We have mentioned before the importance of areas for alternative teenagers to hang out in and the tendency for authorities to try and harass and destroy this. A perfect example of this is the College Green saga in Bristol where this summer the Council imposed a group dispersal order arousing much protest from local goths, emos and skaters. On Saturday 21st July, a protest took place against the dispersal order and around 80 people attended.
Sensible questions were asked by those affected by the order. An example is this letter sent to the Bristol Evening Post by 14 year old Ellie Vowles which sums up the importance of the area for those who use it:
My friends and I do nothing wrong. We cause no trouble. We are generally peaceful, don't drink and don't do drugs or bother people, just like most of the others who go to the area. We are really quite a close community in many ways. Its only a small minority that cause problems and some people go to the green just to pick on those who look different. I do hope that the order itself wont be used to pick on young people who look different too. Lets remember that drinking, drug taking and violence are a regular problem inside and outside of the pubs and clubs in Bristol every weekend and that these are certainly not problems caused by 'skateboarders, goths, grungers and emos'.
There has been and always will be people who are different and look different who want to gather to meet in groups. Because they are identifiably different - say they are black, or gay, or disabled or scarred by accident or have long hair, flares and flowers in their hair, or like to wear black and dye their hair red, or whatever - should not mean that they can be moved on just because they gather in a place. Generally, people should be allowed to be themselves, no matter what people say, though they may be feared, often due to ignorance and misunderstanding. There aren't many safe places, like College Green with its CCTV, in central Bristol for young people to gather and meet.
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Then Bristol West’s Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams pitched in at the end of July with a statement in parliament no less (that was badly misquoted in The Cancer). He told the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, Beverley Hughes in response to her announcement of a 10 year ‘Aim Higher’ strategy for young people:
“I hope that the statement is the welcome start of a departure from some of the language of the Tony Blair era, namely the language of marching children to cash points, the language of dealing with feral youth and the the language of imposing dispersal orders on young people, such as the fatuous dispersal order imposed on skateboarders in my constituency this week.”
Ms Hughes weakly responded: “Many young people suffer from such [anti-social] behaviour and we need to protect them and demonstrate to them that they are part of our consideration.”
Even the local Radical Hisory Sociey got involved having a demo raising some interesting parallels with earlier events:
This summer the police without warning served a 'dispersal order' on College Green and the surrounding area for the period of the school holidays. The order means that if two or more people gather together then, they can be moved on by the Police. Ostensibly, the order was aimed at the skateboarders and other youth who have customarily gathered on College Green for many years. No reasons were given initially for the order, but we can imagine that the effect on tourism would have been sited  (College Green is a an historic site, with the Cathedral, Council House etc.) along with the usual complaints of the wealthy and powerful Clifton 'mafia'.
The youth reacted in style with a demonstration or two and an active media campaign protesting against the order . The authorities seemed unable to come up with the real reasons for their actions, except a feeble media campaign which vaguely referred to fighting and drug use. Even a Bristol MP  advised the Police to talk to people first before imposing such orders, but they didn't appear to be in the mood to debate with the Bristolians using the area!
We wuz robbed!
If they had engaged in a debate, then the authorities would have found out some important facts. Namely that there was serious resentment already amongst the skateboard community because of the cynical last minute rejection by the Council of the fully-funded plan for a skateboard park next to Castle Park. Of course, within months the whole area had been handed over to property developers . The skateboarders were thus resigned to staying at College Green. That was until the authorities decided to remove that public space as well, by serving the dispersal order.
Despite the current media climate of viewing many young people as 'scum' (or even wanting to 'hug' them), no one is pointing out that they are Citizens like anyone else. Citizens have the right to go into the centre of their city, full stop. The authorities are trying to impede them and their right to free movement. This is wrong. If people commit a crime then the Police can arrest them, but these exclusion orders are a different kettle of fish. They criminalize our citizens and create division, fear and distrust. As one skateboarder put it 'if skateboarding is anti-social, they would have to put dispersal orders everywhere' . It may not be too far into the future that this might be the case.
The history of Brandon Hill gives us an understanding of the use of legal and physical means to control and modify public space in our cities. The lessons are clear, if the customary practices of the population can be impeded or stopped then they will lose their cultural power over the spaces they inhabit. We only have to look at the sanitised and 'class' cleansed park that Brandon Hill has become to see that. There are, however, echoes of the historical resistance of the Brandon Hill mob and the Chartists amongst the Bristol Citizens that are fighting to keep College Green open to all.