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Drill music – a means of self-expression? Or giving ‘violence’ a voice?

Drill music, originating from Chicago, is a form of rap music. Its beats, flow, and the way it’s produced, differentiates it from its predecessor, grime music.

Most drill artists are young people with plenty to say on issues like climate change, politics, and austerity. However, historically, the lyrics of many drill songs focus on gang culture and gang rivalries as well as life on the streets including drugs, money, and sex. 

Drill music has promoted plenty of debate; does its dark lyrics and gritty beats, encourage criminal behaviour? Or, like grime before it, does it offer young people living in some of the poorest inner city areas, an escape route, a way of earning money from music sales and a first step in escaping poverty, gang life and crime?

Allies see it as a way of young people expressing themselves – talking about their environment, day to day lives and their reality. Some observers think the lyrics are often about obtaining money, status, and power, because these are the things people on the streets don’t have.

The real danger comes when those involved in gang culture, judge the performer’s authenticity on whether the artist will follow through with what they claim, taunt, or threaten in the lyrics of their songs. It’s the perceived and actual threats that put the artists authenticity, credibility, status, and ultimately their personal safety, on the line.

Opponents of drill music see it as a means of giving violence a voice or a way of normalising the violent behaviour drill artists talk about. They see it as a platform for rival gangs to air their ‘beefs’ online, often encouraged or goaded by allies, supporters and opponents. Sometimes with fatal outcomes.

This has led Police to target drill music in their response to tackling violence. They consider that the music has become a way of criminal gangs antagonising each other and making threats which result in violent reprisals being taken on the streets, fuelling the rise in serious youth violence and knife crime.

In 2019, Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick said “Drill music is associated with lyrics which are about glamourising serious violence: murder, stabbings…. they describe the stabbings in great detail, joy, and excitement. Extreme violence against women is often talked about.”  

The Met Police requested that You Tube take down a number of videos and songs which they considered glamourise violence. You Tube have also now developed policies to tackle the posting of videos linked to or promoting knife crime in the UK.

Critics of this approach point to other social factors fuelling the evolution of UK street gangs, knife crime and youth violence in the UK – with the real drivers being poverty, deprivation, the impact of austerity, a failure by government to tackle social issues, and a lack of opportunity for young people. 

In 2019, a study conducted at UCL (Kleinberg & McFarlane) suggested that drill music listeners are more likely to be drawn towards lyrics with a positive overall message even when it contains violent language. An analysis of 550 YouTube videos by 105 London-based drill music artists, found that songs with a more positive sentiment attracted twice as many views and comments.

The debate will continue. And while it does, there are steps that young people who produce their own drill music, can take to reduce the risk of inadvertently becoming a victim of their art.

Firstly, a number of organisations working with young people, promote making drill music safely.

Groups like “Word not Weapons” (see – https://www.facebook.com/thewordsnotweapons), Project Zero (Projectzerowf.co.uk), Audio Active (www.audioactive.org.uk), and Music Fusion (www.musicfusion.org.uk)  are committed to supporting young artists and promoting a strong community safety message and advising young people on risk.  

Secondly, avoiding producing songs with inflammatory lyrics or videos reduces the risk of becoming a target for reprisals and the possibility that message scan be misinterpreted or misunderstood.  Although maybe less of a money-making option, artists can reduce risks by posting music on less public platforms than You Tube, which has become a platform of choice for drill artists.

Family members too have a role. Drill music can be made in bedrooms and be posted in seconds on social media platforms, and subsequently shared many thousands of times. Drill music and videos are also widely available online. Parents or family members, who take the time to share an interest in the music, particularly the lyrics their children are producing, can act as suitable check and balance before any online damage is done. They can also get a flavour of the messages that their children are being exposed to. Opening up a discussion with a young person about the messages in a song, without being judgmental, can help make them more open to hearing your concerns, discussing the dangers, and teaching them to be critical of some of drill music’s messages.  Finally, family members can raise concerns about the posting of violent or graphic content on You Tube under the new You Tube Community Guidelines . Similar guidance on potentially harmful or dangerous content  or sexually explicit content or videos portraying the exploitation of children and young people is also available online.

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Need for extra-vigilance after lengthy school closure to curb spread of COVID19

On Wednesday the government announced that all schools would close to curb the spread of Covid-19 with only children of key workers and those classed as “vulnerable” – pupils with a social worker or needing special needs support – allowed to keep attending. 

There is a real fear that at-risk children could be exposed to exploitation by county lines drug gangs during the shutdown with no firm timeline for how long schools will stay shut. Recently, children excluded from school or attending Pupil Referral Units have been seen as a recruitment pool for gangs. 

There is evidence that children as young as seven have been promised drugs, cash and ‘street capital’ to run drugs along the 2,200 drug-dealing county lines gangs estimated by the National Crime Agency to be operating across the UK. 

Local authority safeguarding and community safety teams are still be working to protect young people despite the challenges posed by coronavirus and anyone who is worried about the welfare of a child or young person should contact the multi-agency safeguarding hub at Waltham Forest via MASHrequests@walthamforest.gov.uk or calling 020 8493 2310.

Our Ask Me volunteers are also available for young people and their families during this time. Although we have scaled back our activities in line with government advice on social distancing, we can offer support to any young person or their family at risk of being affected by gang, knife harm and serious youth violence by phone, or face to face via Facetime or skype. If you or someone you know needs support, please email info@ask-us.org.uk or contact us via our website (https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-us).

For details about our Ask Me volunteers or to access our FAQs or community directory, see www.ask-us.org.uk or ask us a question via the Ask Us link.

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How to save a life: emergency first aid for victims of knife crime.

A must watch clip for all young people as lead nurse for Violence Reduction at The Royal London Hospital, Michael Carver, explains what happens when someone is stabbed and what you need to do to help save them. It also provides some insight on what environment young people can experience when they’re admitted to A&E with a knife injury. An invaluable watch and potentially life saving journalism by BBC. 

Watch the clip here – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-london-51635931/knife-crime-how-to-save-a-stabbing-victim

To learn more about why young people carry knives and why we are seeing a rise in ultra violence, please see www.ask-us.org.uk/FAQs

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Ask Me about gangs scheme

The ‘Ask Me About Gangs’ service deployed its first Ambassadors this autumn as part of the Borough Council’s gang prevention programme. The new service builds on two recent successes; a similar project promoted by Women’s Aid supporting victims of domestic violence, and the positive impact of the Streetbase peer support network run by young people, for young people, in Waltham Forest.

Thirty ‘Ask Me’ advisers are now working across the borough, with a further cohort due to go live in March, bringing the number of advisers in the team to forty.  However, the ‘Ask Me’ Service is much more than an adult led outreach service looking to support young people and families at risk of gang or youth violence. The team behind ‘Ask Me’ , We Can Work It Out Ltd, has also built, with the help of young people in the borough, an online resource answering commonly asked questions about gang and county lines issues, allowing young people to ask further questions about issues that concern them and compiling an up to date, database of the key support services and organisations in Waltham Forest.

Ambassadors at a recent ward walk in Waltham Forest

Jonathan Green, one of the Directors of ‘We Can Work It Out’, who are leading the work, said “We are delighted to be working with the Council to offer a positive alternative for young people in the borough. Its great to see so many people using the website and how the website and our Ambassadors have joined up so many of the organisations working so hard for young people in the borough”

Anyone interested in becoming an Ask Me Ambassador should be 18 years and over. You can express your interest via  https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-me-ambassador.

The FAQ section of the website can be found here -. https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-me-faqs.

The online directory of community services working to reduce the impact of gang and knife related crime can be found at – https://ask-us.org.uk/directory-category.

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Election 2019 campaign – in touch with one of the biggest public health issues facing our country in 2019?

As politicians and those who gorge themselves on polls, leafletting and manifests argue about getting  Brexit done (or not), whether the President of the US really wants a stake in our NHS (or not)  and whether any of the parties’ promises can be afforded (or not), one issue is markedly missing from TV debates,  manifesto headlines and potential MPs’ hustings – when and how are we going to start to address the issue of rising gang-violence, knife crime and county lines?

So far this week:

  • The media reported on the opening day of the trial of those accused of allegedly killing Jaden Moodie in a “frenzied attack” in Waltham Forest at the turn of this year.  The prosecutor in the case said the images shown to the jury, showed the killers had “no qualms about playing out their petty gang rivalries using the blade of a knife”.  Jaden was a 14-year-old.
  • Three men have died and a further seven were injured in knife attacks across the capital last weekend. There was large scale reporting of the latest incidents in Ealing, Ilford, Isleworth and Whitechapel and one paper claims the deaths “laid bare the horrific knife crime epidemic plaguing the streets of the capital”. Others reported that the latest deaths were part of a “shocking weekend of knife violence across London”. While the random and barbaric nature of the attacks, the ages of the victims and the impact on lives across the capital is still shocking, it is no longer such a shock or such a surprise to see these headlines in Monday morning’s newspapers.  
  • The Guardian newspaper has printed two insightful articles, among the pages of electoral infighting, on the rise of county lines activity across the country, trapping “scared kids” in the cycles of the kinds of violence which likely led to the tragic death of Jaden Moodie and those who died recently in Ealing, Whitechapel and Ilford.  A second article reports on the thousands of girl gang members trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse, as the latest figures produced by the Children’s Commissioner suggest that up to 34% of children involved in gangs are girls who are at risk of both criminal and sexual exploitation. 

And yet, the issue has yet to grip the 2019 election campaign.

Nationally, in the UK, we have seen an increase in serious youth violence and gang-related crime in the last five years. Across England and Wales, the number of deaths caused by knives, guns and violent assaults have increased by over a third. Knife offences have risen by over 70% to a nine-year high. The number of under-18s admitted to hospital with knife injuries rose by 33% between 2013/14 and 2017/18. London has seen similar trends to those nationally.  

There are various reasons put forward for the rise in serious youth violence, ranging from cuts to youth services, policing budgets, and failure of youth and safeguarding agencies to evolve to deal with a twenty first century problem. It is undeniable however that the significant rise in serious youth violence and knife crime in England and Wales is due to an evolution in our home-grown gangs. These gangs have evolved in the vacuum left by cuts in youth services and policing budgets and a failure to keep track of their organised crime methods; also because of rapid marketing through social media.

This has not only had a profound impact on young people in our metropolitan cities, but also, via county lines activity, that impact is being felt in affected areas of the countryside (particularly deprived towns and seaside locations) which have previously not seen gang activity.

During the course of gang prevention work we have been doing with Waltham Forest Council’s public health approach to violence, we have heard parents, brothers and sisters of those sucked into gang life tell us they wished they’d known more about county lines so they could have better supported their child. They tell us that without understanding the signs of exploitation, they can’t act. That was the driver for launching our online advice pages for parents (https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-me-faqs) and the linked service giving young people and their families the ability to ask us questions that concern them.

The key messages that need to be relayed to parents as part of a public health campaign are clear.

  • The numbers of those involved in gang activity has grown, with young people joining gangs far earlier and staying locked into gang activity for longer.  Recent studies show that children as young as 12 are becoming active in gangs, and rather that leaving gangs in their early twenties, gang elders are now trapped in gang life into their thirties. This means the pool of gang activists is now bigger than ever before and the competition is greater.
  • Gangs have now developed their own gig-economy which can deliver drugs to the user by motorbike in London and other big cities, or else young people are groomed and coerced into acting as couriers for county lines activity. The drugs markets are themselves becoming saturated and overcompetitive, leading to more gang-related violence as gangs compete over post-codes and territory.
  • Social media is being widely exploited by gangs to recruit new members, attract fans, broadcast and brag about achievements, market the gangs and advertise drug dealing. Social media can also be used to trap members within gangs; many face the threat of live-streaming humiliating videos or images as a means of coercion and control. It is a 24/7, 52 weeks-a-year tool which can lead to young people suffering high levels of anxiety and mental health problems.
  • Far from providing the camaraderie and the element of a ‘missing family’ dynamic, gang activity is becoming ultra-violent, more competitive and more difficult to escape. A leading academic in this field, Professor Simon Harding, in his must-read book for any parent, “Street Casino” writes that gang members face “greater competition to get noticed, to get ahead of the gang or to build reputations. As a result, gang members engage in ultra-violence in order to maintain street capital”. Consequently, this “increasing cycle of violence has altered social norms for some groups of young people with ultra-violence now a part of everyday life”. It is this very activity, which is now being played out daily on television, on social media and in newspapers, driving the headlines in Monday morning papers of apparently random, senseless attacks on young people, in areas once unused to seeing violence of this kind.

The rise of county lines drugs gangs is a public health emergency. Its impact is being felt in urban and rural communities, not used to tackling violence and drug dealing and ill equipped to act. Many of the support services previously in place to deal with social and community care have withered on the vine or are struggling to compete for funding and without the level of strong joined up strategic leadership that is needed to bring those resources together. Much of the narrative being used to explain the rise in serious youth violence in England and Wales is out of date and needs updating. We are dealing with a fast evolving and dangerous 21st century problem, using 20th century rhetoric, agencies and approach.

September saw the launch of the country’s first National Centre for Gang Research, based at the University of Westminster. It’s the first such centre in Europe.  It is the kind of initiative, much needed, that any new government will need to work collaboratively with, let alone fund, in order to improve understanding of the problem and contribute to solutions to fix it.

With a few weeks of the 2019 election campaign to go, we would like to see politicians on all sides acknowledge the scale and seriousness posed by the rise in gang activity, county lines and knife crime and find some debating time or manifesto space to agree:

  • That a radical new way of tackling this public health emergency is needed now – backed by properly costed and affordable funding – working across political parties and allegiances.
  • To tackle current policies, designed to help, but which are actually fuelling the growth of county lines – for example, reducing the rate of school exclusions (which is fuelling the recruitment pool of young people, for gang elders),  reconsidering existing housing policies (which are helping to relocate county lines dealers outside our cities) and tackle the ability of gangs operating within our prisons to continue trading and recruiting.
  • A commitment to listening to young people and the communities affected, to seek their views on the challenges and potential solutions – working ‘with them’, not ‘doing to them’.
  • A commitment to working with the experts in the field, like the National Centre for Gang Research, and relying on 21st century data and intelligence, rather than continuing the siloed, piecemeal, dated and often ineffective approaches of the past.
  • Reinvesting realistically in community services and better rewarding the army of volunteers who are currently tackling the issues on the ground and making a difference.

There is still time to make this big public health issue of our time, a big issue in Decembers election. Please forward this article to your prospective parliamentary candidates or concerned parents.

Read more about our part in the gang prevention programme in Waltham Forest at https://ask-us.org.uk

Follow us on Twitter (@AskMe_LBWF) or like our pages on Facebook (fb.me/AskUsAboutGangs).

Sign up to become one of our Community Ambassador/Advisors here – https://ask-us.org.uk/register-your-interest

Ask us a question here – https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-us

Further Reading

Guardian articles – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/27/girls-gangs-sexual-criminal-exploitation-violence and https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/25/violence-kids-county-lines-gangs

Street Casino, Professor Simon Harding – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Street-Casino-Survival-Violent-Gangs/dp/1447317181

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Violence Reduction Approach shows initial success stories in its first year

We are delighted to be working in partnership with Waltham Forest Council as part of their violence reduction partnership. The first annual report was published on 1st November 2019 and highlights:

  • A collaborative, partnership approach that recognises the collective responsibility of the whole community to support the borough’s young people to showcase their talents: the partnership includes the council, the police, our schools, health workers, residents and community organisations including We Can Work It Out Ltd/Ask Me.
  • More joint operations with Police than any London borough; this has led to a 38% reduction in crime in one area of the borough.
  • Implementing a gang-exit programme, supporting leavers in the community as they exit prison.
  • Community mentors and Ask Me Ambassadors who are now live and supporting young people and their families in the borough.
  • A 27% reduction in knife crime offences over 12 months.

Our Ask Me service currently offers:

  • An online resource, built with the help of local young people, which looks to answer the typical questions people may have about gangs and serious youth violence. (See –  https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-me-faqs/).
  • The service also allows young people and their families to ask further questions that we will answer with help from our expert network. Ask Us a question via – https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-us/ ;
  • Community Ambassadors who are deployed across the borough to engage with young people and signpost them to resources in the gang prevention partnership as well as other community organisations who are offering support for people in need or anything from peer to peer support, counselling and financial assistance;
  • A Community Directory putting families in touch with the wide range of excellent support services and organisations across the borough and London. We found that many of the existing online advice pages were out of date or did not contain the full picture of the extensive support offered, in one place. The Ask Me service continues to co-ordinate a full joined-up picture of support available to support our Ambassadors to give the best advice when signposting young people and to help the wider community. The community directory can be found here – https://ask-us.org.uk/directory-category/

We are continuing to work with Waltham Forest Borough Council and other community partners to expand the offer of the Ask Me service and to build upon the early successes of the public health Violence Reduction approach. The annual report can be read in full here – https://walthamforest.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Violence%20Reduction%20Partnership%20Annual%20Report%202019_0.pdf

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Is Knife crime reaching a ‘record high’ in England and Wales?

Last week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest crime statistics leading a number of newspapers to publish headlines that knife crime in England and Wales had risen to a “record high”. Nationwide, the country has seen an overall rise of seven per cent, with 44,076 incidents involving a knife or sharp instrument. The figures led to Javed Khan, chief executive of charity Barnardo’s, saying “It’s totally unacceptable that the knife crime crisis continues to claim so many young lives, with offences at record high. Knife crime is a symptom of a much wider, complex problem. Too many young people are suffering a ‘poverty of hope’, and facing a future with no qualifications, no prospects, and no role models, making them vulnerable to criminal gangs who force them to deliver drugs and carry knives.”

Are the claims of record highs, correct?

Although it is accurate that knife offences have risen significantly, the comparable data only goes back to 2011, so  a “record high” is maybe more fairly described as an eight-year high. It’s certainly true that the figures we are seeing now, are amongst the highest in that eight year period.

Secondly,  knife crime is measured using police recorded crime data and so only reflects crimes that are reported and recorded, not total crime. So, it does not necessarily follow that the true level of crime across England and Wales has actually  increased. The data can be affected by targeted policing activity or campaigns and victims’ willingness to report crime.

The total number of homicides across the country fell by 5 per cent in the last year, from 719 to 681 offences. There has also been a 14 per cent decrease in homicides where a knife was involved, despite headlines at the end of 2018 suggesting otherwise. The drop, which has surprised many, appears to be mainly due to a fall in the number of deaths involving knives or bladed weapons in London. However, more worryingly from the Capitals perspective, the year ending June 2019 saw 32 per cent of all offences recorded by police involving a knife or sharp instrument in England and Wales,  happened in London.

Some commentators suggest this is on the back of the Met Police recording 4,000 more searches for offensive weapons in 2018. Others suggest that it’s too simplistic to argue that that one has explicitly caused the other. They say that there were few overall changes in the number of total offences involving a knives or blades in London in the last year and there is little evidence that previous stop and search initiatives in the capital have had a positive effect on bringing down violent crime.

So we can’t say for sure what has caused the fall in the number of knife related deaths, but what we can say is that projections for 2019 look concerning and likely to create similar headlines of record or nine year highs in newspapers next year.

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Ambassadors Go Live

Our first group of Ask Me Community Ambassadors go live on Tuesday 15th October – deployed throughout the borough in areas where they can add real value to support young people and families at risk of gang activity of the threat of youth violence. We have Ambassadors based in the following areas:

• Chingford
• Higham’s Park
• Leyton
• Leytonstone
• Upper Walthamstow
• Walthamstow
• Cann Hall
• Bakers Arms
• Friday Hill

The team have been received training to help them understand the causes of the rise in serious youth violence, to engage effectively with young people and their families and to promote all aspects of the Waltham Forest Council Gang Prevention Programme (GPP) and the public health approach to the issue.

We are very pleased with the quality and diversity our first group of Ambassadors – we think they will hit the ground running and offer an excellent first line of defence as part of the GPP.

Please don’t hesitate to contact info@ask-us.org.uk if you would like to access any of our Ambassador team.

We are still looking for a further twenty Ambassadors to make up a second cohort and have a training session booked for 25th January 2020. Please don’t hesitate to refer any suitable contacts, friends, role models to our website – https://ask-us.org.uk/ask-me-ambassador – to express an interest.

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More speed, less ‘waste’ – restricting access to knives for young people, must be a national priority

A greater urgency is needed to tackle knife crime was the headline in yesterday’s Evening Standard. A headline published after seven people have been violently killed in London over the last nine days; the latest fatality, a 17 year old boy stabbed to death by a gang of thugs in front of a KFC in Edgware Road, at lunchtime.  (See –https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/evening-standard-comment-greater-urgency-needed-to-tackle-knife-crime-a4234136.html) . We strongly agree.

Yes, knife crime must be treated as a public-health crisis as well as a criminal one.

Yes, the police must become more involved in the solution by working alongside schools, employers and social services to protect vulnerable young people, not just adopting their traditional role as enforcers. The Met Police, in the words of its own Commissioner, cannot arrest their way out of this knife crime wave.

And yes, the  evidence of the success of the public health approach to youth violence is there to see in Scotland. (See our earlier blog – https://ask-us.org.uk/2019/07/26/see-the-latest-blog-on-the-impact-of-scotlands-violence-reduction-unit-svru)

But the public health approach is a medium to long term strategy. It can take years to achieve what agencies in Glasgow did. And we are delighted to be playing our part with Waltham Forest Borough Council by creating the ‘Ask Me’ online resource for young people and their families and a network of Ambassadors to signpost young people at risk of gang and serious youth violence towards more positive options on offer. But the short term goal must be to make it far more difficult for young people to have access to knives. When acid was emerging as the weapon of choice on the capitals streets, the government moved quickly to toughen the law on handling acid in public and to make it more difficult to buy it. When moped enabled crime rose significantly in London, innovative high-profile tactics were developed for stopping moped thieves intent in reaping havoc and motor bike manufacturers made mopeds more difficult to steal.

However, it remains so easy to buy knives online and in hardware stores. Manufacturers of knives disguised as hairbrushes, keys and pens are able to readily do so making it easier for lethal weapons to be concealed. For so long we have been staggered at the access young people have to guns in the United States and yet, we seem to have a blind spot to the ease of access young people have to lethal knives in this country.

Many commentators blame Brexit for taking our leaders eyes off domestic issues. Whether Brexit is it is not responsible for the current suspension of parliament, we intend to use the next five weeks to lobby various MPs in London who now suddenly find themselves with time on their hands, to ensure the knife access issue is given a far greater profile than simply the Comments sections in our newspapers. As the Standard makes clear – it’s critical- young lives are at stake here and opportunities to fix the problem are being wasted.

Read more about the work of Ask Me Ambassadors or visit the FAQ section of our website by heading to https://www.ask-us.org.uk

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