Tower Hamlets Councillor, Rabina Khan, argues we need to re-think our entire understanding of drug, gang and knife crime and to start hearing the voices of those whose lives are most affected.
The inner London borough of Tower Hamlets sits beside the fringe of the City – an area of wealth and prosperity, yet it is one of the most deprived local authorities in England. It has the highest rate of pensioner poverty – with over half of all residents age 60 and over living below the poverty line – and the highest rate of child poverty in Great Britain (31% from families living below the poverty line).
Against this backdrop of hardship and inequality is a borough grappling with knife crime, drug abuse and gang culture. In London as a whole, figures showed that in 2018 young Black and Minority Ethnic teenage boys and men were disproportionately affected, both as perpetrators and victims. In July 2019, Tower Hamlets was named as one of the eight boroughs deemed the worst for violent youth crime. Much of the violent crime is linked to disputes over drugs and territory.
In his book, Reluctant Gangsters: the changing shape of youth crime, John Pitts says: “Many residents…feel that their voices are unheard in the places where key decisions about their plight are made.” It appears that few people are interested in listening to those from deprived neighbourhoods, yet those partaking in drug use in more affluent areas are blind to these issues.
The only difference between illegal drug use by middle class people and those from poorer communities is money and status. In fact, a 2018 report by the Social Metrics Commission found that the middle class consume more drugs and alcohol than the poorest people.
Middle class people are comparatively better off, so can afford to fund their habits. However, all the negative press that we read about relating to drug crime perpetuates the image of young, unemployed men living in deprived areas, which sadly elicits little sympathy from many.
In supporting a mother whose son is in prison for the sale of drugs she said to me, “He didn’t just sell to youngsters and the homeless, but men in expensive suits and costly watches on the borders of the City. It was easy for them to find a poor seller with their fat wallets for a fun night.”
The point that many families and community activists have made to me is that the middle class drug users are hypocritical, because they take a holier-than-thou ethical stance in some areas of their lives, but then happily snort coke or smoke heroin with their friends and colleagues. Therefore, this problem needs to be tackled from all sides of the socio-economic landscape. As with everything, it is all about supply and demand – and some of that demand comes from the wealthy.
The problem is that when you have boroughs like Tower Hamlets, nestling on the verge of the affluent City, drug crime trickles into the poorer areas. Gang and knife crime go hand-in-hand with drug offences, the tragic effects of which we see on an increasing basis, not just in London, but in our cities nationwide.
According to a report in the Forensic Research and Criminology International Journal, County lines is a ‘relativity new way of transporting and selling drugs to a wider market.’ A London-based group, for example, could be selling their goods hundreds of miles away, with the aim of exploiting vulnerable people, especially young people – some as young as 11 – and those who are already addicted to drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine. Younger children are preyed on because of the vulnerability – perhaps troubles at home or school – and lured into these gangs under the promise of a lavish lifestyle.
I have written about this topic many times before, yet it is a scourge that continues. It was inevitable that, with the easing of lockdown measures, there would be an increase in gang culture and knife crime, although alarmingly a survey carried out by the ONS showed that drug crime increased during the lockdown. In greater London this year, over 60 murders have been recorded, the majority linked to drug crime and gang conflict. With increasing unemployment as a result of the pandemic, it has become easier to target desperate people, including migrants and the homeless.
I recently visited a family who were attacked with a knife in 2018. They are still suffering from adverse psychological impact, something that may well affect them for life. Their youngest son, now aged 9, is terrified of anything red. To put this into perspective, his sister can no longer wear red nail vanish, or red lipstick and she hasn’t used henna on her hair for two years because her brother has panic attacks when he sees red. The colour reminds him of the blood he saw when his mother was attacked with a knife by an assailant who broke into their flat after following their father home from work late one night.
The year before in 2017, after Syed Jamanoor Islam was murdered outside his home in Mile End, I supported his family in their quest to campaign against knife crime.
These crimes do not just affect those involved in drug crime and gangs; the innocent are also targeted, including those of mistaken identity.
In May 2018, I brought a motion to Council called “Changing Prospects, Changes Lives” to target those who are at risk of becoming involved in antisocial behaviour and crime, channelling them instead into positive schemes and volunteering. Through my work on community safety, I met a young man called Christopher who built motorbikes from scrap metal to help keep his peers out of trouble. It is this type of activity that the government needs to promote, not only to give young people a positive focus, but to equip them with valuable life skills.
In July 2018 Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick accused middle class cocaine users of fuelling the drug trade. She also defended Stop and Search controversial for its disproportion use against black people, in particular black men. The use of Stop and Search must actively include groups of middle class cocaine users who in Cressida Dick’s words “will sit round happily thinking about global warming and fair trade and environmental protection and all sorts of things, organic food, but think there’s no harm in taking a bit of cocaine. Well there is. There is misery throughout the supply chain.”
If we want to save young lives then we need to accept that it is not just the responsibility of a minority to tackle these issues, but a collective one, which includes the middle classes.
Cllr Rabina Khan, The Liberal Democrat Party , Shadwell Ward