By Georgie Keate
One child, four teenagers and one young man - all stabbed in Croydon in five separate incidents over eight days. I've worked here for almost a year and know this is not normal. Croydon is not the Bronx, whatever outsiders may think.
The first happened more than two weeks ago under the bright lights of the town's shopping centre.
A fight broke out. One 17-year-old was stabbed in the back and rushed to hospital where he fought for his life with a punctured kidney. Another 16-year-old boy was slashed across the face and stabbed in the arm.
The second has Trident - the Met’s gang unit - on the case after a 18-year-old was stabbed in an incident witnesses said resembled a "warzone".
The third was a 12-year-old. A bunch of kids went through his pockets before knifing him outside a Tesco Express.
The fourth a 16-year-old boy was stabbed near West Croydon. It was at this point the police finally agreed to a press interview after a week of hassling. The detective superintendent did his stuff. He suggested knife arches would be installed in some troublespot schools, said Croydon had been given extra officers for a while and called it an "unfortunate blip".
On the way out, the borough commander saw me and snarled: "What a headline last week. I have never seen so many inaccurate epithets". I was so taken aback I could only call, nonplussed, "but it happened?" at his retreating back. (The headline in question was: 'Two stabbed in shopping centre teen fight horror' - none of it inaccurate.)
That was Friday afternoon. In the evening a 21 year old was stabbed in a fight.
In the two weeks this all happened, I asked every single adult holding a position of authority or responsibility in the matter to help explain the violence. The police said crime was falling, the council failed to allow their gangs strategist to be interviewed, the youth offending service couldn't comment.
Croydon's MP, Gavin Barwell, wrote in a news bulletin: "These attacks and the resulting media coverage do grave damage to Croydon’s reputation". The Croydon Tories' Twitter account linked to a picture saying "Crime is down again!"
Crime is falling overall, but since April last year, there have still been 25 teenage victims of GBH or worse every single month in Croydon. That's almost one a day.
(One laugh in all this was when a good lady from the south of the borough complained to the paper because we had used a stock image of a white child with a knife to illustrate one of the stories. She called knife crime a "black issue". When our editor wrote back telling her it was nonsense, she retorted: "It's like writing an article about fish and chips and using a photo of a pizza, only more sinister.")
The only adults to acknowledge the problem head-on were those from the SOS Project - a group run entirely by ex-offenders who work in 25 Croydon schools to reduce knife and gang crime. Junior Smart told me "nine in ten of the children I work with think there is a safe place on the body to stab someone".
He continued: "It beggars belief the reality these kids live in. No-one really knows the real extent of it. Violence has become so normalised. When we ask kids how many of them have lost someone close to them – either because they have died or gone to prison - the majority put up their hands."
His colleague, Chris Douglas, said: "There's a saying with kids at the moment – 'not going to be lacking'. It means I must protect myself against my enemies and carry a weapon." He said 98% of children he had spoken to have admitted to carrying knives. "The problem is, if you carry a knife, you feel bigger, so you get into situations you would normally run from,” he explained. "Kids don't wake up in the morning and think 'I want to stab someone today'. Most get caught up in something and haven't thought about the consequences."
It was clear we needed to talk to teenagers themselves if we were going to get any real insight on the issue. Amazingly, a secondary school we agreed not to name said yes when I asked if I could come down and speak to a group of kids. In the end, I was plonked at the front of the assembly hall facing 50 schoolchildren aged between 14 and 15. I asked how many had ever carried a knife and watched as couple of hands crept up. When I asked their teachers to face the wall, about 15 more shot into the air. I put my hand over my eyes and asked someone to speak out and tell me why.
"Well it's protection isn't it," a boy said. "There are so many out there who carry weapons to make themselves feel bigger than everyone else. There are bad people, we're scared of them, and you might need it for self-defence."
Then a girl said quietly: "Does it count if you've carried a weapon at home?" I asked her what she meant, my blood running cold. Was she arming herself with a knife because she thinks she might need it?
"Well yeah. I mean when you're home alone and scared about people coming to the house. There are boys in my area and they can come round to houses, it happens." Like house robberies, I ask? Several other girls nod their heads in agreement.
Next, I ask how many have seen an incident between children where a knife or another weapon has been pulled out. The majority put up their hands. I ask the girls again how many times this has happened and what they did. "It happens a bit," one says. "I've seen it twice recently where I’ve run all the way home after school. You just have to run away from it." How old were you when you started being aware of this kind of thing? Year 7 they say.
When I ask if they're scared of the level of knife crime, a boy pipes up: "Knives aren't that bad. Guns are the worst, someone can get you from far away. To hurt someone with a knife you have to be right up close. You know, I could pick up a rock and throw it at someone. If you're cleverer than them, you won’t let them up close."
A different group of boys begin to speak up. "We know it's wrong to hurt people. Some people don't think like that, they feel better for hurting someone. Or they can do it for the fame, to get in with people. They're the ones not in school, who don't care about anything or what happens. But it's not just them, they come from schools like this too."
A boy starts talking about 'better futures' so I ask him what he means. "If you have a better future, if you know you can have a better future, you won't do this kind of thing," he says. "Improving confidence, so you're not always scared."
Almost unanimously, the group think the problem is getting worse. There's also a sense of resignation about it. When I ask what could be done, they shrug their shoulders. "Nothing." Can adults do anything? "They can't do much most of the time, outside school," a boy says. "That's why you have to protect yourself."
Two days later I’m sitting in a youth court waiting for the two brothers charged with stabbing the teenagers in the shopping centre to be called. First though, a 16-year-old-boy appears on an unrelated case and pleads guilty to possessing three knives - one flick knife and two kitchen knives.
His lawyer makes an impassioned defence - the boy is robbed at knife point on a regular basis, this is the reality youth face daily in London, he felt he needed the knives to protect himself, he's scared.
Then the teenager is allowed to speak and again, he says he's scared. By the time his father stands up, the boy's mother is in tears. "We are a good family," he says. "I work full time as a project manager, my wife works full time in early years and is studying part time. We set a good example to our children but this is the situation for ethnic minorities and his age group, surrounded by gangs and people who will use weapons to rob. He lives with this every day and fears for himself, the pressure had got to him." The boy was given a referral order and the case closed.
Then the two brothers walked in. They were absolutely tiny. The pair of them stood to say their names and hear the charges in matching shirts, trousers and puffa jackets. The magistrates decided, because of the seriousness of the charges, that they had to send the teenagers to a crown court in a few weeks time.
Children always have and always will fight. But if it involves weapons, the fight ends with one child wounded or dead and the other in the criminal justice system.
Sandra Dougan is struggling under the weight of this reality after her 17 year old son, Fico, was stabbed to death back in September. Sitting on a sofa in her family home, she told me:
"It has never been the same. Every now and then my mind wanders over his death and I am weeping. I try to understand why it happened to him and in that way. My sense of pride for being a mother and for living is diminished."
She now runs fortnightly meetings for Fico's friends to discuss their hopes and fears. When they talked about what they would do with power, she said: "One boy said he wanted to stop gun crime, another said knife crime. One said he wanted to get rid of poverty and one to make everyone equal."
She said the teenagers had too much time and freedom, that some resented the fact their parents were out working all the time. "I have to tell them, as a mother, that their parents are working hard like that to protect and provide for them – it does not give children the licence to do what they like," she said.
It is not having high expectations to think children shouldn't run home from school scared, shoudn't carry knives and shouldn't know anyone else who does either. It's just normal - or should be.
It's not the coverage of these incidents that gives Croydon a bad reputation, it's the fact teenagers are carrying knives and using them against each other.
Twelve-year-olds are stabbing each other and all anyone can say is that crime is falling. There's more than just one problem.
Georgie Keate is a reporter for the Croydon Advertiser. Follow her on Twitter.
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