Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Communication Breakdown

Vandalised Information Board at Thorpe Meadows
Information Board at Thorpe Meadows

UPDATE: On Tuesday 6th October 2016, following a 7th attack on Nene Park, I appeared on the Paul Stainton Show on BBC Radio Cambs to talk about the things I mention in this blog post.

I woke this morning to the news that several of the information boards at Thorpe Meadows, a beautiful area close to our ward that I visited only recently, have been vandalised with extremely offensive graffiti.

I've written about Peterborough's graffiti on this blog a couple of times already. Firstly, I spoke of the graffiti that had appeared on a wall in Orton Northgate and compared this to the 'Vote Leave' graffiti that appeared in Stanground just before the EU Referendum. More recently, I wrote about the graffiti that has appeared opposite St Mary's Church in Orton Waterville.

However, I don't need to write about graffiti for residents to know about it. A group of people have been defacing Orton for months now. Elsewhere in the city, graffiti has moved on from 'tagging' to being racially offensive and deliberate in its intention to destroy public enjoyment of our natural spaces.

Vandalised Information Board at Thorpe Meadows
Information Board at Thorpe Meadows

So What's Going On?

Well, the tagging at St Mary's Church is communication. It may be deeply anti-social, but it is neither mindless nor thoughtless. Because graffiti takes effort. The person doing the spraying needs to have paint to spray, a certain amount of 'skill' with a spray can and the ability to be organised enough to make their mark without detection. This is the opposite of mindless. It is, however, done without seeing the bigger picture. It is done without an appreciation of the stress and misery that graffiti can cause to people living in a community. It is inconsiderate. It is an act that is 'separate' to the community. But it is still a form of communication. To dismiss it as vandalism is to over-simplify it and if we over-simplify and ignore it how are we ever to fully address it?

Tagging opposite St Mary's in Orton Waterville

I also wrote recently about how Peterborough City Council had taken a decision without consulting the local community to paint the 'blue bridge' green. I love green, but I can well understand why some residents felt that the council had 'vandalised' a landmark without even asking them how they felt. To some, that paint job felt like a 'mindless' act.

Common Thread

I see a common thread running through all three of these instances: communication. Or, more specifically, communication breakdown.

So what of this horrible mess that has appeared overnight at Thorpe Meadows? Is this communication too? And if it is, how do we respond to it? Do we put CCTV everywhere? Or do we try to find out why this was done? These are the questions that divide communities.

One might say 'give the graffiti artists a place to do their tagging and they will stop doing it elsewhere'. There may be some truth in this, however, the mess at Thorpe Meadows is not the same as the mess in Orton Waterville. The vandalism at Thorpe Meadows is deliberate in its intention to cause offence. It is still communication but it is not communication between graffiti artists. It is communication to the rest of us. It is saying something about human misery. It feels hateful and violent and provocative. It is painful screams, not simply 'I was here, please notice me'.

Graffiti and vandalism are as old as humanity itself. The generations that preceded ours did not succeed in stamping it out and nor will we. But I wonder, when our most precious and beautiful areas are attacked and destroyed, whether communication has broken down completely, or whether we're just not listening to one another intently enough.

Listen Harder

As a local politician, my role is to listen and to communicate. But I'm well aware that not everyone in our community is a skilled communicator. I wasn't exactly brilliant at school, but I had a good English teacher who nurtured and pushed me. Not everyone has the ability to express how they feel in language, through speech or through writing. Effective communication, where the person expressing the idea does so in the way they intended and is fully understood by the audience they wished to reason with is really complicated stuff. This is why so many residents approach people like me to help them write letters, fill out forms and talk to people in authority on their behalf. It is difficult, it takes real skill, and the more any of us can do to help other people to express themselves and be heard is a very good thing. I know many community volunteers who do exactly this. They are our angels.

I have no idea why the person who has vandalised Thorpe Meadows did what they did because communication has broken down. There is no message, only questions and despair. But the message I will CHOOSE to take from this is to listen harder in our community, especially to those people who find communication difficult and frustrating. It may make absolutely no difference to those who would cause this kind of harm to us, but it might make those of us who reckon ourselves to be effective communicators and who put ourselves forward to serve in our communities a bit more aware of residents' needs to be heard.

Audio transcript:
Paul Stainton: Also with us is Julie Howell. She’s from the Peterborough Green Party and recently wrote a blog about Peterborough’s graffiti problem. Julie, Good morning.
Julie Howell: Hi, good morning, Paul.
PS: Should we get the big stick out for these people?
JH: Well, I think we need to differentiate between two different things that are going on here. There is graffiti across Peterborough. Some areas of Peterborough have got a real problem with graffiti and by that I mean tagging which is really a conversation between people. It may not be a conversation that we like, we may find it anti-social, it’s a conversation none-the-less and I think there are a lot of questions there about why people are doing that rather than having conversations face-to-face somewhere else, are we providing enough facilities? But let me tell you, this stuff at Ferry Meadows, this is not graffiti and I’d like us to stop calling it that. It’s a hate crime. It’s very clearly a hate crime. It’s racist. It’s not a conversation at all. It’s not a conversation that any of us are party to that we can understand. Covering over signs is stopping conversation. And writing racist words, and I don’t know who the racism is aimed at because the press has, quite rightly, not shared that.
PS: We don’t want to give that any oxygen, that’s the thing.
JH: No, absolutely not. But to me, first of all I want to find, mmm, okay, graffiti, it’s a conversation, but seeing that this is, what, the seventh time that this has happened at Nene Park, which as Brian was saying is absolutely vast, and that nature of it.
PS: Have you seen it, by the way? Because you live quite close don’t you, you live in the Ortons, don’t you?
JH: I do live quite close. I haven’t been there since this graffiti started up. Quite frankly I don’t care to see it. It’s offensive to me. I’m seeing the pictures and I don’t like it. And when I go to Ferry Meadows and Thorpe Meadows by the rowing lake where I’ve been quite recently I go there to relax, not to be confronted with things that make me feel stressed. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. But I’d really also like to challenge this thing about ‘mindless’. This hate crime that’s going on in Nene Park, it is not mindless. Think about it. Nights when this has been happening are freezing cold, absolutely freezing cold, a bit like it is today. And whoever is doing this is going equipped. They’re going with spray cans to do it. They’re going with torches because it’s pitch black.
PS: With intent
JH: With intent, exactly. This isn’t mindless. It’s deliberate, it’s planned, it takes careful planning to do that sort of thing, so we have to stop dismissing it.
PS: Yes, so there’s a couple of things going on here is what you’re saying. We’ve got people across Peterborough tagging, having that conversation, which we could have sympathy with or not have sympathy with and then we got this individual or individuals who’s intent on committing a hate crime for whatever reason in Nene Park.
JH: Well, it’s interesting that Brian says he thinks it’s one person. That’s not what the police are saying. The police have said to the media that they think it’s a group of people, which is interesting again because you can imagine that it’s one person who’s got some sort of gripe though I can’t imagine how you link racist graffiti with Ferry Meadows I don’t really see that.
PS: Do the police have to pull their finger out?
JH: Yes, they do on this. They do on this. This is about hate. Other sorts of graffiti I’d say it’s a council matter and the council has policies for dealing with this. I looked up this morning, actually. Peterborough City Council spent over £35,000 clearing up graffiti.
PS: Money they haven’t got.
JH: Well considering they don’t clear up any old graffiti, they only clear it up if it’s offensive, this shows you how big the problem is that we have across Peterborough.
PS: What do we need to do? Do we need to educate people? They’re blighting our lives. They’re making a mess over here. Do we need to get tough with taggers? Notwithstanding what you’re saying about the differential between that and this crime. What would get the message across?
JH: When it comes to Ferry Meadows it’s crime, get the police the police on it. When it comes to tagging generally, and there’s a load that’s popped up in beautiful Orton Waterville right outside the church which really annoys me because that does bring it to another level when it’s outside a churchyard. When it’s that I think we need to ask ourselves as a community why aren’t we providing more things for our young people to do. It may not be young people of course, that may just be a stereotype. In central Peterborough we have graffiti walls and they’re actually quite beautiful and people tend not to deface other people’s really lovely looking graffiti.
PS: So let’s get more of them out and about shall we.
JH: It’s something to think about, isn’t it?
PS: Julie, thank you for that. Julie Howell from the Peterborough Green Party, recently wrote a blog about Peterborough’s graffiti problem. There you go, we can stop some of the tagging by having graffiti walls but as she quite rightly says this is different. This is hate. This is racist graffiti that people are putting on there. People with intent.

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