Someone please call Greater Manchester Police. I think I may have been a victim of hate crime, albeit of the historic variety. The incident log, should they need it, is as follows: back in 1990, when I was a student at Manchester University, I was attacked by two men while playing pool in the Bowling Green pub just near the student union. For no apparent reason other than that my friend had beaten one of them in a game of winner-stays-on, they wandered up to my table, calmly poured a pint of lager in my face, slapped me, and then threatened to shoot me. Why they went for me and not my pool-sharp pal I don’t know.
To be fair, this kind of motiveless assault was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. “Student bashing”, as it was known, was considered a perfectly legitimate pastime in some of the rougher parts of south Manchester, where the presence of some 60,000 mainly middle-class students did tend to grate somewhat. Like casuals, punks, crusties and the other urban tribes of the area, we were a recognisable social group (albeit a bit of a soft, poncey one) and therefore a potential target for any yobs looking to vent their frustrations. I didn’t even think of reporting it to the police.
Now, though, all that may be about to change. As my crime beat colleague Martin Evans reports today, Greater Manchester Police is to become the first force in the country to classify attacks on “subcultures” such as punk rockers, heavy metal fans and goths as “hate crimes”, with the possibility of special extra support for victims if needed.
In the words of Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, who describes it as a “major breakthrough”, the idea is “to officially recognise that people who wish to express their alternative subculture identity freely should not have to tolerate hate crime – something that many people have to endure on a daily basis.”
True, this measure has been introduced in the wake of a much more serious attack than the average bit of student bashing – specifically the murder of Sophie Lancaster, a 20-year-old goth who was savagely beaten by a gang of youths as she walked through a park in Rossendale, Lancashire, with her boyfriend. The gang, who had taken exception to the way she dressed, kicked her repeatedly about the head, putting her in a coma from which she never recovered.
From now on, Manchester Police will treat all such attacks on members of “alternative subcultures” as hate crimes, with the definition expected to include goths, emos, punks, and metallers. But while I am naturally sympathetic to any victim of yobbery – it’s happened to me a few times over the years – I can’t help wondering exactly what benefit this new policy will bring.
After all, aren’t all acts of yob violence “hate crimes” of a sort? In my experience, those who enjoy inflicting pain on other people will generally settle for any excuse to do so, whether it’s the colour of someone’s skin, the clothes they wear, the size of their nose or whatever.
And if we extend the “hate crime” definition to things like youth subcultures, where exactly do we stop? Do we extend it to things like my student-bashing incident? The man who attacked me in the Bowling Green pub certainly hated me all right. But was it because of my ludicrous student get up of second-hand paisley pattern shirt, foppish hair and Dr Marten boots? Or did he just fancy panelling the first reasonably vulnerable-looking person he came across that night? I think it was the latter, and if it hadn’t been me, someone else would have got it instead.
The fact is, also, that ever since the days of Teddy Boys in the 1950s, different youth sub-cultures have always existed to give their members a sense of identity. And unpleasant though it may be, experiencing occasional hostility on the streets is a part of that identification process. The punks of the 1970s, for example, saw getting harrassed and beaten up as a badge of pride. Yet by Greater Manchester Police’s new criteria, films such as Quadrophenia, in which Mods and Rockers fight it out on Brighton Beach, would now count as a mass exercise in hate crime.
It’s also fair to say that tragedies of the sort that befell Ms Lancaster are thankfully the exception, not the rule. As far as emos go, for example, the only place I know that is genuinely dangerous for them is Iraq, where scores of emo followers have apparently been killed by religious militias. But once again, on closer inspection, this is not quite what it seems. An “emo” in Iraq is often simply shorthand for anyone who dresses in a vaguely fashionable or Western style.
Moreover, how will ethnic minorities and other “vulnerable groups”, for whom hate crime legislation was originally designed to protect, feel about goths and punks getting the same protection? I can’t speak for them, but I suspect there is one point they would feel tempted to make, which is that if things get really bad, goths and punks and indeed students can always change the way they look. You can’t do that with the colour of your skin.