A hole in more than a windscreen
What an act of petty vandalism on a Salford estate reveals about British society after the recent riots.
This is a short story about my post-riot experience with some unruly youth on our estates and the police agents of the state, which may or may not illustrate in a small way some of the problems beneath the recent urban unrest. Are you sitting comfortably? Not sure if you should be, but I’ll begin.
Having avoided getting caught up in the local festivals of looting and arson near where we live in north-east London (Walthamstow, Tottenham, Enfield etc), we travelled to Salford for a family celebration. A good weekend, marred only by being awoken at 7am on the Sunday by the sound of a lump of concrete shattering the rear windscreen of my wife’s car. Local youths put it there, presumably as a last blast on the way home from their Saturday night out, then ran away without trying to steal anything. So perhaps it was just an accident. Or perhaps not, seeing as they had to lob the sizeable rock over my mother-in-law’s bolted gate.
Just an everyday tale of ‘mindless vandalism’ on a city estate. Hardly a traumatic experience, though a pain in the arse all round. The reactions to it, however, were more revealing.
Built in the 1950s as a council estate of solid brick houses, the area is now a mixture of owner-occupied and social housing, with well-kept gardens and more expensive cars than my wife’s second-hand Nissan alongside some more Shameless-style corners. No doubt the estate has always had its share of bad lads and hard boys, but from my first visit there more than 25 years ago I was always struck by a sense of neighbourliness.
No sooner had the windscreen shattered than my mother-in-law’s old friends and neighbours rallied round to commiserate, bringing the tools to clear up and make emergency repairs. These are solid working-class citizens, several of them churchgoers (though the Catholic church on the estate has closed due to a shortage of priests). They all agreed it was terrible, and that these things did not used to happen. But what could you do these days? They had seen some youths hanging around, even thought they might have recognised one of them, but couldn’t be sure. Best just to sweep up the glass, curse your bad luck, and carry on.
Now, it occurs to me that once upon a time the kids on that estate and their families would have been known by the community they were part of and might not have so lightly indulged in casual vandalism on their own streets. Not least because they would have been worried about getting into trouble with the local adult authority figures, whether that meant their parents or neighbours. They would certainly have thought more than twice before throwing a rock over that gate; my late father-in-law was a well-known local figure who was never shy of chasing noisy kids away from the church on a Sunday, but always maintained relations with the lads on the estate. My wife remembers him in the Seventies giving some of them a lift back to borstal after a weekend at home, to avoid their being punished for lateness.
Today youths like those who tossed that rock without giving a toss seem to feel little or no connection with the places they live, do not know their neighbours or worry about getting in trouble either with them or the law. This change is not just about deprivation. The estate is a far cry from the sort of tower block slums where I lived in Manchester in the early 1980s. Tenants have gained central heating, new roofs and windows in recent years. But without for a moment wishing to romanticise life on the council estates of yesteryear, they appear to have lost something more in terms of a sense of shared responsibility and a connection between the generations. As discussed elsewhere on spiked, the replacement of work with welfarism must have played an important part in breaking down community bonds (see London’s burning: a mob made by the welfare state). One result is that something like low-level vandalism becomes an external problem to be blamed on mysterious hooded figures beyond your ken or control. So we shrug, clean up and say ‘what can you do?’.
If the response on the estate to our minor mishap was revealing, the official response from the ‘customer services desk’ of the state was more so. Where once they might have been seen as an outside force, Greater Manchester Police are now keen to promote themselves as part of the community, issuing personalised contact details to every house on the estate. When I rang those numbers that Sunday, however, it was evident that they did not feel able to do anything more about such vandalism than the neighbours did. The polite man on the end of the line went through the checklist of questions – anything stolen, any witnesses, any CCTV pictures etc – but we both knew that the only reason for my call was to obtain the official crime reference number for an insurance claim. The unspoken attitude of the GMP was basically, ‘Sorry, but what can you do?’.
Then when we returned home to London (a breezy night journey down the motorway that made you glad the peak vandalism season was in August rather than February), I received a courteous letter from the Greater Manchester Police. It thanked me for taking the trouble to report the incident, assured me that they would keep me updated ‘until the case is closed’, invited me to keep in touch, referred me to the charity Victim Support for further help (we did not take up the offer of counselling, as we had not felt particularly close to the lost rear windscreen), and gave website addresses where I could obtain ‘impartial crime reduction advice’. Most strikingly, it was sent from the GMP’s ‘Customer Service Desk’, rather as if I was a dissatisfied consumer complaining about shoddy goods or services.
All of this seemed illustrative of the wider crisis of authority and identity being experienced by the police today, as witnessed starkly during and after the riots. Are they supposed to be a Force or a (customer) Service? Is their priority public order or public relations? One message, however, seems clear enough. Despite the authorities’ staging of a theatrical post-looting ‘crackdown’ and ‘fightback’ from London to Manchester and Salford, the police on the ground feel pretty impotent to do anything more about low-level violence or vandalism on the estates than to issue crime numbers and polite letters and offer online ‘impartial’ advice on ‘crime reduction’ (not even, as they used to say, ‘crime prevention’). What can you do?
Armed with my crime reference number, I contacted our insurers. They did not even want it, just asked ‘Was it vandalised?’, and then sent round a grumpy technician to fit the replacement glass, who in turn offered the observation ‘Yeah, well, it happened to everybody last week didn’t it?’. In other words, it’s normal, what can you do? The collective shrug had gone from the community, through the police, to the world of insurers and windscreen fitters.
All in all, a small tale that might suggest there is a hole in something more significant than our windscreen. The pseudo-tough guys in suits and uniforms now threatening ‘zero tolerance’ like to talk about the ‘broken window’ theory of policing – the notion that fixing small problems such as petty vandalism is a way to stop bigger ones developing. But replacing broken glass is the easy part.
Given the collapse of authority both within what used to be communities and at the heart of the state, perhaps nobody should be so surprised at such arbitrary outbreaks of wider (but still petty-minded) disorder as the recent festival of looting. I mean, really, what can you do?
Mick Hume is editor at large of spiked.