Home » Crime and Society
Category Archives: Crime and Society
Public confidence in the CJS: ending on a high?
2022 has been a turbulent and challenging year for many. Social inequalities and disadvantage are rife, with those in power repeatedly making bad, inhumane decisions and with very little, to no, accountability or consequences (insert your favourite example from the sh** storm that is the Conservative Party here). Union after Union, across sectors, engage in industrial action in response to poor working conditions and pay, amidst a cost-of-living crisis. And although seemingly unconnected, as the year comes to a close, the Sentencing Guidelines (2022) report on Public Confidence in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) has got me feeling frustrated. My previous blog entries have often been ‘moans’. And whilst January is often dubbed the month of new beginnings and change for the year ahead: we’re not quite there yet so true to form here is my latest moan!
The report exists as one of many conducted by Savanta to collate data on public confidence, in terms of effectiveness and fairness, in the CJS and public awareness of the sentencing guidelines. The data collected in March 2022, was via online surveys given to a “nationally representative sample of 2,165 adults in England and Wales” (Archer et al., 2022, p.9). Some of their highlighted ‘Key Findings’ include that confidence levels in CJS remains relatively stable in comparison to 2018, on the whole, respondents viewed sentences as ‘too lenient’ however this varied based on offence, the existence of the sentencing guidelines improves respondent’s confidence in the fairness of sentencing, and that engagement with broadcast news sources was high across respondents (Archer et al., 2022). It is not the findings, per se, that I take umbrage with, but rather the claim it is a “nationally representative sample of adults in England and Wales” (Archer et al., 2022, p.9).
I take issue on two fronts. The first being that the sample size of 2,165 adult respondents is representative when the demographic factors included are: gender (male and female), age (18-34yo, 35-54yo and 55+), region, ethnicity (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Other) and socio-economic grade. Now considering we are, thankfully, at the end of 2022 we should all be able to recognise that a sample which only includes cis-gendered options, narrows ethnicity down to 4 categories and the charming ‘other’, and does not include disabilities is problematic. There has been a large body of research done on people with disabilities and their experiences within the CJS, the lack of representation, the lack of accessibility to space and decisions, potentially impacting a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and a victim’s right to justice (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2021; Hyun et al., 2013 ). So I ask, is this not something which needs considering when looking at public confidence in the CJS of a “nationally representative” sample?
In addition to this, I take issue with the requirement that the sample be “nationally representative”. We have research piece upon research piece about how Black men and Black boys experience the CJS and its various agencies disproportionately to their white counterparts (Lammy, 2017; Monteith et al., 2022; Parmar, 2012). Their experiences of stop and search, sentencing, bail, access to programmes within the Secure and Youth estate. There is nothing representative about our CJS in terms of who it processes, how this is done, and by whom. According to Monteith et al., (2022) 1% of Judges in the CJS are Black, and there are NO Black judges on the High Court, Court of Appeal of Supreme Court: this is not representative! Why then, are we concerned with a representative sample when looking at public confidence in CJS and the sentencing guidelines, when it is not experienced in a proportionate manner?
Maybe I’ve missed the point?
The report is clear, accessible, visible to the public: crucial concepts when thinking about justice, and measuring public confidence in the CJS is fraught with difficulties (Bradford and Myhill, 2015; Kautt and Tankebe, 2011). But this just feels like another nail being thumped into the coffin that is 2022. Might be the eagerness I possess to leave 2022 behind, or the impeding dread for the year to follow but the report has angered me rather than reassured me. As a criminologist, I am hopeful for a more inclusive, representative, fair and accountable CJS, but I am not sure how this will be achieved if we do not accept that the system disproportionately impacts (but not exclusively) Black men, women and children. Think it might be time for another mince pie…
Happy New Year to you all!
Archer, N., Butler, M., Avukatu, G. and Williams, E. (2022) Public Knowledge of Confidence in the Criminal Justice System and Sentencing: 2022 Research. London: Sentencing Council.
Bradford, B. and Myhill, A. (2015) Triggers of change to public confidence in the police and criminal justice system: Findings from the crime survey for England and Wales panel experiment, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 15(1), pp.23-43.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2021) Does the criminal justice system treat disabled people fairly? [Online] Available at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/inquiries-and-investigations/does-criminal-justice-system-treat-disabled-people-fairly [ Accessed 4th November 2021].
Hyun, E., Hahn, L. and McConnell, D. (2013) Experiences of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42: 308-314.
Kautt, P. and Tankebe, J. (2011) Confidence in the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales: A Test of Ethnic Effects, International Criminal Justice Review, 21(2),pp. 93-117.
The Lammy Review (2017) The Lammy Review: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/goverment/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report-pdf [Last Accessed 14th February 2021].
Monteith, K., Quinn, E., Dennis, A., Joseph-Sailsbury, R., Kane, E., Addo, F. and McGourlay, C. (2022) Racial Bias and the Bench: A Response to the Judicial Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (2020-2025), [online] Available at: https://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspax?DOCID=64125 [Accessed 4th November 2022].
Parmar, A. (2012) Racism and ethnicity in the criminal justice process, in: Hucklesby, A. and Wahidin, A. (eds.) Criminal Justice, 2nd ed, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.267-296.
“Quelle surprise” – another fine mess
The recent HMICFRS publication An inspection of vetting misconduct and misogyny in the police service makes difficult reading for those of us that have or have had any involvement in the police service in England and Wales. Of course, this is not the first such report and I dare say it will not be the last. There is enough evidence both academic and during the course of numerous inquiries to suggest that there is institutional corruption of all sorts in the police service, coupled with prevailing racist and misogynistic attitudes. Hardly a surprise then that public confidence is at an all-time low.
As with so many reports and associated inquiries, the finger of blame is pointed at the institution or individuals within it. The failings are organisational failings or departmental or individual. I cast my mind back to those inquiries into the failings of social services or the failings of NHS trusts or the failings of the Fire and Rescue service or any other public body, all the fault of the organisation itself or individuals within it. Too many inquiries and too many failings to count. More often than not the recommendations from these reports and inquiries involve rectifying processes and procedures and increasing training. Rarely if ever do these reports even dare to dip their toe into the murky waters relating to funding. Nobody on these inquiries would have the audacity to suggest that the funding decisions made in the dark corridors of government would later have a significant contribution to the failings of all of these organisations and the individuals within them. Perhaps that’s why those people are chosen to head the inquiries or maybe the funding decisions are long forgotten.
Twenty percent budget cuts in public services in 2010/11 meant that priorities were altered often with catastrophic consequences. But to be honest the problems go much further back than the austerity measures of 2010/11. Successive governments have squeezed public services in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness. The result, neither being achieved, just some tinder box ready to explode into disaster. And yet more hand wringing and finger pointing and costly inquiries.
The problem is not just that the organisations failed or that departments or individuals failed, the problem is that all the failings might have been prevented if there was money available to deliver the service properly in the first place. And to do that, there needs to be enough staff, enough training, and enough equipment. And who is responsible for ensuring that happens?
Now you may say that is all very well but what of the police officers that are racist and misogynistic or corrupt and what of institutional corruption? After all the HMICFRS report is not just about vetting procedures but about the attitudes and behaviours of staff. A good point but let me point you to the behaviour of government, not just this government but preceding governments as well. The expenses scandal, the bullying allegations, the improper behaviour in parliament, the complete disregard for the ethics or for that matter, common decency. And what of those successive budget cuts and lack of willingness to address very real issues faced by staff in the organisations.
Let me also point you to the behaviour of the general public from whom the police officers are recruited. A society where parents that attend children’s football matches and hurl abuse at the referee and linesmen, even threatening to see them in the car park after the match. Not a one off but from recent reports a weekly occurrence and worse. A society now where staff in shops are advised not to challenge shoplifters in fear of their own safety. A society where there is a complete disregard for the law by many on a daily basis, including those that consider themselves law abiding citizens. A society where individuals blame everyone else, always in need of some scapegoat somewhere. A society where individuals know individually and collectively how they want others to behave but don’t know or disregard how they should behave.
I’m not surprised by the recent reports into policing and other services, saddened but not surprised. I’m not naïve enough to think that society was really any better at some distant time in the past, in fact there were some periods where it was definitely worse and policing of any sort has always been problematic. My fear is we are heading back to the worst times in humanity and these reports far from highlighting just an organisational problem are shining a floodlight on a societal one. But it suits everyone to confine the focus to the failings of organisations and the individuals within them. Not my fault, not my responsibility it’s the others not me, quelle surprise.
The Origins of Criminology
The knife was raised for the first time, and it went down plunging into naked flesh; a spring of blood flowed cascading and covering all in red. The motion was repeated several times. Abel fell to his death and according to scriptures this was the first crime. Cain who wielded the knife roamed the earth until his demise. The fratricide that was committed was the first recorded murder and the very first crime. A colleague tried to be smart and pointed that the first crime is Eve’s violation in the garden with the apple, but I did point out that according to Helena Kennedy QC, she was framed! In the least Eve’s was a case of entrapment which is criminological but leaves the first crime vacant. So, murder it is! A crime of violence that separates aggressor and victim.
The response to this crime is retribution. In the scriptures a condemnation to insanity. In later years this crime formed the basis of the Mosaic Law inclusive of the 10 commandments and death as the indicative punishment. In the Ancien Régime the punishment became a spectacle on deterrence whilst the crowds denounced the evildoer as they were wheeled into the square! In modern times this criminality incorporated rehabilitation to offer the opportunity for the criminal to repent and make amends.
‘The first man who having enclosed a piece of ground bethought himself of saying “This is mine”’! This is an alternative interpretation of the first crime, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762/1993: 192). In The Social Contract he identifies the first crime very differently from the scriptures. In this case the crime is not directed at a person but the wider community. The usurping of land or good in any manner that violates the rights of others is crime because it places individualism ahead of the common good. As in this crime there is no violence against the person, the way in which we respond to it is different. Imperialism as a historical mechanism accepts the infringement of property, rights, and human rights as a necessity in human interactions. The law here is primarily protected for the one who claims the land rather than those who have been left homeless. In this case, crime is associated with all those mechanisms that protect privilege and property. Soon after titles of land emerged and thereafter titles of people owning other people follow. The land becomes an empire, and the empire allows a man and his regime to set the laws to protect him and his interests. Traditionally empires change from territories of land to centres of government and control of people. The land of the English, the land of the Finnish, the land of the Zulu. In this instance the King become a figure and custom law subverts natural law to accommodate authority and power.
These two “original” crimes represent the diversity in which criminology can be seen; one end is the interpersonal psychological rendition of criminality based on the brutality of violence whilst on the other end is an exploration of wider structural issues and the institutional violence they incorporate. The spectrum of variety criminology offers is a curse and a blessing in one. From one end, it makes the discipline difficult to specify, but it also allows colleagues to explore so many different issues. Regardless of the type of crime category for any person attracted to the discipline there is a criminology for all.
Between these two polar apart approaches, it is interesting to note their interaction. In that it can be seen the interaction of the social and historical priorities of crime given at any given time. This historical positivism of identifying milestones of progression is an important source of understanding the evolution of social progression and movements. Let’s face it, crime is a social construct and as such regardless of the perspective is indicative of the way society prioritises perceptions of deviance.
Arguably the crimes described previously denote different schools of thought and of course the many different perspectives of criminology. A perfectly contorted discipline that not only adapts following the evolution of crime but also theorises criminality in our society. When you are asked to describe criminology, numerous associations come to mind, “the study of crime and criminality” the “discipline of criminal behaviours” “the social construction of crime” “the historical and philosophical understanding of crime in society across time” “the representation of criminals, victims, and agents in society”. These are just a few ways to explain criminology. In this entry we explore the origins of two perspectives; theology and sociology; image that the discipline is influenced by many other perspectives; so consider their “origin” story. How different the first crime can be from say a psychological or a biological perspective. The origins of criminology is an ongoing tale of fascinating specialisms.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, (1762/1993), The Social Contract and Discourses, tr. from the French by G.D.H. Cole, (London: Everyman’s Library)
Do You Remember the Time? At the Lynching Memorial
On September 11, 2021 I visited the Lynching Memorial, which is near the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.
Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.
We can see that, at times, entire families were lynched.
The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.
Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,
Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.
One needs time to prepare.
Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,
The museum also has an array of material on lynching.
This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and
An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.
I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and
Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.
These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.
Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.
Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.
He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,
“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”
I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:
A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –
Just like Eric Garner!
Yet, even since then,
We’ve gotten the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,
Or even Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Philando Castile.
Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop
And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.
Tamir Rice was a little boy.
A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.
So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!
We can watch the tape.
All of these martyrs are included in the museum’s growing timelines (sigh).
After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,
EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and
If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).
An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.
These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.
These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.
The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.
There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.
Outside of these few sorts of memorials,
We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.
Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.
We know many fled after any minor incursion,
Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,
And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and
Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.
Yet, whites must have kept record.
Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?
They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.
Where are the avid collectors?
Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,
So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?
Or eyes they plucked out?
Or scalps they shaved?
Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still
I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,
Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.
And in many ways, it was, and
The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.
Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.
Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include
Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.
Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.
Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,
Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.
The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.
How many more pillars may we still need?
How many amendments
did will freedom take?
It goes to show how great thou art now!
There’s no I in teamwork but maybe there’s space for me and you?
Teamwork is often promoted as a valuable transferable skill both by universities and employers. However, for many the sheer mention of this type of group activity is enough to fill them with dread. This is a shame, and I want to use this blog to explain why.
I’m definitely not one for sports, but even I cannot avoid the discourse around women’s football and Euro 2022. Much has been written about the talents and skill of England’s Lionesses, of which I know very little. Equally there has been disquiet around the overwhelming whiteness of the team, an inequality I am very familiar with throughout my studies of crime, criminality and criminal justice. Nevertheless this blog isn’t about inclusion and exclusion, but about teamwork. Football, like many activities is not a solo enterprise but a group activity. All members need to be able to rely upon their team mates for support, encouragement and ultimately success. If a player doesn’t turn up for training, doesn’t engage in sharing space, passing the ball and so on, the team will fail in their endeavours. Essentially, the team must be on the same page and be willing to sacrifice individuality (at times) for the good of the team. But football isn’t the only activity where teamwork is crucial.
One only has to imagine the police, another overwhelmingly white institution, but with a very different mandate and different measures of success. Here a lack of support from team mates could be a matter of life and death. Even if not so severe, the inability to work closely with other officers in a team can make professional and person life extraordinarily difficult to maintain. It has repercussions for individual offices, the police force itself and indeed, society.
Whilst I’ve the made the case for teamwork, it is not clear what makes a good team, or how it could be maintained. Do all teams work? Personal experience tells me that when members have very different agendas and lose sight of the main objective, team work can be very challenging, if not impossible. There has to be a buy in from all members, not just some. There has to be space for individuals to develop themselves as well as the wider team. However, when the individual aims continue to take priority over the collective, cracks emerge. The same experiences suggest that teamwork cannot be accomplished instantly regardless of intent. Teams take a long time to build rapport, to bond, to gain trust across members and this cannot be hurried. Furthermore, this process requires continuing individual and collective reflection and development. So where can we find an example of such excellence (outside of the wonderful Criminology Team, of course)?
I recently watched the BBC 4-part documentary My Life as a Rolling Stone. Produced to mark 60 years of the band, the documentary explores the lives of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and the late, Charlie Watts. There were lots of interesting aspects to each part, but the most striking to me was the sense of belonging. That the Rolling Stones are a cohesive team, with each member playing very different parts, but all essential to not only the success of the band, but also to the well-being of the four men. Alongside discussions around creativity, musicality and individual skills, they describe drug taking, alcohol abuse, romantic relationships, fights, falling out and making up. There were periods of silence, of discord and distrust and periods of celebration and sheer personal and collective joy. Working together they provide each other with exactly what they need to thrive individually and collectively.
These men have made more money than most of us can dream of. They have been to parts of the world and seen things that most of us will never see. All of them are heading toward 80 but keep writing and performing. More importantly for this blog, they seem to illustrate what teamwork looks like, one where communication is key, where disputes must be resolved one way or another, regardless of who was right and who was wrong and where the sheer sense of needing one another, belonging remains paramount. I could use a dictionary definition of teamwork, but it seems to me the Rolling Stones say it better than I ever could:
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You get what you need”(Jagger and Richards, 1969).
A Punky Reggae Party
In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market.
Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play. So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).
Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton. We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture. While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.
It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment. Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.
As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.
Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place. I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.
So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77? It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:
What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality
If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.
‘By order of the Peaky Blinders’: GRT History Matters
Once Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) history month commences Gypsy and Traveller histories are largely ignored. This is on par with the the erasure of GRT history and contemporary culture within mainstream Britain. Given this, I was surprised that the very popular Peaky Blinders starred Birmingham based main characters and their families who appear to be Brummies, of Romany, Gypsy and Irish Traveller heritage.
In many ways representation within Peaky Blinders is problematic, it is typical that once GRT people appear as main characters their lifestyles are associated with gangs, sex and violence. But there are a lot of positives, the episodes are filled with fabulous costumes, interesting characters, plots, settings and music. There is certainly a lot of pride that comes with the representation of Birmingham based lives of mixed heritage Gypsy and Traveller families on screen.
Peaky Blinders is set in a time era which is just after WWI and appears to end in the 1930s. Whilst the series is fictional, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the lives of the fictional main character Tommy Shelby and his family and the real-life lived histories of Gypsy and Traveller people.
Peaky Blinders does well to de-mythisise the assumption that Gypsy and Traveller people do not mix with gorgers and do not participate within mainstream society. To illustrate, Tommy and his brother’s fought in WWI and experienced the damaging aftereffects of war participation. In reality, despite previously being subjected to British colonial practices and being treated with distain by the State many British Gypsy and Traveller people would have had no choice but to fight in this war due to conscription. Many would have lost their lives because of this.
Note that Tommy’s family mostly lived within housing and were working within mainstream industrial society. In reality, in industrial cities like Birmimgham many nomadic Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles would have been under threat due to land purchases made by gorgers for the purpose of building factories and housing (Green, 2009). Upon purchase of this land nomadic groups would be evicted from it, this would have left many homeless, with the increased the pressure to assimilate. This would result in work life changes, hence, Gypsy and Traveller people worked alongside gorgers in factories, where the pay and conditions would have been poor (Green, 2009).
Just like prejudice in reality, even when living within housing Tommy and his family experience prejudice from within and outside of their own community. Tommy is referred to as a ‘dirty didicoi’ seemingly due to the perception of his mixed heritage and not being of ‘full-blooded’ Gypsy stock. In response to an anti-gypsy slur Tommy mocks stereotypes by stating that as well as his day job he ‘also sells pegs and tells fortunes’.
Towards the end of Peaky Blinders the promotion of fascism by elite figures is central to the storyline. Just as in reality, there was the development of the British Union of Fascists political party. Prejudice and fascist ideas contributed to categorising Gypsys as an inferior race. Whilst Peaky Blinders ends before WWII it is harrowing to know that these ideas influenced the extermination of Roma and Gypsies during the Nazi regime. Many British Gypsy and Traveller soldiers lives would have also been lost in fighting the Nazi’s in WWII due to this.
It is unfortunate that the women have less screen time in Peaky Blinders, but their personalities did shine. Ada’s character and response to prejudice is ace, whether this is responding to street hecklers, an elite eugenicist women’s ethnic cleansing ideas, or her son’s prejudice towards his sister. When her son refers to his sister as a ‘thing’ and states that she would ‘get them killed’ as she was a Black-mixed race child she responds by stating, ‘where will they send you Karl?’ whilst making him aware that he could also be subjected to persecution due to having a Jewish father and a Gypsy mother.
This year marks the end of Peaky Blinder’s episodes, the last episode is great. Tommy returns to his roots – choosing to end his days with his horse, wagon and photographs of his family. But he then wins against all the odds! Unfortunately, whilst Peaky Blinders has been celebrated there is less celebration of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicities, these were completely ignored within the documentary The Real Peaky Blinders.
Through whitewashing Gypsy and Traveller peoples histories are frequently denied. To adapt David Olusoga’s words, ‘[Gypsy and Traveller] history is British history’. An awareness of Roma Gypsy and Traveller history should not only reside with Gypsies and Travellers alone, or exist at the margins, as these are connected to all of us. As Taylor and Hinks (2021) indicate, if there is increased awareness that past and present themes of percecution this might enable increased support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights – this is vital.
Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten History, BBC [online].
Taylor, B. and Hinks, J., (2021). What field? Where? Bringing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History into View. Cultural and social history, 18(5), pp.629–650.