On 22 December, I attended the sentencing hearing of the four young men involved in the brutal knife murder of 20-year-old Syed Jamanoor Islam outside his home near Mile End in Tower Hamlets last April.
The aspiring artist and business studies student died in his mother’s arms in front of other distressed family members after being beaten with a baseball bat and then stabbed in the side. The attack came after eggs were thrown at Syed’s brother, hitting the victim’s front door. A fight broke out, culminating in shocking retaliation: a fatal attack on Syed after he confronted those involved.
A 16-year-old who cannot be named was convicted of Syed’s murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The other three involved were sentenced for conspiring to cause actual bodily harm.
From the beginning of this appalling murder, I supported Syed’s family and championed their efforts to campaign against knife crime; they spoke at community meetings, spoke to young people and appeared on television to stress that we as communities must work collectively to prevent what has become a terrible scourge. They have worked tirelessly to seek justice for their son. Together with their housing association, I helped relocate them to another home so that they would no longer have to live near the murder scene.
Shortly after Syed’s killing, I attended an anti-knife rally in Altab Ali Park along with Syed’s family, police officers, campaigners and other councillors. The aim was to urge community members to stand up against violent crime. I had the privilege of speaking at the rally and stressed how important it was to share the responsibility of investing in our children to ensure they face a brighter future.
Syed’s father, Syed Abdul Makit, said: “This was a senseless killing. Our children are slaying each other over nothing ... Syed was a clever boy with so much potential and he was ripped from our lives.”
In 2016, in the UK overall, a knife or blade was used in a crime every 16 minutes. Records also show that 2,300 victims of knife crime were aged 18 or younger last year – a rise of 45 per cent over three years, in England and Wales.
Despite 24 fatal stabbings in London in 2017, this is not just a local problem, but a nationwide one. According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, 2017 is set to have been one of the worst years in four decades for child knife deaths.
Moreover, up to September, there were 4,439 knife crimes where the perpetrator was aged from 10 to 17 years old.
So what lessons can we learn to take into the new year?
Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Yates, the police officer tasked with reducing knife crime in London says that social media has played a part in spiralling knife crime rates: “What we’re seeing now is social media goes completely viral very quickly and then suddenly hundreds and hundreds of people know you’ve been disrespected, and that feeds in, in terms of ‘Now I’ve got to illicit a response or I’ll lose respect’. That’s what they tell us.” He and other officers say that stop and search is vital in removing knives from the streets, but that it must be intelligence-led and delivered “ethically and with integrity”.
Perhaps we could follow Scotland’s example. In 2017, there was not a single knife crime fatality. This could be attributed to its violence reduction unit (VRU), which Strathclyde police established in 2005 to tackle the problem, particularly in cities such as Glasgow. Although knife crime will never be fully eradicated, the root causes of the problem need to be identified and understood in order to achieve a positive solution.
The tragic murder of Syed Jamanoor Islam arose from a seemingly trivial dispute, but the consequences were life changing for all those involved. It was equally painful hearing a 16-year prison sentence being served to a teenager who would be 32 by the time of his release.
The assault on Syed was just one of three attacks in London within a 24-hour period. The carrying of knives by young people has become a common occurrence in our cities, but law makers and we politicians have still not tackled the problem effectively.
Perhaps we can learn from Syed’s father, who said in a statement submitted during the trial: “My son was killed by a knife that severed an artery in his leg. It is important to stop this senseless killing using knives. Youths need to appreciate that a knife is a dangerous weapon and just one stab using a knife can end someone’s life. I don’t want any other family to have to go through what my family has experienced.”
In 2018, a new strategy to address knife crime must come from the bottom up, where we begin to engage with a generation of disenfranchised and disillusioned young people.
Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched his campaign “London Needs You Alive – don’t carry a knife”, which has been backed by talented role models such as poets, bloggers, photographers and musicians. It is a positive move.
Also backing the campaign is actress Brooke Kinsella whose brother was murdered in a knife attack in 2008. As she puts it: “We are losing too many young people to knife crime, all the potential and enrichment that these young lives would have brought to their families, friends and London, lost forever. We need to remember that knife crime doesn’t just destroy one life, it destroys countless lives.”
Justice minister, Dominic Raab is right when he says: “Our message is clear; if you carry a knife, expect to end up in jail.” These are words which must be heeded.
Rabina Khan is councillor for Shadwell in Tower Hamlets