Making Streets Safe to Walk On

Earlier this week, around 5, 000 people turned out at a silent walk in Govanhill to draw attention to a number of violent sexual offenses .  Toryglen, Govanhill, the West End, City Centre and Giffnock have all seen violent sexual assaults in the few weeks.  In the tradition of “Reclaim the Night” the walk was organised at midnight by a couple of local young women, afterward a few lit candles and dispersed silently into the night.  There is clearly concern about personal safety: particularly for women and particularly in Govanhill, but how do enhance safety on the streets.

For those unfamiliar with the area, Govanhill possesses a faded grandeur.  The iron gates of Victoria Park; the gorgeous Victorian tenements sitting opposite; the  baroque library, not to mention the Govanhill baths, the site of a major community struggle at the turn of the century, are all reminders of Glasgow’s status as the Second City of Empire.  At the same time, it has been – almost since its inception – a melting pot for immigrants to Glasgow.

The first to be attracted to the low rents and well paid work available in the area were refugees from the later stages of the clearances –  Highland and Lowland Scots forced out of their traditional farming lifestyles seeking work in the major urban centres of the Central Belt and Northern England.  They were quickly followed  by the Irish seeking new lives in the aftermath of the Great Famine.  As anti-semitism rose in continental Europe, Jews from Eastern Europe discovered Govanhill and stayed, quickly followed by Italians fleeing  from rising fascism.   In the 1960s, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis moved into the area, while the most recent wave of immigration has seen the establishment of a substantial African community, as well as Eastern European communities including Polish, Bulgarian and Roma newcomers.  With 20% of the population from minority ethnic groups, it is one of the most diverse places in Scotland.

In the aftermath of the rape in Govanhill, broader questions were asked about safety and security in the area, with many women in particular stating that they were more afraid on the streets now than in the past.  A rape in the area – part of a series across Glasgow – merely enhancing the uneasiness they already felt.  The question is what is to done to ensure the safety and security of the local population.

The kneejerk reaction is to blame the latest wave of immigrants (in this case Roma) or alternatively the current official scapegoats (Muslims), yet despite the structural racism of the media the few racists that sought to exploit this event got short shrift.  People in Govanhill are rightly proud of their area and concerned to see it decline, but diversity and tolerence is part of what makes Govanhill such a special place: attacking that diversity is an attack on the very nature of Govanhill itself.

The main calls appeared to be for greater CCTV surveillence in the area and more bobbies on the beat, an understandable enough reaction to a feeling of insecurity and lack of safety.  But CCTV is not the answer the answer to sexual assault.  Being back in Glasgow after living in Greece where CCTV is very rare, has made me hyper-aware of the cameras that track me daily.  Suddenly I find my self on dozens of cameras daily as I go about my business, never knowing who may be watching me, and a visible police presence makes me feel uneasy and at risk.

A study by Norris and Armstrong, found that youths and Black men were the most likely to find themselves under active CCTV surveillance, usually for no particular reason, other than a vague sense of “must be up to no good”. Women were far less likely to actively watched, which reassures me somewhat, but as those who wish for greater CCTV activity, it is worth noting that in over 600 hours of surveillence that the researchers watched, only one incident involved a “protective gaze” of a woman at a cashpoint. In contrast around 15% of all operator initiated surveillance of women was for voyeuristic reasons, zooming in on women’s thighs and cleavage.  Encounters which took place in a local “lovers lane”, were compiled into a “greatest hits” tape of CCTV pornography, replayed for entertainment.

One incident, which they cover extensively in the paper, involves a (blonde, attractive woman) having a public disagreement with her partner and refusing to get in his car.  In the 25 minutes of the footage, the man grabs her arm then punches her. The CCTV main operators provide commentary on the incident, while other operators join in to observe the scene unfolding, cheering and booing in reaction to events.  Eventually the man persuades the woman that he punched earlier to get in the car and they drive off as the six men watch, the entertainment over.  No police were contacted.

This creepy voyeurism and lack of reaction to incidents of male violence suggest that CCTV will not only not make women safer, but sets them up as entertainment, even when crimes are committed against them.  The demand for greater police also seems like a logical demand in reaction to insecurity, but that works on a reactive principle  - that there are “bad guys” out there, who must be caught and punished.   But the issue of sexual violence is far larger than just the occasional bad apple.  Street attacks occur in context where studies show that 1 in 20 men will commit rape, yet 98.4% of rapes never result in the conviction of the perpetrator.  The issue of sexual violence is structural and addressing those structural issues is key to building safety.

It is women in particular that tend to avoid walking on the streets alone at night, preferring to get taxis once the last bus has departed. Women are encouraged to get taxis, to make travel arrangements in advance, to be escorted in public, and indeed those who do not are considered irresponsible, despite this very pressure being exploited by sexual preditors to gain access to victims.  I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve had to deal with well meaning aquaintances urging me not to walk home alone, but instead get a taxi, offering an escort home or encouraging me to take up another man’s offer.

This isnt a new problem.  The Victorian feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilmore faced the same.  On announcing that she was walking home from a party one evening, a man offered to escort her home impressing on her that he was her “natural protector”.  She responded that what was there to fear on the streets at night except her “natural protector”, asserting that “it is not a woman’s right, but a woman’s duty to walk alone at night.”

In a very positive development in response to the “These Streets are Made for Walking” Wise Women are organising free self-defense classes for women across Glasgow.   There were a few mutterings about this being women only, with a few men noting that they too felt that they could do with self-defense classes, and indeed although I think that self-defense for women is a priority, workshops on safety aimed at men would also be a positive development.  In addition to teaching self-defense, dismantling rape culture is a key part of ensuring women’s safety. Ensuring that men feel confident challenging other men when they tell rape jokes, creep on women or act in a predatory manner, and realising that they themselves can take actions to lessen fear in women on the streets – not invading their personal space, or starting at them intently.

Finally, cultural issues need to be addressed head on.  Govanhill is a remarkably diverse community in Scotland, and different cultures bring different norms.  On the continent men kissing women on both cheeks in greeting is common enough, but to me, from my cultural background, it seems invasive.  On the other hand, a man offering a handshake to a woman in Egypt can be considered quite forward. Misunderstandings around cultural norms can leave people feeling uneasy, exacerbating existing feelings of insecurity and unease.  Whenever a community changes its composition, negotiations take place in millions of micro interactions.  When suspicion is the over-riding force governing these interactions, tensions develop.   Investment in developing cultural understandings strengthens the community increasing its resilience.

Investment in ensuring that people feel confident within their communities and know how to make others feel safe comfortable and welcomed creates an atmosphere which is far more protective than any amount of CCTV or bobbies on the beat, and undermines a culture of entitlement which leaves people afraid and suspicious, looking for an unseen force to protect them and root out bad guys.  Ensuring that we are both confident respectful reduces the need for invasive surveillance and reliance on policing, instead building a community based response of trust, tolerance and respect.

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Updated: June 21, 2014 — 7:48 pm

Giffnock? You mean castlemilk?

"only 98.4% of rapes ever result in the conviction of the perpetrator. " ??????

mhairimcalpine moderator

@alana I was referring to this one on the 9th June in Giffnock, I wasnt aware there had been one in Castlemilk.

Thanks for pointing out the error, should have read "98.4% of rapes never result in the conviction of the perpetrator".  Now fixed.

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