I hadn’t really paid much attention to the signs on lamp-posts in the streets off Sheffield’s Abbeydale Road. Ok, so they were bilingual, and seemed to be encouraging people not to commit crime. Is that such a big deal?
Later that day I went for a walk up towards leafy Nether Edge, which most people agree is one of the nicer parts of Sheffield. Rounding a street corner I came across a group of lads in the road, some with a ball and others wheeling round on bikes. Let’s say that they all had skin darker than mine. Suddenly two of the youngest started coming towards me, shouting something like “what do you mean?”, though in honesty I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It certainly wasn’t “Welcome to our neighbourhood”.
The two oldest ones moved towards me, staring and looking puzzled. Perhaps any puzzlement came from the fact that I was smiling benignly at them – after, all, they were chanting “Asbo, Asbo!” and at first I (rather stupidly) thought they were making fun of me for being a likely offender. In fact, I probably wasn’t thinking entirely clearly because I was just a bit worried.
Anyway, without dramatising further, I checked where my phone was and carried on, with just a small look over my shoulder. And then, to my shame, chose a different route back. It was only when I got back to where I was staying and saw another poster on a lamp-post that I began to understand.
This time the message was all about the way that the local police and other authorities were now permitted to disperse groups of more than eight young people, and to force them to return to their home address. So maybe the lads had seen me in my blue short-sleeved shirt, and with an armband that in reality was an elbow support for tendonitis, and assumed or feared that I was some kind of official.
Whether or not that was the case, they certainly saw me as someone to be provoked and teased. It may, of course, have happened in any case. But I couldn’t help wondering if the official hard line was not having the effect of making people more intent on trouble. When Asbos were first introduced it was soon realised that one of the unintended consequences was that youths began to see them as a badge of honour. This reaction in Sheffield seemed to me to be the same kind of thing.
And of course, the other point which came out for me was to feel – for the first time, as it happens, ever so much aware of what it feels like to be part of a minority group, and to have insults or vague threats shouted at you in the street. Nervous; rather humilated; and generally shaken up. Sheffield is generally held up as a model for successful racial harmony. I hope it stays that way.