violence and extremism) training session with a year group of teenagers in a secondary school in Birmingham, questions were invited. A genuine query from one was ‘where is it safe to stab someone?’ They thought there might be parts of the body where a knife slash would act as a warning rather than actually killing them. It had to be pointed out there is no safe place, and anywhere could lead to a massive life threatening bleed. But questions like this make us rethink our approach with young people familiar with violence and where carrying weapons is the norm for more than a few. In some ways, their looking to minimize harm could be seen as a step forward; but equally it is clear that simple moralizing about not carrying knives is not going to work: for them, it is how to use knives, not whether.
Should we watch kids taking knives from the kitchen?
With apparently escalating incidences of stabbing and shooting, there is currently a huge debate about what should be done. Is it just more police officers on the streets? Is it asking parents to be watchful of kids taking knives from the kitchen? Is it tightening prohibitions on stores selling knives, or embargoes on being able to get machetes on-line? Is it more youth clubs, sports and diversionary activities for disaffected and bored youth? All of these are important, but there is no one strategy.
Trust in the police?
At a different training session for young people that we did jointly with West Midlands police, the question of Stop and Search came up. Rightly or wrongly, there is still the perception this is unfairly targeted at black and minority ethnic youth. The statistics do show a disproportionate number. The incidence of Stop and Search actually reflects this, rather than some police bias. But trust in the police is not always there.
What can we do?
As with extremism, the call then is for earlier, preventative work in schools. But with the nature of motivations for violence, this has to be more than just warnings about danger, and has to go back to deep questions of revenge and offence. Social media and video shares are enabling instant messaging about who has said what, who has committed what ‘offence’, who has engaged in what ‘disrespect’ and how to gather together for what punishment. So the difficult conversations with young people have to tackle how to interrupt cycles of revenge. They can include discussions of why the statistics show that you are more rather than less likely to be stabbed if you are carrying a knife. They can include testimonies of parents or friends of victims, to show wider impact. But the conversations need to go to the heart of identity, to the need for status, masculinity and belonging. We have found that, contrary to expectations, some young people do respond to a rethinking of ‘respect’ and to being given a range of tools for not joining in violence. It’s almost a relief for some.
Check more details of our resources, workshops (for students and professionals) and videos on www.connectfutures.org