Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.Of Gum on the Pavement and Graffiti on the Wall: Medieval Handbooks Laid Down Strict Rules about Spitting; Today, Staring May Be an Aggressive Act. Paul Barker Asks If Blair Can Win His War on Antisocial Behaviour. (Features)

Article excerpt

I walk down a local pavement, past a row of shops. Three boys, aged between about 12 and 14, have managed to get on to a single bike and are riding at me full tilt. I shout at them to stop. They get off. The youngest holds up his fists in my face like a boxer, but they all go on past me. Moments later, I'm doused with a stream of cold water. It runs down my neck. The oldest has taken a display bucket from the front of a florist's, emptied out the flowers and thrown the water.

More fool me? Should I have given them the pleasure of seeing me jump out of the way? Questions, questions. I walk, dripping, to the Tube station, ignoring shouts and footsteps close behind me. I resent being invaded by an inevitable surge of angry feelings.

This is antisocial behaviour a few notches higher than most of what the Prime Minister talks about and which, the Queen's Speech indicated, he intends to target. It's a long way up from dropping gum in the street or fly-posting in bus shelters. It's perhaps on a par with letting your dog shit in the park or engraving Tube train window-glass with graffiti. It's somewhere below riding motorbikes, under-age, unlicensed and uninsured, past the gates of a young children's play-space. Except for the last example, all these things are routine aspects of urban life.

But what criteria am I using to rank these delinquencies? Because it involved a kind of assault, should I upgrade my own case? Where does mischief tilt over into malice, and then tipple down into menace? All these events take place, most of the time, below the sight-line of the law. When the law does take notice, the outcome can be unexpected. A young man recently found guilty of using a drill to put his tag on many square yards of Tube glass turned out to be the stepson of a barrister, not a lout from a sink estate. Between verdict and sentence, he did a runner.

The arguments of the Harvard criminologist James Q Wilson underlie Blair's concern. On Wilson's interpretation, tolerate a broken window or similar misdemeanours and you begin to create an ambience in which people go on to ever-greater crimes. There goes the neighbourhood. This is the theory behind zero-tolerance, the programme on which Middlesbrough voters recently elected the former policeman Ray Mallon as mayor. The snag is that, except in some narrowly defined territories, such as Rudi Giuliani's Manhattan, you'll never have enough policemen to do the job. Which is not to say that more commonsensical policing mightn't help. When residents complained about the motorcyclists I've mentioned, the police turned up in a marked car, with all lights flashing, instead of on foot. By then the boys had fled, laughing.

Sociologists struggle to make sense of all this. The idea that, like soccer yobbery, it is some sort of "resistance through ritual" -- an idea advocated by Stuart Hall at the Open University and his sociological colleagues -- has now drifted into history. For a start there isn't much ritual involved. On top of that, it's unclear what the "resistance" -- the imagery is of an urban guerrilla war--is aimed at. Some of the arguments came close to implying that the statistics of rising crime were made up by the police to justify their quest for more officers and more money. By now, all the attempts to present crime as a way for the poor to get their own back on the rich -- the bandit interpretation of burglary -- seem to have died a death. Neighbourhood studies, such as a celebrated inquiry in Islington, north London, by the sociologist Jock Young, showed that the chief victims were poor themselves. They wanted more police, not fewer. On the most crime-ridden estates today, the richest man, in the fanciest BMW or Merc, is a drug dealer.

Most of the lesser misdemeanours are too trivial for the attention of sociology, just as they've been too trivial for the police. They can even be romanticised into art. …