violence is central to organised crime, but it does not and cannot explain the vast majority of knife violence that occurs which is not related to gangs or the illicit drugs trade

Expert Voice: Anthony Gunter on youth violence and youth work

Posted on 09 Apr in

Q1. You worked for a long time as a detached youth worker, how has that informed your academic practice?

Underpinning much of my work was the idea that as practitioners we worked with young people where they were at (and literally in their physical space on the streets and estates) rather than where we felt they should be. As well as taking a non-judgemental approach, we were keen to engage, involve and empower young people to reflect upon their own lives and that of their families and wider communities. As a practitioner I was committed to social/economic/political justice and that all young people mattered – regardless of their background. These core principles have informed, and continue to do so, my teaching and research practice within academia.

Q2. What do you consider the key factors underpinning the upsurge of knife crime in London?

This is a complex problem that should not be reduced to simplistic narratives and sound bites fixated on urban street gangs. Relative deprivation (poverty) characterised by social and economic exclusion are the fundamental drivers of knife violence. Many of the young men affected by knife violence, both as victims and perpetrators, reside on housing estates which are in turn surrounded by poorly performing primary and secondary schools. Lacking the confidence and resources to attain positive educational/training/employment outcomes such individuals can easily get caught up with petty ‘on Road’ disputes. Masculine street identities require that young males portray and uphold a tough persona, at all times, as such any perceived slight or disrespect can very quickly escalate into serious violence. Some of this violence is also loosely linked to the illicit drugs economy – young males selling drugs ‘on Road’ are seen as easy targets to be robbed by other young men, however, this then can lead to a spiral of retaliatory violence.

Q3. Are there factors whose influence is overstated and a distraction from tackling the underlying issues?

The fixation with street gangs during the past eight or so years has been a major distraction which has only served to criminalise and alienate even further (from the police) many young Black males. When policy makers and the police discuss street gangs, what they are really talking about is organised crime centred on the supply of illicit drugs at street level. Yet, research shows that most drug dealers understand that engaging in violence is bad for business as it attracts the attention of the police. Of course, violence is central to organised crime, but it does not and cannot explain the vast majority of knife violence that occurs which is not related to gangs or the illicit drugs trade.

Q4. How does youth working promote desistance?

I trained as a community and youth worker – this is an important distinction to make. Young people do not exist in isolation but are a part of a family and wider community. It is therefore essential that the needs of the children, youth, adults and the elderly are taken into consideration. Young people getting involved in crime and violence and other problematic behaviours is a symptomatic of larger issues that beset their neighbourhoods: poor educational attainment, high rates of un(under)employment, poor health outcomes, bad housing, high levels of persistent poverty. To address deep structural inequality requires more than just a few youth work initiatives. Radical social policies are needed to transform the lives of these young people and their families and wider community.

Q5. What do you think the critical public investment would be to reduce youth violence in London and why would it have the most impact?

If all young people really mattered then we would listen to their views and seek to meaningfully engage them and their families in developing policies that could make a real difference to their lives. The social exclusion faced by many poorer communities – who are shoehorned into pockets of low status housing estates all around London – needs to be tackled. The education system is failing many of the young people whom reside on these estates and are most at-risk from violence and crime. Schools and youth provision in poor urban communities need to develop innovative curriculums and require increased investment to better meet the developmental needs of all children and young people.

Anthony GunterDr Anthony Gunter is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of East London. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of youth cultures and transitions, race/ethnicity and crime, and ethnography. He is the author of ‘Growing up Bad: Black Youth, Road Culture & Badness in an East London Neighbourhood’ (Tufnell Press, 2010), and ‘Race, Gangs and Youth Violence: Policy, Prevention and Policing (Policy Press, 2017). During the past 20 years he has undertaken a number of ethnographic research projects in East London exploring youth lifestyles and (alternative) transitions, serious youth violence, policing and community-led Third and Statutory Sector responses. Prior to his career in academia Anthony worked for over 14 years in both South and East London, within a variety of community settings, as a detached community and youth worker and Project / Area Manager.