“I can remember the exact second that Ben died,” says Brooke Kinsella. She is speaking about her 16-year-old brother, Ben, who, in 2008, was stabbed to death as celebrated the end of his GCSE exams with friends in Islington. “I can remember the hour after, and the day after. The whole week after his death, our first days without him, are sharp in my mind. I can remember the numbness; the shock. Being wholly in disbelief. Being angry. And, especially at times like these, those things do not go away.”
Last week, a bloody 24-hour period left the UK united in suspended grief. In two days, two teenagers at opposite ends of the country were stabbed to death in acts of needless, infuriating violence. Jodie Chesney, studious Girl Scout, who was described as a “bundle of joy” who “would do anything to make someone happy” was stabbed as she listened to music with her boyfriend and friends in a park in Harold Hill, East London last Friday evening.
The following day, almost 200 miles north in a wealthy suburb of Manchester, Yousef Ghaleb Makki, was spending his Saturday evening visiting school friends. He phoned his family to let them know he would be in for dinner and, a few hours later, set out on his eight mile journey home. Shortly afterwards, Yousef – a “gifted” student who dreamt of becoming a heart surgeon – was found slumped against a tree and was rushed to hospital, where he later died. He had been stabbed. Both he and Jodie were just 17-years-old.
Newspaper headlines and the public alike struggled to comprehend the sudden and unjust end to the short lives of Jodie and Yousef. In the week that followed, a 20-year-old man was arrested in connection with Jodie’s death, while two teenagers – both 17 – arrested for the attack on Yousef. The latter both appeared before Manchester Youth Court on Wednesday, March 6, one charged with murder and possession of a blade, the other with possession of a blade and assisting an offender.
Meanwhile, a national debate was ignited and a picture by numbers began to emerge. Nineteen people stabbed to death this year alone, according to the UK Press Association, and 10 of them teenagers. Half of those were killed in London, revealed another statistic. Three teens died in Birmingham due to knife crime in the space of 12 days. In February, knifes claimed the lives of five Londoners in a nine-day period. Knife crime saw a 31% rise from 2017-2018, statistics revealed – in the year ending March 2018, fatal stabbings in England and Wales were at their highest level since records began 70 years ago. By June more than 40,000 offences involving knives had been committed. And one question was repeated, over and over again: why did it take so many lives for this issue to be taken seriously?
“It makes me angry,” Brooke told Grazia last week. “But more than that I’m feeling sad. So sad, and so disappointed. Ten years after Ben’s death, I hoped we would be saying ‘look at the difference we’ve made, look how far we’ve come’. Instead we are – if not back at square one – even worse off now than we were then.”
Knife crime in the UK is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, this is something that Brooke and communities alike have been tenaciously highlighting for years. Yet, it appears to be only worsening – and, as the debate rages on this week, solutions feel worryingly out of reach. Police chiefs declared the issue a “national emergency” and cited exponential cuts to police forces made by Theresa May as a crucial factor in contributing to a rise in violent crime – which the Prime Minister denied. Calls from Home Secretary Sajid Javid along with several senior police chiefs for an £15m emergency government fund to be allocated specifically to tackle the recent crime surge were rejected by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond. The government, commentators levelled, is simply “not listening”.
“Knife crime is an extremely complex issue and it just can’t be pinpointed to one solution,” Tele Lawal, a 23-year-old Labour councillor for Havering, who lives in Harold Hill, where Jodie Chesney was killed. “The cuts to social services, policing and other public services have hugely played a part in this. But there are several other factors – lack of education, lack of community engagement, a lack of intervention at crucial stages.
“We need to ask why these 17-year-old boys had knives in their hands. Why?”
Lawal is also calling for women in particular to speak out about the deadly epidemic, and to keep it on the national agenda. “People are killed by knives all too frequently in the UK,” she says. “So many victims are not afforded this amount of national coverage. Sadly, I do think this has to do with race, and the fact that Jodie was a white, middle-class girl.
“However, what is now important is that we are talking about it. Women need to harness this moment. While men are more often than not the perpetrators and the victims of knife crime, we have a unique and important voice to add: these boys and men are your brothers. They are your nephews. You are their sisters and mothers and girlfriends. Don’t wait for a male role model to come along, do it yourself. Get involved in local policing and your local council, join Streetwatch for your community. And, please, talk about it.”
For Brooke, education – and prevention of crime – is the most important factor in protecting young people’s lives. In the years since Ben died, she and her family set up the Ben Kinsella Foundation, which works with schools and young people involved in violent crime. In 2010, Ben’s Law was implemented by the government which increased the maximum sentencing for murder with a bladed weapon to 25 years. “Carrying a knife is a learned behaviour,” she says. “And schools and families have the power to teach that – or prevent it. We need preventative measures more than ever.
“I know what the families of Jodie Chesney and Yosef Makki are going through this week.
"It wasn’t just Ben’s life that was lost that day, it was our entire family’s. Friends of his will never be the same again. For every person who is killed by a knife there must be 20-25 more whose lives are irreversibly affected.
“Many people are still under the impression that knife crime only affects people in ‘certain’ areas involving people from ‘certain’ classes and living ‘certain’ lifestyles. It’s not. My family, Jodie’s family, Yousef’s family – and many others – are proof that anyone at any time can become a victim. It can be you and it can be your child.
“For now, families like mine get through with hope – it’s the only thing we have. But, I’m not going to lie, ten years on, it is getting harder and harder to summon.”