When groups of young people as part of our THINK project come to The Peace Centre, we try (weather and time permitting), to take them to the Bridge Street memorial. This always proves to be significant and moving. March 1993 comes that much closer; no longer told about, but witnessed, touched and heard. I have over the years heard comments like “it’s a bit like where I live”, or “I can’t believe something like that happened here”. People walking past going about their daily business, the chatter and bustle prove that Warrington was and is an ordinary town. A town though where something extraordinary happened, something brutal and painful, but this pain need not shape everything. Instead something useful, hopeful and permanent can emerge from un-predicted and undeserved horror.
Remembering the bombs
The Sculpture and the River of Life in Warrington town centre are pleasing, calming, and sobering. Sometimes the most boisterous of groups find themselves silenced when standing close to where the bombs went off. The bronze sculpture, the faces and the flow and trickle of water offers strong, sturdy and unspoken hope. One time with a group from Swindon, a woman came over and proudly announced that her son had made one of the hand imprints, “he’s a bit bigger now though, probably wouldn’t fit”. Life goes on and people grow, and all the better when we do not meet violence with the same, when we make spaces for people to be together, and to feel peace.
One route to town takes us over the white concrete Bridge near the centre. It is often useful to point out the expansion joints; the flexible parts of a bridge that prevent cracking and destruction during changes of temperature. Flexibility is essential in times of adversity, in conflict options are better than rigid dogma. The white smooth surfaces of the bridge have also, unfortunately served as a canvas for some with less flexible mindsets.
Messages of division
Earlier in the year we took a Group from Cedar Mount Academy across the bridge and saw that a range of hate statements had been scrawled and sprayed on the paintwork. Ugly, unpleasant rhetoric all punctuated with hastily drawn swastikas. The daubings were rushed, haphazard and amateur, but no less worrisome or offensive. The impact was visible and audible, here in plain view was the contradiction of all we had been cultivating at The Peace Centre. This group was, I think it is fair to say, normally the very opposite of quiet, but disbelief stunned them into silence. How could this be? There was anger and distress, but this was not expressed in the form of retaliation, instead there was puzzlement. “Why hasn’t it been cleaned off?”. And then, “Maybe we could clean it”. The seed was planted, and a decision made, and after a chat with Steve the maintenance man, we were equipped with some emery paper and determination.
The next day over half of the group spent time scrubbing and rubbing away the signs and words of division. I will remember this operation for ever. A sunny, late spring day, newly green leaves casting gentle moving shadows over the group as they took away the ink and paint. To begin with the chat centred around the graffiti – what? why? how? and who? – but something shifted. Without coercion or organisation new topics bubbled in to the warm air; favourite teachers, the centre, sport, music, and school holidays. Hate would not dictate the interactions on the bridge that day. The group had seen something they were not happy with, and rather than reacting with righteous zeal and confrontation, they had acted with calm and collective reason. We didn’t completely get rid of all the signs or verbal bile, but those that remained were now very faded. Some hands and arms were aching as we left the bridge, but a joyful laughter came with us.
Bringing people together
The cliché of disinterested and inactive youth was disproved. Phones did emerge but only to capture the endeavour; the energy was all elbow grease and responsibility. These young people will not only remember the centre, food, fun, films and activities they will recall the difference they made. Important ripples were started, simple actions will resonate, the young people themselves would take away a sense of pride and action. Passers-by will not see signs of hate and perhaps those that drew them will now know that bridges are meant to bring people together.