'THE WORST estate in the country' is what the mainstream press have called the Stonebridge estate. The press talks about 'Jamaican drugs crews', gang shootings and teenage drug dealers. But Stonebridge is not very different from hundreds of estates across Britain where people's lives are blighted by poverty, neglect and the fear of crime.
Home secretary David Blunkett says he is speaking up for the people on such estates when he talks of getting tough on young criminals. But many living on Stonebridge and similar estates reject the idea that police raids and the criminalisation of young people will make life better.
Frank Downes, a youth worker and community activist on Stonebridge, explained why to Socialist Worker: 'The facilities for young people on Stonebridge are appalling. If any money is spent on the area, the needs of the kids always come last - it's ridiculous. Now they are handing out these ridiculous antisocial behaviour orders. The last play area was covered over with a car park about 18 months ago. Now kids have nowhere to go except the stairwells and hallways. The nearest football field is across Hilltop Road, a busy main road.
'Most parents are too busy to see their children across it. There are limits to what you can do in a hallway, so the graffitiing and that starts. The antisocial behaviour laws just criminalise the children and their parents. Last week the police were stopping and checking cars on the estate. Think of the money a raid like that costs. It would be much better spent on facilities.
'I want a clubhouse here - just a normal clubhouse with sports facilities that offer something for everyone and the kids feel is theirs. A clubhouse would give the kids ownership, so they don't just think, 'Oh, it's the council's' and give it a kick. The kids really police themselves if they know something is theirs. That's the first thing you learn when you meet them - if you treat them with respect, they act differently. They come out of school hating all authority, they are just sick of being told what to do and put through exams.
'Six months ago I got funding to work on a portakabin on the estate. The kids covered its walls in graffiti art. Everyone thought it would be vandalised in five minutes, even the people who gave me the funding. Six months later, there isn't a scratch on it. The people who make the decisions don't live on the estate and often they don't know kids of this generation.
'We have a real chance to pre-empt the problems that can develop later by getting them involved in things like sport, and letting them get on with themselves. I went to the Acorn Club not long ago to meet the young people who use it. For about 15 minutes they did nothing but hurl abuse. Then, when they had vented their anger, they started saying things like, 'I am not worth anything,' 'No one thinks I am any good.' One even said, 'I might as well be dead.' What sort of thing is that for a teenager to be saying, just because they are black and live on a run-down estate?
'It is everything to do with how they are being treated. And that is linked to Labour wanting to sell off the land and the council housing. The government starves the estates of resources, then dumps them as cheaply as possible. They should have learned from my generation, the first to grow up on the big estates. When people know they are being treated in this manner, how can they be expected to respect authority?'
Truth behind media hysteria
'A NATION stalked by fear'. The Sun's response to the latest crime figures was all too predictable. The right wing press jumped on figures showing a rise in violent crime to whip up more hysteria. In fact the most accurate figures showed an overall decrease in crime in the year ending in April 2003.
The British Crime Survey interviews 40 times more people than most opinion polls and it records crimes not reported to police. Its survey shows crime has fallen by 2 percent, after eight years of recorded falls. The murder rate was the highest ever. But that was because all the victims of Harold Shipman were recorded in one year, although they were murdered over 20 years.
New Labour can take no credit for the fall in crime - the same thing has happened across Europe and the US. More than two thirds of people think crime has 'risen a lot', even though the risk of becoming a victim of crime is the lowest for 20 years. This fear is stoked by unscrupulous tabloid editors, who love to headline gruesome, but exceptional, crime stories.
Such stories only sell papers because they feed a real mood of fear and worry. Crime is concentrated in deprived working class areas. The most likely victims of burglary are not affluent professionals from the suburbs, but single parents in council houses.
Working class families in inner cities are far more likely to be afraid their children will get involved in gangs than middle class parents whose children grow up in a protected environment. And the fear of crime plays on wider feelings of resentment at being abandoned by those in authority and the feeling that those high up don't care what life is like for those at the bottom.
Fear of crime makes life worse, trapping pensioners in their homes, creating tensions between the generations and adding to stress and insecurity. The Home Office admits there is a strong relationship between unemployment and burglary and car crime. The fall in domestic burglaries matches the fall in male youth unemployment and the fall in car crime matches the fall in the overall jobless total.
There are tried and tested ways of reducing crime and fear - better street lighting, better public transport, renovated housing and above all jobs and hope in the future.
'All the police saw was a black man driving a BMW'
'THE ESTATE always gets mentioned when anything happens,' Sarah Cox, who was a primary school teacher on Stonebridge for many years, told Socialist Worker. 'We've seen raids like this before, such as in September 2001 when 13 people were arrested. Both times the raids were like high-profile events staged for the media. All the raids do is move drug gangs from one area to another. It doesn't deal with the problem. People are worried about crime on the estate and where their kids go at night.
'But there is a perception that the police overreact and are heavy-handed. Someone I used to work with at the nursery told me how her neighbour's door had been broken down early one morning and the police had rushed in wearing body armour and brandishing guns. They were after the man who lived there, but his wife and child were terrified. The estate had a reputation for crime long before any black people lived there, but now racism is a factor.
'There was a story in the local paper, the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, a couple of weeks ago about a man and his girlfriend whose car had been surrounded by seven police vans. The police thrust submachine guns in their faces and hurled abuse at them. The man was a community worker who has often cooperated with police, but the police just saw a black man driving a BMW. No one is surprised by this reaction. People say nothing has changed since Stephen Lawrence.'