Clubs and Street Corners: how London's youth are criminalised for using public space

Before the riots, young people growing up in poverty in London faced the threat of criminalisation. Now, living publicly in the city as a deprived young person practically amounts to criminal activity
Malcolm James
22 August 2011

For the last four years I have been conducting research with young people in and around two East London youth clubs. The youth clubs are based along the Thames corridor, east of the River Lea and west of the M25, in what was formerly London’s industrial heartland. The area is one of the most deprived in London. One youth club was run by the local Council and the other by a third sector provider. The youth clubs are respectively called Thameside and Leeside (not their real names). During my time there, I learned how young people are squeezed between a rock and a hard place when it comes to freely accessing public space.

Image: Evening Standard

Even before the riots, the streets were dangerous places for young people to be. Young people at Leeside talked of community support officers and police prowling the streets, assuming they were up to no good. 

The community support officer who came to Leeside was part of a local partnership initiate. He was there to liaise with young people, but his role outside the youth club did not make him a popular figure.

One evening, as we were standing in the back-lobby of the youth club, he justified his role to me through stories of moving young people on from street corners and stairwells. They were not actually causing trouble, he told me; rather, they were thinking about it. Like the two young men who recently received four-year sentences for imagining civil disobedience on Facebook, the young people I worked with, by virtue of interacting in public space, were criminalised before they had done anything wrong. 

If you’re aged between 12 and 21 it’s this threat of criminalisation that is the real urban terror. Cameron’s backing of ‘gang injunctions’ – court orders that ban groups of young people (gangs) from certain geographical areas –will criminalise innocent working-class urban young people for associating with friends in one of the only public spaces available to them.

If the street is the rock, what about the hard place?  Criminalised on the streets, you might expect young people to turn to the youth clubs. But unfortunately young people are criminalised in youth clubs too. The youth clubs I worked in are very much part of the criminal justice agenda; their existence justified, in part, by claiming to keep Cameron’s ‘criminals’ off the streets. The Council’s Thameside youth club was more susceptible to local politics than Leeside and opening hours shifted with the latest youth threat. If local police intelligence said there was trouble between 9.00pm and 9.45pm outside the ASDA, for example, then opening hours changed accordingly. To fund extended opening hours for youth clubs, after-school provision was cut.

But extending club opening hours is now a luxury we can’t afford. I knew the cuts had really bitten when a colleague working at Leeside youth club brought in his own pool cue so young people could play.

As a third sector provider, Leeside was hit harder and more quickly by cuts in local funding, than the more financially stable Council-run ventures. As money for resources and staff dried up at Leeside, rather than engage in the quality youth work my colleagues did so well, they resorted to monitoring space; ensuring basic rules were not broken. Basic rules included things like no football inside, no fighting and no breaking youth club property.

In more prosperous times these rules kept themselves, but as the ratio between resources and young people skewed they needed to be constantly monitored. This form of youth work was more akin to spatial policing than the processes of building trust, conversations and positive activities I had come to expect.

Local partnership working had long since ensured an almost nightly police presence at Leeside youth club. As the cuts took hold relationships between young people and staff started to breakdown and the police were increasingly viewed as allies in maintaining order.  The moral authority of youth work gave way to the physical authority of the police. The youth club has become a place of policing in all senses and consequently a site of criminalisation.

At Leeside, I have seen police drinking their tea while conducting surveillance. They stood outside while twenty young people played in front of them. As they watched the young people climbing through the smaller apertures of the climbing frame, they openly discussed who might have been responsible for a spate of local burglaries. A young man of particular interest had already been asked to appear in a police line-up. He hadn’t been convicted yet, but his dexterity on the climbing frame seemed to make it increasingly likely.

Urban young people are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to accessing public space free of criminalisation. The cuts have led to the increasing involvement of the police in youth clubs, while the post-riot hysteria has heightened the risk of standing on street corners. If living publicly in the city was dangerous before, now it practically amounts to criminal activity. But with tarmac outside their homes, not rolling fields, urban young people have little alternative. So, we can still expect to see young people occupying the street. The least we can do is not criminalise them for it.

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