Anger after violent youth deaths
Communities under pressure need public services - not council cuts
Martin Powell-Davies, Secretary, Lewisham National Union of Teachers
Hundreds of angry residents packed into the Honor Oak Community Centre on 1 October to discuss the recent violent deaths of two teenagers on the Turnham estate in Lewisham, south London.
There was plenty of emotion on display, as well as anger - anger at the loss of life, at the lack of support for the family of local victim Shaquan, and at the pressures facing the local community as a whole.
Many different contributions were made from both invited speakers and from people in the audience. Concerns about racism and about knife-crime among black youth in particular featured significantly throughout the evening.
Lee Jasper, opening the meeting, pointed to the racism still ingrained in our society evidenced by the disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment facing black communities.
The mother of a black teenager shot at Streatham Ice Rink back in 2007 talked tearfully of the wasted lives of both the victims and the youth behind bars facing indeterminate sentences for 'joint enterprise'.
A common theme raised was the decline in 'social solidarity', in opportunities for communities to work together, of the need for fathers to engage with their sons. However, some of the most powerful contributions focused on the collective pressures on families struggling to make a living and to support their children while services were cut and real incomes were falling.
A young man, Marlon, delivered an angry diatribe to the local politicians on the panel, pointing to the cuts to Sure Start, Connexions and youth services. He complained about 'gentrification' and plans to build more housing on the estate, supposedly social housing but, as a young woman behind me shouted out, "it's not affordable!"
A young woman speaking on behalf of Shaquan's mother Sharon, pointed to the reality facing so many working parents, not least Sharon herself.
Sharon hadn't been able to stop to grieve; she had no choice but to carry on working at her local hairdressers to pay her rent. This is an estate where most people are in work, but where too many have to rely on food banks because of low pay.
Turning to Lewisham cabinet member Janet Daby, who had offered little more than the need to 'give youth wisdom' and the importance of 'Operation Black Vote', the young woman said pointedly: "Why should we vote, when we don't trust you?" adding, "why should youth talk to the police when they don't trust them either?"
Alienated and angry communities like this urgently need a party that can earn their trust by showing that it is genuinely prepared to fight poverty and racism. Such a party would refuse to carry out Tory cuts, fight for a £10 an hour minimum wage and end the housing policies that are leading to the 'social cleansing' of working class communities across London.
Will a Corbyn-led Labour provide that party? As things stand locally, it appears not. Councillors offered condolences and fine words but little more.
Newly-elected local Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft offered even less, replying to the young residents with the excuse that "the political reality is that it's the Conservative government's cuts". That was met with shouts of derision and the MP sat down silently for the rest of the meeting.
A Lewisham council officer had earlier spoken to the meeting about what the council was doing to help with 'crime reduction'. Yet, as part of the £40 million of cuts made last year, Lewisham council chopped £1 million from its crime reduction budget!
Worse, its report on one of those cuts spelt out bluntly what such a cut would mean to black youth in particular: "As young men from black and minority ethnic communities are over represented in the criminal justice system the impact there is likely to be increased."
Not surprisingly, the officer also didn't reveal the further 'savings proposal' to her service discussed at the previous night's Mayor and cabinet meeting. It suggested a further £2.5 million cut in the 'Crime Reduction and Supporting People' budget that will mean "reduced support for mental health, learning disability and single homeless clients" which might lead to "a rise in anti-social behaviour on the streets". Their words, not mine!
That's just one cut among a further £45 million planned over the next two years - from a council budget that has already been slashed by £120 million (one-third) since 2010. That could include £300,000 further cuts to youth services.
However, it's clear that trade unionists and communities are getting prepared to fight those cuts. A lobby of the next Mayor and cabinet meeting discussing the budget, on 9 December, is being planned.
Fight the cuts
I hope the anger shown at the meeting sent the politicians who attended home to think again about their role in passing on Tory cuts.
Labour councillors can't claim to stand against racism and poverty while they preside over cuts to communities that already have their backs to the wall.
As the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the Socialist Party have explained, Labour councillors could choose to lead a fight, instead of just meekly passing on cuts. If they did, they would get massive support - including from embittered and embattled communities like those on the Turnham estate.
Until 2010 the area was represented by Socialist Party councillors who voted against cuts and would have helped local people organise a campaign to fight for the resources necessary. TUSC reps have now written to the local councillors to open up a discussion about a needs budget for Lewisham.
Former Honor Oak (Telegraph Hill ward) Socialist Party councillor Chris Flood said:
"Ian Page (fellow Socialist Party councillor) and I got to know Sharon (the victim's mother) as we did some case work for her after the council had overcharged her for leasing her shop. Cheryl McLeod (TUSC candidate) and I went to see her after her son had been killed.
The Labour administration has axed many important local services that have helped to reduce crime, especially youth crime, in our inner cities.
Our councillors should be fighting and resisting these cuts to key services that hold communities together, instead of passing the government cuts on to poor communities and saying there is nothing they can do.
Jeremy (Corbyn) - you will have to go over the heads of some of these politicians who, unlike you, don't see a need to resist austerity. Work, I say, directly with the communities, like the residents of the Honor Oak estate, that are desperate to fight for their communities and oppose austerity."
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