I guess I wrote my first blog, as it were, in 1977, when I described a reggae sound system clash in the youth centre I ran in West London. A sight and sound to behold with bass beats causing a minor earthquake on Acton High Street. On one occasion I recall we managed to book the Sir Jessus system with their now legendary selector Ras Digby who seemed to have forged an umbilical link between Kingston Jamaica studios and his shop on Goldhawk Road, to get the very best new sounds. With a small army of ‘boxboys’ who lugged the green, gold and red painted wardrobe sized speakers from the removal van, the whole event was an amazing experience. The piece I wrote was published in New Society magazine.
At that time many young people, especially black young people, feel foul of the ‘Sus’ laws. Derived from post Napoleonic wars legislation enshrined in the 1829 Vagrancy Act and designed to control displaced ex-army personnel who roved the country causing a nuisance to local authorities, the offence of ‘being a suspected person loitering to commit an arrestable offence’ became an unwelcome aspect of police tactics until its repeal. Affected young people often found themselves with an offence to their name for seemingly doing nothing except being on the streets. Criminalising young people at an early age in the process and causing a collective mistrust of authority.
Processing blemished DBS checks can throw up offences that date back to times in life when an association with a youth subcultural group could mean being swept up in behaviour that could be construed as contributing to one of society’s regular moral panics. Think Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, Punks, Skinheads, Rude Boys, Goths and 1980s’ ravers. There was also a rich literature about youth offending in the early 1980s that pointed out the fact of adolescents in history having always pushed the boundaries and inspiring horror in the adult population by their behaviour and adopted rituals of fashion, music and attitude. Crucially the research evidence also emphasised that the vast majority of these young people would grow out of a pattern of peer related youthful misdemeanour and go on to live rich fulfilling lives.
So when DBS applicants self-declare or a certificate comes back with a youthful blemish, not only do we need to understand that person’s own journey but, where appropriate, we should appreciate context and the story of youthful resistance.
In current times we would do well to think again about what our young people do now and how it can affect them in much later life. How best can we advise and support them? The message about leaving online trails, for example, is perhaps beginning to get through. But equally young people’s expressionism is part of growing up and saying something about who they want to be. Arguably now though, some group behaviours can be seen as far more challenging and harmful than earlier, so the task of future DBS processors will continue to be guided by careful judgements and a 360 degree analysis of what happened.