My neighbourhood burned and all I got was this lousy soundbite
There’s been a lot said lately about the neighbourhood I live in – and neighbourhoods like it. There’s been a lot written about the people who live here, and what’s compelled them to burn down their own streets. I’ve spent days reading the commentary, listening to windbag politicians churning out the same old platitudes. I’ve dropped off donations for those burned out of their flats, harangued our useless mayor and burned with a peculiar indignation that a lot of the people’s opinions that I’m reading are those of people with powerful voices who did not grow up or even set foot into the communities they speak of. It’s unheard of for me to write anything political here, but I’m not happy having this particular elephant in my room.
I live in a neighbourhood were the police are regularly posted near the local tube station at school closing time, not I might add because of any law and order hotspot but simply to “reassure the general public”. The kids are noisy, boisterous and take up a whole lot of pavement, but I’ve never seen them do anything really shocking, let alone criminal. The crack den that operated unmolested 500 yards down the road was genuinely scary and far rowdier than the kids. What does this tell the kids?
I live in a neighbourhood where a gang of hooded youth will step back politely with an apology when I want to pass, but roaming gangs of adult men will sexually harass and follow women with impunity. It’s never them I see getting stopped, searched and told to move on. In this neighbourhood the local bus route is regularly disrupted as groups of up to twenty police officers board and search the bus for “fare dodgers”. Sinister barely describes how it feels. Does this happen in Kensington and Chelsea? I think not. What do the authorities think of the people of my community to order such a thing? Are we all already criminals by default?
I live in a neighbourhood which recently suffered cuts in youth services of seventy five percent, where popular youth groups and adventure playgrounds vanished overnight. Where young people have positive experiences and role models from outside of their homes stripped away in the name of cuts. What is better for these youths, to know that there is somewhere safe for them to go, where your postcode does not matter, where an alternative to gang culture is available and where adults genuinely give a shit about what happens to you – or where these cuts have now sent them – the street corner, to boredom, the dealers and the gangs. People need to get off their moralizing high horses about how these kids are “undeserving” or how “I never had that in my day and I turned out ok” or how it’s their parents responsibility – youth groups are a practical antidote to alienation THAT WORKS. It’s pragmatic. Kids are a lot less likely to burn down the high street if they are busy doing something else. Also, taking away the only alternative to the street corner sends a strong message. You are pointless, you are insignificant, you are powerless. Well a lot of kids found a way to feel powerful recently, and I am totally freaked out about what message they gained from that.
In a society where mobile phones and trainers pretty much define who you are even “respectable” people get caught looting. The shock and howls of amazement when people like school assistants and graphic designers get caught with looted sportswear are hilarious. YES! Even people with careers can loot! Temptation and greed is universal folks, but isn’t it interesting that sticky fingered professionals are seen as an aberration, despite the fact that we’ve all seen politicians who are not too proud to nick a few quid from the taxpayer. But their looting is sooo much classier than what happened in Tottenham, I mean, it almost slipped by unnoticed.
I live in what many would call a deprived neighbourhood, and before I lived here, I grew up in another one. There was one thing in common with both. People would look at us as if we were some kind of exotic virus, tut tut about what was to be done, call us names, give big jobs to their developer buddies to build us a swimming pool if we got rowdy then piss off again. No one ever wondered, seriously, what it’s like to know that the rest of society simply saw you as scum. No one ever wonders what we actually want or need or listens when we actually tell them but we are often spoon fed architecture that we didn’t want and is not fit for purpose. Poor areas are often “improved” by “gentrification” – a process by which much loved local pubs, cafés and shops get bought out and replaced by high end eateries, bars that do not welcome locals and expensive luxury flats. Rents skyrocket so that locals get forced into only the very very worst accommodation while hip young things move into their old homes and sneer at the former occupants. If you live in London and are really lucky you may find your home, park or favourite shops bulldozed for an Olympic stadium. What an honour! These are the improvements that are forced upon us, while public services that we badly need are snatched away.
And as Tottenham, Croydon and other towns and neighbourhoods burned, already there were those who were mocking the looters for their poor taste. Oooh, look, they’re looting JD sports! Hahahaha!!! They’re cooking their own food in Macdonalds, what a hoot!!!! Twitter dissolved in an indignant howl that can be translated simply as CHAV SCUM and the powers that be told us not to worry, they wouldn’t let a little thing like human rights get in the way of dealing with these feral rats. “Security” measures better suited to regimes like Egypt or Syria are bandied around by our Prime Minister. And quicker than you can say lets demonize the urban poor suddenly there is funding. Funding for the return of public services? For senior citizen or youth groups? Anything positive at all? Errr.. no. For more rods to beat us with.