'Recognise What You're Doing Is Not Working': Rapper Darren 'Loki' McGarvey On How Glasgow Beat Knife Crime
He says it's poverty - not race, social media or the music industry - that is the
main driver of the knife crime wave hitting the capital.
Barely a decade ago, Glasgow was a by-word for bloodshed.
In 2005, the United Nations dubbed Scotland “the most violent country in the developed world”, as 200 gangs fought bloody wars for control of its second city. A knife crime epidemic saw roughly 70 people die a year.
Scots were three times more likely to be murdered than people in England and Wales. Exhausted A&E staff were treating stab wounds every few hours, 24 hours a day. Public t rust in police had collapsed.Enter the Scottish Government’s dedicated Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). With early and strategic intervention at its heart, the VRU sought people from within violence-hit communities for help tackling violence and domestic abuse ravaging them. Darren McGarvey, better known by his stage name Loki, had a violent upbringing in the deprived Glasgow suburb of Pollok. He had an alcoholic mother, who held a knife to his throat when he was just five, and was both the victim and perpetrator of violence at school.
He was academically gifted but driven to despair by the trauma. An alcoholic, he spent three years in supported accommodation before music brought him back from the brink. After he got sober, McGarvey began his own podcast, recorded an album and wrote Poverty Safari, part-polemic, part-memoir. Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called it “nothing less than an intellectual and spiritual manual for the progressive left”.
The VRU recruited him to be their “rapper in residence”. He would visit youth offenders’ institutes for rap workshops with young people from backgrounds as troubled as his own. Over ten years of VRU’s work, the city saw a 60% drop in violent crime. So far, no young person has been stabbed to death in Glasgow in 2018.
This success story contrasts with the shock in London at a spate of violence that has left dozens of people dead in the first few months of 2018. The capital is recovering from the horrors of Grenfell and multiple terror attacks while the 2011 riots sit in its not-too-distant history. McGarvey, 33, recalls the threat of violence hanging over his neighbourhood as like a dark cloud. Living in fear drove hypervigilance in the community, he says, which added to the stress of poverty and exacerbated the bloodshed.
It is poverty - not race, social media or the music industry as some Government ministers have recently hinted - is the main driver of the knife crime wave hitting the capital, says McGarvey.
“There is a strong correlation between poverty and violence, and it has been the same for more than 100 years,” he says.
“Glasgow’s always been synonymous with violence and social deprivation for as long as anyone can remember, particularly in the early 20th Century when you had the razor gang and the Gorbals.”
Back in 2006, parts of Glasgow had a lower life expectancy than Iraq, with drugs, alcohol and social deprivation taking their toll.
The first step London’s leaders can take toward tackling knife crime is understanding just how toxic fear and insecurity are to a community, says McGarvey.
“It was not unusual to hear of people being stabbed and shot when I was growing up,” he said.
“It was often related to specific families that were so troubled that they just seemed mean and cruel and nasty – and that’s not to say some of them weren’t – but some of these people were teenagers, so you can see it is something about how they have been raised that makes them feral.
“I remember the threat of violence just being ubiquitous. There was an anxiety about it everywhere that you went, whether it was just a walk to the shop or in the school or just generally in the community.”
There is a strong correlation between poverty and violence, and it has been the same for more than 100 years Darren 'Loki' McGarvey
But he says it is a “deep misunderstand” to assume violence is the only motive to be in a gang.
“Often that threat of violence is what drives a lot of the insecurity people feel so it becomes natural to seek security in a bigger group.
“Glasgow had a particular problem with knife crime specifically related to gangs – young men growing up in deprived communities, looking for a place of belonging, safety and security.
“Feeling quite fearful but having to project an exterior of toughness to ward off the threat of violence, they quickly learn that they feel more secure if they carry a weapon.
“The problem in Glasgow is that it became so normalised. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid at violence, unless you knew the person who was involved in some way.
When you are born into these communities, into violence, and the threat of violence is something that you are adjusted to very early, that is when people become hypervigilant.”
Among the disenfranchised, says McGarvey, reputation becomes “a form of currency” and can be a catalyst for violence.
“The idea of aspiration is completely different,” he says. “It’s about feeling safe, feeling secure and feeling respected... Because you don’t have material goods, so your name is all you’ve got. That’s why reputation matters so much.”
The VRU has an arms-length relationship with police.
“The old ways of doing things were not working. It wasn’t even keeping a lid on it,” says McGarvey. “We had to accept there was more to this than policing... so we began treating it as a public health issue, as well as a criminal justice issue."
“[The VRU] took a lot of political courage... It didn’t have a very big profile. They weren’t very flashy about what they were doing. It just got the time and money to do the job.”
It’s a bit like blaming Ice Cube records for gun violence in California. No new money was pledged in Home Secretary A mber Rudd’s serious crime strategy, announced last week, despite England and Wales losing 20,000 police officers since 2010. Rudd did, however, talk at length about social media companies, such as Snapchat and YouTube, and challenged them to take down violent content faster.McGarvey sees this approach as “a cop out”.
“Social media has been on the rise at the exact same time as knife crime has been falling in Glasgow so I don’t think there is a direct correlation,” he says.
“It’s a bit like blaming Ice Cube records for gun violence in California – he is reporting the gun violence through a medium of expressing something.
“I know that tension between some individuals and groups may now fester on social media, but this tension existed prior to that.”
Violent crime has begun to spread in other English cities like Manchester and Birmingham, and the impact of police cuts cannot be written off, says McGarvey.
“The fact that people are trying to downplay the impact of the cuts – or dismiss them altogether – is quite shocking,” he adds.
“The fact that in the immediate aftermath the response was to put more police on the streets – well – if policing isn’t the issue then why are you putting more police on the street.
“And it’s all surface level policing, it’s patrols. That’s not policing with consent and that’s not building relationships in the community."
“One of the reasons police, particularly in the context of these cuts, will find it so difficult to police with consent, i.e. gather intelligence and be seen, is because ten years of progress, from 2003 to 2013, has been undone already. What we are seeing now is the lagged repercussions of these cuts and, with that, the distrust comes back.
A young man takes a great risk to even be seen talking to police, that’s how hated police are. I know that is not always fair... but I do understand where those attitudes come from.
“It only takes a couple of bad cops among a whole bunch of good cops for the idea to be promulgated among the community that all cops are arseholes.”
Asked for his message to London, McGarvey said: “Recognise what you are doing is not working. Take the advice you are giving young boys on the street: take responsibility, hold your hands up and try to do better. Look to other examples where people are doing better.
I’m happy and proud to say that Scotland is a country that is leading on this issue.
“I’m happy and proud to say that Scotland is a country that is leading on this issue. People from prison and probation services in England and Wales have told me that our services are a lot better. They’re more integrated, they have a better ethos behind them and we have moved to becoming a more trauma-informed society.
“That’s what I would say to people in London, if they ever asked for my advice.”
Stepping up stop-and-search is also a doomed idea, he says.
“They say it will be intelligence-based but when a cop has that authority and it is on them to make the judgement call then they are going to make mistakes. That will contribute to the poor relations,” he says. With food bank use, school exclusions, benefit sanctions and insecure work all on the rise, while Sure Start centres and probation services are cut, troubled families are being left to implode, says McGarvey.
He recognises the high levels of stress he felt as a youngster. and said people can turn to drugs or alcohol because it gives them “freedom from fear”.
McGarvey says the fact the VRU hired him and others with a chequered past, including former gang members, was part of its success.
He says: “Even those who had killed people, they were reintegrated into society through the VRU. They might have been given a role as a volunteer, been mentored, some have even been given jobs.
“That’s not to hold them up or patronise them, that is to recognise that they will do their job better if they have the insights of people who have lived it around the table.”
McGarvey, who describes himself as “of the left”, says the Government has lost its way on crime.
“I don’t want to be reductive, but I’m not surprised by how badly the Tories have handled it,” he says. “It’s a sad day when you are thinking to yourself, I really miss David Cameron. For all of the problems of their Government... You got the sense they understood that the centre ground had shif ted – as in, be tough on crime and the causes of crime. Since then, we have gone full Tory with the backdrop of the entire political class being consumed by constitutional warfare.
“This story [about knife crime] will only run for a few more days, then Boris Johnson will say something stupid and then that’s the story.”
Wider society as well as perpetrators themselves have a role to play in reducing violence.
“As there is an obvious racial undercurrent to this violence, we are seeing people of colour on the screen when we are talking about who is being killed or doing the killing,” he says.
“At the same time, you hear a lot of people within the community, and a lot of people of colour, think that the police should be given more powers to be more forceful, which is interesting to me.
“That shows me that the way this is being covered in the news, the way that this is being discussed, it actually increases the sort of anxiety that drives the violent behaviour.”
Growing up in 2018 is one of the hardest periods for young men, says McGarvey. Many struggle to find their place and fall into destructive patterns.
The dad-of-two adds: “Sometimes I do personally feel that it is becoming easy to dismiss the difficulties that men go through, because, as much as men perpetrate a lot of the violence, men are victims of a lot of that violence too.”
“And it’s hard for me to state a fact like that without being conflated with the alt-right,” says McGarvey, who stresses he is a feminist.
He adds some young men may take the concept of toxic masculinity to mean men are generally negative.
“For me, toxic masculinity is a fear-based masculinity,” he says. “Fear in relationships might turn into controlling urges. It might be fear of violence, so they join a gang.”
McGarvey berates the fact there is little political leadership and scant debate about the idea of personal responsibility, from both the left and right.
“When Conservative politicians with no insight into this way of life make arguments about personal responsibility, that’s a dog whistle to their base,” he says.
But left-wingers are failing to talk openly about the issue at all and to ignore an individual’s power to change their own life, while talking endle ssly about the impact of cuts robs people of agency, says McGarvey. He says any young man imprisoned for violence must take responsibility for the “harm he has caused”, adding this is a “big part” of his rehabilitation.
“That’s not a Conservative idea. It’s something that has been written about for thousands of years. It is at the core of any spiritual manual that you will read. It is a self-evident truth.”
As a troubled kid, McGarvey was “passed from pillar to post”, he says, from social workers to agencies to charities. But the turning point was someone who saw him as more than just a problem, just as he tries to at the VRU.
“The best engagement I got was from someone who understood that I was part of the solution to my problem, who had a good enough rapport with me to challenge me,” he says. “As well as co-sign my bullshit.”