Why do children carry knives? The view from the streets

At 1pm on Sunday 1 June, a breakdancing event called Young Guns was kicking off in Bradford. Shane Regan was introducing it. He explained that breakdancing was a way for the teenagers to do battle by dancing rather than fighting, that he wanted people to shoot each other down with their moves, not their guns. In the break, Oba, a young performer, spat his lyrics; the buzz was that scouts from the Ministry of Sound were going to be there. The event was a success, except that Shane's mum, Pat, was supposed to be there too. She didn't turn up, which was odd – a prominent member of Mothers Against Violence, the 53-year-old had been a vigorous campaigner against gun and knife crime ever since her son was shot dead in 1996. It was unlike her to miss an engagement. When Shane went home that night he found out why: his mother was dead; she had been stabbed multiple times. Her 20-year-old grandson – Shane's nephew – who has a history of mental health problems, is currently in custody.

The bitter irony of the fate of this woman, who had taken her campaign to rid the country of knives and guns to Downing Street, was not lost on the UK media, who mourned her murder. It was a bleak day for Jezza Neumann, too, who was filming Young Guns as part of a Dispatches programme for Channel 4 about children who carry weapons. The multi-Bafta Award-winning documentary maker was in the process of touring Britain, trying to understand the current climate of knife crime from the perspective of children on the streets. He heard about the murder the next day. "It made it real," he says. "I never spoke to Shane but just having filmed him and been there, and known that his mum was being murdered at that moment made me feel connected in a strange way." The timing couldn't have been more poignant. "I felt saddened," he says. "Everything I was experiencing on the streets about the state of our society had been played out in front of me in one act – when family turns on family we really are pretty messed up." The experiences that Neumann had while filming had already left him reeling. "We met nine-, 11-, 13-year-olds in Tooting [south London], riding bikes, looking like any little kid. But the levels to which they can discuss this subject ... was not what I expected."

If those nine-year-olds in Tooting are a microcosm of what is going on in Britain as a whole, the street-knowledge and experiences of the next generation of adults are a story that seems to be getting lost in the current political debate about prison sentences and police knife amnesties. "I went to get bread for my mum and some guy with a knife threatened me," one of the little boys says earnestly, sitting by his bike on the grass. That knife to his throat was for 80p. "I was surprised," he says. " 'Cause in life when you're younger you think, 'I could do this or that, and nothing's going to happen to me', but these days you never know ... you could just walk down the street and someone could say, 'Give me your phone otherwise I'll shoot you'. If you refuse all they need to do is pull out their gun and shoot you." He rubs his nose with the back of his hand, heavy words from one so small, but just – for him – observations of his environment.

Knife crime is, of course, a hot topic in the current climate. The press has been criticised for sensationalism, given that the most up-to-date survey by the Metropolitan Police shows knife crime has dropped by 15.7 per cent in the past two years. This bigger-picture view does not diminish the fact, however, that a knife crime is committed approximately every 50 minutes, and that in London last year, 10,220 of what the police call "knife-enabled crimes" were reported. In Neumann's quest to hear what the teenagers are saying about their lives, there emerges a pattern that tells of teenagers who increasingly feel the need to arm themselves. A survey by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) backs this up, reporting a 12 per cent increase since 2002 in teenagers carrying weapons. The same survey saw a rise in violent crimes by 15- and 16-year-olds, while Scotland Yard has reported that the murder rate for victims aged 20 and under trebled between 2005 and 2007.

And because knife culture feeds itself, fear pushes more children into carrying knives for what they see as protection. Kirk, a 16-year-old from Tooting, tells me that he carried a knife from the age of eight because of bullies. He ended up using it. "It was fun," he remembers. "The boy was taking the mick, I stabbed him and got an adrenalin rush ... I regret doing that." After a brush with the authorities, he says, he had to attend a weapons workshop. "That taught me about what damage a knife could do – I didn't realise. We looked at pictures of knife wounds. They were shocking – there was one that showed if you stab someone in the stomach their intestines could fall out." Kirk doesn't carry a knife any more, but still finds it tempting, not least when they're so readily available, and cheap. "They need to make it stricter, make the age 21 or 25 so only old people can get knives," he says. "I got a knife for 99p." He is currently looking for a job. "I'd like to work," he says. "Crime doesn't pay. I should have gone to college." He sees the "youngers" in his area going down the same paths. "If your dad's not around, you look for a male to look up to." Trying to unpick the tangle of reasons why children carry weapons is a difficult process, but Kirk's point here is moot. When children are confined to a close network of streets, their role models are other children. In Kirk's area in Tooting, there are "olders" (up to 18), "youngers" (13 to 15) and the "smalls", the eight- and nine-year-olds, riding their bikes around the streets, observing the olders.

Kirk's friend John, 17, agrees. "I think the younger generation needs someone to look up to. There's no proper, key role models – it's all about actors," he says. John is against carrying a knife. And it's not because he hasn't experienced being at the wrong end of a blade. When a group tried to rob him for his chain recently, he resisted. "It was my dead nan's, and I wouldn't give it to them, so they stabbed me in the head until I passed out," he says. "The paramedics came and sorted me out ... but they'd done it with those fold-up knives, so there was no major damage." John, who is in the Territorial Army, says he feels so strongly about this subject that he might join the Met. "Children of a younger age don't see the damage that can be caused by knives. I think in school, instead of talking about sex education all the time, they should learn about the real side of knives." When asked what else the Government can do, he touches on a deeper, knotty, problem: "They need to make the younger generation feel more safe. It's a difficult thing to do."

His thoughts are echoed by Camilla Batmanghelidjh, who, in 1996, founded the Kids Company in south London, an organisation that has so far helped 12,000 children. For Batmanghelidjh, safety is key. "Children who learn violence within the intimacies of their family home enter the criminal network quickly," she says. This, she is convinced, is when society fails them: "They come to the attention of the authorities very young, but people don't mobilise resources to protect them robustly, they wait to see what happens. It's a way of managing budgets ... Poor areas have got used to very dysfunctional care structures in social services and mental health." Batmanghelidjh's reasoning is that if you grow up in a dangerous environment where your parents aren't protecting you, and if you see that the authorities aren't coming to your aid, then the conclusion is that human life is not worthwhile. The message, she says, is "the more violent you are, the more protection you'll have". Statistics show that while 52-55,000 children are referred to care, only 30,700 are put on the child protection register. "There's your street crime," she says.

Being disenfranchised is pertinent. If there's no reason to look outside the tiny network of streets in which you live, that becomes your identity. In London, violence against strangers who "trespass" is known as "repping" your postcode. "Some people feel this means more to them than anywhere in the world," one boy, his back to the camera, tells Neumann. "They'd rather stand on these pavements that we walk on, that we spit on and piss on, and die on it – because, you know, that is their dream, they want to know this is me, this is where I live." A confined space, containing a jumble of lives, acts as a pressure cooker – it doesn't take much to explode, and the general know-how about how to obtain a weapon doesn't make for a happy mix. It means that Kirk can't go to a youth club a series of streets away, because it's not his territory. Meanwhile, in east London, Jerome Tuitt, who is 16, laments the fact that there isn't much to do in his area. One of the reasons he hasn't been caught up in knives or crime, he says, is because his love of football gave him another ambition. And even though he's not involved, there are certain areas he chooses not to go: "The way things are, even if you're an innocent person who doesn't want no trouble, some people don't care who you are and want what you've got ... you've got to be smart."

This is far from a London-only phenomenon. For Oba, 22, there are no-go areas in Yorkshire. He gave up carrying a knife years ago, but weaponry – knives, guns, even hand grenades – is readily available. It's a constant source of astonishment for him. "There are shops ... that sell offensive weapons for as little as £10," he says. "Ten pound, you can get yourself a nice machete, or Gurkha knives that would do serious damage if you stuck it in someone's arm or bare skin." He stops, squeamish. "The stuff you can buy is unbelievable. You can go in fishing shops where ... in a back room they've got a set of samurai swords for 50 pounds." Oba is trying to develop a career in music; working with Waxworks Music Initiative – a not-for-profit organisation which works with disadvantaged teenagers in Bradford – he's using hi-tech equipment that he wouldn't otherwise have access to. He has no doubt about the social malaise that drives teenagers to rob or sell drugs to get what they want. "Why work for four years in a normal job to get stuff, when you could work for three weeks selling drugs? I know a lad who walks around with £8,000 in his pocket, just for change."

His friend Dorzi agrees. "Can the older generation really blame us?" he asks. "To be someone in this world, you have to have money, you have to have a nice car, a nice yard. If you're from an estate where you feel you're never going to make that from a job, then you're going to do what you can do to make yourself the top dog. That's why everyone carries a weapon..." On film, Dorzi tries to put his finger on what's wrong: "These days society is different. Everyone swears, every girl has kids at fucking 14, all men carry knives and join gangs from a young age, do you know what I mean? I didn't join a gang until I was 15 or 16 but my cousins who are 13 and 12 roll in gangs with people their age."

These people are precisely the target group that Waxworks scoops up. Ed Williams, a DJ, founded Waxworks with fellow DJ Nick Merrick five years ago, to reach some of the people who had dropped out of mainstream education. "Part of the reason they're disaffected is because they don't have the support structures, and they don't aspire to be anything," he says. He tells of a 17-year-old girl, a recovering drug abuser who "by her own admission had not finished anything in her whole life – not even written her name on a page. She had a history of violence, and her support worker said we were crazy to take her. By the end of the programme she'd written 16 sides of paper, and had a qualification," he says. "She said we'd inspired her to take steps, and she got a job in a beauty salon – it wasn't about teaching her to become a DJ, it was about learning something, how to interact ... That's a transferable skill. It realigns aspirations."

This theory fits with Batmanghelidjh's thinking. She says that some of the methodologies the Government uses to try to turn teens around are off the mark. "Amnesties, knife concerts, poster campaigns: that's what middle-class people use to communicate ... they're still thinking it's a pure moral choice ... It's more about survival and the response to savagery."

If she's right, the reality of one person sticking a knife into another person must be as savage as it gets. The anonymous boy in Neumann's film is reluctant to say it, but he hasn't been able to wipe the time he stabbed someone from his mind. "It had a bit of a pull on it. Tissue and stuff came out – it wasn't nice, it wasn't nice. I paused: 'Flip, I shanked someone...' With a gun you don't have to worry ... but with a knife, you feel everything ... if it hits a bone, if you stab someone in the ribs ... you're going to feel it in some form ... when you get the knife you have to get up close and personal ... Never again am I stabbing someone, it's not a nice feeling ... That's why most people just shoot these days, man. They don't want to get themselves dirty."

'Kids Knives Broken Lives', 9pm, Channel 4, Monday

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