Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Taking crime seriously

Posted by Left Luggage on April 8, 2009

Last year, two teenage boys in the East London college where I work were stabbed to death. The killings happened on separate occasions and in different parts of East London, but there were many similarities between the two cases. Both were killed after refusing to hand over mobile phones. Neither had a history of involvement in violence. Both were murdered a year before they planned to go to university. I didn’t know either student personally, but it is likely they would have been among the first in their families to reach higher education, had their lives not been ended prematurely.

At least half a dozen teenagers have been killed in the immediate vicinity of the college in the three years I have worked there. Communities in the area are extremely tight-knit, and many of my students have been personally affected by the killings. In my first term, I remember reading the account one girl wrote of the night her friend was stabbed through the heart in front of her at a party. A male student of mine took time off college after seeing his female friend murdered. Staff have also been attacked. A security guard was stabbed in the back in broad daylight outside the college gates after he allegedly offended a friend of the attacker. He survived.

One of the most pernicious affects of crime is the way it alters the social and political views of those whose lives it blights. Most of the young people I work with have a pessimistic view of human nature, refusing to believe that people have altruistic motivations. Far from having pride in their communities, they can’t wait to leave what they see as dangerous and neglected neighbourhoods. Whenever we discuss crime they voice support for the most authoritarian policies, including longer prison terms and the death penalty. They largely reject the liberal view that crime might have social causes.

My students are not alone. Concern about violent crime is widespread and growing in working class areas. 57% of respondents to a BBC poll in 2008 said they had become more concerned about knife crime in the past year. Among manual workers, the figure was 66%. On attitudes to punishment, class differences are even clearer. 53% overall supported an automatic four year prison sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife; among manual workers the figure leapt to 65%.

The Left often explains attitudes like these as the result of media over-reporting and sensationalism. The way the media frame the issue of crime is clearly important, but the relationship between the media and their audiences is a complex and reflexive one. Media messages must resonate with audiences if they are to be effective. To imply that people get their views on crime solely from the media is simplistic. In any case, to argue that public opinion on crime (or immigration, or anything else) is attributable to media influence is to miss the point. We have to deal with public opinion as we find it, not as we would like it to be. Telling people their views are “based on media lies” is unlikely to produce positive results.

The Left is more out of touch with public opinion on crime than on almost any other issue. A perfect illustration of this was provided by an article in Socialist Worker last month headlined “Capitalism and rape”. After criticising judicial and police attitudes to rape, the writer points out that rape is a “social problem” and “Socialist Worker has no tradition of calling for more arrests or harsher sentencing to deal with social problems.” The root cause of this social problem, we are told, is the alienation brought about by capitalism. As for the solution, we read:

Abusers should receive treatment and counselling to help them to live normal lives and prevent them repeating their behaviour. But to eradicate all forms of sexual violence we need to fight together to create a very different kind of society.

There are several things wrong with this analysis. To argue that there will be no rape “after the revolution” dodges two very important issues. Firstly, how should we deal with sexual violence until we abolish capitalism (assuming this is a long way off)? Should we console rape victims with the news that there will be no rape in the new socialist society? Secondly, it is utopian to argue that sexual violence will not take place “after capitalism”. While removing alienation might dramatically reduce instances of rape, it is unlikely to completely abolish the crime. All societies are faced with the problem of how to deal with anti-social behaviour, of which rape is an extreme example.

The worst aspect of the article cited above is the way it appears to absolve individual rapists of personal responsibility for the heinous crimes they commit. People act within a social context and every individual action will have been influenced by numerous social factors, but ultimately we choose to act the way we do. If this were not the case, it would be impossible for criminals to change their ways or for people to resist the temptation to commit crime. Capitalism “causes” crime in the sense that it destroys bonds of solidarity between individuals, promotes the ruthless pursuit of self interest and creates material deprivation. It puts certain people in situations where they are likely to decide to commit crime. In the same way, any other social phenomenon can be said to be “caused by capitalism”, from sex trafficking to short selling, but it makes no sense to disregard personal responsibility in these cases.

Part of the reluctance on the Left to blame criminals for their actions might be due to the fact that the perpetrators of certain crimes tend to be working class. It is equally true, however, that the victims of anti-social crime are disproportionately working class. Crime in working class communities is generally committed by a small minority of individuals who enrich themselves at the direct expense of the majority. In this sense, the drug dealer is a miniature version of the capitalist exploiter.

There is also a concern on the Left that addressing crime is inherently reactionary. It is true that arguing for more police powers and bigger prisons legitimises and strengthens the state. However, being anti-crime does not necessarily mean being pro-police or pro-punishment. Experiences in the North of Ireland show how communities can address crime themselves, by standing up to the criminal minority and forcing criminals to atone for their actions. Such restorative justice schemes have more recently been adopted in other parts of the UK, for instance by the Independent Working Class Association in Oxford. This is not to say crime can be addressed by completely bypassing the police. Clearly they are needed to help find perpetrators and deter future crimes, but at the moment there is a perception in many working class areas that the police are more concerned with public relations than with tackling the problems that communities face. Rather than argue for more police powers, the Left should put pressure on the police to respond to the needs of the communities they serve. Like any collective action, community campaigns against crime can help to strengthen solidarity and build community pride.

According to the 2008 poll, 38% of people do not trust any of the three main parties to deal with crime (43% of manual workers). Working class people will look for alternatives if the Left is unwilling to represent them and address these concerns. At the moment, that alternative is the British National Party, which has already started to give crime as much prominence as immigration in some of its campaigns.

To begin to reconnect with the working class, we must listen to the concerns of communities on issues like crime and formulate a progressive response. To do this, the Left urgently needs to build the roots in communities that it currently lacks. If we fail, we open the door to the far right, with catastrophic consequences.

11 Responses to “Taking crime seriously”

  1. John Yeoman said

    Useful start to a discussion on how local working class communities can make policing accountable to them. For too long the cobweb left has avoided the issue of crime and its impact on working class communities by waiting for the revolution.

    Crime is a clear priority for working class communities , its about time the left actually took up the priorities that the working class identify rather than setting up their own programme and attempt to win the working class to that.The BNP do this very well and are in some places emerging as the most likely alternative to New Labour.

    There is an opportunity for a left alternative to the BNP but its got to be localised and permanent rather than top down and temporary like the NO2EU , it must be based on local action and not gesture politics like G20 demonstrations and its got to be based within working class communities not the community of the left.

  2. Mat. said

    I agree with most of the article above, and with John’s comment to some extent. However while I think it is entirely understandable that people are going to seek ways of making the police more accountable, what worries me is that while people are doing that with no promise of a result there is a danger they are neglecting setting up a long term mechanism for dealing with the crime that affects them now, and will in the future – even if the police can be made more accountable, which I have doubts about.

    The IWCA in Oxford have certainly shown how communities can when they need to deal with crime and anti social behaviour without the police.

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re pro or anti police, what matters is dealing effectively with the crime and behaviour that effects us – sometimes the police may be willing and able to help, but other times we need to do it ourselves.

  3. Thanks John and Mat for the comments.

    Wholeheartedly agree, John, with your points about what any successful left alternative to the BNP would look like.

    Mat, you make a thoughtful point about the role of the police. I suspect that you’re right that much low level anti-social crime can be dealt with by communities without the involvement of the police. Community-lead responses are likely to be successful as perpetrators realise they have a whole community to contend with rather than one or two vulnerable members. Also, many working class young people have a negative view of the police. Among the teenagers referred to in the above article, the view of the police as corrupt and self serving is almost unanimous. Any approach that seeks to involved young people in dealing with crime must take such views into account.

    However, I still think that there are many crimes that can’t be tackled without the involvement of the police. Ordinary people lack the time and resources to mount the kind of operations the police are capable of.

    As you imlpy at the end of your post, the issue is where the power lies rather than how we view the police. Unless working class communities are calling the shots, we can expect the police to follow alternative agendas such as their own or those of government.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    LL

  4. By coincidence I wrote about policing last week. It’s interesting to contrast my argument with a couple of comments left by a SWP comrade. Piece here.

  5. Duncan said

    Mat,

    The IWCA in Oxford have certainly shown how communities can when they need to deal with crime and anti social behaviour without the police.

    Really? How’s that then?

    ‘Leys Independent’, the IWCA newsletter put out in Blackbird Leys several times a year, is generally consistent in arguing that’s what needed is measures like proper police officers instead of PCSO’s and pressuring the council into improving policing on the estate so residents get ‘value for moeny’.

    • Bushwick Bill said

      ello duncan,

      As i’m sure your aware – that hasn’t always been the case. Earlier on Stuart Craft’s blog had a lot of stories about tackling crime on blackbird Leys, iirc.

      You probably remember it better than I do tho.

      • mat said

        Sorry for the late reply…

        Duncan, there are stories on the IWCA website archive about how women in their community came together to tackle anti social behaviour, and also about community struggles against crack dens.

        I imagine (not a member, so I can’t be sure) that their strategy is to asist the organisation of community responses to crime where possible, while demanding better policing of the community, which they are well aware probably will not happen, at least not in a sustained way – to show how unresponsive policing is to working class needs. A tactic I’m sure the Socialist Party are familiar with ;-)

        Left Luggage said; “However, I still think that there are many crimes that can’t be tackled without the involvement of the police. Ordinary people lack the time and resources to mount the kind of operations the police are capable of.”

        Absolutely, I would not dispute that, though I’m not sure how good even they are at actually protecting us – that’s not to suggest there is a practical alternative right now, because it’s clear there is not.

  6. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for the comment. Are you suggesting that you think the IWCA’s strategy of lobbying for improvements in policing is wrongheaded? Interested in your view.

    LL

  7. Jon said

    Do you have a reference for this? Great article by the way.

  8. Hi Jon. Try this one for starters: http://www.restorativejustice.org/editions/2006/april06/gormallyarticle

    LL

  9. tomcwu said

    Along similar lines, an article from the commune, reflecting on the recent murder in Hackney of Jahmal Mason-Blair, and how the left can react.

    http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/a-death-in-the-community/

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