Postcard #35. Riots

High Pavement Police Station, Nottingham, September 2016

 

Yesterday I took a free tour of Nottingham’s Old County Police Station as part of the September Heritage Open Days. The Station is located on High Pavement in Nottingham next to the Shire Hall which now houses the Galleries of Justice. The station closed in 1987 but up until then had operated as police station and holding cells for all of Nottinghamshire. It was interesting to visit the Edwardian police station since its replacement Nottingham Central Police station on North Church Street closed earlier this year with its operation moving to Maid Marian Way.

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Back in the day it was possible to be held at the High Pavement station pending trial at Shire Hall and, if you were particularly unlikely, you could end up executed on the same site. Thinking about the carceral geographies of different cities – it is interesting to see different points of intensity which later become fragmented before being reinstated as a form of penal archaeology or heritage. The tour guide also told us that the pub across the road from the station (he didn’t say which one so I will need to explore that myself) used to provide meals to those being held there at a cost to those detained. Although the phenomenon of prison towns in which an entire urban community works in the service of the prison industry or industrial complex seems relatively recent and largely limited to small town America – there are interesting and important trajectories which can be mapped out in all cities between historical and contemporary forms of incarceration and the impact/role these play within the wider community, commerce, education and infrastructure.

The police station as it is preserved was built in 1905. It closed as the holding cells it offered (3 for men, 1 for women) weren’t up to spec. For example, apart from the women’s cell there were no toilets in the cells. During the riots and strikes of the 1970s and 1980s in Nottingham, the cells weren’t adequate to house all those arrested en masse.

In its current role as annex to the main Galleries of Justice, the station could be considered as a mini-museum for crime prevention posters of the 1980s and (posthumously added) 1990s. Thimg_0453ese are mainly about car crime and it is interesting to juxtapose some of the images (notably the 1992 campaign featuring the baying hyena looking to break into your car) with those now seen around Nottingham’s town centre, not least the infantilizing warnings against fuelling drug and alcohol abuse amongst Nottingham’s homeless population. These seem to present quite a different image aimed at the engaged, caring citizen looking for ways to ‘help’ those less fortunate than themselves – one predicated on the mauvais foi of Cameron’s ‘big society’ rather than the shadowy, animal-like criminal of Thatcher’s ‘no society’.

 

The station has undergone some minor modifications since it closed in 1987. Apart from one room closed to visitors, the graffiti in the cells has been painted over although it was still possible to see the odd name or comment carved into the brick and woodwork. Despite its potential value as visual/physical documentation of the experience of those being held in the cells, the decision perhaps reflect a desire to sanitise the space for the school groups visiting. While there is no doubt a more nuanced narrative on graffiti, tagging and various forms of street art being presented to adolescents now than a purely zero tolerance, anti-vandal discourse, the absence of graffiti here seems to erase some potential for alternative narratives of the cell spaces. Perhaps this has more to do with the banality of most graffiti which risk affirming the pointlessness of prison more than anything.

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The exercise yard has been covered over and now provides a display of the UK history of policing. Interestingly, this avoids an overly romantic presentation of the police despite certain visitors attempting to redress this with their own anecdotes.The ongoing links between police and military is made quite strongly and story of the evolution of their ‘weapons’ from sword to truncheon reminds us of the ever-present police brutality.

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The shadowy, sinister figure of the police

The visit was framed by storyboards in different cells narrating different protests and riots which had seen individuals and groups end up in there. This included the story of a suffragette, who had plotted to blow up the king on a visit to Nottingham, the miners strike of the 1980s and the riots of summer 2011. This is not the only place where the history of Nottingham has been defined as one of protest and riot – an exhibition was held in 2013-2014 at Nottingham Castle on the riots of 1831. Focusing on questions around social struggle and the right to protest is an interesting technique for recounting the story of incarceration more generally and one which focuses less on crime as inherently bad and more on the reasons why people might commit certain acts. Nevertheless, I found there was something deeply alienating about seeing images from the 2011 riots and the story of Mark Duggan turned into a storyboard for school visits. I wonder whether such a decontextualisation risks also depoliticizing recent events, turning them into moments in a longer, continuous and homogeneous narrative of riots consigned to a history from which younger visitors can (or are encouraged to) dissociate themselves.

 

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