Knives, lives and homes

Even allowing for statistical and social variables, the fact that London’s murder rate can be compared with New York City’s indicates the gravity of the situation here.  It’s depressingly predictable that most politicians’ response to our young people killing each other is to call for more policing.  I accept it’s part of the picture.  But obsessively seeing the problem through the prism of “law and order”, often as a proxy for talking about more uncomfortable subjects, offers no real hope of solving it.

Despite my own obsessions, I’m not arguing that the housing crisis is directly or solely causing rising violence among young people.  A complex range of factors is involved.  But my thoughts keep going back to a passage in my book, featuring an interview with Demetrius Bonner, a housing and community activist from the South Side of Chicago.  Demetrius said to me:

“They knew when they tore the buildings down that they’d displace people.  Children have had to move schools, some to suburban areas in the far South Side, so it’s a double displacement.  The black community’s social infrastructure has been destroyed.  The demolitions have also disrupted the gang structure.  Today the violence is random.” 

The last sentence is particularly chilling for what’s happening in London today, but actually, everything else Demetrius says has an echo.  The passage continues: 

To illustrate his last point, [Demetrius] produces a photo on his phone showing the dead body of a 14-year old boy shot in the street behind Demetrius’ home a few days before we met.  It’s no more valid to attribute such shocking incidents to contemporary urban policy than it was to post-war public housing, but there is a profound sense that some South Side residents have been abandoned to their fates while the authorities pursue an ideologically-driven clearance policy. 

Even when I wrote this in 2015, the level of violence and abandonment in Chicago felt like something that exemplified the differences between the UK and US.  The history of American social policy – and of course, the wide presence of guns – seemed to suggest that, although the pressures on working class urban communities over here were approaching those of places like the South Side, they weren’t as bad.  Now I’m not so sure.

Broadly, I’d still say the UK doesn’t have the brutality of American society, but recent events in London suggest we’re heading that way and reaping the whirlwind for decades of cuts and austerity.  Working class communities in general and women and young people in particular have been the main targets of revanchist policies against the Welfare State.  As in the US, people with black and brown skin are disproportionately likely to suffer as cities become ever-more socially and ethnically divided.  Within this, the fundamental question of housing looms large.

Speaking on Radio 5 on 26th March, Michelle McPhllips reflected on the many reasons why young people, including her own son, are dying on London’s streets.

“When our kids leave school now, there’s no incentive…You used to be able to get a job and start renting a flat.  Flats are too expensive now.  Most families have three generations living in the same home, so that’s another pressure.  What they’re seeing is areas where they’ve knocked down council housing and put up these glorified flats costing £465,000.  The people coming out of that flat have got a lovely car, £100 trainers.  The kids literally on the other side of the street haven’t got that.”

Michelle lives in Islington.  Her words have a particular resonance for me because they precisely describe what’s happening around the Islington council estate where I work.

Young people have been demonised in the UK for many years, especially if they live in stigmatised social housing, something that reached a peak after the 2011 London riots.  Since then, the housing crisis has deepened and scores of council estates are now threatened with demolition, leading to the kind of displacement and disruption described by Demetrius Bonner in Chicago.

Neoliberal and profit-driven urban policies have produced cities in which many young people literally feel they have no place.  They find it almost impossible to find a home they can afford in the communities where they were born, thwarting their ability to develop independent lives.  Their social networks, sense of belonging and feeling of respect from the adult world have been stretched to breaking point.  Nothing could be more perfectly calculated to create a situation in which young people don’t care, either about the lives of others, or their own.

The generation of working class youngsters at the centre of the current wave of street violence has only known Austerity Britain.  The childcare services, youth clubs, leisure facilities, education, job and housing opportunities available to their parents have been decimated.

In the early 1990s, during the height of the disastrous War on Drugs in the US, a police officer working in deeply deprived communities in Jersey City said to me “It’s all very well saying ‘Just Say No’ to kids.  But we have to give them something to say ‘yes’ to.”  That should start with a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home.



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