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Rethinking Peace and Justice: Addressing Structural Violence and Institutional Racism

By Temi Mwale:

The 4Front Project is a member-led youth organisation on a mission to empower young people and communities to fight for justice, peace and freedom. I set up the organisation in 2012 to support people with direct experiences of violence and the criminal justice system to create change; in their own lives, communities and society. I have welcomed the increased attempts to examine the root causes of serious youth violence in recent years. The work of the Youth Violence Commission certainly falls within this context. Recognising poverty and rising inequality; social, educational and economic marginalisation and exclusion; as well as unaddressed trauma and mental health issues, as prominent causes of this violence brings us closer to the solutions.

However, whilst the general public discourse about serious youth violence in the UK continues to be highly racialised, it is extremely disappointing that institutional racism was not identified as a cause of serious youth violence in this report. It is certainly true that violence affects young people across the UK, but it remains a fact that young Black men and boys are disproportionately represented as the victims of this violence. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, Black children made up 20% of all child victims and a higher proportion of Black homicides were against children – 17% of Black victims were 17 or younger, compared to an average of 11% across all ethnicities (Ministry of Justice: Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2018). For the most part, the efforts to explain this disproportionality have failed to progress beyond the age-old racist narratives that seek to link violence and crime more generally, inextricably with Blackness.

Whilst there was some exploration of specific barriers that face young Black people in Part 1 of this report, it is disconcerting that this was not examined further. The report explores poverty and housing, school exclusion, unemployment, and the criminal justice system without highlighting that (1) Black people are most likely to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods (Office for National Statistics, 2018); (2) Black children are disproportionately excluded from schools (Department for Education, 2020); (3) the unemployment rate for young Black men aged 16-24 is higher than for most other groups (House of Commons Library: Unemployment by ethnic background, 2020); and (4) Black people are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system (Ministry of Justice: Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2018). Evidentially, a gap remains within this space for a nuanced account of the relationship between young Black people and serious youth violence. Institutional racism must become central to our analysis of this disproportionality.

Since the launch of this Commission, trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have increasingly become part of the mainstream conversation about serious youth violence. It is unfortunate that in many ways, these terms have become ‘buzz words’, often used without full explanation or understanding. Furthermore, the traditional ACEs survey fails to substantially incorporate the trauma that can be inflicted on children directly by institutions (particularly criminal justice institutions). How can such institutions promote and use a ‘trauma informed approach’ without recognising the trauma that they can cause?

The positioning of a public health approach as the overall solution, with many institutions already claiming to implement this approach, is unsettling, particularly where these claims lack substance. Without the adequate support in place for victims, it is hard to envision a system that can provide the necessary support to whole communities that are traumatised. Furthermore, the framing of violence as a ‘disease’ that can be transmitted, often fails to move beyond individual accountability which runs the risk of upholding the systems which generate violence.

I am dubious of this report recommending that the police focus on a truly intelligence-led stop and search approach whilst also acknowledging that there is no evidence that stop and search is an effective policy. We must continue to question what this police ‘intelligence’ is and how it is obtained. This is particularly important when we consider the use of ‘intelligence’ in establishing ‘gang’ lists which have breached data protection laws. We cannot accept the framing of these tools as ‘intelligence-led’ as a means to justify the disproportionate targeting of young Black people.

More than two decades after the Macpherson report acknowledged institutional racism within the police, young Black boys are still over-policed and under protected. Furthermore, the lack of accountability for historical failures has led to the lack of legitimacy of policing in the eyes of many Black people. Overall, ‘crime’ should not be the predominant lens through which young Black people are seen and their experiences understood. Not only is this distorted, but incredibly dangerous, as it prevents young Black people from accessing adequate support, offering instead, only punishment.

I do not believe that the recommendation for a further reduction to the number of young people in the secure estate goes far enough. In 2017, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that youth custody centres in England and Wales were so unsafe that a “tragedy” was “inevitable” and that “not a single establishment inspected was safe to hold young people”. How can we reconcile our understanding of trauma with the existence of these establishments which have been exposed as perpetuating further violence and harm? The disproportionate representation of young Black people in the youth estate also highlights the disproportionate impact of this harm on them. Overall, our approach should focus on the needs of children, as opposed to treating them as risks that need to be managed. As Angela Davis said, “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings”.

It is positive that this report recommends that structures are put in place to ensure that young people’s voices are at the heart of decision making that affects them. Whilst capturing youth voice is important, work that empowers the young people most directly impacted by violence and the criminal justice system to drive change should be furthered. We must ensure that movements for change are youth-led.

At The 4Front Project, we were able to transition away from framing our work around violence reduction to a broader more positive focus on building peace. There is an important distinction between the two, not just in terms of focus, but approach. I fundamentally agree with the recommendation that youth projects should take an asset-based approach which is framed around opportunity and inclusion as opposed to the stigmatising label of ‘violence reduction’. However, this recommendation should be expanded to include institutions. This calls into question the establishment of ‘Violence Reduction Units’ which arguably could be more positively received and effective if framed differently.

Whilst the concept of peace may be aspirational, if we are not bold enough to have this vision within our sight, then attempts to reduce violence are relatively meaningless. I believe the work of the Commission has begun to answer the question of what peace could look like. But overall, without recognising the full extent to which institutions currently contribute towards inflicting harm, this report has only partially answered what would make all young people feel safe.

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