Staff writer Sam McManus interviews activists, officers and former gang members about London’s endemic culture of knife crime.
Nowhere celebrates New Year’s Eve quite like the capital.
As Big Ben, our grandad timekeeper, readies to announce the midnight hour, we flock together, awaiting its final toll of the year. Soon, the night sky bursts into colour, as we ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at that dazzling display of fireworks gloriously dancing atop the Thames.
And clink goes the glasses! We toast – to what? To everything! It’s to the year gone, to your loved ones, or that stranger you just met in the South Bank. As the year passes and takes a final bow, London’s streets become this stage for a joyous ballet of festivity. The air grows thick with a delightful, giddy buzz. Every street seems to be in tune with a tipsy waltz of hope and happiness, pulsing with slightly slurred, yet heartfelt promises for the year ahead.
As the morning sun breaks, the fireworks’ hue has dimmed. Glasses find their rest, sipped empty of their contents, as Big Ben’s chimes fade silently into January’s embrace. Yet, in this hush, a seductive sense of British, John Bullish optimism lingers; London is glowing.
It is only hours later, and London’s rhythm of contagious joy is abruptly punctured by a sickening, sharp, and sudden wail of despair. The city is now cradling its freshest wound as mere moments before celebrations begin, yet another of London’s teenagers is murdered, in some sombre, cruel oxymoron. As our night sky burst into new life, we remained blissfully unaware it marked one was reaching a very premature end.
Young Harry Pitman, a boy only 16 years of age, was attacked on Primrose Hill, North London, only moments before the new year began. Like most, he had been gathered with a group of friends, ready to welcome midnight and lust over our famous fireworks display. Amidst a crowd of around 30,000, Harry was stabbed with a hunting knife, in a merciless act of brutish violence.
Harry would die at the scene, in some heart-breaking synchrony with the city’s outbreak of jubilance. According to an observer, paramedics fought to “save his life, basically as fireworks were being let off and people were whooping and hollering. It was a strange, eerie scene”.
Whilst news of Harry’s death will cause a twang of sadness in even London’s most jaded of souls, it is those who knew him personally who face their psyche scarred by the distinct, bottomless pits of concussive grief that coincide with the untimely passing of a loved one.
His older sister, Tayla laments that her brother’s passing still “doesn’t seem real, I keep on expecting him to come through the front door. His dinner is still in the oven, Mum can’t bring herself to remove it… He has a younger four-year-old brother and a five-year-old sister. We haven’t told them what’s happened yet, we don’t know how to.”
Harry’s youngest siblings will remain in blissful innocence for now, but they too shall be confronted with a very grim reality one day. A reality that forces Tayla to talk about her brother in the past tense, a reality that manifests itself in the oppressive silence of every family dinner. A glum missing contingent, as the son’s chair will remain empty.
As painstaking as these truths are, it’s the same grief that is felt by many more members of our city. Harry’s death adds him to the horrific tally of 21 teens murdered in the capital last year – the blade of a knife responsible for all but 3.
The fact that an event as tragic as Harry’s death no longer astonishes me is perhaps the most alarming aspect of all. The victims may have been different in name, and their murders different in manner, but they all represent chapters of the very same tragic tale: the relentless repetition of British teenagers knifing each other down.
It hardly takes some elephantine memory to recall the cycle of these events. We have yet another teen felled and another family torn apart. There will be a spluttering of harangues for the Mayor to face exile and political commentators of grandiose delusions proclaiming their column contains an irrefutable solution to the nuanced problem of knife crime.
Then, we watch with empathy another series of trips to the Old Bailey with the tear-stained witness statements. Thus comes a gradual, well-meaning yet aimless call for more to be done, yet what that ‘more’ entails, we haven’t seemed to work out.
The departed’s name will be gradually erased from our collective consciousness, soon supplanted by the next young victim on the front pages. And round the cycle goes.
Harry’s cruel murder within the plashy Primrose Park, one of London’s most beautiful and affluent areas, speaks to the ongoing problem. We live in a city of prosperity and glamour, one of the wealthiest anywhere in the world, and yet so many young people carry a blade as they saunter our streets. The fact that teenagers are feeling compelled to carry knives, just a stone’s throw away from rows of luxury mansions, speaks volumes about the reality of the city. It’s a fundamental contradiction, a jarring dissonance between the grandeur of London and the brutal reality of its underbelly.
These aren’t merely dangers that come with living in ‘the big city’; it cannot be customary for us to observe this many Londoners murdered before they’ve reached adulthood. This is no uncommon occurrence or a fleeting moment of madness, it is a problem that cuts deeply into the fabric of our city.
We face the urgent task of unravelling these threads, of addressing the core issues that are currently ferrying our youth from the safety of the schoolyard into the cold, unforgiving dock of a courtroom.
“When I was first involved in gang crime, I didn’t even know it was happening.”Sephton Henry
Sephton Henry was once one of South London’s most notorious gang members. By 23, he was classified as a PPO (persistent, prolific offender), having been to prison some seven different times. Nowadays, Sephton has left gang life behind and works to guide others away from the dangerous path of drugs and violence that he was shunted onto.
On this occasion, that includes spending his Friday evening helping me (and you) to understand just how this happens. I spoke with him about his experience as a gang member, the wider issues of knife crime, and just how he made it out the other side.
I put to him my first question- I had just learnt that the boy charged with Harry’s murder had also only been 16- and so, perhaps inadvertently revealing the breadth of my naivety, I ask Sephton why it is now so common for a teenager to be carrying such a weapon?
Patiently, he unravels the complexities of a problem rooted far deeper than my initial understanding. He is articulate and clear with his answer, but then again, Henry has faced demanding audiences at City Hall and Parliament, so he is calm when pressed by a student interviewer. Or perhaps it’s just a question he has been posited all too many times before.
He shifts my question’s focus from the image of the wayward teenager to the realities of a troubled upbringing. “I didn’t go out and sell drugs by myself, I was groomed into it, and it became a cycle of life.” In his case, I learn Sephton was groomed into gang life from only 8 years old. Unbeknownst to him, he was delivering drugs in return for a reward of sweets. He explains that the winding road that leads to carrying a knife “starts with the culture and that culture is mainly about showing off, being the guy, the man, on top”.
It was that culture of machismo that pushed Sephton into the bowels of gang life. Teased for his lack of money, he explains how society had failed to bring his basic needs, causing him to turn to drug dealing. “I knew what I was doing was wrong and I wanted to stop,” he says. “But when I stopped – that’s when the violence started. The other boys attacked me, and I joined a gang.”
Our conversation slides into that slightly darker tone. We touch on the violence that lies at the heart of London, and tentatively, I ask him about the choice to carry a knife.
He explains that it’s a concoction of “safety, ego and aggression… if you’re under a certain culture, you tend to react to things the way the culture sees fit”. In his eyes, the culmination of fears of others carrying, and that bravado, create a “catastrophe” which all too often results in violence.
His experiences of imprisonment come up. We share a slight chuckle at him struggling to recall the names of each prison he was once confined to. “I’ve been shot at, I’ve been stabbed in my lip, been stabbed in my ear. I’m fighting and doing all these crazy things,” he shares. As getting shot at seemingly falls short of what he constitutes “crazy”, I don’t dare probe further.
Long gone are Sephton’s days of career violence. But, whilst his life today is completely different to how it was, crucially, he is still the same man.
“I come out [of prison] and start to transform and deal with my inner wounds, hurts and pains, and start to change and grow and get educated, and all these different things. Lo and behold, that person that was deemed as a PPO is now becoming a normal, good citizen, and not only that, but he’s also helping thousands of people around the world. That person was always in me.”
As Sephton explains, one doesn’t start to carry a knife on a whim; it’s a desensitising process. Today, when young guys start carrying a knife, “they’re 13, 14 and 15. If they’re children, that means they’re vulnerable.”
As someone with an intimate familiarity with those making these choices, he advocates for a change to how we perceive those who carry knives around London today. “We can’t see them as ‘adolescents’ or ‘violent’. Once we see them in their child state we understand: we are the adults who need to change this problem.”
Long after the phone call, the hour-long conversation with Sephton still rings around my head. My brain whirrs feebly, attempting to piece the issue together, with my perspective of the knife-carrying type completely in tatters.
It might be tempting for us to claim some moral superiority over this group, but I’ve never felt the need to carry a knife. I sit in a fortunate position where I can decide what I do with my future. If you are reading this, it is almost certain you share that same luxury.
Yet allow yourself to imagine that you were brought up in a borough where you weren’t granted this opportunity. What if you were pushed into the gritty world of drug dealing before the age of 10, just to scrape together pocket change? What if all your friends carried a blade? If all life ever told you was that our city contained imminent threats to your very existence, would you carry a knife?
At the risk of self-incrimination, I’m pretty sure I would.
That doesn’t mean we should become tolerant of knives. It certainly doesn’t cushion the heartache of loss felt by so the parents who are mourning their child’s untimely death. We cannot just accept murder in the streets because many experience tough childhoods. But these situations don’t exist in a vacuum. I’d be stunned to see someone argue that Sephton, at only 8 years old, was at fault for dealing drugs. The incarcerated teenager was first a boy who saw a life of crime as his only way to thrive.
But why do primary school children find themselves presented with that choice? One would assume that, in a city like London, it should be inconceivable that children have an opportunity to traffic drugs, let alone have easy access to 20-inch machetes.
This puzzle brings us to our questions about policing. After all, it’s the police who rush to the scene once knives are drawn, so their role makes up an important chunk of our unfolding story.
Now, it would be hard to argue that the police in the capital are in control of knife crime. The Office for National Statistics shows that there were 13,503 knife-enabled crimes in London in the year ending June 2023, up 21 per cent for the previous 12-month period.
The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has consistently blamed government cuts for the uptick in knife crime, yet he faces stark criticism from opposition and voters alike for his seeming failure to control this problem after a full 8 years in office, especially considering City of London Police are set to recieve an extra £922m in funding compared to 2023/24.
So, how well-equipped are the police to deal with an issue like knife crime? How do they feel about these extreme, and rising, demands? I spoke to a detective constable, who chose to remain anonymous but relayed to me a case she worked on as part of the Criminal Investigation Department.
“In 2020, I investigated an offence of attempted GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm). The victim was sitting outside his home when two suspects pulled up on a moped. The pillion passenger jumped off and ran at the victim with a machete (which are scarily common).
“Fortunately, the victim was able to get inside his front door before the suspect could harm him. The victim knew the suspect and named him. The suspect was arrested, charged and sent to court the next day. He was further remanded at court (which means he was sent to prison/youth detention until the trial, rather than being bailed to come back to court). At the time, the court system was experiencing huge delays due to Covid, and as a result, trials were badly delayed.
“It was eventually decided by the court to release the suspect because he had been detained for such a long time without actually being found guilty. He was released ‘on tag’ and with certain conditions.
“In the summer of 2021, the suspect believed his ex-girlfriend was seeing another young male (not the previous victim). Once again, he was riding on a moped when he saw this young man walking home. He jumped off the moped, pulled out a knife, and proceeded to stab the victim in the chest. The victim ran off and two members of the public told him to get in their van. They soon realised he was bleeding, and they took him to hospital. Sadly, he passed away. The suspect was ultimately found due in part to being ‘on tag’ for the previous offence.
I suppose this story is more about failings of the justice system which allowed a dangerous offender to be released and subsequently re-offend, than knife crime per se – but it’s one example of how young people are carrying and using bladed weapons, and life can be lost over something trivial.”
I asked her about how these stories have impacted her view on knife crime. As someone who deals with it first-hand in London, she provides an internal and unique perspective, as opposed to the thoughts of someone just consuming the endless news cycle.
“It’s so much more prevalent than I had realised prior to joining the police, and it is so commonplace for young people to be carrying knives, even if they are ‘just for protection’. The fact that they feel they need knives for protection compounds the problem. It’s almost a catch-22, because they know others are carrying knives, which means they feel the need to carry knives, which just means even more young people are armed.
“I have dealt with a suspect in custody as young as 10 who had taken a knife into school. He didn’t do anything with it, but it’s so ingrained in the culture in certain areas that young children are seeing and learning that it’s ‘cool’ or even just ‘normal’. More needs to be done to educate and redirect young people, in particular young males, because they are exposed to so many outside influences (including social media / being groomed by gangs etc) that intervention is required early in order to stand a chance of making a difference.”
As the police bear the brunt of criticism for their perceived inability to rein in knife crime, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the weight these officers carry. Even in this case, where they detained a suspect for attempted GBH, he was let back out thanks to delays in the justice system, tragically leading to another life lost. Plus these challenges are compounded by the police’s daily juggling act of handling protests, addressing hate speech, combating corruption and navigating a million other pressing matters.
Some may see this as personally inconsequential. For us students, our lives mainly revolve around shuttling between campus, shops and clubs. Unless you’re dabbling in the drug trade as an extracurricular activity, the issue of knife crime will hold little relevance to your existence. It doesn’t affect your summer internship or next week’s essay deadline. At most, it’s a headline in the Metro to which you give a quick glance. We can huddle together within the confines of campus, sheltered from the harsh realities of our city.
Yet it only took me a quick Google search and another conversation to realise we’re not quite as protected from this as we’d like to believe. The problem is far closer to home, or in this instance, campus, than I initially realised.
I spoke to Daisy Eastlake, a third-year Politics student, who told me about how she witnessed the fallout of a stabbing whilst at home in Stockwell, Lambeth.
“It was my day off from work and I was tidying my room when I heard a helicopter in the distance outside. I thought nothing of it, but after a minute or so I realised it hadn’t gone away but had gotten much louder.
“I watched from the window as the paramedics jumped out of the helicopter and ran to the next street up from mine. I saw ambulances and police cars hurtling into my estate. We saw a man, his head absolutely caked in blood, lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled into the back of an ambulance. There were kids around – one girl was the eldest of three and was clearly trying to stop her younger siblings from seeing the scene. Everyone was just stood around, watching.”
“Perhaps the worst part is, they left a congealed blood stain in the middle of the pavement until the rain washed it away.”
The presence of knives in London is an issue for us all. Even if you aren’t a part of the harrowing ‘postcode wars’, what’s to say you don’t find yourself as Daisy did, suddenly witness a brutal crime scene? Say you step in to help a harassed stranger on a night out, knives only can mean a higher chance it becomes fatal. Any of us can simply be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is shown to be painstakingly true by the case of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Araimi, 20, who was attacked in Knightsbridge on Friday 6 December 2019. Police suspect that the incident began as an attempted robbery.
The Omani national was, like me, a King’s College London student. He was stabbed to death in the capital while returning home from a restaurant with a friend. His brother, Raid, stated that “Mohammed was murdered in such a monstrous manner which has inflicted such pain on us which cannot be described.”
He studied Politics and Economics, and he likely walked the very corridors that I do every single day. The Metropolitan Police said he was “entirely blameless” in his death, highlighting how Mohammed was an unfortunate victim emblematic of an issue that can afflict any one of us, at any given moment.
This is a problem that is only getting worse.
When I started this piece, I was aware of the dangers surrounding knife crime. But, learning of the scale, how early it can start, and just how little the police can sometimes do, this issue struck home for me.
So, what can we do? Do we accept this is only going to continue, resigning to the fact it’s a problem spiralling out of control? Are we waving the proverbial white flag? Instead, I’ve taken solace in those who commit themselves to fighting on.
Anthony Olaseinde, founder of ‘Always an Alternative’, has tirelessly dedicated himself to fighting knife crime in his area of Sheffield, receiving the ‘Points of Light’ award from Downing Street for his work. I spoke with him about his focus on educating young people and mentoring those at risk of being consumed by gang culture.
Like many others, his dedication to fighting knife crime stems from his own life being marred by its unforgiving impacts. “I saw people get shot at regularly, I saw someone get stabbed to death when I was 15 – that was the first time I saw someone get murdered.”
I asked him about the solutions to knife crime, and he broke down his multi-layered approach to keeping our streets safe. “If I was going to get attacked by someone, what would I take away? The knife. That’s why we have weapon amnesty bins spotted around.”
The bins Anthony mentions were a major success, both personally and for his community. He explains he set them up to allow people to dispose of their weapons safely and anonymously, a factor I had hardly considered. Anthony stressed its importance.
“People don’t have a choice to get rid of a weapon safely. They might think it’s safe, but saying you don’t want a weapon anymore, and then chucking it into a bush, is not safe. The last thing we need is a young kid picking up a weapon.”
He adds that “people often do not seem to make use of the resources that police may have on giving up weapons. They’ve got to want to get rid of it. If I take a weapon off somebody and put it in that bin, it doesn’t make sense. That’s the first step, to give someone that gateway off the streets, give them that option.”
Continuing our conversation, he elaborates on the significance of education, emphasising a steadfast commitment to a long-term approach.
“A lot of young people are carrying knives and making very poor life choices because they’re uneducated on certain life choices. We presume as adults that kids know that it’s illegal to carry a knife, however, if all your friends are carrying a knife, and it’s normal, then a young person’s mind will think it’s a legal thing to do, because all my friends are doing it. So, we’ve got to educate them to let them know the right and the wrong, of carrying a knife.
“There’s a lot of soft life skills that we teach young people, that they’re unaware of.” He discusses teaching conflict management, de-escalation techniques and understanding emotions. He believes his career has taught him that “it’s not the knife that’s the issue. It’s the mentality of the person to carry the knife.”
It is a bitterly cold morning. After stepping off the sweltering tube, my hands are already stung by January’s harsh winds. I am surrounded by people of every kind, history like no other, and a sense of pride I feel nowhere else. It is a deep-rooted sense of community that binds us all together, even if subconsciously.
Take a look at the reaction to Harry Pitman’s death. Or the 7/7 bombings. Or the London Bridge terror attack. Whilst inexplicably sad, it shows how unmeasurable tragedies force us Londoners to come together. It’s in that embrace, following a loss too painful to articulate, where we hold our loved ones that little bit tighter.
For the child who dealt drugs to get by, or the police officer stretched to the brink. For the student walking home, or the activist making a speech. Before us lies a choice, and we need to stick together. I won’t claim to have the answer, but we must try everything possible to get knives off our streets. London is bleeding, and badly. It’s time we worked together to heal its wounds.