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Coventry's anti-youth culture

Another summer of tension and trouble in Britain's cities began with battles between police and youth in Coventry.

What's it all about? Andrew Calcutt went home to investigate the new spectres haunting 'Ghost Town'

'Yet the question of why authority should be contested, why the youths are so antagonistic, remains'. Paul Cheeseright, midlands correspondent of the Financial Times, was unable to account for the 10 days of disorder in Coventry, which started in May in the outer-city areas of Wood End and Willenhall, and later spread to inner-city Hillfields. Youths attacked police with stones and petrol bombs, wrecked some shops, and fire-bombed a school and a council housing office.

Presumably the FT doesn't have many readers in Wood End or Hillfields, and its man in the midlands had probably never been near those estates before. If he had, he would not need to ask why. The outbreak of disorder was the end result of a policy of consigning the young people of Coventry to the margins of the city. In geographic, economic and cultural terms, they have been shut out. Anti-police violence is one result of Coventry's anti-youth culture.

Father forgive us

In the fifties, Coventry councillors built the first wholly pedestrian city centre. Workers from the city's flourishing engineering and motor industries were encouraged to feel at home in 'the precinct'. The new cathedral of St Michael, consecrated 30 years ago this summer, adopted an egalitarian stance and based its ministry on the postwar spirit of reconciliation and consensus. To this day a special 'service of reconciliation' takes place every Friday, beginning with the words 'Father forgive the hatred which divided nation from nation, race from race, class from class'. In recent years, however, the 'public space' of the postwar city centre has been encroached upon by enclosed shopping areas designed to exclude those without spending power. The atmosphere of easy consensus has also disappeared.

Move along now

'Feel free to select from this table.' The sign above the menswear display in Debenhams, the largest shop in the new West Orchard mall, is addressed to well-heeled Arena readers. Young people short on disposable income are not welcome inside or outside the store. 'They move you along', said Jez, an 18-year old who lives about a mile from the city centre. 'If you go in any of the big shops you get followed about. They all have security guards and they come up and say to you "are you buying something?". It's embarrassing if you're with a girl. You don't need it, do you?'

The first time I met Jez he was standing with three friends on a raised walkway 'watching the birds because there's nothing better to do'. Dressed in t-shirt, baggy jeans and trainers, he said 'the police don't want us here because of the way we look'. The next day I saw him and his friends standing in the same place, being questioned by police: 'There were three of them giving us hassle. No reason. Said they were just checking. They took our names and addresses and took notes on the clothes we've got on. There's no need for it - the dirty pigs.'

Wherever they go in the city centre, Jez and his mates are likely to be picked up by one of the 51 closed circuit cameras which comprise Britain's first comprehensive 'shopping management' security system. If they sit on a bench and sip a can of beer, they'll be in trouble. In 1988 the Labour council persuaded the Tory government to pass an act of parliament making Coventry city centre an 'alcohol-free zone'. (It was subsequently revised so that an upmarket bar called Brown's could put cafe-style tables on the pavement). Coventry's prohibition rule set the tone for 'clean-up' measures adopted in other cities. There aren't many places, however, with searchlights in the town centre. A former resident, visiting Coventry after five years' absence, said that Belfast was the only city where she had seen anything similar.

Shut out

Tourism, retail development and 'office villages' are the growth areas which Coventry council is trying to promote. Even in the eighties that left little scope for the jobless sons and daughters of former car workers . In the slump of the nineties, things are far worse. 'Sometimes we feel shut out of our own town', said Jez. City councillors deny it, but the logic of their strategy is that working class youth should stay at home on dilapidated outer-city estates, marooned by high bus fares and watched over by the West Midlands police helicopter. As the vicar of Willenhall - one of May's hotspots - put it, 'a great proportion of society is being shut into areas where they can't be seen'.

Wits end

Coventry's youth form part of the unseen unemployed. In the sixties school-leavers could choose a job and then walk into another one if they didn't like it. If they got the sack in the seventies shakeout, they could sign on and hope that life would get back to normal. But normal life is different nowadays, as a Willenhall youth worker explained. 'Young people aged 16 to 18 are disqualified from benefit. They should be guaranteed youth training but for the last year it's been very difficult to find a place. YT placements are disappearing because the companies are folding up. There is a bridging allowance of £15 for eight weeks. After that they live off their parents - nearly half local households have an income of less than £100--or off their wits.'

Some get temporary work at £2 an hour. Only half the 1991 crop of school-leavers has found work or training. Many others have taken up black-economy activities such as 'going on the pictures': they are paid commission-only for travelling to owner-occupied suburbs and hawking prints door-to-door. This sort of temporary scam is as near as they will get to stable employment - and they know it.

Meanwhile the council is cutting back on facilities for young people. This year's budget included £5.38m cuts in education. Community education posts are frozen. The Stoker, a community arts venue, was shut down at the end of last year when its funding ran out. In Hillfields, the Afro-Caribbean development unit and the ethnic minority development unit are closing.

Full employment and the welfare state are both relics of the past. The under-20s are growing up without them. To cope with the intensified pressures of their perilous existence, they have developed a new mind-set
--a volatile cocktail of pragmatism and resignation offset by a sometimes violent urge to kick against the oblivion imposed upon them in today's anti-youth culture.

An Asian school-leaver said, 'I've decided I don't want to work until I'm 21. I'm just going to doss around till then'. Another youth thought life was 'alright if you've got money for a game of snooker'. But what about the stunt-riding of allegedly stolen motorbikes in Wood End, and the confrontations with police after they moved in to stop it? 'That's for kicks. If there's violence it's because of boredom and there's nothing better to do. Same with burglary. If you've got no money and nothing to do, you might do it for the kick of it and get some cash at the same time.' The high spot of his young life was 'smoking draw and having a drink. That's all anybody wants'.

'There's nothing here for me', concluded another youth. 'In a few years I'll go to Ireland, where my parents come from.' The irony is that recognising that 'there's nothing here for me' was what prompted his parents and many others to emigrate from Ireland to the boom town of Coventry in the first place.

The Tory government, the Labour council and the private developers have served an exclusion order on Coventry's youth. The police force is the only agency to have increased its interest in them.

Stop-and-search is even more frequent on outer-city estates than in city-centre shopping malls. It's so common that one youth said 'we don't get a lot of hassle - we just get stopped and checked for warrants'. A 19-year old from Wood End said: 'Sometimes you get stopped in the next street and you just tell them, "I've already been stopped".' Another youth explained: 'They go round giving you grief and saying you should be in bed. They want the streets clear as soon as it gets dark.' Police video cameras are in use on outer-city estates.

Motorcycle terrorists

Many Coventry residents believe West Midlands police are working to a rigorous new policy. A musician recalled the recent operation which involved setting up roadblocks and sealing off the city centre on a Saturday night. Earlier this year, police in Hillfields stepped up their activities, ostensibly to combat prostitution. Black youth in the area believe they are the real targets.

The police operation said to have sparked the Wood End disturbances was directed at 'motorcycle terrorists'. Youths on motorbikes have been buzzing round the area for 10 years, but riot squads are a novel way of dealing with them. The disturbances in Willenhall followed the heavy police presence in the area after an unexceptional burglary. West Midlands police conceded that they had adopted a high-profile policy in Wood End and Willenhall. The use of helicopters and the pro-active deployment of riot squad officers can only have been intended as a show of strength. It seems likely that the police chose to escalate an everyday altercation into a full-scale confrontation.

Segregated city

Swamp-style policing used to be exceptional. In the anti-youth culture of the nineties, working class estates are policed like this all the time. The authorities have piled on the pressure. It's not surprising that youth should try to take it out on the police. An increase in racist violence is another side-effect of the newly embittered atmosphere in Coventry.

The new Coventry is a segregated city. Black and white youths rarely mix. A 19-year old Asian explained: 'If I walk through town on my own, there's a good chance of getting hit.' He looked for back-up from the Jinns, a group formed in response to racist attacks and based at Tile Hill College of Further Education. White youth deny the influence of racism, but for many of them it has become second nature: 'I don't think there is much racism here - there are only a few Asians in Wood End. If they had a party and attracted attention then they would get trouble. But they don't go out much anyway.'

In the days running up to the outbreak of anti-police violence, there was a serious altercation in an Asian restaurant not far from Wood End. A white youth was subsequently injured by a hit-and-run driver, and a number of Asian shops were attacked. The Coventry Evening Telegraph noted that 'racial tension begins to fester', and then said no more about it.

'Ghost Town'

Coventry is still remembered for the multi-ethnic music of Two Tone. 'Ghost Town' (1981), The Specials' biggest success, was a lament for the failure of postwar Coventry. But the integrated Two Tone style is nowhere in the new city. What's left of the music scene is an index of racial division.

'There are clubs for blacks and clubs for whites', said a local DJ. Former members of The Specials have moved in opposite directions: one fronts a rockabilly band; another is 'heavily into' black consciousness. The Asian community has set up daytime Bhangra parties for its young people. Even in mixed clubs, young people tend to stay within their own ethnic group.

Up to £17.50

There are precious few clubs and music venues in the city. Some clubs insist on a dress code which only over-25s can measure up to. That leaves about three city centre venues accessible to youth: the eclipse (house), Silvers (indie) and the recently reopened Tic Toc. The price of admission - up to £17.50--restricts access still further. Like everything else, there's not enough entertainment to go round.

On a Saturday night, different crowds compete for a piece of the action. 'Sometimes they kick off', as one 20-year old put it. The summer issue of BOF, 'Coventry's sonic fanzine', included an impassioned protest against 'hardened and cynical attitudes...bad vibes...aggravated attacks'. Having created the pressures which lead to violence, the Coventry authorities cite the outbreak of violent incidents in the city to back up their arguments for tighter policing and more repression.

When the city's youth lash out against the police and each other, it is a response to a whole range of new pressures - none of which is of their own making. Coventry has been stripped of the comfortable old clothes of postwar consensus. In the anti-youth culture now revealed there, tension and antagonism are as naked as Lady Godiva. The real question is not why did the May disturbances happen, but why don't such things happen more often.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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