Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Monsters on the block

By Jonathan Simon

Attack the Block is taut, scary, funny and ultimately insightful movie that just opened here about crime and fear of crime in a south London council estate. Sam, a young female nursing student, attractive and white, is mugged by a gang of juveniles led by an aggressive and large black teenager, Moses. Most of the others are also boys of color (African, Caribbean, possible Arab). The attack is quite vicious, frightening, physically abuse (Sam is pushed to the street), a ring is forcibly pulled from her fingers, and a knife brandished. She escapes during the confusion of an explosion of a nearby car. Sam is badly shaken, even after reporting the crime to the police. Taking temporary refuge in the apartment of a neighbor Sam finds herself orally agreeing with the neighbor, an older white woman, that boys like Moses and his gang are "monsters." Later we follow her as she rides with the police looking for the gang.

The crime events are soon overtaken by another plot-line that develops after the explosion which allows Sam to escape without further injury (although having been robbed of her phone, money, and ring). The neighborhood, and possible much more of London, seems to be under concerted attack by aggressive aliens with shark-like teeth and predatory intelligence to go with it. Sam is soon thrown together with Moses and his boys.

Attack the Block has some insightful things to say about the experience of being the victim of a violent crime and about juvenile crime, but most importantly it raises the question of under what terms and circumstances middle class publics in places like the US and the UK might be able to revisit the penal imaginary in which young men like Moses are cast not just as criminals but as monsters. That question hangs over the larger problem of steering away from mass incarceration in the US and avoiding further moves toward it in England. Mass incarceration relies in no small part on seeing people convicted of serious crimes as monsters who can only be contained by penal coercion but otherwise remain a toxic risk to the peace of their communities. This pushes any consideration of risk toward an extreme and unchanging assessment of the prisoner and toward more and longer prison sentences.

Sam discovers a more nuanced view of Moses and his friends as they join in the fight for their and the block's survival. She does not need to abandon her view of them has having grossly violated her rights and done her harm, to change her view that they are monsters.

We cannot of course hope for an alien invasion to hit the reset button on a penal imaginary that was shaped most profoundly in the 1970s and has been reproduced ever since by a network of media, law enforcement, and political actors. As Rod Serling brilliantly captured in his Twighlight Zone script, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, reports of the aliens closing in can just as easily set off cycles of deepening fear and imagining your neighbors have become monsters. But we do not lack for real life events that open the opportunity (and risk) of re-imagining those we have cast as the criminal underclass. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, produced just such a crisis in New Orleans. A population that included a very high concentration of formerly incarcerated people survived with extraordinary dignity and achieved a great deal of self help under extreme conditions of abandonment by govern. Katrina might have been a moment to reimagine those we feel must be locked up for our safety. In that case, however, the fear scenario beat the hope story out of the block. New Orleans was, we were told, falsely it eventually emerged, under attack by monstrous criminals engaged in rapes, robberies, and murders of helpless people. That time the fear reinforcing story was told much earlier and more powerfully, maybe next time the hope reinforcing story will match it.

Movies like Attack the Block, although some will see them as reinforcing stereotypes about crime from young black men in council housing, is a vital reminder that stereotype or not we need to confront the monster image that hangs over urban crime.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.