One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions. Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one.
Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience. It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives. To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story.
Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal. Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations).
Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten. Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure. In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents. Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried.
Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged. The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut. In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced. Likewise, the McGann family did the same. Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one. Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced. This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind.
Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted. People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation. Then there are those whose experience was not even counted. In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery. In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery.
Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence. Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with. These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves. Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery. At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed. In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved? Have we heard their voices? Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives. It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves. The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read.
In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri. Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation. These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget.
“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24. […] My father come from Perry County. He wus named Abernathy. My father’s father was a white man. My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold. De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans. Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers. This was 1832. De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit. Dey had six boys. […] I ve been living here since de Civil War. Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot. What I think ‘bout slavery? Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”.Hannah Allen
“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs. I had two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919. His name was Spot. My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs. Slavery was a mighty hard life. Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children. I nursed in da family one year. Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children. I nurse there two years. Neither family was nice to me.”Mary Bell
When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand? In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn. Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.
Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London
Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford