“Success consists in being successful, not in having potential for success. Any wide piece of ground is the potential site of a palace, but there’s no palace until it’s built.”Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Last week, on Halloween night, a memorial event for a resident of Kirkton somehow escalated into a stand-off with riot police, damage to St Paul’s RC High School, and the reckless use of fireworks and other projectiles. Videos and photos of the scenes soon circulated on social media, centring upon the ‘wall of fire’ erected on Balgowan Avenue. While most of the videos were easily authenticated by the very Dundonian commentary of those filming, misinformation still spread quickly. At least one video, of a car speeding through the city with a tacked-on Scouse voiceover, was evidently staged. There was talk of a man getting his tongue cut off, apparently accompanied by a video that was better off circulated in private. Stories were told of a car set alight with a family inside. As the dust settled the next morning, reports indicated that nobody was seriously hurt. In the week following there were at least three arrests, an adult woman and two fifteen year old boys. Tayside Police have been adamant that more arrests will be made, and Kirkton is already being more heavily policed.
The immediate responses from local talking heads and politicians ranged from heavy-handed calls for harsh retribution to pleas for understanding on the basis of the long-term neglect of the scheme and historically high rates of poverty no doubt exacerbated by the ongoing cost of living crisis. However, it was the comments of the leader of Dundee City Council, John Alexander, himself having grown up in Kirkton, that marked the proceedings. His contention, that the scenes in Kirkton resembled those of an ‘action movie or a war-torn nation’ and amounted to ‘what can only be described as anarchy’, inspired the ‘ANARCHY’ headlines that dominated the local press the following day. Reactions from those further afield with no experience of the area’s realities were able to make quick assumptions about the young people who carried out the unrest. Some of the sterner recriminations made clear our short-term memories, ignoring the tacit recognition often uttered during the lockdowns that the social isolation would be especially difficult for that generation.
Local representatives were soon on the case and started contacting the supermarkets to prohibit the sales of fireworks: Alexander, Joe Fitzpatrick, Shona Robison, and Labour’s Michael Marra. How many politicians does it take to email Tesco? At least four, apparently. Assuming the fireworks were purchased legitimately over a supermarket counter, when there’s a will there’s a way, and in lieu of any official city-wide displays (both cancelled) there were bound to have been people planning illicit trips over the city’s borders. Guy Fawkes Night went over without a hitch in the end; preventive measures in sales probably did play a part in that, but what was lacking from all corners was a proper reckoning with the fates of communities like Kirkton, and comparable scenes in Edinburgh’s Pilton on Bonfire Night are testament to the fact this is a Scotland-wide issue. We saw more politicians’ comments on the BBC’s Debate Night, live from Aberdeen. The panel’s Tory, Tess White, launched into a rant about the state of Dundee under its SNP administration:
‘I think there are bigger issues going on in Dundee, you know, it’s the drug death capital of Europe, it’s the SNP one-party state…’
Only to be cut off by local columnist and SNP staffer Alistair Heather’s repeated call of ‘haud on’. Ally went on to say ‘Dundee’s alright, Dundee’s a good place to live’. While this is certainly true, there was something in his reaction that speaks to the city’s uneasiness about how it’s perceived. Tess White made many woeful interventions during the programme, on independence and the just transition, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Dundee is the drug death capital of Europe. It definitely has bigger issues going on than what happened in Kirkton. Finally, the SNP do dominate here, and have done so for fifteen years. Some of the MSPs and MPs have been in position for almost twenty. Given that at one point Joe Fitzpatrick had to resign as health minister due to the aforementioned drug death statistic, and that Shona Robison currently has the housing brief, it may well be that they do have some responsibility for what happens in their constituencies.
That being said, the main problem with Tess White’s point is not how it smears the good name of Dundee, but the degree to which it glosses over the responsibility of the Tory government in Westminster for the drug death crisis, as well as the background of austerity and deprivation that lies behind the events in Kirkton. White’s remark was an open goal for one of the pro-independence panellists, a majority presence for the first time in the programme’s history, to make clear the limitations of our current legislative powers in properly addressing the heroin epidemic, or widely implementing the safe consumption rooms pioneered in Glasgow by Peter Krykant. Denying the realities of inequality in Dundee in the face of criticism of the SNP only allows for the Tories to slink away from their own culpability. When we are thin-skinned about the extent of the deprivation in Dundee it comes off as delusional, or worse, deceptive.
That discussion echoed other responses arguing that these events were not reflective of Kirkton, or Dundee more generally. While it’s natural to feel defensive of an area that’s being widely misrepresented, it can’t be said that these events took place in a vacuum. It’s easy to write Kirkton off as unrepresentative of Dundee on a whole, it’s a product of twentieth-century rehousing from slum clearance and it’s situated north of the Kingsway, just on the edge of what begins to resemble the countryside in the outer reaches of Dundee (so much so that early residents had field mice coming up the toilets). All of these factors allow for Kirkton to be easily dismissed as peripheral, unindicative of the true character of the cultured city below. The history of Kirkton reveals that to be an oversight: it’s a story that’s integral to the development of post-war Dundee.
Andrew Murray Scott’s book Modern Dundee: Life in the City since World War Two places Kirkton at the forefront. 1,400 tenants were moved in to the first batch of new homes between 1945 and 1951. After six years, they still had no local amenities. There were by this point 21,000 people on the list in need of housing. A Kirkton Residents Association formed of 800 members applied pressure and were able to get the corporation to invest in public services. Despite problems with the homes beginning to appear early on, many of the new residents were pleased with their new surroundings. Brother Brice, headmaster of St John’s, which had moved from Park Place, was content: ‘Here we hear the skylark rising out the window — very different from being overshadowed by mills and factories.’
In an audio interview by Jimmy Black, Bette Adese says that her new house had first felt like Buckingham Palace to her. Willie Robertson’s memoir On the Milk also expresses the joy with which he explored the landscape of his new neighbourhood:
‘When we first moved to Kirkton from our grey tenement in the middle of the grey streets in the middle of the grey city, it was the green leaves and the green grass that made the biggest impact on me. There were trees all over the place, mature trees along the Kingsway and covering the railway embankment; little trees tied to stakes in the open spaces between the houses and shops, and in the playgrounds of the primary schools… It was as if the world was opening up boundless possibilities right in front of me.’
The wide open spaces encouraged a feeling of immense potentiality, and the opening of the Kirkton High School in 1963 only fuelled the belief that the area had a bright future. The new school’s facilities were world-class for the time: underfloor heating, a kitchen that could produce 750 meals a day, two gymnasiums, a swimming pool, and a large playing field. It was described by the corporation as a ‘Palace of Education’. Thirty years later, the school’s reputation had shifted significantly. A proposed merger with Rockwell High School was slated, with audience members on a 1996 episode of the BBC’s Frontline complaining that their children would have to share a school with residents of Kirkton, an area referred to as ‘the Bronx’. Opposition was so intense that Rockwell considered opting out of the local authority.
The homes which had appeared to be such an improvement from the grey tenements suffered a similar fate; Bette Adese went on to explain how her Buckingham Palace was, before long, plagued with damp and mould. Corners cut during construction had meant many of the homes were unsustainable in the long-term. Kirkton was a community founded on disappointment and betrayal, and the young people growing up there today are the beneficiaries of generations of built-up resentment.
In that sense, antisocial behaviour and inter-community violence in Kirkton are nothing new either. The Kirkton Huns were the first to be formed of the Dundee gangs that dominated the schemes from the 1960s onwards. They were caught in a lengthy feud with a local fish and chip shop owner, and were regularly involved in battles with other gangs from rival areas which took place in Caird Park. At one point, two hundred teenagers took to the streets with shovels and flipped a car. In 1967 Chief Constable John Orr offered an explanation for the violence of the youth that’s not dissimilar from some of the reactions we’ve seen over the last week in relation to Kirkton: ‘Youngsters now expect the good things in life as their right.’ According to Murray Scott, the Kirkton Huns dissolved once the Kirkton Community Centre was built. While it’s unlikely that there was an explicit connection between these two events, no matter how entertaining it may be to picture the last young team AGM taking place over a game of table tennis, it surely indicates that antisocial behaviour and community services are linked in some sense, and that it’s not simply a matter of young people feeling they have a right to communal luxury that causes them to act out.
Yet it wouldn’t be remiss for them to feel they do have that right. Their forebears were moved to Kirkton with the promise of a better life, and that better life has failed to materialise. The Kirkton estate’s geography also tells an interesting story in relation to social class, as explored in On the Milk. Robertson describes how some of the first builds bordered ‘a picturesque orchard’ on the road to the village of Glamis, where the Queen Mother claimed her origins, but which soon ‘degenerated into a dilapidated heap after it was swallowed by the sprawling Kirkton housing estate.’ The wealthy owners of the estate that contained the orchard ‘tried to defend their Alamo against the rushing onslaught of the massed lower orders’ by building a massive six-foot brick wall around the perimeter. This attempt to force a strict delineation between the two classes that now occupied Kirkton was misguided: ‘It held back the waves of Dundee’s rehoused proletariat as ineffectively as King Cnut’s bellowed commands stopped the incoming tide, so Cnut ended up with his knees covered in cold saltwater, while Mr and Mrs Middle Class sold up to Mr O’Rafferty at a huge loss and moved out.’
If the development of twentieth-century housing estates like Kirkton pushed out the affluent landowners that previously occupied the rural hinterlands, today it is the wealthy who are supplanting historically working-class inner-city areas across the world. You still hear of the occasional wall being built, but some of the most virulent gentrifiers now accept that stopping the tide is not possible. In fact, this is how they justify it to themselves, in the belief that proximity to affluence will inevitably lead to wealth spreading throughout the communities they’ve laid claim to. This is one localised manifestation of the trickle-down economic experiment that failed so spectacularly over the last two months. The story of the Kirkton orchard is testament that often, despite how many fruit-bearing trees you plant in paradise, you still end up subsumed by the dilapidated heap of the fall. Poverty has a far wider-reach, and it’s hungrier than prosperity.
The story of Cnut’s bellowed commands is handed down to us from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. In that version, the failure of the tide to obey his orders leads Cnut to reach the conclusion that ‘the power of kings is empty and worthless’ and ‘that there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.’ It’s no surprise that young people are not deferential to power, they never have been, but especially when we are living through a time where our rulers have never appeared so empty and worthless. Completely ineffectual against the incoming tide of climate breakdown, social crisis, the collapse of the economy, public services, and our healthcare system. The only part of antisocial behaviour in areas like Kirkton and Pilton that could conceivably be described as ‘anarchy’ is the widely-felt sense of ‘no future’ and a coming ‘potential H-bomb’.
Yet remarkably, there is a history of anarchy in Kirkton specifically. In 1997, local anarchist activists invited noted anarchist and former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin to Kirkton. The event is detailed in an article by Michael McGregor from an issue of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! Before speaking at the Tay Hotel, as part of a tour that also included Glasgow and Edinburgh dates, Ervin was taken north to spend the afternoon meeting young people in an area of Dundee that more closely resembled the communities Ervin had worked in.
Ervin was attempting to raise awareness about the case of another former Panther, Mumia Abu Jamal, who was facing the electric chair. In his own youth, Ervin was placed in a desperate situation when he was targeted by both the US government and the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He purchased a toy gun and hijacked a plane, demanding to be taken to Cuba where political dissidents were given asylum. The Cuban authorities were not as accommodating as Ervin expected and he eventually ended up in East Germany before being captured and extradited to the United States. He served a thirty-year prison sentence. The local DC Thomson newspapers had run a series of scare stories about a hijacker visiting Dundee.
These may have helped to raise the profile of the visit, as he received an astounding reception. Ervin was greeted in Kirkton by a crowd of over a hundred young people. They asked questions, sought autographs, and shook his hand. In characteristic Scottish fashion, this May afternoon’s ‘biting wind and rain’ left the audience seeking shelter. They stormed the Kirkton Community Centre, that had so appeased the Huns years earlier, only to find it booked up by the local branch of the Labour Party for their AGM. Reportedly it was a twelve-year-old girl that insisted that, as Ervin was only visiting for one day and had come all the way from America, they should relent the space — and as it was their community centre they were taking it regardless! The gathering continued their conversation in the building foyer, where Ervin told stories of his experiences fighting for civil rights in the American South of the 1960s. According to someone present, he told the crowd that he understood youthful feelings of frustration and hopelessness but that you had to learn about why things are the way they are.
What can Ervin’s life and writings tell us about Kirkton? More than you may expect. His most celebrated work is 1979’s Anarchism and the Black Revolution, available in a nice edition from Pluto Press, who on account of the text’s ‘rich history of being read by prisoners across the US’ and having created a ‘bedrock of radical learning and dissent within the US prison system’, donate a copy to incarcerated comrades for every book sold. The book has much to say of capitalism’s propensity for creating mental illness, drug addiction, and inter-community violence. One of its plainest conclusions is that civil unrest cannot be rectified by police or the government, that ‘the courts and prison fail to prevent the situation from reoccurring’. It is the community itself, and its own organisations of concern, that always have to deal with these problems. Ervin emphasises community organising’s potential not only to combat violence in deprived communities, but to defuse it. In 2002, A New Draft Proposal for an Anarchist Black Cross Network, published by Zabalaza Books and based upon Ervin’s original 1979 plan, offers a series of questions that are always worth asking when an incident inspires public calls for carceral solutions:
‘What is political about the injustice system, how laws are applied, who goes to jail and how bias factors into that?
What is political about the factors that play into “crime”, and how sanction is applied?
And are we as revolutionaries, little more than collaborators in genocide if we do not stand up?’
I do not mean to suggest an equivalency between the policing of Kirkton and the racialised US prison industrial complex. However, we are currently undergoing a severe hardening of rhetoric around law and order, crime and punishment, and there is much to be learned from the writings of black prisoners about how to effectively combat this mindset.
The UK already has the most prisoners in Europe and, of its four constituent parts, Scotland has the highest incarceration rate. The conditions in detention centres are grim enough to warrant consideration alongside what the US get up to on the Mexican border, as the video of a child shouting for help through the barbed wire fences of the Manston camp in Ramsgate make clear. If these institutions are not inhumane enough, there is of course the Rwanda policy on the horizon. We are also still living under the same Tory government that aim to outlaw protest, who have already passed a Policing Bill that begins the process of criminalising dissent, with a new Public Order Bill ahead. The leader of the Labour party is no better on these issues — a few days ago reiterating his enthusiasm about harsh sentences for climate activists committing acts of civil disobedience.
Those insisting that the kids responsible for the unrest in Kirkton must face dire consequences feed the same bloodthirsty desire for retribution that leads to people dragging protestors off of roads or assaulting royal hecklers. There is a well-documented spiritual sickness in British life which is never more apparent than when the braying mobs are calling for someone’s head. To begin dismantling the brutal carceral politics of the Tories, that impulse must be resisted. The way we think about crime and punishment must be completely redeveloped. In the words of the poet John Donne:
“Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”
James Barrowman is a writer and PhD student at the University of Dundee. His project, 'Counterfooting the Conjuring of a Ghaist', attempts to reimagine two lost plays by James Wedderburn from the sixteenth-century, by weaving together fragments and anecdotes from Dundonian history. He also works as a barista and a tour guide.