Simple Easy Steps

Simple easy steps to developing long-term solutions to anti-social behaviour.

The Islington Independent, announcing a fresh look at anti-social crime had hardly hit the mat before the local Lib Dem mouthpiece was confronting a community activist demanding to know why he had so far "refused to attend any Police Liaison Committee meetings". "The people of the Playdell" (a local estate) he pompously demanded "want to know".

What lay behind the bombast is that this particular community activist who is a thorn in the Lib Dem's side, is apparently believed by them to be a leading player within the IWCA in Islington. And the IWCA, which has been operating on the ground locally for only about two years, has for various reasons, become an obsession with the Lib's Dems generally and this councillor in particular.

Apart from vainly attempting to convince disbelieving tenants on one estate that the whole strategy was a front for the SWP, the Lib Dems who have seen their support in the area steadily wane, have been frustrated by their inability to lay a political glove on the IWCA, whom they hold responsible. Here then was what this Lib Dem councillor must have thought was a golden opportunity. A chance to expose the IWCA as utopian, extremist - and - anti-police. 'I do not attend police liaison meetings because as you and I well know... All coppers are bastards!'... was evidently the hoped for retort.

In light of his Machievelean motivation, "because no one ever asked me" was, by some distance, the worst of replies. For not only had the trap not been sprung, but as the red-faced Lib Dem'er turned on his heel 'the appaling vista' to quote Lord Denning, of the possible consequences to him personally having invited the 'IWCA' on to such a committee, would almost certainly have prompted a fresh bout of hand-wringing.

It stands to reason that had the IWCA on the issue of anti-social crime, approached the issue in the manner of the orthodox Left, such a response would be easy pickings for establishment parties. One is reminded of the occasion a few years ago when the SLP (when it still believed it had a future) was canvassing on a crime ridden estate in Wythenshawe on the outskirts of Manchester. Repeatedly confronted with people asking the SLP canvassers 'what were the SLP going to do about crime, the joy-riders, etc?', SLP canvassers delivered the uniform response straightfaced. 'With a SLP government of course...' Which was correctly read as another way of saying 'nothing for now'. Not at all surprisingly, come the elections, nothing, or next to it, was what the SLP got in return.

Equally it can be anticipated that the Socialist Alliance will not even address the question of anti-social crime in their manifesto, even though on many working class estates at any given time, it will be regarded as a top-two priority. Such introspection is akin to socialism expecting to influence trade-unionists at the beginning of the last century, by omitting to bring up, for fear of being thought vulgar, the subject of say, wages.

Obviously, if a solution to anti-social crime is to be identified, the core problem must first be understood. Unquestionably key to the rise of the criminal class is the systematic draining of resources from working class communities, and its re-direction in the form of tax concessions into the pockets of the middle classes.

Along with this daylight robbery is the subtly changing response of the police to the crime wave stimulated by it.

One feature of the political landscape that has not changed, is the incessant call from the media and opposition parties 'for more police.' But few stop to ask what is it the existing police now do? The Met has for instance 25,000 officers. Yet according to the calculations of former Times editor, Simon Jenkins recently, maybe as little "as 6 per cent of the force was on frontline duty at any one time."

Widespread evidence indicates the role of the police is now more about social and political control rather than any mundane matters relating to apprehending 'ordinary decent criminals'. Certainly there are no shortage of police when it comes to demonstrations, sporting events and the like, yet response times to pleas for assistance in working class areas are so slow as to be insulting.

So 'what', as Lenin might have said, 'is to be to done?' First off, while the police high command are complacent to the point of complicity in allowing working class communities to be governed by 'ordinary decent lumpen', they are far from indifferent, and understand perfectly the political implications when communities take the law into their own hands. One example was Paulsgrove, where local women protested against what they said was the council/police policy of using their estate as a dumping ground for convicted paedophiles. In the media and the Left there was general uproar, not in solidarity with the protest, but at the effrontery of working class women daring to question the word and authority of the municipal establishment, who throughout, insisted no such policy existed. From all quarters scorn was poured on the claim by the women to have 'a list' of convicted sex-offenders. Hysteria, homophobia, and plain stupidity were the real reasons for the demonstrations, liberal opinion insisted. In the unrest that followed there was, along with the criminalisaton of the protests, 34 actual arrests. Many of them faced both prison and eviction as a result. But as things turned out, when the furore had abated, it was quietly admitted in The Guardian some months later that "the majority of the names on the Portsmouth mental list were indeed convicted paedophiles, a disproportionate number of whom had been re-housed on the Paulsgrove estate, many within yards of the local school." So the Paulsgove women had been vindicated. They had been right all along. They had been right about the dumping policy, they had been right to protest, and the suspicions that motivated them, that they were regarded as second class citizens without rights, was wholly justified by the response of the political establishment, police and the liberal media's intense irritation with their highlighting of the issue.

The similarity, of reaction from municipal authorities, police and the Left to Paulsgrove, and to an IWCA initiative to stem a mugging epidemic in the vast crime ridden neighbourhood of Newtown in Birmingham in 1997, is marked. There too, startling evidence of the authorities indifference to a blight on the local community stood out. For instance, of the 200-odd people who packed the first IWCA organised meeting, 106 had personally been mugged. A feature of the early debate was of police failure to respond even when a crime was in progress. Such lethargy was not as it emerged, down to a matter of numbers. As the meeting heard when 'one dazed elderly mugging victim was spotted and the police called, it took two days before the police came to interview the woman, but when one of their own was hit by a mugger, 20 coppers were on the scene in minutes'. Neither was it even a matter of police/council disinterest. For, within an hour of the meeting being advertised, police arrived at the door of the IWCA organiser. After a little humming and hawing the reason for their presence was plain: if his wife promised to give evidence against the individuals who mugged her, the family could expect to be rewarded with 'a much sought after move to an area of their choice'. They wanted him, and with him they hoped the IWCA (rather than the mugging gangs) out of the area. Tellingly, the same ploy/inducement was later offered to practically all members of the committee, (half of them women) who were elected from the floor at the first meeting.

After the next public meeting when a march to 'Reclaim the Streets' was announced, the police responded with a demand be on the committee. Failure to comply would, it was made plain, mean the loss of the community centre at which the meetings were held on 'security grounds'. When the planned march took place regardless of the harassment, the police, with an eye to national media PR, made sure they were seen to be both marcher-friendly and prominent. But literally within minutes of the march dispersing the IWCA organiser was arrested and charged with organising 'an illegal demonstration'. Next, in an attempt to regain the initiative, the police announced a 'shop a robber' campaign. Thirty more police were promised with the further promise of as many again shortly. Tellingly this manoeuvre was made, not when the mugging was its height, nor in response to the public meetings, but was instigated when the strategy implemented through the Newtown Independent Residents Association was at its most most effective. This strategy, which in addition to the march had seen rat-runs bricked up, 'not wanted' posters flying off lamposts, and discussions held with regard to how the suspension of perpetrators rights to community amenities might be implemented. Such was the alarm in the 'mugging community', many felt compelled to desist entirely, while others opted to leave the immediate Newtown area in the hunt for easier pickings. As one wag wryly put it 'they are now commuting to work'.

Thus when the police flooded the area it coincided with the first week when no muggings of any description were reported. In the absence of real crime their primary motivation seemed to be the gratuitous harassment of locals, checking for out of date tax discs and the like. This, as the IWCA correctly analysed it, was part of the police's attempt to 'collectively punish the community for having the temerity to organise ourselves.'

Now Sinn Fein is certainly no stranger to the concept of collective community punishment either. It is afterall, the widely acknowledged strategy employed against working class nationalists by both the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries for thirty years. The consequence being that many nationalists have never regarded the RUC as a civic force. In their experience, the operational remit was always a political/paramilitary one of containment. During the war, having both a common enemy and higher goal united the community. With the ceasefire in 1994 and the IRA as final sanction no longer a viable option, the apparent license this allowed the hoods, threatened, as one SF councillor put it, "to do what the Brits have failed to do in thirty years - the destruction of the structure, the fabric, the integrity of our community - and we weren't going to let it happen". Even if it were palatable as a police force, the RUC were simply not willing to function as such. Plus as Sinn Fein, are only too aware to realise their own political aspirations, the corrosive nature of anti-social elements in their community cannot go unchecked.

Intruigingly, when it came down to implementing plans on the ground, SF and the IWCA appear to share an identical floor plan. One example, in July last year, was Belfast Sinn Fein's launch of a campaign against joy-riding. As in Newtown, it began with a 'Reclaim the Streets' protest. In another area, Poleglass, on the outskirts of Belfast, a comprehensive strategy to turn the tide was foregrounded. Lisburn SF councillor Michael Ferguson explained how in the absence of an accountable police service the problem was tackled. On closer examination what he outlines is, it is evident, a blueprint for community activists everywhere. First SF, like the IWCA, recognises that as a political party it alone does not have the power to institute change, but collectively the community does. Engaging with, energising and ultimately empowering a working class community is described by Michael Ferguson in a recent article as the 'simple easy steps' toward a long-term solution to anti-social behaviour.

"The first step was to bring every sector of the community together, including the church, the local businesses, education and youth services, health, welfare, elderly people, disabled people and so on and asked them to brain-storm in group meetings and asked them to come back with what they were going to do. Next came the Pride of Poleglass campaign: wiping off graffiti, planting trees, getting the burnt stolen cars removed, helping each other as we had done in the [RUC/Army] raids to repair damaged property. "Then a 'care package' was put around the around the kids who were in anti-social activity which involved family youth education and training and social welfare agencies.

"In some few cases where cooperation within the care package could not be achieved and 'anti-social behaviour persisted, In such situations, the community itself, confident and positive ostracised them. The irreconcilables were ostracised by the community, by 6' by 4' posters went up. There were marches to their doors. No would serve them; the shops, the pubs, the people ostracised them. People combined to make life intolerable for those who had made life intolerable for the community".
Such "simple easy steps" created the basis, Ferguson concludes, whereby "the working class in Poleglass were once again taking control of the their community."

All told whether it is Newtown, Poleglass or Finsbury; the police, 'all bastards' or otherwise, are not it is evident, part of the equation in working class areas. However where there is a difference between Poleglass and many working class communities in Britain, is where as SF fought to prevent the 'destruction of the structure, the fabric, the integrity of our community' in too many cases here, the remedy will be applied after the fact. Happily this is not the case in south Islington where due in no small measure to the work of the IWCA, the self-confidence is gradually beginning to return. This is as a result of what SF describe as 'empowering the community'. Palpably empowering working class people is what the IWCA strategy is designed to achieve.

A perenennial question IWCA supporters are confronted with on the Left is what precisely 'working class rule in working class areas' means? Albiet at the beginning rather than the end of the process, we can now point to Poleglass and say: 'Look at Poleglass, there is an example working class rule in a working class areas'

by G O'Halloran

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 11, May/June '01