POLICING YOUNG PEOPLE IN 2009
At the weekend, on the Friday and Saturday nights of such concern to New Labour, youth workers and the police will be found hand in hand on the streets, monitoring the ‘negative’ activities of young people. I’m not sure how widespread this phenomenon is, but to my knowledge it is happening in at least two North-West authorities and down in the Metropolis. I’d like to say that I’m astonished by this union of the State’s ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ policepersons, but my display of stunned surprise would be less than convincing. However I am very interested in your views on how we’ve moved to finding such ‘joined-up policing’ ordinary and acceptable: all the more so given the recent hue and cry about police brutality and murder at the G20 Summit – see my rambling rant ‘Policing the Crisis’ in April.
Back in the early 70′s I can remember the local bobby being on the youth club management committee, but as the decade wore on matters became less cosy. Escalating social unrest increased levels of distrust between young people and the police. As youth were increasingly moved on from their gathering places, as a combative punk movement grew, there was a tacit agreement that the police were not welcome in our youth clubs. By the early 80′s suspicion had deepened further, fuelled in the inner cities by the use of Stop and Search [SUS] to harass black young people and the consequent uprisings in such places as Brixton and Toxteth. In Manchester a major controversy broke out over the police setting up their own youth clubs. As I remember the Youth Service published a policy document explicitly refusing police access (without a warrant) to its facilities. In Leicester where I worked from 82 to 84 relationships between black and Asian projects and the police were fraught with tension. Inevitably police repression during the Miners’ Strike deepened the chasm between youth and the ‘armed bodies of men’ in the coalfields. Up in Derbyshire, where I’d moved, the Police Liaison Committees were abandoned by the Council for a number of years as a gesture of support to the working class communities brutalised by the occupation. In the youth centres of Bolsover and Shirebrook the police were personae non grata.
From there though my memory becomes less sharp as the antagonism lost perhaps its edge. Thus, back in Wigan in the 90′s, there was a joint desire from the Council and the Police Authority to rehabilitate a working relationship. When the Youth Service was savagely cut as a result of rate-capping, the Police were in the forefront of criticising the loss of jobs and closure of youth centres. In the aftermath I found myself forming a relationship with the Inspector for Community Affairs, by now an influential member of the Services for Young People Committee. Yet with all its contradictions there remained an agreement that we should not become too close: that youth workers must be understood as acting on the side of young people. As a concrete example, there was much concern at the time about identified ‘hot spots’ where young people were alleged to be causing trouble. The pressure was to divert youth workers to these troublesome bus shelters and street corners. In countering this we sought funding for and created a team of Youth Mediators, who were as independent as possible both of the Police and the Youth Service. Their task was to make the first intervention into a so-called ‘hot spot’, charged with the task of interviewing and mediating between all those concerned. In this process of mediation it was stressed that the youth workers and police had different and often conflicting perspectives. The initiative was beset with dilemmas, but its underlying rationale was to maintain a distance between the youth workers and the police, even when the latter were dressed in the garb of community constables.
As for the present situation, within which the Police on the one hand run Safer Neighbourhood football and netball projects, whilst instigating ‘harass the hoodies’ schemes on the other, what are the views of youth workers about their relationship with their uniformed ‘partners’. This question is made all the more pertinent when even the media sympathetic to the New Labour project in its infancy mourn a decade of authoritarianism and hypocrisy – see Larry Elliott in the Guardian. It is becoming common-place to suggest that New Labour has lost its moral compass. This is misplaced. New Labour never possessed a principled political perspective. Following years in the wilderness, its raison d’etre was to be in power, to possess power for its own sake. And this is where there are those within Youth Work, who need to take a breath about what they’ve been up to. In accommodating to New Labour’s oh-so weary blaming of the victims, in cosying up to the forces of law and order, haven’t they lost their ethical compass? Are they revealed to be no more than cops in jeans and trainers?