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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 4's Despatches.

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.

Iron grilles

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.

Security shattered

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

Blade runners

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 wrong hands.

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 media profile.

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 this year?

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

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