Monday, May 03, 2010

"The Heroes of Balsall Heath"

I hadn't noticed that "the role of the state has been one of the key dividing lines in this election", but the BBC have, and in this context interviewed Michael Gove, Tory Shadow Schools Secretary, on the "Big Society".

Explaining the idea to Today presenter Evan Davis, he said the crux of the issue was for public services to stop doing things "in a beaurocratic pattern" (sic) and instead to act in a way "which fits with the needs of the people they serve".

"There is already a model that we have developed in opposition, that we can apply in government, that brings individuals together, that is respectful of autonomy and diversity, and also harnesses... the idealism of volunteers," he says.

Gove talked about a 'Big Society Bank', whose cash would be disgorged to support community projects, run by a partnership of government, local authorities, and the 'third sector' - charities and other NGOs. Sounds pretty much like what happens at the moment, doesn't it ? And you can see what a difference that makes. There are far more pro-criminal charities getting taxpayer cash than pro-victim ones, for example. When Government cash heads for the 'third sector' you'll find it's funding vital initiatives like Age Concern's battle against homophobia - a subject that never fails to come up when an elder is talking.

The trouble is that many of the projects that citizens would come up with, left to their own devices, would be considered by government, local authorities and 'the third sector' to be vigilantism. And we can't have that (nor would we need to in a society where the law protected the law-abiding). Remember 'the people have spoken, the bastards' ?

Evan Davis was (rightfully IMHO) cynical about the whole thing, continually pressing for examples. Gove, towards the end of the interview, supplied one when talking about a proposed 'Big Society Day'.

".. there are an army of volunteers out there, many of whose efforts are transforming our society, and many more of whom we want to enlist in changing society for the better - and I think it's a good thing if government chooses to celebrate, those people who, for example, devote themselves to helping the homeless, who devote themselves to dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, to those who are making a difference on the ground. If you have an institution like the group of people who transformed Balsall Heath in Birmingham, a group of citizen volunteers, who've taken an area that was polluted by prostitution, that was scarred by drug addiction, that faced underdevelopment and deprivation - and those individuals, by their own efforts, working in partnership with Birmingham Council - they've transformed Balsall Heath for the better - now, I'm talking about that part of Birmingham on the Radio 4 Today programme for the first time, because Today, and the press generally, always tend to look at Government initiatives, they always tend to say 'how can we spend more State money ?'. What they rarely do is celebrate the power of civil society to transform our lives. Now I believe that Government, if we have a change of government, can do that, and the heroes of Balsall Heath can have their achievement celebrated on the Today programme, and the heroines of Birkenshaw and Gomersall , the mums and dads who want a transformed education system, they too can have their moment instead of being marginalised".
Gove is talking about the 1994 campaign I covered here :

At the height of the picket, Amin had 500 people on the streets every night, armed with notebooks to take down the numberplates of kerbcrawlers and posters which warned, 'Your wife will get to hear of this.'

'The Muslim community had the will-power, the determination and the cohesion to act,' says Ward. The Christian community was split over the need to be compassionate towards the prostitutes' problems, an approach which baffles and infuriates the Muslims. As a result, Ward was the only clergyman to give the campaign his backing.

Meanwhile, the police were watching the pickets with concern. 'We were afraid of a backlash from the pimps,' says community liaison officer Sergeant Steven Bruton. 'We thought any day one might wind down his car window and blast away at the pickets with a gun. We were afraid the prostitutes might get assaulted. And we were afraid there might be riots. When it first started, the picket attracted a lot of people from all over. We thought the hotheads might have a go.'

In spite of a few allegations of assault, threats from the pimps and accusations from a group of liberal feminists, these fears did not materialize. 'The people involved were decent, God-fearing people,' explains Bruton.
The heroes of Balsall Heath inspired the heroes of Lumb Lane, Bradford a year later. I remember it both because I knew the area well and because a female friend had her car stoned as she drove past the end of Lumb Lane :

On the edge of Bradford's red-light district, in a dimly lit Indian restaurant, sit two scared prostitutes. They shake, smoke and drink coffee. Sally and Fran have just been chased from their regular spot on Lumb Lane, north of the city centre, by a car of masked youths which hurtled towards them, almost knocking them from the pavement. The driver warned them to "stay away"...

But while the action has ostensibly been modelled on a similar campaign in Birmingham's Balsall Heath, where prostitution was beaten by peaceful picketing, the scenes here are more menacing. Punters have been stoned and prostitutes have been picked up and physically carried from the area. Some "vigilantes" have been threatened by pimps waving sawn-off shotguns.

The self-appointed guardians retaliated by hospitalising a prostitute's boyfriend who had spoken out on local TV. ("Let's just say he was a bit lippy, so a few of us did him over," grins an Asian youth.) Last week there was a firebomb attack on a cafe used by local prostitutes. Police are struggling to control all sides, but pleasing none...

From 8pm each evening, up to 100 local vigilantes from a pool of 500 are out in force and stay into the early hours. Most noticeable are the youths. They patrol in boisterous packs, clad in baggy jeans, big trainers and bomber jackets, often wearing bandanas as masks.

Typical of these is Abdul - not his real name - a bright-eyed, highly charged A-level student. "We've had guns, baseball bats and knives put to our heads by pimps," he says. "Our mums can't sleep at night - mums have that sort of mentality, they're weaker-hearted - but someone has to do it. The vice squad won't ever stop prostitution because they'd do themselves out of a job. In six weeks we've turned Lumb Lane from the M1 into a minor road. Now we're guarding our territory. We'll stay out until everyone knows this is no red-light district any more."...

So far, only one vigilante has been arrested for breach of the peace. "We're desperately trying not to make martyrs out of this. The last thing we need is a folk hero."

According to Corkindale, Lumb Lane could end up paving the way for other red-light communities. "If they succeed in clearing it, they want to go to the media and call on residents from other cities to come up, have a chat, look around, and who can blame them?"

The police were afraid of a riot in Balsall Heath. They didn't want to make martyrs in Bradford. As a correspondent to the T&A noted six years later, "the unchecked vigilantism of the Lumb Lane era was re-visited ... in subsequent Manningham Riots when Asian youth realised the power they had to control the streets."

While the urge of the Muslims to clean up their streets (although, as one prostitute remarked, 'we were here first') was understandable, there can be no doubt that a similar campaign by white Christians would have encountered both the full weight of the law and the full weight of liberal opinion, amplified in the liberal media feedback loop to one long howl of outrage. The Stroppy's and the Harpies of this world would have been apoplectic. There'd have been nightly reports on the news, and doubtless students would have been on the streets in sympathy. "We are all Tartacus!"

I don't know whether Gove is making a nod to Muslim voters or whether he's just ill-informed. But his heroic Balsall Heath Irregulars are exemplars to one (faith) community only. The chance of any such effective action by Christians passed thirty years or more ago, around the time of the Festival of Light marches (we picketed the one in Manningham Park as 'the Festival of Life', mea maxima culpa). They learned much too late that reasoned arguments (all to be proved correct) weren't the way to respect from their ideological enemies. As Duff Cooper would have said, they believed in addressing them through the language of sweet reasonableness, when they were more open to the language of the mailed fist.