I tend not to have a lot of contact with the police. So when they come into your life twice in a week, you sit up and pay attention.
The first time was in the early hours of Sunday morning, when we woke to discover our home had been broken into, the car keys taken and our car stolen. Two police officers turned up by 5am, within an hour of our call, took extensive notes, were friendly and reassuring.
A scene-of-crime officer turned up later, did all the checks you’d expect, took lots of photos, and was equally friendly and reassuring. In short, they were exactly what you’d hope for: a calming presence after our home had been (albeit quietly and with minimal damage) violated.
The second time also involved the arrival of police in the early hours, just four days later. Not at our home this time, but a mile or two down the road where residents were awoken at 4.30am and told to move their cars so that contractors could cut down eight trees in their road.
This dawn raid was the culmination of a year-long standoff between the city council and local people over the fate of the trees in Rustlings Road, an elegant Victorian street bordering one of Sheffield’s most popular parks. The council’s contractors, Amey plc, wanted the trees down because they were said to be damaging the pavements. The independent advisers commissioned by the council argued that the trees were healthy and engineering solutions should be explored to keep them while fixing the pavements (you can read their report here – scroll down to ‘ITP21’).
That advice was released to the public in the early hours of Thursday, at the same time as the operation to cut the trees down began. A dozen police officers prevented protestors interrupting the work, and two women in their seventies were arrested under laws designed to prevent intimidation of workers by militant trade unionists.
By the evening the Rustlings Road trees had made national headlines and the council’s dawn raid had been universally condemned. But there was not a hint of regret from the council or the agencies supporting its action, including the police.
There has been plenty of commentary on the pros and cons of the council’s tree-felling programme. I want to explore something different here, which is what happens when the institutions that we usually assume will reassure us – the structures we create to provide stability in society and make life manageable – actually violate that stability themselves.
I know that the felling of a few trees (well, a few thousand trees, and counting) in Sheffield is not the grossest violation of trust by a public institution. But it is still something people here find shocking: it’s the kind of cynicism people associate with oppressive regimes, not the friendly local police officer or the caring councillor.
In my previous post I used the metaphor of Babel as the incoherent city, the place where people cease to understand each other. And for many there has never been an understanding or sense of trust. That’s what marginalisation means.
But when the trust of the ordinary, naive citizen is violated, the fragility of democratic systems is exposed. And people who no longer trust, ironically, are more easily duped by those who offer extreme solutions and demagoguery. We’ve seen it already with Brexit, we’ve seen it with Trump, and next year’s elections in France might witness worse.
In recent comments about the handover of the US presidency, Barack Obama said there was a seriousness about the role that forced its occupants to weigh up decisions carefully:
there is something about the solemn responsibilities of that office, the extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States not just by its own people but by people around the world, that forces you to focus.
Public office carries a responsibility to identify and pursue the common good. Those efforts may be cackhanded and wrongheaded, but many, if not most, public officials still have that ethos. So when a public official subverts or ignores the common good, or cynically portrays financial self-interest as public service, violating the security of its citizens in the process, that fragile bond between the elected representative and the citizen can be stretched to breaking point.
We need to keep a sense of proportion here: Sheffield is not a totalitarian state, contrary to some of the comments bandied about this week. But the abuse of trust damages on a different level. It undermines the sense of security and stability that is necessary if a city is to function as a civic and a civil space, not just what Lewis Mumford calls
a purely functional organisation of factories and warehouses, barracks, courts, prisons, and control centres.
Coincidentally, on Thursday Britain’s parliament passed into law what the whistleblower Ed Snowden has described as the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. That may be an exaggeration, but it isn’t much of one. The Investigatory Powers Act enshrines in law the power to violate the trust that the law exists to support: the assurance that citizens who are not engaged in criminal activity can go about their business undisturbed, and can participate in civic life without intimidation.
There’s a lot of triumphalist talk about cities doing the rounds at the moment. I recently reviewed one example of it, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s book The Metropolitan Revolution. But the western city is not in such great shape. The scandal of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, illustrates the future that awaits UK cities if trust and accountability are undermined.
The tragedy is not just that city leaders are prepared to violate the trust of their citizens, and to use civic institutions as their accomplices. It is that they appear to be entirely unconcerned about the gravity of what they are doing.