As a student at the Henry Compton secondary school in Fulham, Kodjo Yenga was a funny, intelligent young man with his whole life ahead of him.
He was the son who helped his mother with chores on Sundays, the socially conscious youth who spouted anti-knife rap lyrics outside of school, even appearing on an MTV documentary about knife crime in which he spoke with quiet conviction of the fear that compelled some young men to carry knives on the streets of London.
On March 14, 2007, Kodjo was chased by a group of youths in Hammersmith, where he was stabbed to death, cradled in the arms of his girlfriend as he lay dying.
He was only 16 years old.
Only four months into the New Year, 50 lives have already been lost due to knife and gun crime.
Parents continue to bury their children while friends carry the heavy pinewood coffins of the fallen, and the even heavier burden of their grief.
For Kodjo’s mother, Ladjua Lesele, the grief of losing her son to this day remains undiminished.
“When Kodjo was murdered, it seemed like it was the end of the world for me,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The first thing that came across my mind was to think of a scenario where I could be killed so we could be buried on the same day, in the same place.
“I felt isolated. Every person who came to visit me represented almost nothing as I knew none of them could bring Kodjo back.”
Dealing with trauma
It is this immeasurable grief that has become a well-spring of violence in communities ravaged by inexorable loss and further still by austerity cuts, according to Temi Mwale, the founding director of social enterprise, The 4Front Project, which works to empower young people and find solutions to prevent youth violence.
“Over the last 20 years, there has not been adequate support for young people impacted by violence, for the families that have lost their children and for the community in general,” Mwale told Al Jazeera.
“Why that is so significant is because it has created violent environments where violence is ingrained, where we’ve got a culture of desensitisation.
“If your friend is stabbed and killed, there is no support available to help you come to terms with the loss,” she added.
“In absence of that support, we do not engage with how young people are feeling and we actually normalise murder in their lives.”
Mwale suggested intervention through a more holistic approach that deals with trauma as the root cause of youth violence.
“We have to see aftercare as prevention,” she said.
“Dealing with the aftermath of a murder, especially a youth murder, having the adequate support systems in place, we have to see that as prevention, because when we don’t do that, the ripple effect is more violence, more desensitisation and more misery.”
If your friend is stabbed and killed, there is no support available to help you come to terms with the loss.
In diagnosing the recent rise in youth violence, Mwale says it is the ricochet effect of cuts to youth and mental health provisions that have amputated support networks for young people, creating a profound sense of alienation and unresolved mental health issues.
It is as the African proverb goes: “If the youth are not initiated into the tribe, they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth.”
This week, the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, reported since 2010 an estimated 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres which provided essential services for families and young children may have closed in the last eight years, twice as many than official figures suggest.
Analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) found that mental health trusts were receiving less funding compared to 2012, all this compounded by a growing mental health crisis among children and young people in the UK.
Describing the decimation of youth services, Mwale said: “The majority of this generation, those that are now 15, 16 years old, they don’t know what a youth club is.
“Generic youth provision provides a space for young people to engage in a positive way.
“It provides them with access to opportunities, to people that can influence them and support them to achieve their goals and their dreams.
“In the absence of that, they don’t build long-term consistent relationships with people that can help them in other areas of their life.
“However, to tackle this issue, we need more investment in specialist support services, in addition to refunding general youth provisions.”
The impact of domestic violence too, Mwale said, also plays a critical but often overlooked role.
“The support for women and domestic violence services has been radically reduced,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Two women are dying a week.”
“There is a real connection between young people that are impacted by domestic violence in the home and early childhood, and later involvement with violence.”
Cousins Joel and Immy from south-west London were personally affected by knife crime when their close friend was stabbed to death last year at a party in Peckham.
Both young men spoke of the youth centres they attended in their formative years as children that have vanished as a result of cuts to council youth service budgets in their area.
Immy, 20, also spoke candidly of his uphill struggle with his mental health in the aftermath of the stabbing.
“I was depressed for a few months,” he said. “I just felt like there was nothing left.”
“I used to wake up to [Whatsapp] group chats, it could be three in the morning, you might open your eyes at night time, and he would be shouting in the group, but now he’s not there no more.
“Going to his room that is now empty, going to see his mum and seeing she’s not alright, things like that mess with your head.
“Without him, we’re just heartbroken. It’s like a piece of the puzzle is missing.”
Black role models
Joel too suffered from depression.
However, the death of his friend became a catalyst for action to set up Inspire Youth, a project which he uses to reach out to fellow young people through a series of motivational videos on Instagram that aims to support, mentor, and inspire.
He is only 21-years-old, but his quiet confidence and vehement desire for affecting change resonate deeply with his peers in ways politicians and policymakers cannot.
are positive people, we have potential, and we have goals. It’s not fair that we get stereotyped every time.””]
Through his project, Joel is attempting to give visibility to positive role models within the black community in order to dislodge a firmly entrenched myth that conflates blackness with criminality.
“The government has drawn this image that every young person is the same,” he said.
“Someone can look at me and be like, ‘You’ve got gold teeth. You’re wearing a cap. Yeh, he’s definitely gang affiliated’,” he added, flashing his gold canine and pointing to his cap.
“But it’s nothing like that. When people hear me speak, they realise ‘This guy has potential; he knows what he’s doing.’
“We [youth] are positive people, we have potential, and we have goals. It’s not fair that we get stereotyped every time.”
Sarah Jones, Labour Party MP for Croydon Central and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for knife crime, told Al Jazeera about the success of a public health approach evidenced by the reduction of knife crime in Scotland and as far as New York, and how it must be replicated in London.
“I’ve spoken to charities and youth organisations who say that the levels of anxiety that it’s creating amongst young people, the increasing levels of self-harm, is quite profound,” she said.
“There’s a whole raft of things going on with young people that knife crime is playing into.
“We’ve got this massive impact in all of the cuts and the services, youth, mental health, education, all the places where growing up should be, they’re not here anymore and what fills the vacuum is social media which tells you to be the ‘big man’ and that violence is a good thing.”
‘No trust in the police’
Among the varied diagnosis for why youth violence is on the rise, a report leaked on Monday from the Home Office points to police cuts, a factor Jones also believes has fuelled the rise in knife crime.
“In London, the Metropolitan Police have had to make 600m pounds of cuts and the impact is that we’re seeing fewer police, far fewer neighbourhood police which means we don’t have them going into schools and building relationships with young people,” Jones, the Labour MP, told Al Jazeera.
The subject of increasing police presence has been a point of major contention for activists and youth workers who say that the racial disparity in stop and search procedures in particular, in which black men are eight times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts, will only fracture already tenuous relations between the black British community and the police.
In the wake of six more deaths in the last week, “stop and search” powers have been extended in London despite the fact that research has shown mass stop and search are ineffective.
Mwale said that from the perspective of someone outside of the black community, the logical conclusion to be drawn from the reality that young black people are disproportionately affected by knife crime either as victims or as perpetrators in London, is that targeted stop and search is justified.
However, she said that a meaningful conversation about the historically fraught relationship between young black people and the police that elucidates why such policies are problematic, has yet to be had.
“Between the Metropolitan police and the black community in London, there are inter-generational and historical issues,” Mwale said.
“When I say inter-generational, I mean it has affected your dad and your granddad.
“When I say historical, I mean there has never been any accountability for the Metropolitan police when they make mistakes.
“This damages their legitimacy in the community.”
According to Mwale, “We have had more than 1,600 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990, and no police officer has been held to account for a single death.
“That creates this context where there is no trust in the police, especially within the black community, because of those historical failures that have not been addressed.”
We have had more than 1,600 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990, and no police officer has been held to account for a single death.
In trying to understand knife crime, Mwale says the difficulty lies in trying to unpack the multiple layers of emotions in which communities grieve not just for the lives lost, but also for the youth who have become perpetrators.
“The media are engaged in a very simplistic discussion about a young person that becomes a victim.
“They don’t even see how a lot of the young people that are engaged in this violence have been victims.
“You don’t just wake up one day and decide to stab people.
“The majority of young people that are involved in violence have been violently victimised and nobody has supported them.
“Until we start to think about in how many ways and the depth of how everybody is connected to this issue, we will not be able to appreciate the true scale of its impact.”
Until that day arrives, campaigners like Mwale will continue to swim against the tide, arduously supporting the youth of London with what scant resources remain available to youth workers.
At least for now, young men like Joel kindle hope where there is little, as he directly engages with youth whose lives are tangibly affected not by apathetic statistics and policies, but by the tangible, lived experience of dealing with knife crime at a very personal level.
“I could sit down and say knife crime needs to stop. But it’s all about action. That’s what I’m trying to do now, before knife crime starts increasing and another person dies again.”