ON THE FRONTLINE: “No one walks out their house without a knife” – living with violence as a daily threat

ON THE FRONTLINE: “No one walks out their house without a knife” – living with violence as a daily threat

Will Mason

I have worked with young people for almost 10 years, both as a researcher and a voluntary youth worker. This work has been based largely in and around the same neighbourhood in Forgefield, a northern English city. Maple is a multicultural neighbourhood with pockets of relative deprivation. Some parts rank amongst the most deprived 10% of areas in the country, facing long term economic and social hardship. Boys who I met there at 11 or 12 are now approaching work or university. Recently, one of these young men was attacked, chased and hospitalized with multiple stab wounds. He was extremely lucky to survive. Hamza is not the first of his peers to have been attacked with a knife.

Recent increases in knife crime and the publication of the government’s Serious Violence Strategy (Home Office, 2018) have provoked extensive debate about young people and knives, particularly in London. The discussion has been highly politicized, focusing on the extent and impact of spending cuts to public services in the youth sector, education and the police. This context is clearly important. However, the voices of young people have been conspicuously absent from this commentary. Drawing on the learning gained from recent discussions with 6 male respondents (aged 16 – 19), all with direct or indirect experiences of knife crime, this article seeks to share something from young peoples’ perspectives about what it is like to live with violence as a daily threat. All data were gathered via 3 sequential workshops and convened in partnership with a senior youth worker and a local youth charity. To protect the identities of the young people, all names have been changed.

Territorial antagonism is a feature of life for many young people. For some of those in Maple it is a part of the context in which they grow up. Hostilities between Maple and other Forgefield neighbourhoods have existed for generations and consequently, residents can find themselves thrown into existing disputes from an early age. In the worst instances young people will have suffered sibling bereavement as a result of territorial violence. More commonly they will grow up around narratives of territoriality, with stories of tragedy and reprisal woven into every talk about school, sports, music and friendship. Territoriality and the associated risks are a part of the way that young people in Maple learn about the social geography of their city.

Being from Maple means carrying a reputation for fighting and this is inscribed at a young age. Though our respondents derived a level of pride from this reputation, they also commented on feeling targeted by pupils at school, because of an identity that was not of their choosing. As Adam put it:

If you were from Maple you were already known as you can fight. So … they would try and start on you just to get that little reaction from you.

The young people described feeling singled out at school as targets of aggression by virtue of their reputation. This was alongside a sense of being profiled by teachers who expected them to be the perpetrators of antagonism, not the subjects. Importantly though, fighting at school was not inevitable for these young people. Rather, what makes their experience particular is that not fighting had to be an active commitment, exercised from a young age with the maturity and foresight to accept potentially damaging social consequences. Not standing up for oneself could mean forfeiting the esteem derived from an otherwise precarious social positioning; being from Maple.

The risk of assault was real for our respondents and permeated everyday life beyond the school gates. In a recent conversation with three young men, all could count at least ten others (within their personal networks) who had been stabbed. One described taking weapons to the cinema just in case they were ambushed.

Living with the threat of violence also had substantial emotional effects. Violent incidents were described as difficult to anticipate and so young people learned to expect them at any time. The city centre, in particular, was experienced as a patchwork of territories marked by symbolic boundaries. These boundaries had consequences, both practically in terms of access to space, and psychologically, in terms of fear. Adam described the fear of getting “jumped in town”. Mahad later detailed how anticipation of violence in the city made him nervous:

M: You never know who’s gonna just come and try and think “yo, I’ve got a problem with this guy” and try and attack you. Let’s say I’m walking, even if somebody is just running past me fast I’ll have to quickly go like that [adopts a defensive guard]. One time Zimbo and me were walking and a lady walked past, I thought it was somebody who had a problem, so I was like this [adopts a defensive guard] getting ready for a fight, and he was thinking ‘what the hell are you doin’?

These comments go some way towards indicating the effect of living with violence as a daily threat. For these young people risk and tension were everyday features of life in the city and this manifested itself in embodied ways, through alertness, uneasiness and readiness, like a defensive guard.

Importantly though, our respondents employed a number of strategies to avoid risk and stay out of trouble. For example, they would purposefully avoid the city centre if it was sunny, because in good weather the risk of violent altercations increased. They would also circumvent parts of the city in order to bypass places associated with rival groups. As Mahad put it:

M: …obviously we can go town if we want, it’s just gonna be our own risk whatever happens innit. Like even when we go MacDonalds in town, I either have to sit with my back on the wall, because you never know who’s gonna come behind you and try and hit you or anything innit? So it’s just best to be cautious all the time.

They also managed risk by carrying weapons. Respondents commented on a growing dependence on knives, stating that “no one walks out their house without a knife” (Hamza).

Dropping their guard, in contrast, felt possible only in the safety of the neighbourhood, or breaks away from the city, like holidays and residential trips. During one discussion Adam said:

A: You know what the best thing about residential is? Is gets you out of everything that you’ve got going on here. Do you know what the best thing about residential is? Them boundaries are gone… It’s the best time because you know they’ve got no worry, at all. They know they’re safe, you know they’re safe.

There is something deeply paradoxical about a circumstance where young people have to leave their city to feel safe. Despite identifying strongly with Forgefield, and Maple especially, city life for these young men was a tapestry of risk, requiring adaptation and survival strategies, even if those strategies reinforced the threat posed to oneself and others (like carrying a knife).

Though efforts have been made to avoid the criminalization of young people in reporting on knife crime, surprising little has captured young people’s experiences in any detail. Understanding the experiential dimensions of violent contexts is important because it adds nuance to the debate in ways that can challenge crude framings of marginalized young people. The young men described in this article are not gang members. They are not hardened criminals, nor are they without hope or aspiration. But the context in which they are striving to achieve is problematic and permeated by risks that are difficult to negotiate (see also Ralphs, Medina & Aldridge, 2009). Though Maple was often framed positively in our discussions, it was also described as “a trap” and a place where people struggled to achieve their potential. Again, these prose signify a paradoxical relationship to ‘home’ as somewhere that provides both safety and constraint. These contradictory experiences are challenging to navigate, both practically and emotionally.

Through our conversations with young people I have been particularly struck by the affective dimensions of living with threat. For these young people the risk of violence effected their movements, expressions and emotional states on a daily basis, with each new incident reinforcing the need to inhabit a state of readiness. Focusing on political and service level causes and solutions to violent crime is important; elsewhere, I have argued for the provision of safe spaces for young people to spend leisure time and avoid risk (Mason, 2013; 2015). Indeed, the local youth charity hosting our workshops was one such space and this was described as “the sanctuary of Maple” (Zimbo). However, there is also a pressing need to better understand the emotional impacts of living in violent contexts, for young people and their families. To do this we need to spend more time listening. There is an important role here for researchers, community workers and closer partnerships between the two.


Will Mason is a sociologist, a volunteer youth worker and a lecturer in Applied Social Sciences at the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield. His research interests include the sociology of childhood and youth, families, consumption, identities and inequalities.