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No 'Crack City'

These days it seems that one national newspaper article can be enough to start a serious scare about drugs, crime and video surveillance in a British city. Joanne Hayes reports from Nottingham

'It is 4.20 on a Thursday afternoon in the St Anne's (sic) district of Nottingham, a poor area known to locals as Crack City'. So Melanie Phillips began her article in the Guardian at the end of February. Phillips may not have known how to spell St Ann's, but she was certain that crack cocaine is a new threat to people in that part of Nottingham. And what, she demanded to know, 'are the police doing about crack?':
'The answer appears to be that they are gathering huge amounts of intelligence but - to the bafflement and anger of many in the affected community - producing few court cases.' (27 February1993)
It is a sign of the times that a leading columnist in a liberal newspaper should be leading a law and order campaign. And it is another sign of the times that such a lightweight article can start a serious public discussion about the need for firmer policing and more video surveillance in Nottingham. It seems that, in the present climate of insecurity, there is always a crime panic just waiting to happen. Anything can spark it off - even a Guardian article.

The catalyst

The Phillips piece proved to be the catalyst for reopening a discussion about introducing surveillance cameras all along the Radford Road in Hyson Green - the location of the Black and White cafe cited in her article. The Hyson Green Traders Association, police, community leaders and local journalists all met in response to the bad press Nottingham had received.

The traders suggested that cameras could demonstrate that people in the area were serious about cracking down on crime. They have been attempting to get a video system introduced for three years. They have backing from the police and all they need now is the funding. The Nottingham press picked up on this suggestion: 'City dealers may be filmed', 'police spy cameras could soon be homing in on drug dealers on Nottingham's streets' (Evening Post, 18 March 1993).

None of the local bodies involved in the debates about crack and surveillance agrees with the view of Nottingham presented by Phillips. However, dismissing the article as hype or just wrong misses the point. The article and the debate it has provoked have fuelled the consensus that crack is a major problem which people in Nottingham should be worried about, and that tough law and order measures are needed.

Trace the development of the concern about crack in Nottingham, and the superficial character of the panic becomes clear. In April 1989 a representative from the US Drugs Enforcement Agency met chief constables in Britain to outline the danger of an explosion of crack use based on the American experience. This seminar was followed three months later by the publication of the Stutman report by the home affairs committee, in which MPs described crack as the 'single most addicting drug available in the US' and a major cause of violent crime and family breakdown. They predicted that the use of crack in this country was likely to increase significantly.

The detective inspector of the Nottingham drugs squad at the time was also a member of the National Drugs Intelligence Unit, and he initiated a clampdown on crack in Nottingham in 1990. This, however, proved to be an embarrassment for the police. Before the high-profile campaign, the number of arrests for crack-related offences in Nottingham was just five in 1987, five in 1988, and eight in 1989. After the crackdown, these figures soared to eight in 1990, and seven in 1991. The seizure of crack which Nottinghamshire police claimed as the biggest in Britain in 1990 was in fact an insignificant catch amounting to only about 60 doses.

According to official figures published in Statistics of the Misuse of Drugs: Seizures and Offenders dealt with, United Kingdom 1990 (HMSO), the absolute seizures of problem drugs in Nottinghamshire were generally very low compared to other English police force areas. Nottinghamshire had the fourth lowest total after Durham, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, none of which contains urban centres comparable in size to Nottingham city.

The anti-crack crusade has proved a fiasco. But the response from local commentators and politicians has been that the police should put even more effort into it. The approach now widely advocated is to forget about chasing after elusive major drug suppliers, and instead go for the small fry which at least would boost the arrest figures. Melanie Phillips has added her voice to this call.

So what is all the fuss about in relation to crack? Central to Phillips' claim of a major increase in crack use in Nottingham is a report by Philip Bean and Yvonne Pearson, commissioned by the Home Office. They carried out two studies in Nottingham, in 1989-90 and 1991-92, in which they interviewed local crack users. Phillips says that 'this small-scale study suggested a huge increase in crack use in Nottingham, maybe as much as doubling between 1989 and 1991'.

In fact, there is no hard evidence of any 'huge increase in crack use in Nottingham'. The two studies on which the report was based involved interviews with a handful of users; 29 in the first study and 34 in the second. The report did state that both these users and Drugs Dependency Anonymous (DDA), which supplied contacts for the 1991-92 study, suggested a considerable increase in crack use. But the report also qualified these findings:

'Given that we contacted our subjects through drug services and criminal justice agencies it is likely that they were not representative of the Nottingham crack-using population in 1989-90 and 1991-92. In both groups we interviewed, most of the users were in their late twenties to mid-thirties, few were in regular legitimate employment and many were engaged in drug-dealing or prostitution.'

We spoke to various Nottingham agencies and professionals in the field, such as the Alcohol and Drugs Team, Drugs Dependency Anonymous and the Bail Support Unit for juvenile offenders. Although some suggested that there had been an increase in crack use in the city, none could provide any hard evidence. Indeed, the DDA pointed out that the biggest increase in drug addicts coming to them over the past year was among Chippendale lookalike bodybuilders, who have used too many steroids for their own good. Yet it seems unlikely that we will see police raids on gyms.

Let us concede for a moment that there might have been an increase in crack use among a small number of people in Nottingham. So what? Why should this rare drug now be elevated into one of the biggest problems facing people in Nottingham, as suggested by the label 'Crack City'? It is absurd for Phillips or anybody else to conclude that crack is a justifiable excuse for more repressive policing, arrests and surveillance in Nottingham. The closer you look, the more the crack scare looks like a classic crime panic.

No coincidence

Nor can it be a coincidence that coverage of crack tends to be concentrated around deprived inner-city areas with large black communities, reinforcing the public criminalisation of the people who live in these areas. A 1990 report by the Nottingham Alcohol and Drug Team observed that the known use of drugs was only marginally higher in the city than elsewhere in Nottinghamshire: 'although 67 per cent of known problem drug users reside in greater Nottingham, this area has just under 60 per cent of the county's population. The prevalence within the population of Greater Nottingham is comparable with that in the rest of the county.'

The lack of hard evidence of a crack epidemic has not prevented prominent commentators condemning a new wave of drugs and degeneracy in Nottingham. Phillips' detective novel-style description of inner-city life suggests her contempt for the people of these areas. Nobody in Nottingham would recognise her account of sleazy streets where 'crack appears to be available in the city all day and all night', where cafes seem to sell more drugs than food, gun crime has flourished, and dealers zip around in flash cars with mobile phones delivering crack rather than pizzas.

Author Alan Sillitoe, originally from Nottingham, recently contributed to the crime debate in the Nottingham Evening Post. His concern was to contrast the present to the past:

'The violence was less; your body wasn't targeted. You wouldn't be mugged. Kids threw stones, and you might be bullied, but it was play rather than serious harm.' (16 March 1993)

One glance at Sillitoe's most famous novel of working class life in Nottingham, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1958) tells a slightly different story. Among other episodes, Sillitoe's main character, Arthur, helps a drunk home and steals his wallet on the way; downs 12 and a half pints and seven gins and throws up over a woman; and shoots a neighbour in the face with an air rifle for gossiping. Like many others, Sillitoe now seems to suffer from selective amnesia. He also advocates putting today's offending youth into ex-army camps converted into borstals - a 'solution' which Sillitoe himself once ridiculed in his other great Nottingham novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

The bandwagon

Along with authors and journalists, Nottingham politicians have leaped aboard the law-and-order bandwagon. The Labour-led city council organised a major event at the end of April on the theme of safer cities, and many candidates of all parties for the May local council elections emphasised the issue of crime in the city.

All of this has inevitably had some impact upon public opinion in Nottingham. While most local people want nothing to do with Phillips' contemptuous description of their city, many do express new worries about drugs and crime. They appear to be projecting their own fears and insecurities about inner-city decline and the wider decay of society on to these issues.

Phillips interviewed a couple of drug users and used a survey that interviewed only 34 people. We conducted an equally scientific survey of around 80 people in 'Crack City' - shopkeepers and shoppers along the main part of the Radford Road associated with drug dealing. Only eight could say from their own experience that they knew of crack dealing in the area. The rest either had not heard of crack, or thought that there might be dealing and use in the area... because they had read that there was in the newspapers. Nice one, Melanie.

Asked, unprompted, what they thought were the biggest problems in the area, people tended to volunteer that it was tatty and that there was too much unemployment and poverty. Drugs came lower on the list than all of these; in fact, there were fewer people who mentioned drugs than said that there were no big problems in the area at all. When we introduced issues of crime into the discussion, however, most people did identify this as an equally big problem for them. Even though they had usually 'experienced' crime as a problem that happened to someone else, like vandalism or drug use, fear of it was common.

Selling crack scares

It seems that people's worries about the day-to-day problems which they experience in the slump tend to become confused with fear of crime when public debate is refocused onto drugs and other law-and-order issues. This is the dangerous offence committed by those now peddling scare stories about crack. Nottingham is a city where unemployment stands at almost 20 per cent and rising (six more pits are now going with the loss of three thousand jobs), and where more than 2000 single people aged 16-18 are registered homeless. When the media and politicians start selling crack as the major problem facing people in Nottingham, it is nothing short of criminal.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of our informal survey was that nearly two-thirds of the people we spoke to supported the introduction of surveillance cameras. Yet almost the same number thought that their introduction would not stop crime. It seems that, in these times of mass unemployment and economic insecurity, people are prepared to accept anything that seems to offer them some measure of control and protection, however illusory it might be.

The unfortunate irony is that, while more policing and cameras might appear a tempting short-term solution, they will in fact mean that people experience an even greater loss of control over their lives, as the authorities take a firmer grip on life in inner-city Nottingham. It will be little solace to know that someone will be watching your misery on a screen at the other end of a closed-circuit television system.

(Additional research from Living Marxism supporters in Nottingham)
Radford Road could soon have more cameras than Coronation Street
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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