Angels and devils

My nine-year-old daughter – who thankfully is still a child with
too many soft toys and bad nightmares and all those other touching
vulnerabilities – is suddenly terrified if she sees young boys on
their own. Recently, she was with me in Regent’s Park in London and
six perfectly well behaved 10-year-old boys turned up to play
football. She clutched my arm, turned pale and said she was scared
because this was a gang and they were probably going to do bad
things. Part of the reason may be that she is at a girls’ school
but she tells me that it is because there are too many young boy
criminals and that they should be locked away. I hope this does not
foretell a future as a Tory Home Office minister.

This demonisation is common of course for young black boys. I
remember a radio programme I made a few years ago with black
families in Notting Hill, London. Mothers, many of them lone
parents, told me how frightening it was to see how their boys began
to be treated by people once they reached 10. Suddenly, if they
played on the streets, neighbours would complain or ring the
police. The police would question them on their way to school and
on busses little old ladies clutched their bags and moved away.
Many of these boys eventually did live down to these stereotypes
but they certainly did not start off bad, and one reason to
consider why they did is the impact of having society telling them
they must be because of who they were.

There is no doubt that an alarming number of very young people are
breaking the law and destabilising their own families and their
neighbourhoods. We have anti-social behaviour orders
(Asbos)Êto help deal with these kids and these are to be
extended. Pictures of young people on Asbos are to be put on
leaflets delivered to households who can then shop them if they are
seen in barred places. Now forgive me if I sound like my fledgling
hard-line daughter, but this toughness is, in many ways, necessary.
There is no point in having regulations if they are not made to
work and the greater good demands that individuals – young and old
– should play by the basic rules of society.

But I have some concerns that these orders and the vigilantism they
will encourage may actually unfairly turn all boisterous young men
into potential enemies of the estate and that this in turn will
become the dominant identity of these men – dangerous and cool
lawbreakers with no stakes in the areas and communities they
inhabit. They may simply transport their criminality elsewhere –
like fast car drivers do when some roads become too slow or
restrictive. Do we ban them from entire boroughs? And then what? If
they are hemmed indoors they will probably turn to domestic
violence against their mothers because they feel victimised.

We must also be wary of politicians such as New Labour’s minister
for young people, John Denham, who loves such ideas mainly because
they please middle England and Daily Mail readers.
ÊThere has to be more to our policies than simply punishment.
It is because most of us middle-class people do not have to suffer
the night and day terror and diminishing effects of such young
delinquents and villains that so little imaginative thinking goes
into the problem. No one wants to spend money on these “feral”
youngsters, although they are very keen to punish them. If they are
to be prohibited from going to some places, where are the
institutions they must be obliged to attend where they can receive
behavioural therapy, decent education or training and perhaps some
state parenting because many of them will have been failed by their
own parents too?

We do, in fact, have some voluntary organisations that are trying
to re-humanise troubled and trouble-making young people – Kidscape
in south London, for example, where workers bring real motivation
and self-awareness into the lives of the lost generation. But guess
what? The gentrified neighbours do not like it being there for no
good reason at all – there is no evidence that crime in the area is
committed by the young people who use the centre. But they want it
closed down, those young people must be swept away, the streets
must be cleansed. Perhaps they will soon pass Asbos to show
Kidscape who is boss and a few more young people will return to
lives of criminality where they belong.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and

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