At the school gates, the murder victim this time was just 15 years old… so why no national debate?
As anti-knife crime campaigns fear momentum is being lost amid the pandemic, Calum Fraser reports on how some murders dominate news bulletins – and others do not
19 February, 2021 — By Calum Fraser
Romario Opia, who was aged 15, was fatally stabbed in Archway last month
EVERY murder represents a tragic waste of life but some are remembered more than others.
Some stay in the public consciousness for decades; the faces of those lost can be immediately recalled beyond the local area in which they died.
You know the cases which sparked national soul-searching and debate.
After a fatal stabbing in Archway last month, you might have thought the age of the victim – just 15 – may have meant the horrific turn of events would have dominated news bulletins and our national newspapers.
In reality, Romario Opia’s name hardly made a couple of inches in what might have once been called the Fleet Street press. The boy who died at the closed school gates wasn’t a “story”.
This apparent changing landscape – a sort of desensitisation, possibly – has led activists to be concerned that their anti-knife crime campaigns will lose all momentum amid the Covid pandemic.
People just want to get back to “normal”.
Michelle McPhillips, whose son Jonathan died in a stabbing in Upper Street in 2017, said: “Knife crime is still rife and should be a top priority. Again the blinkers have been put on it because it is Covid, Covid, Covid all the time. Why are they not reporting the daily figures of stabbings? There’s so many times where people just get stitched up and go back out, without any arrests.”
She added: “It makes me sick to the gall to think that people have no respect for human life anymore. We respect dogs more than humans. We will go out and spend thousands on dogs but won’t help a desperate family down the road.”
Days after Romario’s death on January 25, Sven Badzak, 22 was stabbed to death in Kilburn. This followed a night of violence in Croydon which saw one man killed and up to 10 others injured in knife attacks.
A 16-year-old who boxes at the Islington Boxing Club was also hospitalised with stab wounds in the same incident as Mr Badzak’s.
Jonathon ‘JJ’ McPhillips died in a stabbing in Upper Street in 2017
Pictures released by Mr Badzak’s mother of her son as a young boy meeting Boris Johnson forced the prime minister into making a comment on that occasion.
This week, police were also opening unrelated new murder cases in neighbouring Camden and Haringey.
Ms McPhillips said: “If you live in a leafy suburban place out of the major cities you don’t hear about knife crime unless it comes on the BBC. If you are living in inner-city estates, then you hear about it from the community nearly every week.”
It’s not often said out loud, although it has been felt in Islington at different times over the years – but the sensitive issue of race can determine how each case is viewed. “If this was a white boy, it’d be front page news” is a familiar refrain among some campaigners.
Keetha Allaway, whose son Imani was shot dead in Holloway, last year, said: “I am venomous about this. People assume that as soon as you see a young black boy has been killed, that he is in gangs or his parents haven’t done a good job. People are so narrow-minded and so stereotyped, they miss the fact that a child has been killed. I think it’s a class thing as well.”
Ms McPhillips was part of a group of hundreds (above) who had lost loved-ones to knife crime and marched through London’s streets in 2019 under the “Operation Shutdown” banner; a bid to drive the issue into the political mainstream.
But on similar dates that year, Extinction Rebellion were staging similar roadblocks – and going further with civil disobedience in London. The knife crime campaigners said it should not be an either/or, but the protest headlines went to the climate change campaigners.
While Romario’s name and picture – and an age which meant he had hardly lived – may not have cut through last month, the issue may get more coverage in the next eight weeks. It tends to when a mayoral election rushes up close.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan will face questions over whether things have improved during his term; his challengers must say what they would do differently as budgets on public services fall.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan
Richard Frankland, who has been a youth worker in Islington for almost two decades as director of the charity Prospex, said: “There needs to be serious investment into prevention programmes and working with young people early with joined-up early work.
“There is no quick fix and communities must be engaged and partners must work with families and young people. It’s got to come from a prevention angle.
“When we started in 2001, we worked with young people from 13 upwards, now we start at age eight.”
Islington Council released its Youth Safety Strategy in November last year, setting itself targets to drive down youth violence, cut exclusions and address racial inequalities in the borough.
In the document, they define a public health model as “the term given to treating youth violence as a broader public health issue rather than simply a law and order issue”.
Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn has met with the family of Romario Opia
Teachers, GPs, youth workers, charities and police are pushed to work closer together to identify young people at risk of being groomed into gangs and violent lifestyles.
Ms McPhillips was part of this approach as she was invited into schools along with the Crib charity, based in Hackney, giving talks about her son’s killing. She also explains how each death leaves ripples in the community, often resulting in retaliatory attacks and a further circle of violence, especially where gang members are involved in the killing.
“Because of Covid now, all of the work that has been done to try to educate young people and help them to not carry a knife is being undone, it’s going under the bridge,” she said. “Tensions are building up as well with children spending all their time online. Rifts happen – they’re having a go at each other on social media or making videos winding each other up.”
Friends and family held a vigil for Romario Opia
She added: “Islington has good programmes in place for early intervention, but with schools closed and youth centres closed, people are not being contacted. Some of the more disadvantaged children are struggling with laptops and the internet.”
Islington’s education chief, Cllr Michelline Ngongo, said: “We are investing heavily in prevention and early intervention work to address underlying issues such as abuse and neglect, as well as diverting young people away from crime and violence.”
Cllr Ngongo, Town Hall leader Richard Watts and Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn have all met with the family of Romario.
A 17-year-old has been charged with his murder. Islington’s Safeguarding Children Board is carrying out a “rapid review” of Romario’s case to see if there were failings that the council can learn from.
Ms McPhillips’ son’s death is unsolved.