7 June 2017

Cruelty and Compassion: Chaotic street life and the urban youth in post blast Manchester

By Associate Professor Atreyee Sen

‘I saw a girl lying on the ground. She was my age, her legs Professor Atreyee Senhad been blown off. People were slipping on her blood’, my friend’s daughter yelled at me, and these are not words you hear often from a young person while sitting on a sofa sipping a cup of tea. The teenager had insisted on attending the Ariana Grande concert much to the chagrin of her mother, who wasn’t ‘cool enough’ to allow her children to attend late night music concerts at the Manchester Arena. While my friend sat quietly with me, still shaking, I wondered about the capacity of ordinary people, especially the youth in Manchester at present, to respond to the recent spate of suicide terror attacks in cities across the world. With either generosity or an open mind.

Turn towards solidarity

I lived in Manchester for almost a decade, and as an anthropologist of urban violence, I was more sensitive to the crusty, decrepit and abandoned bits of Manchester and Salford, which were considered to be the hotbed of poverty, unemployment and gang bashes. Most people celebrated the gentrification of Manchester, and areas like the Manchester Arena became protected from what is commonly known as poor people’s violence. However, the suicide bombing, orchestrated by a dropout from Salford University, also exposed the vulnerability of all public spaces where the boundaries and hierarchies of religion, terror and brutality became blurred. While social media, new channels and politicians went wild -- raising terror alerts, starting new military operations in cities, displaying anger towards ‘they’ who attack ‘our’ children, followed by other voices arguing ‘their’ children are also bombed by ‘us’ through regular military interventions – many ordinary citizens of Manchester turned towards solidarities.

Collective political responses

Most anthropological studies show that acts of terror generate racial backlash from the youth and deepen hatred towards other communities, but most importantly, they prompt people to retreat from public places. Many people in Manchester spat at Muslim women and hurled abuses at ethnic minorities. Yet hundreds of young people appeared for vigils, marched in solidarity, carried placards on their love for the city, placed cards and flowers at the site of the killings, shouted down the voices of far-right English Defence League (EDL) supporters. These protests prompted the media to state that the world should learn how to fight terror from the people of Manchester. But for me these were very significant but collective political responses. What stayed with me, however, were the ways in which individual young people carried out small acts of kindness to keep alive the feeling of freedom and everyday mobility on the streets. Cab drivers gave free rides, café owners opened their doors for free food and water, students helped the elderly cross roads through chaotic traffic, young families in many neighbourhoods kept their doors open for conversations and sharing. The day after the attack, while walking down a bylane a bunch of young boys dressed in EDL T-shirts directly threatened me. Being of Indian descent, I felt vulnerable. But two young girls stepped forward and hurled abuses at the boys and they left in a huff. I found out that the girls were from the poorer parts of Manchester. They decided on that day to hang around the street corner and chase away some local boys known for harassing people of colour.

Acts of humanity

What makes certain sections of the urban youth exhibit micro acts of public courage and compassion during times of extreme crisis, instead of falling prey to political discourses promoting hatred and segregation (especially in UK’s Brexit environment)? Anthropologists would often argue that the capacity for human empathy reaches a heightened state during times of loss and grief. I would also reason that despite the emphasis on individualism among the urban youth, people across class and racial boundaries are keen to protect vibrant, unrestricted and tolerant street cultures, which is an integral part of their urban educational and social experience. They can show initiative to create safe urban futures, which cannot simply be brought about through high police presence and military surveillance of city streets; acts of humanity are often related to reclaiming the public by dissolving fear and extending support in everyday life.