In the aftermath of August’s riots, James Roberts writes on attacks on young people in Merseyside and the community response
It was only once I sat down and started trying to write about events in Liverpool over 8th-9th August that I thought about how much there was to write, and the complexity of issues that needed covering. From on-going police brutality and repression, to the effect of cuts in youth services in Toxteth, to grievances that continue to exist in the area thirty years after the 1981 uprisings.
Unlike in many areas, here there was very little looting. The main destructive element of disturbances could be seen in smashed windows and burnt-out cars – with much of the collective anger directed at the police. Most people involved were teenagers or in their early 20s, and a good number of people came from other areas of Liverpool to join in. Despite the mass media focus on ‘black youth’, the crowd was multiracial. Some young white men did come along to stoke racial conflict but most of the crowd seemed to be there to confront the police.
In July’s issue of The Commune, Dawn Hunter interviewed a number of youths affected by trial ‘dispersal zones’ in Glasgow. After reading that article I noticed the same legislation had not long been introduced where I live in Toxteth. Indeed the area is one of three ‘Section 30 dispersal zones’ that cover the whole of Liverpool 8 – alongside further clusters of them beyond here in Garston and Speke, (two of the areas that people travelled from to Liverpool 8 during the rioting). They are broadly similar to those outlined in Dawn’s article, except that here officers don’t have to believe anybody’s presence is likely to cause harassment or distress. Simply their presence in groups of more than two is enough for police to ‘disperse’ them under threat of arrest.
Of course, dispersal zones are only the latest phase in an assault on young people and youth services that has gone on since the last government introduced ASBOs. Merseyside, and particularly its youths, have been subject to the brutality of the ‘Matrix’ unit of Merseyside Police for some time. Although the Liverpool Echo and the national media incessantly refer to ‘Matrix’ as the region’s ‘anti-gun/gang/drug crime’ unit, it is, even by Merseyside Police’s own description, the regional equivalent of the Met’s Territorial Support Group and is equally associated with extreme violence and corruption. They routinely patrol the streets of working class areas, often without displaying their numbers. During the riots and subsequent backlash they were responsible for many hospitalisations, and randomly, violently harassing people walking through the streets at night.
2011 is not 1981, but it is impossible to ignore that in terms of policing, young people are still faced down by repressive legislation (the sus laws/dispersal zones) enforced by brutality (the SPG/Matrix). Whilst ‘stop and search’ was condemned in 1981’s post-riot Scarman report, and is now presented in the mass media as something that has either been resolved or is ‘being addressed’, the introduction of dispersal legislation represents a deepening of repression. Furthermore, its blanket nature creates cover for the police when it comes to accusations of racism, disproportionate focus on young people etc. – as it gives them the power to criminalise people for simply being on the street and doesn’t require them to give stop slips, as they are moving them on as opposed to searching them.
The police shroud dispersal legislation in vague communitarian language: “With the assistance from the residents of hotspot areas we have been able to gather information and build a true representation of the problems the community have faced”. This is an attempt to blur the clear lines drawn by stop and searches, and by open violence. With massive cuts in youth services during the last year (Liverpool 8’s only council funded youth centre has a budget of £5,000, not enough to even cover the utility bills) it would be surprising if perceived levels of ‘anti-social behaviour’ had not increased – considering ‘teenagers hanging around on the streets’ seems central to the term’s popular definition.
The police and council’s introduction of dispersal zones amounts to a way of enforcing their drive to make working-class communities responsible for their cuts, by criminalising swathes of working-class youth. This was clear as day when, after the first night of riots, local youth workers were summoned to a meeting with the police and told that on Tuesday 9th August, anybody on the streets after 9pm would be confronted with force – that parents were to bring their children inside and lock the doors, and that if anybody left wheelie bins or potential missiles outside their houses, they would be held responsible if they were used by rioters.
That evening 150 L8 residents decided to ignore the police ‘advice’ and have an organised presence on the streets. Despite being a bit chaotic and confused to its purpose at first – as reflected in the group’s initial name ‘Toxteth Against Riots’(TAR; a name which is being changed) – its activity focused on monitoring police brutality, and having a democratically-organised presence on the streets. Since the end of the unrest and with the police backlash well under way, the group has been involved in legal support for those arrested, monitoring incidents of police brutality and collectively identifying the systemic causes of the rioting. Crucially, TAR are continuing to hold regular open meetings of over 100 people
Whilst the mass media has gave coverage to groups such as the Clapham ‘broom army’, or the Eltham vigilante – working class communities have been portrayed as rotting from within. Whilst the riots were going on, journalists were hanging around the TAR meetings and ringing anyone they could – No surprises, on the first evening of quiet, the BBC called one of the organisers to ask for an interview, was told it was quiet, and replied ‘oh, well, that’s not very newsworthy is it…’ In a similar vein, as the group has moved towards the monitoring of police activity, the Liverpool Echo’s interest drained away. It seems that if Liverpool 8 isn’t rioting, the mainstream media doesn’t want to know.