Helen Wilkie shares her thoughts on the recent Dispersal Orders in place in the city centre, local reporting on young people, and how she managed to hear their side of the story…
It is rare these days that I find myself agreeing with the Liverpool Echo’s political editor, but when he tweeted “[the] Pier Head in the sunshine is one of my favourite places” I thought we were on the same page. That is, until I opened his article and instead of a balanced account of unfortunate, isolated incidents of antisocial behaviour in one of the most vibrant areas of the city centre, I found the third article in four days about “gangs” intimidating and harassing people at our majestic waterfront (on the Saturday they had a day off and reported about the “gangs” harassing people in Formby).
To give Liam Thorp credit, instead of merely copy and pasting word-for-word one of the statements on the police’s website, he had actually attempted to do a little journalism. Sadly- rather than walk the few hundred metres from the Echo office to the waterfront itself- Liam went to that most reliable and rational of sources, Facebook. Our intrepid Political Editor and “02[sic] Reporter of the Year” (2019, North West region) flexed his keyboard skills and informed his readership that “one reader said she had witnessed people ‘setting fire to bins,’ ‘surrounding cars and trying to intimidate drivers’ as well as people ‘throwing half bricks’ at dog walkers.” I imagine he poured himself a well-deserved craft ale after such skilled exertions.
I’d been at the Pier Head myself that weekend, so I was puzzled by these accounts as the atmosphere had been so positive. If you haven’t been there recently yourself, I can’t recommend it enough. When lockdown restrictions eased, but businesses remained closed, groups started to tentatively trickle back to the plaza in front of the Three Graces to exercise and socialise.
As the weather improved and students returned, it has become a thriving and inclusive centre of activity. On any given day you can see skateboarders, roller-skaters, BMX bikes, e-scooters, fixie stunt cyclists, parkour, and a game of keepy-uppy. There are little kids with their parents and skaters even older than Tony Hawk. You see people dressed in fishnets with band t-shirts or hijabs with Converse. Some show off their incredible talents such as the ket-wig doing a wheelie- in socks and sliders- with his front wheel completely removed, and others are taught basic skills by their friends. It is endlessly entertaining to sit and watch, but it is also heart-warming. The city centre has long been a place where you had to spend money to enjoy. It’s now a place where you can just hang out and be yourself.
Now, I am not a journalist but I know one of the basic principles is to check your sources, both to avoid printing fake news and to not embarrass yourself. As well as being poorly researched, the glut of lazy stories from the Echo were incredibly one sided and no attempt was made to speak to the people affected by the police’s decision to enforce a dispersal order on the Mann Island area and other parts of the city centre. But I’m biased too, I’m not a fan of the Echo or the Police so I decided to do a bit of digging for information myself.
My first thought was to contact the recently elected Police & Crime Commissioner about the decision to enforce a Dispersal Order on the whole of the city centre for that weekend. After all, I wasn’t reporting a crime and according to her website Emily Spurrell “is accountable for how crime and community safety issues are addressed throughout the region”. However, the person who answered the phone was resolute that this was not their job at all, and I should contact the police directly. Seemed a bit of a waste of their time to me, and left me no wiser as to what the point of a Police & Crime Commissioner and her staff of 22 actually do, but I digress. I did as they said and called 101. A sergeant got back to me the next day.
The sergeant was amiable and didn’t seem concerned that the Dispersal Order was a heavy handed or unfair measure. He himself had issued three notices on the Sunday afternoon and informed me seven in total were issued over the course of one weekend. Those on the Sunday afternoon came about because “larger groups were gathering by the residential premises” (the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 itself reminds police to respect the human rights of freedom of expression and assembly).
He mentioned problems with knife point robberies in other parts of the city centre and gave me two examples of young people being threatened at the Pier Head, who were chased and able to find safety in nearby businesses. However, his inbox was full of complaints from residents of Mann Island. I asked how he could be sure these weren’t vexatious but to enforce the Dispersal Zone “we only have to show that people are being harassed, alarmed or distressed”. Possibly anticipating my next question, he then said, “we’re not private security for Mann Island” (where you can rent a flat for between £700 and £1980 a month).
Nonetheless, this weekend saw yet another Dispersal Order and Labour councillor for the city centre Nick Small has been enthusiastically defending it on Twitter on several fronts. Firstly on behalf of the wealthy Mann Island residents who are “scared to leave their flats”, secondly in the name of social distancing (though his pinned tweet shows him grabbing a cosy photo opportunity in a crowd at the recent Pride march) and lastly and most cringeworthily, because of the threat of an obviously fake “anti-goth march” that had appeared on social media. You could argue Liverpool’s less fun version of Principal Skinner is looking after his constituents, but the Pier Head is for everyone, no matter what your postcode is or if you’re old enough to vote.
I wonder if the area was occupied exclusively by middle aged, middle class people that a Dispersal Order would have been considered at all? These measures are nothing but a reinforcement of the centuries old demonisation of young people and the working classes. The young people have nowhere to go to enjoy and express themselves and criminalising them certainly is not the way forward.
So, what do the people who are using the Pier Head think? Now I get it, young people are weird and scary and probably want to stab us all if the implementation of Dispersal Orders are anything to go by. Ever since I found out what cheugy meant I’ve felt personally attacked by Generation Z. But seeing as the Echo’s journalists weren’t going to tell me, I fearlessly approached some on a recent Sunday afternoon and asked if they’ve ever had any bother.
The first teenage lad I stopped told me he came here regularly and had never seen any trouble. “Everyone’s really friendly. If you wanted, you’d find someone to give you tips.” Tips? Did he think I wanted to join in the skating? Is this… acceptance? Buoyed with self-confidence I approached another group of young men and women skateboarders and asked if the Echo’s perception of the area matched their own. “I’m sick of the Echo always reporting negativity” I was told. “There’s hardly any trouble here, maybe a few scallies at the weekend but they just want to kick a ball around. Mostly we get a positive reaction, people wanting to take photos. Other cities encourage this; look at the Southbank in London and MACBA in Barcelona. Where else in Liverpool can you skate in a setting like this?” They were sat alongside the canal, facing the Liver Buildings with the sun setting on the Mersey over their shoulders. Why would they want to be anywhere else?
From what I can tell, the Pier Head hasn’t gotten any less busy since the Dispersal Orders so you might ask, where’s the harm? But the Echo headlines will no doubt make worried parents think twice about letting their children have the amazing experience of hanging out there with their friends. With such relentless and sensationalised headlines, you can’t blame people for thinking the waterfront is now a crime-ridden no-go area. There will be young people whose first encounter with the police will be a needlessly antagonistic one. And yet again, a minority of wealthy residents who chose to live in the heart of the city centre can rely on the police and politicians to alter the way the rest of us use our shared public spaces.
I urge everyone to spend some time at the Pier Head soon. Enjoy the atmosphere. Learn some parkour. Watch the ferry sail off into the sunset. Remind yourself that the Echo is full of shit and piss off some rich yuppies. That public space is yours as much as anybody else’s.
Photo Credit: @dideyeshutter INSTAGRAM