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In U.K. Chicken Boxes, Drumsticks, Thighs and Tough Talk on Knife Crime


LONDON — Fried chicken, a mainstay of takeout food in Britain, normally comes in colorful paper boxes with a company logo or a joking reference to the succulent contents inside.

But this week, customers at chicken shops across the country will instead encounter boxes with a government message about knife crime, which has been rising in Britain in the past four years and has become a political issue.

The boxes are all black with the hashtag “#knifefree” printed on the lid, a reference to a government campaign against knife crime. Inside are firsthand accounts from reformed knife offenders. The government hopes the messages will help reduce the numbers of young people carrying knives.

“These chicken boxes will bring home to thousands of young people the tragic consequences of carrying a knife and challenge the idea that it makes you safer,” Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, said in a statement on Wednesday.

There were just under 43,000 offenses committed with a knife in the year ending Sept. 30, 2018, the most since the government started recording comparable data in 2011, and the upward trend has continued this year. Although rates of all violent crimes in Britain are significantly below those in the United States, knife crime has become a central preoccupation of British tabloids and has been high on the policy agenda of successive Conservative governments.

Politicians and commentators have blamed years of austerity and cuts to the police force, leading to demands that the government invest more in the fight against violent crime.

Boris Johnson, who became prime minister last month, took office with a promise to crack down on violent crime. “I want the criminals to be afraid — not the public,” Mr. Johnson wrote in an article in The Mail on Sunday, announcing the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers.

On Monday, the government announced it would spend 35 million pounds, or about $42 million, to finance new violence-reduction units. Mr. Johnson also announced up to £2.5 billion for 10,000 prison places, a review of sentencing for the most dangerous offenders and £100 million for prison security.

He promised to back the police in deploying random stop and search powers where they deem necessary across England and Wales. “I know stop and search is controversial. I know that left-wing criminologists will object,” Mr. Johnson wrote in The Mail on Sunday. “But I also know that the people who back this intervention most fervently are often the parents of the kids who are so tragically foolish as to go out on the streets equipped with a knife, endangering not only the lives of others but their own.”

In a similar vein, Priti Patel, the home secretary, told The Daily Mail on Aug. 2 that she wanted criminals “to literally feel terror at the thought of committing offenses.”

Both the chicken boxes and the belligerent language drew condemnation from the opposition Labour Party, which has campaigned for a more holistic approach to crime, including working with intelligence services and public health agencies.

“Boris Johnson has effectively admitted that increased random stop and search will be discriminatory, but does not seem to care that it is black people who are more likely to be targeted,” Diane Abbott, a Labour member of Parliament who speaks for the party on home affairs, said in a statement on Wednesday. “This is a reckless disregard for civil rights, good community relations and the evidence on stop and search.”

Liberty, a human rights organization, said black people were 12 times more likely to be stopped than white people in London, and 26 times more likely in the rest of the country.

On Twitter, Ms. Abbott condemned the chicken-box campaign as “crude, offensive and probably expensive.” In response, Ms. Patel accused her of “playing politics with knife crime.” She said she would not apologize for doing everything in her power to stop knife crime traumatizing communities.

David Lammy, another Labour member of Parliament, said the campaign was either “explicitly racist or, at best, unfathomably stupid.”

“The Home Office is using taxpayers’ money to sponsor an age-old trope,” Mr. Lammy told The Guardian. He said that Boris Johnson’s government was “pushing the stereotype that black people love fried chicken.”

More than 300,000 chicken boxes will feature government messages, in some 200 outlets in England and Wales. A sample message shared by the government quoted a man named Dean as saying “I’ve seen people stabbed and die from petty things.”

“In secondary school my best friend had people telling him ‘we’re gunna stab you,’ ” the message said, adding “That’s when I started carrying a knife.” The story then goes on to recount a meeting with a support officer who helped Dean channel his aggression into music and find another path.


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