Met’s crackdown on youth violence takes aim at Lambeth’s musicians
by Charlie Blue Thomas
In mid-January, the Croydon Crown Court sentenced the Lambeth- based artists Skengdo and AM to nine months in prison, to be carried out as a two-year suspended sentence
The sentence was reached after video evidence of the duo performing ‘Attempted 1.0’ in December 2018 at Koko was uploaded online. That leak meant they were found to be breaching an injunction issued to them by the Met police in August the same year that had banned them from live performances of the aforementioned song.
The Met accused the pair of ‘inciting violence’ in the song – a crime for which they haven’t been charged. The indictment can be seen as part of a wider campaign made by both the British media and Scotland Yard that seeks to place the brunt of blame for London’s recent spate of youth violence and knife crime on the musical genre known as UK drill, which Skengdo and AM are associated with. The charge has been taken up by senior figures of the Met including its Commissioner, Cressida Dick, who cites lyrics that glamorise violence as the cause for the crackdown.
Drill, a sub-genre of rap, first emerged in 2010 from Chicago. It’s sound – characterised by bleak lyrics delivered in a baritone over sparse kickdrums and closely clustered trap snares – reflects the gang violence and poverty that blights Chicago’s South Side. It is not surprising that the genre resonated in south London, which is where its UK strain first took root. The parallels between the two cities are numerous. They certainly haven’t been lost on Skengdo and AM, who collaborated with the Chicago-born drill pioneer, Chief Keef, on the track ‘Pitbulls’ in 2018.
Chicago earnt the nickname “Chiraq” after the city’s homicide rate overtook the number of U.S military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Similarly, south-east London’s district of Peckham has been given the alias “Pecknam”, after the Vietnam War. It begs the question of who the combatants in this urban warzone are. In London, the Met argues that it is drill musicians themselves, with Commander Jim Stockley going so far as to compare them to terrorists. The Met’s response has been to target drill musicians (such as Skengdo and AM). In May 2018, 30 drill music videos that were claimed to inspire gang violence were taken down from YouTube at the Met’s behest.
Censoring musicians has only been one of the weapons in the police force’s much wider arsenal being used to tackle knife crime and gang violence. The reduction in police numbers – 20,000 have been cut since the Tories came to power in 2010 – has been matched with an increase in powers. New measures include ‘tactical contact’ (in which escaping suspects on mopeds are rammed off their vehicles), the enhanced right to use stop-and-search (under the ‘sus’ laws), and plans to launch armed foot-patrols through residential ‘red’ zones. Police officers have expressed concern about the repercussions of putting these draconian measures into practice, not because they’re concerned about infringements on civil liberties, but more than they might face personal repercussions. Chairman of the Met Police Federation, Ken Marsh, claimed that “the public wants this approach used and politicians tell them to do it, but it’s going to end up with my officers gripping the rail of the dock because they have stopped someone in this way.” These officers have found a friend in Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who assured an anxious crowd at the National Police Chiefs’ Council and Association of Policing and Crime Commissioners that he would “reduce bureaucracy”. In essence, Javid was tacitly granting Met officers impunity from organisations such as the IOPC (Independent Office for Police Conduct).
The roll-out of the Met’s new strategy will inevitably affect the working-class black community that they claim to protect. Evidence shows that even tactics which don’t have an inbuilt-racism incorporated within them will be unevenly distributed by the racist biases of those that wield them. Black people are four times more likely to have tasers and restraints used on them, and roughly eight times more likely to be stopped-and-searched – a figure which has doubled since 1999. However, the Met’s overt penalisation of black communities does not correlate to any violent crime figured. On the Met’s database for criminal organisations – known as the “gangs matrix” – Amnesty reports that “more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of them are black, a disproportionate number given the Met’s own figures show that only 27 per cent of those responsible for serious youth violence are black”.
Black people are not only excessively targeted, but their access to legally challenging the Met’s discriminatory nature is also being squeezed. 35% of black Londoner’s can be described as low-paid (compared to 19% of whites). After slashing legal aid by 40%, the Tory party have even further diminished the prospects of working-class black communities being able to ever hold the Met accountable for the injustices they face.
Drill music has been linked to knife crime. Drill artist M-Trap penned lyrics about Jermaine Goupall, a 15-year old boy, who he went on to fatally stab in Croydon. Banning UK drill music, however, does not stop knife crime. What it does do is perpetuate a myth of “black criminality” that puts black lives in danger. Music can be used as one of two pieces of “verifiable evidence” that warrant individuals being put on the “gangs matrix” – possibly the reason that up to 1,500 people have ended up on the database who the police have “assessed as posing no danger of committing violence.” In 2018, armed police were called on a group of black men making a music video after a member of the public had reported seeing them with a firearm. Thankfully, none of them was arrested or hurt. However, militarising the police force does increase the prospects that someone will be. Commissioner Cressida Dick herself was embroiled in a situation in which someone was, in 2005, after an innocent man – Jean Paul de Menezes – was shot dead by a force under her command in Stockwell tube station after he was mistaken for a terrorist.
The optics of being “tough on crime” are alluring. But sentencing artists like Skengdo and AM is, at best, performative window-dressing in the battle to stop London’s violence. Instead, we need to be questioning the real culprit, Tory austerity, and the people who have implemented it.