Chicken shops are a London staple. Whether it’s Morleys in South, Sam’s in North or the trans-borough Chicken Cottage; whether it’s 4pm after school or 3am post-night out, nothing beats 4 spicy chicken wings and some chips. Fact. In the face of glossy-new build flats and overpriced themed cafes, chicken shops give a big middle finger up to gentrification, while playing an essential role in the lives of inner-city kids, especially among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
So when the government rolled out 321,000 #KnifeFree chicken boxes this morning, Twitter erupted. All black with #knifefree printed across the top, the insides of the box shares “real-life stories” of young people who have stopped carrying knives and taken up hobbies like music or boxing.
“Is this some kind of joke?! Why have you chosen chicken shops? What’s next, #KnifeFree watermelons?” David Lammy Tweeted. “I know it might cost a bit more time and effort, but I would love it if you would announce a program of investment in our local communities instead of spending 5minutes on a harmful gimmick.”
It wasn’t long for others to start chirping in, too. “Instead of investing in a public health approach to violent crime, the Home Office have opted for yet another crude, offensive and probably expensive campaign. They would do better to invest in our communities not demonise them.” Labour MP Diane Abbott commented, before arguing that “police working closely with schools, NHS, social services & the community” would be a more effective approach.
The government defended their position, with policing minister Kit Malthouse arguing “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 safe.” Shan Selvendran, Morley’s managing director added that: “Morley’s are proud to support the #KnifeFree campaign… We want to promote being knife free by using custom chicken boxes to deliver the message and start conversations amongst all our customers.”
In many ways, it seems as if they’re defending the indefensible – although, one justification seems to come in the form of recently-published findings from the government’s Youth Select Committee investigation into rising levels of knife crime.
Knife crime in London has reached unprecedented levels; as of two days ago, a 16-year-old boy being the latest victim of the epidemic. This brings the number of knife-related deaths since the start of 2019 to 87 – the highest ever recorded.
Findings from the Youth Select Committee suggested that “Chicken shop gangs” were once part of the problem. These are often older men who groom children with the promise of free food, gifts or money in exchange for favours. While these ‘favours’ might not include carrying a knife, children’s charities have warned that they do draw young people into a ‘criminal lifestyle’. These same gangs have also been linked to the county lines network, where vulnerable young people are groomed into carrying drugs into and out of London.
This so-called “chicken shop grooming” has been around since 2008, according to Natasha Chopra, programme manager of The Children’s Society. However, the recent report highlighted how street gangs are increasingly preying on school children who visit these fast food outlets.
While videos and posters trying to educate teens on this have been circling for some time, (the most recent being London Grid for Learning’s “There’s no such thing as free chicken!” poster), the Youth Select Committee’s recent report has got the government stepping in.
So do these #KnifeFree boxes raise awareness or are they racist?
Well, according to @rmd23_ who was posting under @GRMDaily they’re pretty fucking racist…
These people also agreed…
@shabba_motiwa_ranks wasn’t so sure though…
One issue with the campaign (which cost £57,500), is that it just doesn’t do enough. While it may raise awareness among some vulnerable young people, it doesn’t address any of the issues which have led to an increase in knife crime. While it’s true that it’s a complicated problem with a number of driving factors – including poverty, exposure to domestic violence, expulsion from school – it’s also true that a campaign using branded chicken boxes is like putting a plaster over a great big crack in the wall.
But if that’s how the government want to play it, then – as Twitter user Paul Bernal pointed out – maybe they need to expand their reach….