Meeting the Public

On Tuesday there was a public meeting to discuss some problems in Wapping Woods. There have been instances of mugging and knife crime there lately, so a meeting was called to ‘reassure’ the public. I went, not because I feel unsafe in Wapping, but because I am new to the area and wanted to get a better sense of the neighborhood.

The meeting was lively. I was reminded of the scene in ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ where the toffs are all presenting entertainments for an Oddfellows Hall meeting in the East End and through a contrivance of circumstances, all end up singing the same song. At our meeting, the police, members of the council, mayor, and housing association were up singing ‘Sonny Boy’ one more time. And in true Wodehousean tradition, the audience was not going to put up with it. This was indeed a vibrant public forum and some people were there to get their voices heard (though not necessarily to listen to the voices of others.)

Personally I’m not a fan of that kind of abrasive dialogue. It makes me uncomfortable. Much more uncomfortable than I’ve ever felt walking around in Wapping Woods. The police, who were chairing the meeting, certainly had their job cut out for them in keeping the peace at the meeting itself. However, I was cheered by how many people were there. I thought it showed a real sense of involvement with and care for Wapping, even if people disagreed on what forms that should take.

Principally what I took from that meeting is that people are intimidated by groups of restless young men. I know I certainly am. This is not, it seems to me, a new problem, nor is it unique to Wapping: think of the ancient tradition of wassailing I discussed in my last post, a practice which explicitly threatens riotousness unless the wassailers are appeased with food and drink. I presented it in a flippant way, but there is a darkness in that particular tradition which speaks to an ongoing fear of certain types of behavior which can be affiliated with a perceived dangerous masculinity.

I do not want to belittle anyone’s individual negative experiences of intimidation or violence in public spaces. And it is very clear from the tenor of the meeting that there are a lot of people concerned about this in my neighborhood right now. But I also believe that this perception or expectation is the tinder that can ultimately create an atmosphere of needless suspicion and fear of public spaces. The worst thing would be to allow a fear of encountering certain kinds of behavior in a public space prevent me from actually using that space. Especially since statistics do bear out that crime in this area is not high, with the vast majority of offences being anti-social behaviour in the most recent month for which statistics are available.

In fact, the very worst thing would be to allow the fear of encountering certain kinds of behavior prejudice me towards people (which I have already admitted above that I have done). It is all to easy to move from the perception that groups of young men who are rowdy, drinking and smashing up bottles are intimidating into the perception that all groups of young men are intimidating, no matter what they are doing. Should they be banished from public spaces merely for being young men? That’s as bad as being told to avoid those places because there might be dangerous young men lurking there. Nobody at the public meeting gave this as advice, but several people said they WERE avoiding certain public spaces for that reason, or that ‘as a woman’ they were afraid to walk in certain areas. I don’t share these fears, by the way–whenever I walk through those areas there are always plenty of other people jogging, walking dogs, biking, and pushing prams.

I believe that every individual has the right to be without fear in every public space, like Wapping Woods, at any hour of the day or night. This is a conviction that I act upon. I am not saying that people should behave incautiously. But I am saying that I don’t want to let fear rule my life.