It’s been a vexing time. The lame speeches, the frustrating TV debates, David Starkey…. I’ve even had recurring images of the intro to Shameless… the burning car, the estate… and philosophical Frank ‘avin’ a “Paaaaarty!” I’m tired of them all. The only shimmering ray of light in all this chitter chatter was Akala’s ‘Life Of Rhyme’ on Channel 4. But that’s the next piece… so, I need to get this stuff out of system and move on!
This friggin’ piece is all down to Guardian journo, Gary Younge. On Monday morning he was drawing a whole heap of flak from the bloggers but had pointed out “that most attempts to establish a definitive reason for what happened last week have inevitably imploded under the weight of their own dogma”.
His conclusion that “the situation is too complex for any one template” had me thinking back to the time Broadwater Farm went off in October ’85. At that time, Mike Connolly (now a celebrated documentary film maker) and I were involved in running a daytime project for unemployed youth (16-25) in Stamford Hill. We’d witnessed the 1980/1 uprisings that went from St Pauls in Bristol to Toxteth and Brixton and took in a rake of cities along the way. But on that fatal day, a sense of genuine dread permeated the high road between Dalston Junction and Tottenham.
It was a different time but as with now, it was complex. Back then inner city crime was rife, teenagers left school at 16 marginalised and unqualified, relations with the police were dire and underpinning it all was the legacy of racism. There were few jobs and Thatcher was unstoppable after defeating the miners. The elements in 2011 have shifted around. The culture may have morphed and the conflict appears less racial but the root problems that stymied some young people’s aspirations remain entrenched. Adding complexity to all this has been the rise of organised gangs that currently plague our community and the financial fuel provided by a massively influential drug trade.
The clientele at the project were mostly young black Londoners with roots in the Caribbean. First and foremost, the youth club provided a meeting place, a relaxed safe haven. Beyond the table tennis and the dominoes the aim was to develop self- reliance, confidence and possibly self-employment and on a number of levels it was definitely successful. While I became a decent pool player who was quick to resolve disputes, the challenge was to break new ground. It had to be practical. You could sign up for photography or women’s self defence (not if you was a geezer!), get help with form filling (jobs colleges, benefits) or learn interview techniques. We even took people who had never been out of Hackney to the West End for job interviews! With members we also researched and initiated radical self-employment initiatives and ambitious funding applications in conjunction with Hackney Co-operative developments. It was all in an afternoon’s work.
That said, there’s nothing new under the sun and one trip to Margate led to our coach being surrounded by police after some people had rinsed out a local sports shop. Two other youths had been caught breaking into a house (they took a mini cab (!) back to London after being charged the next day.). Some people were involved in crime and it was our job to equip our members with knowledge of their legal rights even if they were as guilty as sin. It was part of the process. Do you continue in the life or get out? People have to be able to take control of their lives to make those decisions.
It was their strong sense of injustice that sparked off a massive local campaign around one club member who was accused of murder. We sought out allies like activist and Chairman of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, John La Rose, an associate of Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson. With his help the campaign united the elders with the youth. There were large, rowdy marches, one particularly volatile demonstration outside the Hackney Police Station and protests at the Old Bailey. Lifelong lessons were learned!
Overall, there was a modest but real sense of empowerment. It gave motivation for one collective to set up a building co-op. Their first job was to work on the Orthodox Jewish school next door to the club. That was also an exercise in race relations. One group of young women initiated their own lunch bar. It even led to setting up our own development agency independent of the club on Stoke Newington High Street.
I still live in N16 so I’m still in touch with people who were project regulars. Inevitably there those who fell by the wayside and are either still in the life or incarcerated or dead. That said, one of the lunch-project remains a devoted Rastafari and now works with victims of domestic violence. Another woman studied business and fashion and last time I saw her she was doing stone carving. One regular who helped mentor the classic B Boy crew, Zulu Rockers, went on to dance with Rock City and is now living and teaching in Bologna. One co-op member is still a local carpenter while his brother did a degree in Fine Art at Chelsea. Another drives the 341 bus. A fellow youth worker and former co-op member battled with drugs and is now a preacher who works with ex-offenders. The list goes on.
Life is complex – people grow up, have kids and deal with their responsibilities. It’s tough out there but I do believe that the Stamford Hill Project touched lives. That moment in time boosted some people’s confidence and suddenly they had options. You need strength and willpower to negotiate the community divides and the disparities of wealth in this city.
So, in 2011 and in order not implode under the weight of my own dogma (former Commie ‘n’ all that!) we have to zoom in the issues…small things can change lives… maybe we have to build from below to create a voice. That said, we need investment in our youth and our communities. Hackney Council has done well stave of the attack on our front line services but in Camden the whole Youth Service went with a stroke of the pen. In my experience everybody, whether they are involved with youth or the arts, is hustling change to stave off collapse. If you’re under siege you can look ahead. It’s pure survival. To make an impact there have to be long term strategies that are well inventive, creative, fully resourced and staffed by skilled and paid workers.
What was the Prime Minister thinking when he delivered his latest post riot diatribe at Base 33 in in the heart of his Oxfordshire constituency to crew of bored kids against a graff backdrop of kids in “hoodies”. It was an image loaded in ironies and Irony No. 1 was that this flagship ‘Big Society’ youth centre is in danger of closing due to a lack of public donations.
I’m not knocking the work the voluntary organisations. We have a long history of philanthropy and I’ve seen more than enough episodes of the Secret Millionaire to appreciate the efforts and initiatives of selfless individuals in crumbling, forgotten communities around the UK.
There is a cycle of inequality that seems stronger than ever. Consider the cancellation of the EMA with the findings of the Sutton Report on the public schools and Oxbridge. It’s not surprising that people are furious and as the inner city communities turn in on themselves it’s clear that some people are literally burning the illusion that things will change.
Cameron and the Tory party do not have a mandate to rule this nation alone but that’s what it looks like to me. Just as Blair ignored the people over Iraq, Cameron and his crew are equally arrogant, riding rough shod over a weak opposition. They don’t care that about the human impact of their cutbacks. It’s simply the price we have to pay and the cost is high. As the real impact of the Tory agenda filters through to the bottom of our society where it hurts the most you can’t be surprised that the pain causes some people to lash out. This is not over.
The global economy is in tatters, we are spending billions bombing Tripoli, we have banks refusing to invest and our economy which is hardly a model of growth. It doesn’t look good but life goes on. I’ve met people that are deeply pessimistic about the future but there are plenty of people (I personally know hundreds!), on the ground who, given something to unite around, could develop a serious, positive and creative culture of resistance. We don’t need another groundhog day. We need radical, fresh ideas and a new generation of young activists who can “Reprazent!” Take heed of what Mr. James Brown – the first Black President of the USA – said after some other devastating riots: “Get up, Get Into It, Get Involved”.