Working-class experiences of the Gardaí


A current crisis - Today we live in a media-saturated society that sensationalises crime and gangland warfare in working-class communities.  Some say the media through its various functions has become a sort of moral barometer for the national imagination in terms of how the working classes are perceived.  This, perhaps, is done through newspapers' slash headlines like “Thugs never had it so good” or “Bugsy Malone gang terrorise North Dublin”, or through current TV shows that give a picture of working-class people as rough and disrespectable such as Jerry Springer or The Royle Family. All this actively contributes to the respresentation of the working classes as disresputable.

 Media moralisation of the working classes serves to cast shadows over the real circumstances people face on a daily basis and, in particular, the situations and realities working-class people challenge in their communities.  Not only do they suffer from intergenerational unemployment, poverty and bad infrastructure; working-class people also dealing with and recover  from the impact of drugs and drug dealing. 

On an almost daily basis, debates arise at the difficult intersections where communities experience how these problems are policed.  One the one hand, people depend on garda protection and on the other hand, gardaí at times abuse their power either though physical brutality or using intimidating tactics or indeed both.  This is embedded within some working-class communities and it is particular to the experiences of young working-class males.  The big question that arises from this is  what if part of the current crisis experienced in our communities today is actually due to just not knowing enough about people and their situations, like a lack of knowledge about how it is for those living in such crisis but not having the opportunity to have their voices and experiences heard?

When I began thinking about this, the one thing I knew for sure was there was a lack of connection to the truths in individual lives.  Not a lot of opportunity is given to working-class males to voice their experiences, in particular their experiences of the gardaí.  This is especially because there is such negative media representation blocking any chance of them telling their side of the story (as they say themselves).  There is so much hidden about working-class life and cultural resistance.  So much is hidden about people’s lives behind the splashy headlines.  Working-class culture is rarely documented for purposes other than to entertain or to sell popular culture.  Rarely is the knowledge of working-class youths sought for the purpose of consciousness raising and healing. 

This small piece of writing comes from my discussions with working–class youths in a council estate.  The estate itself is rather isolated from the larger surrounding community and local elites frown on the area and openly refer to other housing estates as "decent places".  I must note here that the same elites refer to the local Garda station as the "Barracks".  All the discussions brought forward here come from working-class self-organised community education.

Guilty until proven innocent
It is well known that the working classes view the police with suspicion: one would wonder why!  Writers on social class such as Richard Hoggart tell us that working-class people see the police as being against them, or out to get them, rather than working on their behalf.  It is well accepted at a local level that gardaí view young working-class males with suspicion.  The lads I work with will openly say,

“When you are working-class, you are guilty until proven innocent”.

The lads tell of old sayings regarding the gardaí’s suspicion of them.  These sayings are not only from their contemporary experiences with the gardaí but also come from what they heard their parents say.  I have termed these “generational hearsays”.  Sayings such as,

“We are aliens of the state” or “it’s a long road without a turn, the guards have long memories”

might not seem important at first but when you look at them in the context of coming from marginalised youths that have in various different ways become known to the gardaí (so to speak) then they begin to paint a different picture.  One that might say that perhaps they have been marginalised by the state since they were born and that the gardaí are always watching them and remembering from one generation to the next.

Caught in the middle: working-class youths and power networks
There was always a great willingness in the group to speak about their experiences and in particular their experiences of the gardaí when they were in their early teens and growing up in the community.  These experiences and same old Garda tactics carried into their adult lives.  All spoke about the feelings they had about being treated differently.  For instance, the family name and any past offences the family had whether it was a father or an older sibling would be dragged up in conversations by some gardaí:

“The dirt was always dragged up for us, like thrown in your face”

The garda would say

“Ah it’s you, young such and such, sure we know your father well”

Participants said

“We would hate the garda for this; it was the worst thing ever”

In any discussions around this the lads went on to say,

“It’s like this - it’s always about where you come from, like a council estate and all that, it’s never about me and how I am now, it’s always about the past and what I’ve done or what has happened in your  family. This is always carried on, and even when you do go before the courts now as an adult the garda will give all the past.  For example, I’m off drugs three years now and I’m doing a FETAC course. I had a minor traffic offence and was in court recently. The same old stuff was brought up. ‘Well your honour, this man has previous drug convictions; he’s from a disadvantaged neighbourhood’ etc. It’s never about how I’m doing now or what changes I’ve made in my life, the judge sometimes knows when the gardaí are using intimidation tactics, and have often cut across the garda and said ‘well garda, that’s in the past, it’s how this young man is now and what he’s doing with his life now concerns me’ ”. 

Caught in the middle - being netted
When the subject of power was brought up in discussion, the lads would say everything to do with gardaí, being working-class and living in a council estate is all about power networks.  The gardaí have the power and know exactly how to use it in certain situations.  The lads spoke about the “net” or being “netted” and this is, the lads explained, one of the gardaí’s strongest tactics and one that can result in dangerous consequences for working-class youths.

“It’s like this, in council estates there is nothing much to do, so you’re more vulnerable to what we call getting netted in by drug gangs and the guards.  The thing is this.  Gangs pick on young lads they know - or if they have known family members.  Some lads I know have got involved, simply because they were asked as a favour to mind a stash, the gangs do this.  When this happens it’s hard to move away, even if you never take drugs, because now you are seen to know too much about the gang. Most lads take drugs and when the guards move in on them, like when they are caught with whatever drugs they have on them, even if it’s only small and enough for one’s own use, the guards will use this to bargain with you for information on the bigger gang members.  If you do, they let you off with your offence but they still have you.  Now you’re a tooth for the guards and they use it all the more especially to intimidate lads around gangs.  This is known as the net because now you are either what’s known as a ‘tooth’ (a tell tale) for the guards, or seen to be true to the gang, both situations are bad; there is no real middle ground in this.  It’s fear both ways”.

The lads in the group spoke repeatedly about how there was no real middle ground in this situation and how this is the ground or the intersection of community policing where the gardaí really abused their power.

“It works this way, if a garda sees you talking to a group of lads he might stop the car and shout at you ‘hey crack head, call up and see us again, like you did last week for a chat’.  This is all they have to say, the only saviour is that the lads you’re with know what the Guards are like and know their tactics because it’s been done to them”.


Something rotten in the gardaí
A Dublin community activist who knows about the hidden aspects of working-class youths’ experiences with the gardaí had this to say recently:

“Towards the end of 2007, a young man, aged nineteen, from a deprived neighbourhood came to tell me that on the previous day he had been taken to a Garda Station for a drugs search, during the course of which he had been assaulted by several gardaí.  When no drugs were found on him, he was told to leave.  He claimed that as he was leaving he was shoved forcefully towards the door by a garda, which caused his head to smash the glass panel of the door.  He said that he was then brought back into the Garda Station and charged with assaulting the garda and causing criminal damage to the door”.

In discussions around bad police behaviour the lads agreed that there is something rotten at work in the police.  They spoke of how subtle Garda brutality can be, they told various stories but one that stuck in my mind was this one,

“I was playing football on the green with a couple of the lads.  We decided to get our own team together.  Tony [not his real name] had been in trouble for shoplifting; he robbed a roll and milk in Tesco’s and then some bottles in the off-licence.  He was due up in court in the coming weeks.  Anyway, the game was going good and the Garda car pulled up.  The guards got out and started playing football.  They nearly broke Tony’s ankles, the kicks they were giving him.  There were four of them, they were getting the digs in wherever they could, and saying "the courts might let you away with it, but we won’t”.  Then eventually they just went away and left Tony on the ground in agony.  They do that and they know where to bash you too so it does not leave bruises, but with Tony they didn’t care.  They knew he wouldn’t say anything to anyone.” 

Another issue that come up in discussion was the shooting of a youth in an ATM robbery.  The comments here were on how the papers praised the gardaí’s actions,

“We know he was in the wrong but there was no need to kill him, no one knew anything about him.  He was alright he was, he just got desperate, he just became disposable.  The papers were full of back slapping for the brave guards involved.  Do you know what the papers said?  They said “This was a brave and successful bit of work by our force”.

Again a community activist speaks out on police behaviour towards working-class youths,

“There’s an old dominant value system at work in Ireland.  All the old gardaí have it, it’s a sort of 'live up to standards’ which the police force work out of.  Because there is this dominant idiom to live up to, young gardaí starting out in the force cannot afford to be seen to sympathise with working-class youths, in particular those who are marginalised or drug users; it’s just not done.  To combat this, or rather as I see it, there is a role of “macho garda” played out among new recruits in the police force. This means the less you are seen to sympathise and the more you are seen to be nasty, intolerant and such towards the scumbags as they call them, the more accepted they are in the force.  So yeah, there are some nasty ones about who work out of that value system, sure the lads will tell you themselves they are treated like dirt, especially in A & E (accident and emergency) and the police stations as we all know.”

Garda relocation: behind closed doors - it’s like this
In group sessions some of the lads spoke out about how just silly street corner fooling around could result in more serious consequences.  They explained,

“We were drinking some cans one night and the guards came along and were slagging us off - saying things like ‘Ah there ye are, the same auld suspects knacker drinking as usual, would the pubs not have you lads’.  Some of us said ‘ah go way you’re only guards, sure what can ye do about it, sure you’re all uniform and mouth’.  We were hit across the face with batons and kept in the cell for the night.  The guards were saying to us about how we had triggered the short fuse of the garda.  They were explaining the actions of one particular garda who was a bit heavy handed on the baton.  They were saying ‘you above all lads know what it’s like to just lose it, he just lost it lads, you have driven him to it, he is a good man but he’ll take no nonsense, he has a job to do’.

“My friend’s nose was broken he was fifteen years old and when his parents came to get him they were complaining and asking how he was in such a state.  The guards were saying ‘drunk and disorderly but we will let him off this time’.  The fact that my friend was drinking and that the garda were willing to overlook it made his parents delighted to have the situation cleared up.  The garda in question was relocated to a different district that same week”.

The lads spoke about how gardaí are relocated to different places especially those who are considered to have a short fuse or those who are capable of just losing it,

“It goes on all the time and it just gets forgotten about, it’s like out of sight out of mind and anyway sometimes it’s just best to say nothing at all about it.  You would just be bringing the whole thing up again and the guards can make that be a nightmare for you”. 

In our discussions about their experiences with the gardaí there was strong emphasis placed on making sure I documented their experiences as a reality in our current times and not as they said themselves,

“Like something that is shown on the TV, like in a documentary where the police have someone in custody and it shows all the rights they have, like the way they can ask for stuff like drinks, smokes, or phone calls or the American way, like it shows all the time in films.  Where the person is arrested and being questioned, it shows them saying things like ‘I will wait till my lawyer gets here’ or ‘not without my legal adviser’.  Well that’s not how it is in the real world, here the gardaí just laugh at you”.

They went on to tell me that the best thing to do when in the situation of arrest is to just say “no comment” or “I’m not signing anything”.  They went on to say that the gardaí still have the power no matter what, especially if you’re drug dependent and you are taken into custody or held overnight,

“If you’re drug dependent you could be left in a cell for up to sixteen hours.  You would be climbing the walls.  I was on prescribed drugs at the time I was arrested and was just left there.  The guards know they have you now, you have a right to call a doctor but they leave you till you’re on your knees. Even then there is no guarantee you will get a doctor, it all depends on who’s around and if a garda thinks you might be a good source of information for them.  The guards have the power here and offer drugs sometimes, or the stash you had on you when you were arrested can be on offer to you either.  It depends on how desperate you are and the guards play you on this.  I tell you it’s a vicious circle”. 


Working-class resentment of Garda harassment:
it’s the gardaí that create the trouble 
Local women in the community have spoken of how the gardaí are something like a militia,

“We understand it’s their job to patrol the area, but it’s a bit ridiculous when you see them hanging around all the time.  They do hassle the kids in the neighbourhood.  What happens is this, the guards hang around when there’s no need.  This only causes tension and a fear in some of the parents that some of the lads are going to strike out at them, like throw a bottle or stone at the car.  We try to tell them don’t let them get to you.  But they don’t always listen, they are too mad at them”.

Throughout our discussions the women would continue to ask for reassurance about where the information they were giving me was going and wanted to make sure they would not be named.  There was an air of fear and tension as women confessed their experiences of witnessing early dawn drug raids on their neighbour’s homes, 

“We didn’t know what was going on; I mean there was no need for such force.  There was up to sixteen guards at one house.  It was terrible to witness the old people having to stand out in their gardens in their night clothes.  It was very humiliating for them.  There’s no need for it to be done that way, and in the end they even found nothing.  Some say the guards knew they would find nothing, that it was just their way of sending out a message that they are in control”. 

It has been pointed out that a ‘culture of silence’ exists in our society.  This silence is thickest amongst working-class people when it comes to speaking out against figures of authority.  One obvious reason for this stems from historical educational systems where working-class kids were taught first and foremost to obey and know their place in society.  A ‘hidden curriculum’ rewarded conformity and silence and scorned any attempt at critical inquiry.  This ensured that kids never questioned the ruling powers they encountered, and in particular the power of the police. 

Further discussions with the women opened up the subject of their fears.  They spoke about how they might be thought less of in the community if people knew they were speaking out against the gardaí.  And the fact is there were a lot of constraints around sticking up for the youngsters who were not bad kids but who did get into trouble because there was nothing to do in the area.  But, they told me, a lot of people say the kids are not disadvantaged and make comments like,

"It’s just bad parenting skills, and the youths have it too easy”.

The women also spoke about how if it was to be known by the local gardaí that they were speaking about them, they would simply not respond to any calls in need of their assistance in the neighbourhood.

Garda show no respect whatsoever: we need to have mutual respect
In February 2006, hundreds of supporters of the loyalist 'Love Ulster' march left Dublin under a Garda escort after their rally failed to get underway due to an outbreak of violence in opposition to the march.  Shop windows were broken, cars were burned out and a wave of violence spread across the city centre. Some community activists had this to say:

“Young people hate the gardaí because they show them no respect.  They spoke about how they thought working-class youths had acted as they did in the riots because they were angry at Garda injustice”.

They concluded with saying there needs to be mutual respect but the gardaí need to begin this process.

An end and a beginning
My ending point, or should I say beginning point, is this - in order to gain respect there needs to be recognition given to the hidden aspects of people’s lives.  This means at its simplest level that more space needs to be scratched out among the lies, corruption, harassment and class domination that exists in our society today.  Openness to want to hear just how it is for others who have not got the position or privilege to speak out in our society is called for.  There are some that say there are too many gardaí and not enough policing in working-class communities today, others contend that working-class communities are subjected to more scrutiny and moral power than protection from the gardaí.  Young working-class males speak of being singled out, blamed and silenced rather than helped.  Some of the lads spoke about wanting to help others so that they never have the experiences they have had.  Some want to begin a youth centre in their own community and suggested the importance of the gardaí interacting more with the community:

“There needs to be a level that would allow young kids become familiar with the facts that the guards are there to protect them and not out against them”.

There is no conclusion as such to this document; as it is part of an ongoing process.  I would like to think that instead of closing here, this document provides a space that is very much open by way of giving opportunity to other working-class people to voice their own experiences.

For ease of reading you can download a PDF of the entire text in A4 format or fold over A5 format.

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