10 January 2006

Living Behind Bars

That was the title of one of my favourite Lookouts songs. I wrote it around 1988, inspired by the trip down to the Ashtray in West Oakland, the Ashtray being a famous punk house (immortalised in the song of that name by Screeching Weasel) where Jesse from Operation Ivy and Jake and Lenny from Filth lived in legendary squalor. All the houses in the neighbourhood had bars on their windows and doors, all, that is, except the Ashtray itself, possibly because it had nothing worth stealing.

The song was a catchy affair, enlivened by a guest appearance on lead guitar by Tim Armstrong, then of Op Ivy, later of Rancid, but lyrically, it was a typical bit of liberal hand-wringing to the effect of "Isn't it awful that people have to live like this, all locked up behind bars to protect them against the depredations of society?"

At the time, and for many years before and after, I subscribed to the conventional wisdom that people became criminals as a reaction to poverty and oppression, that given enough opportunities and education, almost everyone would naturally change and be nice. It was only in recent years that I began to wonder if I had it backwards: could it be instead that people lived in poverty and oppression because of endemic crime?

It's not as far-fetched as it might sound. Think of a typical high-crime neighbourhood: what businessman in his right mind is going to want to open a store or a factory there? Ergo, unemployment. What kind of education are kids going to get if they can't feel safe from being assaulted on their way to and from school, or even in the school itself? Ergo, generation after generation of kids ill-equipped to do much of anything but resort to crime themselves?

Ultimately, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, of course; no one can say with any certainty which came first, the crime or the poverty. But it's hard to deny that there are places, not just neighbourhoods, but sometimes whole cities or even regions (Somalia, parts of West Africa, Papua New Guinea are among those which come to mind) where criminality seems to have become an ingrained part of the culture, and which suffer continually from material poverty from which there seems to be little respite.

It's worth thinking about, anyway, and what got me on this subject in the first place? Well, in inner Sydney, virtually every house and apartment has barrred windows and doors, a tradition which seems to go back to the earliest surviving Victorian houses (Sydney Victorians are very different from what would be considered a Victorian house in London or San Francisco; they more closely resemble something you might see in New Orleans). Now when those houses were being built, in the mid to late 19th century, it might have made sense to fortify them; Australia was, after all, a land originally settled by convicts, and old habits might be thought to die hard.

But 150 years on, the barring tradition continues, and I haven't yet figured out whether there are that many more burglars here (there is a high rate of hard drug addiction, encouraged at least enabled by the typical 70s-style libertinism, so maybe yes) or if it's simply a deeply imbedded cultural memory of convict times that's keeping people paranoid. I suspect it's a bit of both.


Holly said...

Larry I like reading your blog in general but my favorite is when you talk about Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, etc. In fact my East Bay knowlidge has greatly increased from reading your blog entries. Could you dedicate a blog entry to Lookout Records and the earlier Lookout bands?

Wesley said...

I think it's chicken-and-egg, as you say. And in the same way, both genetics and environment contribute to criminality. But in both cases, if you can cure the poverty, you can improve the situation. I don't think you get the same result if you merely lock up all the criminals (unless you're willing to imprison the entire underclass, as the U.S. has tried to do with its black population).