In 2001 I bought a flat in the ex-council block where I’d been living since leaving university. A kind friend with an empty boot offered me a lift to B&Q to get some flooring. We didn’t get further than the end of the street because a group of local kids decided to sit on the bonnet and stare at us until – well, my guess is, until they got bored, we ran them over, or we were rescued by a police helicopter.
We took the “ignore them and they’ll go away” approach, which is what happened eventually and which did absolutely nothing for the balance of social relations in that neighbourhood.
Ah, yes. The ‘head in the sand, if I can’t see them they can’t see us’ approach so beloved of progressives when faced with the ugly reality of urban life.
Followed, of course, by that other tactic – running away to nicer, less diverse climes…
I remembered this incident while reading the new Royal Society of Arts report recommending that members of the public should be trained to combat anti-social behaviour. I wondered how such training might have helped us that evening – whether we could have all become friends after a brief explanation of our need to get to B&Q while the sale was still on, or whether we’d have mounted a campaign to make sure the youth club stayed open for longer.
I find it somewhat unlikely!
I’ve just spent two years living in a very affluent part of London, having spent most of the previous 15 years living in a particularly poor area, and the 18 years before that on an out-of-city council estate. Moving to what I called “poshville” made me realise the true nature of privilege: it allows you to live an entirely stress-free existence, should you choose to do so. It felt like walking on air. There was very little chance of getting marauded on the way to B&Q. I didn’t have to worry about being verbally abused outside the corner shop or getting eyeballed from the back seat of the bus. I didn’t have to hunch my shoulders and look down every time I left the house. Everyone who lived in that area moved freely and confidently.
How lovely awful it must have been…
Most people, at most times, care about their neighbourhoods and, indeed, their neighbours. Most people don’t walk on by when faced with low-level anti-social behaviour. I’ve intervened more than once when I’ve seen boys trying to set fire to bus seats or kids smoking on a tube train. I regularly see others do the same. However, there’s not a great deal you can do in a single encounter to persuade someone who has decided not to give a toss that it’s worth thinking of others.
Funny. Your ‘Guardian’ colleagues don’t seem to feel the same way about racist abuse. They seem to be only too keen to assure us that we all must ‘do our part’ and that a single report will begin the flood that opens the way to a bright new world.
Giving recalcitrant youths a verbal clip around the ear is not a substitute for making sure that they don’t become recalcitrant in the first place. The state-level equivalent of walking on by is hounding individuals for their poor choices without improving their social conditions.
Don’t we want to hound people for their ‘poor life choices’ when those life choices are criminality? Aren’t we doing a disservice to all those inhabitants of the neighbourhood who aren’t criminals, and who lack the wherewithal to escape as you did, if we don’t?
The French sociologist Loic Wacquant describes this phenomenon as “punishing the poor” –the act of criminalising people at the bottom for making bad choices from a severely limited pool of options.
I’d love to know just what sort of pool of options included ‘leap on strangers’ car bonnet for a laugh’…
Having lived for a long time in a poor area and then, for a much shorter time, in a rich one, it strikes me that the main difference is the overwhelming sense of control and “rightness” the rich area had. Anti-social behaviour was much rarer for the simple reason that people generally had better things to do and had no wish or reason to debase themselves in public.
Because they’d been brought up to believe that fouling your own nest is no recipe for success. Perhaps because they were brought up in areas wherethat sort of thing wasn’t excused or condoned or ignored out of a sense of self-preservation?
The point is that we cannot do the work of the state without the back-up of internal as well as external resources. A fragmented neighbourhood of stressed and transient people is not going to be able to police itself as well as a settled area of contented and confident people. We have cause to demand a better state.
No. We don’t. That’s the last thing we need.