London, United Kingdom – A man with a bloodied chest, topless save for the crumpled suit jacket draped over his shoulders, staggered as he was helped into an ambulance by paramedics outside the Home Office in Westminster on Thursday afternoon. The victim, a government worker in his 60s, had been stabbed.
Nearby, a 29-year-old man, who appeared to have a ferret in a pet carrier with him, was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm in connection with the apparently unprovoked attack.
Just hours before, the Home Office had been embroiled in an altogether different predicament related to knife crime when the rollout of its #KnifeFree campaign drew widespread condemnation and ridicule.
The scheme has seen the ministry deliver more than 321,000 black fast food boxes branded with the campaign hashtag to 210 fried chicken shops, including popular chains Morley’s, Dixy Chicken and Chicken Cottage, across England and Wales.
The inside of the cardboard boxes feature real-life stories warning young people about the dangers of carrying a blade, and it follows a trial of the initiative in 15 Morley’s stores.
The aim is to share ideas of positive alternatives to violence – success stories from basketball, boxing and music, for example – with people aged between 10 and 21 years old, but it has triggered a backlash.
As an 18-year-old boy in Brixton on Thursday became the 15th teenager to be fatally stabbed on the streets of the capital so far this year, activists said the Home Office’s campaign was woefully inadequate if the knife crime crisis that has rocked the UK in recent years is to be stopped.
Paul McKenzie, a youth worker from London who himself was stabbed in the hand with a machete when he was 15 years old, said the time to take action was long ago. “We’re always two steps behind,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We’re not engaging with parents who have lost their children. We’re not asking the right questions. This whole campaign with chicken boxes, come on, how are you meant to read a message covered in grease?
“That’s a metaphor for what the government do … We’re looking at chicken boxes and not mental health support.”
The advertising and marketing agencies behind the campaign, FCB Inferno and All City Media Solutions, have also received flak for their apparently scarce understanding of diversity. Screengrabs have been shared across social media of the wording used when discussing the project, in which the term “ethnics” appears prominently.
Ken Hinds, cofounder and chair of the Haringey Independent Stop and Search Monitoring Group and a community activist, said the campaign would have been far more effective if it involved those working directly with young people at risk of becoming caught up in knife crime.
“I can’t knock them (the Home Office) for trying something but what I can knock them for is not throwing it out to grassroots groups before it went live to get some feedback to make ultra-sure that the people on the ground are in line with what’s being proposed,” he said.
“The people who get caught up in violent crime are often desperate, they’re looking for money, connection, they’re looking for family. It’d have been better to put on the box where they can get the right kind of support. Saying, ‘Look, if you’re being pressured or susceptible, then contact these people and they will help support you’.”
Katrina Ffrench, the chief executive of StopWatch, which campaigns for fair and accountable policing, said it is telling that a chicken box ultimately ends up in the bin. “We have tried and tested methods, such as amnesty bins – which removed 50,000 knives from London but have been reduced from 36 in 2012 to 18 in 2019 – the money [used to produce this campaign] could have gone back into that. If the aim of the campaign was to provide support to young people, a hashtag doesn’t do that.”
MPs have also been critical of the #KnifeFree campaign. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, described the campaign as “crude, offensive and probably expensive”. She said it would be better to “invest in our communities, not demonise them”.
What's next, #KnifeFree watermelons?
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, suggested the government was stereotyping people from BAME communities. “Is this some kind of joke?! Why have you chosen chicken shops? What’s next, #KnifeFree watermelons?” he wrote on Twitter.
He continued: “The Home Office is using taxpayers’ money to sponsor an age-old trope. This ridiculous stunt is either embarrassingly lazy or, at best, unfathomably stupid.”
Those working in front-line services have also spoken out. Adnan R Siddiqui is a doctor in Croydon, where he has lived all his life, and he shared on Twitter the story of a teenage patient who was recently stabbed. The attack followed several years of the young person’s parents asking for help. Siddiqui had made a referral to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), only for the patient to be turned away due to a lack of resources and capacity – something he says happens regularly. Spending on front-line public services has been reduced by 18 billion pounds ($22bn) since 2010.
Siddiqui told Al Jazeera that the Home Office move was not joining up the dots of what was really needed. “It’s too little, too late – and it’s not addressing the issues facing the people who are dealing with [violent crime],” he said. “All of us in the public sector, we’re the canaries in the mine, we’re seeing all these problems and we’re just fire-fighting.
“I see young kids dying on our streets, I see the yellow tape the police put around. It’s a normal thing, it’s become normalised. It needs to register with people at a higher level – clearly, there’s money there, but the priorities are wrong.”
The Home Office has defended the scheme, which followed an announcement on Monday that 35 million pounds ($43m) is being put into 18 Violence Reduction Units to tackle violent crime on a local level through a multi-agency approach.
Shan Selvendran, managing director of the Morley’s chicken shop chain, said his firm was proud to support the chicken box campaign.
Meanwhile, Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, said: “These chicken boxes will bring home to thousands of young people the tragic consequences of carrying a knife and challenge the idea that it makes you safer.
“The government is doing everything it can to tackle the senseless violence that is traumatising communities and claiming too many young lives, including bolstering the police’s ranks with 20,000 new police officers on our streets.”
Previous Conservative administrations had cut police numbers by 21,000 in the past 10 years.
Siddiqui concludes that government priorities are wrong. “Austerity and the cuts to public services is the real knife crime we need to tackle if we want to prevent more journeys like my patient’s,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Chicken shop messaging is a cheap political stunt pandering to public fears and prejudice.”