Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Policing Behaviour

"Yes," said Oyarsa, "but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet)

There was a mother on BBC Radio Jersey talking about the Town Park, and how there were "intimidating" groups of teenagers who congregated there after school had finished, and how they were always swearing. This isn't the only place for people to comment on this - here is a comment from Frome, in the UK, which is almost an exact replica of the concerns, though the Jersey teenagers were not accused of drinking:

I AM getting increasingly concerned about how many hoodies and teenagers hang around Victoria Park, Frome, drinking alcohol and intimidating the younger children the park is designed for. It needs a resident park keeper and the council should sort this. When a friend of mine called the police regarding the under-age drinking they seemed uninterested. This park should ensure the safety of our children.

The language from these young people's mouths is disgusting. I want my children to feel safe and happy going to the park and getting their independence without the worry of these juveniles. The council should be monitoring parks for this kind of behaviour and the police should move these teenagers on. I know this is a concern for many parents.

And another comments on teenagers hanging around shops:

There are groups of teenagers that hang around outside shops. some are ok kids , some are little criminals in the making. Point is it can be very intimidating for people trying to go to the shop to buy groceries. it can also be intimidating for other kids who want to go the shop but are afraid of being bullied. It should not be tolerated and it is the parents fault, I will never allow my child to hang on street corners and if i caught her disobeying me and doing so she would be grounded. children should have proper activities to be doing in their spare time (cinema, sports, community work etc) and studying. It is up to parents to provide a proper lifestyle for their children and keep their children out of trouble.

A report on anti-social behaviour notes that:

Hanging about in parks and open spaces or on streets can seem harmless, but can cause other people to be frightened or intimidated. A group of people talking loudly or shouting can cause disturbance to residents, particularly if close to people's houses, and having to listen to people swearing can also be upsetting.

But another individual takes a different line:

When I was a teenager we wanted to hang out with each other and had nowhere to go, so we'd just congregate wherever. We never did anything wrong or got in the way, I don't see the problem.

I think the question is really whether the behaviour is intimidating in a positive sense. If the young people are swearing at other people, or coming up close to them deliberately, that is bullying behaviour.

But a large crowd of teenagers, perhaps with language salted with swear words, can seem intimidating even though the young people have no intention of being so, or of engaging with the people who find them intimidating: it is the psychological reaction of the person with a large, and perhaps noisy crowd, close to hand - and it is a reaction of fear. But the problem may lie more with the individual than the teenagers themselves. Is it really intimidation, or is it just perceived to be? After all, it is well known that many sailors in navies historically have a language well punctuated with swear words.

In a study "Inequality and the Steriotyping of Young People", Maurice Devlin considers how much of this may be steriotyping, and is a gut-reaction, and a false perception. He notes that:

When the topic of how they thought they were seen by adults at a local and community level was discussed, by far the most frequent and spontaneous response had to do with 'hassle' in public places, with high visibility because of being in groups, and with the tensions associated with 'hanging around' and being 'moved on'. This was also consistently linked with the fact that there was little else to do, or at least little else that was attractive and accessible.

While there definitely are troublemakers, it is important not to see all teenagers in the same way. The same study also has interviews with teenagers in Ireland, and here are a few of their comments:

Karen: .All of us get tarred with the same brush. You're a teenager, you hang around in a group, you must be a vandal.

Eamon: Everybody stares at you, there's no where to go like. As adults, they can go to the pub, they've more things to do with their time.We haven't. ..We're just knocking about and you can see us more, we're just kids. We don't have nowhere to go. Adults can hide but we can't. Whatever we want to do we have to do it outside

Susan: If they see us hanging around.but like there's nowhere else to go.they feel intimidated.they write into the local newspaper, but it's not our fault, we have [the youth club] once a week, there's six other nights, like, with nothing else to do but hang around. And we're not always doing bad stuff, we're hanging around, we may just be talking, but it's never seen as 'oh well they may be talking'.[It's] 'oh you're drunk, you're on drugs, you're smoking something, you're going to break into someone's house, you're intimidating

The study has interviews with a "focus group", in which participants frequently returned to the theme that since they enjoy spending time with their friends, in groups ('walking around in a gang, that's what it's all about'), and since there is often nowhere for them to go as a group, they are constantly placed in situations full of
potential for 'hassle' with adults:

Most young people were quite ready to agree that they do often make 'loads of noise' and engage in behaviour which might be seen by many adults as a nuisance, but they tended to think the response was disproportionate, and their accounts were often characterised by humour and irony.

Gary: Sometimes you might be, like at night time you might be making too much noise, like if they have children. But like sometimes it's 4 o'clock in the day.

Angela: It's because you're young. Like, what do they want you to do, sit at home all the time?

The fact that they seemed always to be perceived as trouble-makers (or potential trouble-makers) was very 'wide of the mark' to the young people.

Gemma: Like, you can understand it, but like nothing's going to happen to them. Nothing ever happens to old folk in [area]. If anything we'd probably be looking out like, if we seen anything wrong, anybody getting robbed or anything.

Michelle: Yeah, my own granny lives round here.

In one of the focus groups, a youth worker gave an example of how young people's behaviour, even when they are involved in 'legitimate' activities organised by youth groups and schools, with a community dimension and with adult supervision, can be a cause of tension when they move outdoors.

.It was going to be a community day and we were going to welcome people on stilts and give them flyers and take photographs on stilts. So we had the workshop over in the school two or three evenings during the week. Then [it came to] the first night they went out on stilts and there was great laughter and a bit of craic and excitement and people were falling over and diving and.next of all the police arrived on the scene and they got out and [said] 'Who's in charge here'? and I said 'I am' and he said 'Is everything alright?' and I said 'Yeah, grand' and he said 'It's just, we've had a call that there's been a lot of young people making noise'. And I said 'That's laughter, young people having fun'

Factors such as the facilities available, the nature of public space, the variety of options open to young people for places to meet, the extent to which they are engaged in formal education or in other structured pastimes, and the question of whether they can (and do) travel out of their own area to pursue such pastimes, all appear to be involved.

What it seems that people want some kind of embargo on unstructured meetings. There is a call for young people to "be doing something", and by that is meant either some charitable enterprise, or some structured activity. But that really tells us as much a about the desires of the people making the suggestion to control young people.

The forbidding of meetings of large numbers of people in public places was, for a time, the law in the UK. In 1819, Parliament passed the Six Acts, which allowed that any house could be searched, without a warrant, on suspicion of containing firearms, and public meetings were virtually forbidden. If people came together in crowds, there was a danger perceived by the authorities of riots, so a blanket ban on meetings was the answer. It was a disproportionate response, and one made from fear, and a desire to feel safe by controlling people's lives, and what they could and could not be free to do - including simply meeting together in a public place.

Control makes people feel safe, and that is why the suggestion is made that the parents should be controlling the children, or there should be structured activities which they should be taking part.

At the root may be fear, but it is often an irrational fear, like the fear of spiders. We know that some spiders are poisonous, and our body's primeval defense mechanisms are triggered when we see a spider - our ancestors came from an Africa where spiders were poisonous. But we have to overcome that, and fear of large numbers of young people is also something we have to be mindful of as often an irrational fear.

If they are breaking the law, then the authorities can be called upon; but in the meantime, perhaps a little introspection and mindfulness would be worthwhile. As a character says in one of C.S. Lewis books: " The darkness in your own mind filled you with fear." Perhaps before we look to the policing of young people's behaviour, we should consider the way in which our fears police our own behaviour.


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