Not feeling safe in your neighbourhood? Why we need to build community solidarity

Way back in 2007 and 2008 when I stood as a local election candidate for the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) in the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward, one of the issues that was frequently raised on the doorstep was community safety. With reports of knife crime and anti-social behaviour appearing all too frequently in the local news, it’s still an issue that’s not going away any time soon.

Back in our IWCA days, we were advocating greater investment in youth services and activities that would challenge and stretch young people while offering an outlet for their energy and enthusiasm. Believe it or not, in our naïvety, we also advocated community policing focused on prevention! This was before we became anarchists and developed a more in depth understanding of power structures. Some fairly bitter engagements with the police in the intervening years have disabused us of any notion that they’re anything other than the increasingly militarised upholders of the status quo. Lastly, we also advocated community action against anti-social individuals who consistently refused to mend their ways, based of some of the work done on the ground by the Blackbird Leys branch of the IWCA. For the record, we still do advocate this approach as a last resort.

So, what is the solution to making our neighbourhoods and streets safer for everyone? There is no easy solution to a complex problem that has a range of causes. Those who are advocating simplistic, authoritarian solutions, are doing so for political gain as opposed to finding any lasting solution.

Anti-social behaviour, knife crime, acid attacks, drug dealing, gun crime and the like are all symptoms of a society that is basically screwed. We live in an atomised, fractured, dog eat dog society with a social and political climate that encourages greed and denigrates any notion of solidarity and collective action. If we want a safer society, we need to take a long hard look at the dysfunctional, dystopian one we live in, realise it’s not fit for purpose and set about building a new one.

Aiming for the stars with a vision of what an ideal society could be does not solve the problem of too many people who fear walking the streets of their neighbourhoods and becoming a victim of crime in the here and now. While we want a radical social transformation, we also want to start right away on making our neighbourhoods safer places to live in. The only sure way of achieving that is to start building a sense of community solidarity where we live.

That is easier said than done. In neighbourhoods with a high number of private rental properties, some of which will be ‘Homes of Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs), with what feels like a constantly changing cast of people walking up and down your street, it’s understandable that people will withdraw into a small social circle of neighbours who’ve been around for a fair while. In these situations, it’s all to easy for scapegoats to emerge and for simplistic solutions to be touted in response to anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Neighbourhoods end up being fractured like this for a range of reasons. On estates where a lot of people did exercise the ‘right to buy’, not everyone did so with a view to staying put as a homeowner. A fair few flogged their newly acquired properties to move out to leafier locations and live the suburban dream while not giving too much thought as to who the property was sold to. This is how the private rental sector has boomed as landlords swooped in to buy up these properties. That booming sector has allowed a lot of less than scrupulous landlords to get in on the game, pushing the boundaries as far as they can so they can get away with the minimum amount of maintenance while cramming their properties with as many tenants as they can.

In our region, there’s also the issue of the London Boroughs either directly or through the housing associations they work with, buying up properties or securing rental deals with local landlords in a bid to move out people on their housing waiting lists. We’ve seen too many instances of people being torn away from friends, family and support networks to be effectively dumped in a property in a peripheral, neglected housing estate that’s already experiencing more than its fair share of issues.

The issue of tenure in our neighbourhoods is an issue that has to be acknowledged when it comes to working out how we can start to build a sense of community solidarity that will make us all feel safer. Tackling tenure and how housing is allocated to ensure it’s just and equitable won’t happen this side of a major political and social transformation. We have to start where we are and work out from there.

It has been pointed out that even if someone is only renting a property for six months, they’re still a part of the community for that period and have an obligation to making it a better and safer place to live. Transient workers having to move from place to place every six months or so have as much of a stake in wanting to live in a decent neighbourhood as longer term residents. Imagine what a miserable existence it must be having to move frequently to chase the work and each time landing up in a dysfunctional, unsafe neighbourhood. So yes, short term tenants do have an interest in making their neighbourhoods better places to live and should be welcomed into any initiative that will bring that about.

As for the police, they’re there to maintain the status quo and to contain as far as possible, anti-social and criminal behaviour to the estates. Their job is to keep the lid on rather than look for more holistic, permanent solutions. Let’s face it, a truly holistic solution to community safety would put them out of a job! If we want to live in safer neighbourhoods, the responsibility lies with each and everyone of us to build the sense of community solidarity that can achieve that.

These are some pointers we have previously published on what can be done to start building a sense of community solidarity:

What do we mean by solidarity

  • Everyone looking out for the people on either side of them and those people responding in kind.
  • To keep things manageable, the ideal area for this is a street, close or block – this was learnt from the experience of some of the grassroots campaigns who fought the Poll Tax.
  • Take particular care to look out for the more vulnerable members of your community such as the elderly and the long term sick.

Zero tolerance for divide and rule

  • Regardless of who they are or where they came from, when crisis hits, everyone is in it together and everyone has their own contribution to make in working together to make sure the neighbourhood pulls through and stays united.
  • After the two years of lockdowns and tiered restrictions implemented as an over-reaction to the Covid crisis, let’s not allow the divisions between maskers and anti-makers, vaxxers and anti-vaxxers to divide us in our neighbourhoods.

This is scratching the surface – there’s a lot more that can be written and said on this. What we want to do is throw these pointers out as a prompt for a discussion and see where that takes us.

Lastly, let’s look at the power of a positive example on how community action can turn a situation around. Back in our IWCA days in 2007 and 2008, the then dire state of Hardie Park was frequently raised on the doorstep. Back then, it was a bleak, litter strewn no go area that few people visited. Fast forward a few years and a few local residents, fed up with the neglect of the park by Thurrock Council, took it upon themselves to do something about it.

They started out with some simple, doable tasks such as litter picking. Basically, it snowballed from there and eventually, the residents formed Friends of Hardie Park and started organising community activities in the park. Things really started to gain momentum when they obtained a portable building, dug the foundations, started to erect it, got round to asking the council for permission and ended up with a building that now functions as a cafe, meeting place and community hub. There’s a gardening group we volunteer with who develop and maintain the gardens in the park. What was a no go area ten years ago is now a well used and much loved community asset run by volunteers from the community.

Obviously, with all of the physical infrastructure of the community hub, the gardens and the park, and the maintenance they all need, this costs money. While local authorities may be strapped for cash as a result of central government imposed austerity, as the Friends of Hardie Park are registered as a charity, they can access pots of money in the form of grants. Also, local companies have been willing to donate materials that are needed for gardening and building projects in the park. Yes, all of this is working in and with the system. Some anarchist purists might choose to turn their nose up at this. The point is that at the end of the day, a group of residents have worked the system to their advantage to create a community asset that the town has enthusiastically embraced. As far as we’re concerned, this is a quiet revolution that has empowered and inspired a lot of people and has made a real difference to life in Stanford-le-Hope.

There were the detractors in the early days who said that we would be defeated by anti-social behaviour and vandalism. Sure, there were a few incidents but as the project has grown and word about what has been achieved has spread, vandalism is almost unheard of. That’s because people can see that the project is driven by volunteers from the community. That acts as a major deterrent. This is simply because that if any yob is reckless enough to commit an act of vandalism in Hardie Park, they’re answerable to the community who maintain and use the park. As such, there’s nowhere for the yobs to hide.

This is why we support any community project that brings people together, regardless of their backgrounds. At the end of the day, whoever we are and wherever we’re from, everyone wants to live in a neighbourhood where people look out for and care for each other. A neighbourhood that in an age of failing public services can provide networks of support for its more vulnerable members. A neighbourhood that’s making steps to take control of its food supply with community gardens/allotments, food buying groups and the like. A neighbourhood that once it gains a degree of self confidence about looking after itself, will start to ask some searching questions about power, who exercises it and how it has to be brought right down to the grassroots.

To conclude, as anarchists who believe that change will only come from the grassroots, we have a real stake in building community solidarity that will make our neighbourhoods feel safer. We totally reject the notion that there can be simplistic, authoritarian solutions to neighbourhood safety. The causes of anti-social behaviour and crime are complex and as such, the solutions have to be wide ranging and holistic.

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