The framing of Moss Side
The police and the media have created a massive crime scare in Manchester.
Jason Powell and Colm Murphy report
In Manchester's Moss Side rival drug gangs vie for trade armed with Uzi
sub-machine guns and hand grenades, while junkies and gang members are crippling
the local community with persistent robbery ('taxing'), driving out the
few shopkeepers who remain. At least, that is what you would think if you
believed the sensational reports in the Sunday Times and on Channel
According to the reports, backed up by the police, Manchester City Council,
and community worker John Samuels, the predominantly black Alexandra estate
is racked by gangs: the Goochies, from Gooch Close, identifiable by their
red bandannas, the Doddies, from Dodington Close, whose bandannas are blue,
and, most recently, the 'military-style' Cheetham Hill gang. These last,
Samuels told Despatches, have their own command structure, with generals,
field marshals and lieutenants.
But in Moss Side, people don't recognise the fantasy world described by
Channel 4 and the Sunday Times. 'There is no military movement organising
drugs - it's just one man or two men working together', says David, at the
Moss Side Centre. A rasta, Jahson says that 'people might move as friends,
but there aren't any gangs. You'll see kids sticking together, then they'll
get called a gang'.
A woman dismissed the bandannas - 'it's just what young people wear'. Shown
the cover of the Sunday Times magazine featuring a bandanna worn
over the face, Jesse James-style, she exclaimed to her friend, 'where did
they find that idiot?'. Inside the notorious bookmakers, allegedly the scene
of the drugs trade, the punters are equally forthright: 'If you could buy
Uzis for £400 you would see loads of them. It's a pack of lies, there
ain't no Uzis 'round here.'
Instead of living in fear of gangs the people of Moss Side are outraged
at their treatment at the hands of journalists determined to make the area
a byword for crime. 'It was a hatchet job', said the security guard at the
Moss Side Centre. At the bookies, everyone is angry about the way Channel
4 spied on them: 'They came in here with a bag, with a secret camera inside,
put it down here on the counter, and left it filming us like animals. That
woman who made the programme had better not come back.'
Right to be angry
Moss Side has a right to be angry. There is a drugs trade in Moss Side,
but then there is a drugs trade at Manchester University too. Like any rundown
inner-city area it is no fun fair, and no doubt you are more likely to encounter
violence in Moss Side than in the leafy suburbs where newspaper editors
and television producers live. But the sensational reports about 'Gunchester',
'Baby Beirut' or the 'Bronx of Britain' present a picture of Moss Side destroyed
by the rotten elements in its own community. In the media treatment, it
is not the lack of jobs, but moral breakdown that is Moss Side's biggest
problem. Through the criminalisation of Moss Side, the local community is
blamed for its own deprivation.
'Open to suggestion'
Framing Moss Side is easy, if you ignore what the place is really like and
substitute a ragbag of unsubstantiated rumours and prejudice. Channel 4's
star witness was Ian Harry, supposedly a drug dealer who could make thousands
and was not afraid to hurt other dealers to defend his turf. Harry's testimony
was all the more chilling because of the broad smile on his face as he described
the weaponry at his disposal.
'Harry's a person who has always had learning difficulties', explains Father
Phil Sumner, a priest in Moss Side for 14 years. 'So he is very much open
to suggestion and is very easily exploited. And that's precisely what happened
in the programme. From my experience of him, the idea of him earning up
to £2000 a week or beating anybody up is laughable.'
Channel 4's other source, John Samuels, is not from Moss Side, but middle
class Chorlton village. A Methodist minister employed by the Moss Side and
Hulme Community Development Trust, Samuels' idea of community work was to
try to recruit blacks to the police. Unfortunately for Samuels, Moss Side
police cannot tell the difference between community workers and drug dealers:
last November he was caught in a raid in the betting shop and beaten senseless - while
he was putting up police recruitment posters.
50 per cent jobless
Since the programme, Samuels has tried to distance himself from the 'Bronx
of Britain' vision of Moss Side he described to Channel 4. The Development
Trust says he is 'off sick'. Local black people say he is in hiding.
Of course, Moss Side does have problems. Teenage unemployment is more than
50 per cent. The biggest local industry, Youngers brewery, was given planning
permission on the agreement that it would recruit from the community. But
now it is so heavily mechanised that jobs are few and far between. In the
precinct there are more shops boarded up than doing business. But the notion
that the drug trade has chased out legitimate business is unfounded. Most
of the jerry-built council flats have been evacuated, waiting to be knocked
down, as they were falling apart and infested with cockroaches. Leaving
aside the depression, there simply are not enough people to keep the Moss
Side Centre in business.
As far as local traders are concerned it is not 'taxing' from local gangs
that is forcing them out of business. 'It's the council that are the real
gangsters', according to a fishmonger. Mike, an Irish record stall holder
says that the council has 'doubled the rents and moved most of our customers
out, and they still expect us to find the money. We're all in arrears and
the council are just playing with us, they could close us down any time
they want - the bailiffs have already shut down shops in the precinct'.
In fact it is the running down of the local economy that gives credence
to the panics about crime. Feeling vulnerable and insecure in the face of
economic and social decay, many people are prey to the scares about drugs
and crime peddled by the media. The further you move away from the centre
of Moss Side, and the further you are from the black youths that are the
targets of the crime panic, the more people tend to believe the stories
about the gangs.
Up the road in Hulme, Maureen Clavin is part of the Irish community that
has been in the area for years. Her home is well protected with wrought
iron grilles. The back yard is immaculately whitewashed with pots of well-tended
flowers. Outside rubbish laps up the back alley. She never goes into the
centre of Moss Side. She has never actually been burgled 'touch wood. I
was only ever robbed by the man who came to fit the burglar alarms'.
Mrs Clavin is angry that her bike has just been stolen. But it turns out
that her biggest grievance is that the bike had to be left chained outside
as she waited five hours at the Royal Infirmary for a neuro-surgeon. She wanted
to be present to comfort a friend expecting the result of a brain scan.
In the end her friend got the bad news alone while she reported the theft
to the police.
For Maureen Clavin the experience of social decay, run-down services and
the fear of crime are all mixed together. It is a common response. At a
bus stop an older woman romanticises 'it used to be beautiful here, quite
respectable. It's gone terrible since they let all the darkies in - all the
muggings and shootings are done by the darkies'. Few of Moss Side's whites
have direct experience of violent crime, but most have a second-hand story
to tell about it.
Sue, a white woman in her thirties carrying her shopping back from the precinct
is worried about gangs. At the same time she is angry about the media coverage
because 'they are tarring us all with the same brush'. Outside of the young,
black targets of the media crime panic about Moss Side, all too many people
are susceptible to fears about gangs. Economic crisis creates an overwhelming
sense of fear and isolation as people try to lock their doors against the
problem. The best they think they can hope for is that they will not be
tarred with the same brush.
For black Moss Siders there is no door that can be shut so tightly that
the police cannot break it down, with a posse of journalists in tow. Their
security has been shattered by gangs - gangs of reporters, of community workers,
and of policemen determined to frame them for running down Moss Side.
Additional reporting by Joe Kaplinsky and Joe Feeley
Simon Kray dissects the Scottish knife panic
In February Paul Sheldon, an Edinburgh student, died in his brother's arms
after being stabbed through the heart in an apparently motiveless attack.
This case has been the most high-profile in a spate of knife attacks reported
in the Scottish press.
'Twenty-one Scots knifed every day', claimed the Daily Record next
to a colour photo of a man with a knife still embedded in his back. It seems
that everyone from hotel owners to actors and doctors have been knifed.
Ravers are now protected by metal detectors in clubs. Even the NHS seems
to be a victim, as facial scars require plastic surgery at an estimated
£3000 a 'chib'. The perceived knife epidemic has provided the backdrop
for Strathclyde police's knife amnesty campaign, 'Operation Blade'.
The first phase until the end of February involved collection points, mainly
in police stations. The public was invited to 'bin a knife and save a life',
and the police campaign was supported with appeals from famous footballers,
actors and pop stars on Scottish Television and Clyde Radio. Each day we
were treated to updated figures and photos of the gruesome instruments of
death which had been handed in--4500 in total.
As the press reports of attacks continued unabated through the knife amnesty,
we were encouraged to assume that a 'hard core' had retained their blades.
In fact it seemed that most of the knives deposited had come from the likes
of the butcher who handed in some of his, worried they might fall into the
Phase two of Operation Blade is a crackdown aimed at the 'hard core'. Stop
and search operations have been increased. Scottish law is to be brought
into line with England and Wales, where the defendant must prove the knife
being carried is for a lawful purpose. Shopkeepers who stock knives are
being persuaded to stop or to eye up potential customers as to age and suitability.
Not for the first time the Labour Party has tried to lead the law and order
bandwagon, with MPs Brian Wilson and David Marshall forcing the issue of
law reform in the police's favour.
Can Glasgow really be as different from other major urban areas as the Scottish
knife panic suggests? Glasgow does have a colourful hardman history, but
then all major cities have had their working class heroes and their razor
gangs - even sunny Brighton had its Pinkie. Scottish crime statistics show
a steady increase in recorded 'non-sexual crimes of violence'. But as in
any panic, figures for reported crime tend to increase proportionately to
Whatever the truth about knife attacks might be, Operation Blade will do
nothing to improve the safety of the people of Glasgow. The very notion
of a knife amnesty is ridiculous, when anybody can get access to a blade
from the nearest kitchen drawer. The only practical effect of this panic
and the measures it has produced can be to give the police more powers to
harass and control young people at random.
Young males out clubbing are indeed at increased risk of attack - not by
their motiveless peers, but by organised gangs of police officers. Soon to
be armed with US-style side-handled batons, clad in blade-proof armour and
empowered with stop-and-search regulations that give little or no recourse,
the police will hit the streets.
By giving more legitimacy to heavy-handed policing, Operation Blade will
make the streets more not less dangerous for many Glaswegians. On the first
day of the crackdown 110 people were searched. Only four of those were arrested.
Last year in Strathclyde 4000 people were arrested for carrying knives,
but less than half were prosecuted. What will the harassment figures be for
It seems that being harassed and searched, or waking up in the cells next
morning, is becoming as much of a risk as getting a hangover when you go
out for a pint in Glasgow these days.
And now I hear that, on 29 March, a coach carrying people from Glasgow to
support sacked workers picketing the Timex factory in Dundee was stopped
by police - on the phoney pretext of searching for knives. None was found.
But the coach missed the demonstration.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993