By Finn McKenna
The scenes on the streets of Dublin city over the last few weekends have illuminated the abject failure of the “Outdoor Summer” plan so far. The weekend of Friday, 5 June saw another Garda baton charge which attempted to disperse a crowd of young people who had congregated in the South William Street area in Dublin city centre. Gardaí claim that bottles were thrown at officers and that such a response was warranted. Even if projectiles had been fired by some, it does not justify the heavy-handed Garda response.
A baton charge against a crowd that vast would inevitably endanger bystanders, who were mostly in their teens and early twenties. From the point of view of crowd control and health and safety more generally such a charge is irresponsible and reckless. The questions that need to be asked are: why has the Public Order Unit been dispatched against young people who are in the main simply trying to enjoy their summer? How did this happen in the first place and why has it been repeated two weekends in a row? Has the state upheld a duty of care in preparing for a viable, accessible ‘Outdoor Summer’? The answer to this is clearly no.
No plans for utilisation of public space
The government and Dublin City Council had months to prepare for an outdoor summer. It is now becoming clear that the extent of both bodies’ vision was to facilitate outdoor drinking and gatherings – which had been happening without any major incidents for many weeks – up until the point that outdoor dining was set to resume. The last weekend saw a drasticly increased Garda presence in Dublin city centre, with the temporary tolerant approach of the Gardaí to outdoor gatherings along the canals coming to a swift end. Rather than investing in basic amenities such as waste and recycling facilities and public toilets, of which there are very few in Dublin, repression has become the order of the day in this ‘Outdoor Summer’.
The stage has been set for a renormalisation of outdoor pubs and restaurants. When it boils down to it, does the government really care about public health risk when it comes to people congregating at the canals, at Portobello square, at Stephens’ Green bandstand? Based on the timing of the crackdown on outdoor gatherings, one can deduce that these stringent Garda measures have come into effect not so much in the interests of public health, but in the interests of the Vintners Association and other business lobbies.
It should also not be forgotten that the Government will condemn young people from gathering on streets but will happily force them to work in workplaces such as those in hospitality, which in the context of the pandemic not yet being suppressed, poses a risk to their health and that of wider society.
Lack of imagination
The Gardaí and various journalists have portrayed sizable sections of those who congregated around the city over the last few weekends as “loiterers”. This warrants a few questions. Who do they precisely mean? Do they mean working-class youth, as opposed to a more middle- or uppper-class clientele? What measures has the state brought into effect to facilitate outdoor socialising in public places? What public space or amenities have they focused on encouraging young people to utilise?
Government policy facing the youth is a free-for-all. The state could have planned and used a little bit of imagination to designate public space for safe, Covid-mindful public gatherings throughout the summer. One needs only think of the vast acreage of the Phoenix Park. Unsurprisingly, the state has zero imagination when it comes to using these public spaces, because its main concern is bringing people around the pubs and resaurants to spend money, even though those areas are not ideal for large crowds.
Paying to congregate
The state is sending an intimidating message to its young working class: you are not welcome in the city centre unless you are willing to “dine respectably”. The Gardaí have defended their actions by saying they were antagonised. In some instances, unacceptable anti-social behaviour did occur, such as young people stomping and kicking taxis. Working people in the city absolutely have a right to work in peace and safety, and not be disturbed or intimidated.
However, a thorough examination and review of the state’s recent conduct show that many instances of Garda brutality do not actually emanate from the acts of anti-social youth, but from the Gardaí itself. They reflect the growing repression being meted out by the state against working-class young people due to the existence of draconian Covid-19 legislation. Notably, 77% of the fines issued under this legislation have been issued to those under the age of 35 and 47% of the fines issued in Dublin have been given to those living in either Blanchardstown or Ballymun.
We want to live not just exist
The events of last weekend graphically illustrate that we need a police force that is not beholden to the interests of businesses and inherently anti-working class in nature. We need one that is genuinely accountable and democratically controlled by representatives from working-class communities.
The privatisation of public space in places such as Dublin City centre is linked with the profiteering of private business. But this problem points to a broader and more systemic issue. Not only is it becoming more expensive to socialise in our cities and towns, skyrocketing rents and precarious employment is ensuring that is becoming increasingly unaffordable to live in them. Working-class people are being priced out of areas like those between the two canals of Dublin and beyond.
We need to reclaim and reshape our cities and towns to serve and reflect the needs of the public, not profit. We need massive investment in expanded, efficient, free public transport. We need indoor and outdoor spaces and amenities where people can socialise, exercise, or just congregate freely and peacefully. We need public and affordable housing built on public land – along with rents slashed and frozen, and a ban on evictions. We need access to quality training, education and jobs for young people, with decent wages, conditions, and trade union representation.
We need a break with this capitalist economy based on the prioritisation of profit over our needs and wellbeing. In short, we need one in which the wealth and resources of society are publicly owned and democratically planned so that people and the environment can not just exist but flourish.