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April Showers: so many tears

What does April mean to you? April showers as the title would suggest, April Fools which I detest, or the beginning of winter’s rest? Today I am going to argue that April is the most criminogenic month of the year. No doubt, my colleagues and readers will disagree, but here goes….

What follows is discussion on three events which apart from their occurrence in the month of April are ostensibly unrelated. Nevertheless, scratch beneath the surface and you will see why they are so important to the development of my criminological understanding, forging the importance I place on social justice.

On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, with more than 1,500 lost lives. We know the story reasonably well, even if just through film. Fewer people are aware that this tragedy led to inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well, as Limitation of Liability Hearings. These acknowledged profound failings on the part of White Star and made recommendations primarily relating to lifeboats, staffing and structures of ships. Each of these were to be enshrined in law. Like many institutional inquiries these reports, thankfully digitised so anyone can read them, are very dry, neutral, inhumane documents. There is very little evidence of the human tragedy, instead there are questions and answers which focus on procedural and engineering matters. However, if you look carefully, there are glimpses of life at that time and criminological questions to be raised.

The table below is taken from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry Report and details both passengers and staff onboard RMS Titanic. This table allows us to do the maths, to see how many survived this ordeal. Here we can see the violence of social class, where the minority take precedence over the majority. For those on that ship and many others of that time, your experiences could only be mediated through a class based system. Yet when that ship went down, tragedy becomes the great equaliser.

On 15th April, 1989 fans did as they do (pandemics aside) every Saturday during the football season, they went to the game. On that sunny spring day, Liverpool Football Club were playing Nottingham Forest, both away from home and over 50,000 fans had travelled some distance to watch their team with family and friends. Tragically 96 of those fans died that day or shortly after. @anfieldbhoy has written a far more extensive piece on the Hillsborough Disaster and I don’t plan to revisit the details here. Nevertheless, as with RMS Titanic, questions were asked in relation to the loss of life and institutional or corporate failings which led to this tragedy. Currently it is not possible to access the Taylor Report due to ongoing investigation, but it makes for equally dry, neutral and inhuman, reading. It is hard to catch sight of 96 lives in pages dense with text, focused on answering questions that never quite focus on what survivors and families need. The Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] is far more focused on people as are the Inquests (also currently unavailable) which followed. Criminologically, HIP’s very independence takes it outside of powerful institutions. So whilst it can “speak truth to power” it has no ability to coerce answers from power or enforce change. For the survivors and family it brings some respite, some acknowledgement that what happened that day should have never have happened. However, for those individuals and wider society, there appears to be no semblance of justice, despite the passing of 32 years.

On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He was the victim of a horrific, racially motivated, violent assault by a group of young white man. This much was known, immediately to his friend Duwayne Brooks, but was apparently not clear to the attending police officers. Instead, as became clear during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry the police investigation was riddled with institutional racism from the outset. The Macpherson report (1999) tries extremely hard to keep focus on Stephen Lawrence as a human being, try to read the evidence given by Duwayne Brooks and Stephen’s parents without shedding a tear. However, much of the text is taken is taken up with procedural detail, arguments and denial. In 2012 two of the men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were found guilty and sentenced to be detained under Her Majesty’s pleasure (both were juveniles in 1993). Since 1999, when the report was published we’ve learnt even more about the police’s institutional racism and their continual attacks on Stephen’s family and friends designed to undermine and harm. So whilst institutions can be compelled to reflect upon their behaviour and coerced into recognising the need for change, for evolution, in reality this appears to be a surface activity. Criminologically, we recognise that Stephen was the victim of a brutal crime, some, but not all, of those that carried out the attack have been held accountable. Justice for Stephen Lawrence, albeit a long time coming, has been served to some degree. But what about his family? Traumatised by the loss of one of their own, a child who had been nurtured to adulthood, loved and respected, this is a family deserving of care and support. What about the institutions, the police, the government? It seems very much business as usual, despite the publication of Lammy (2017) and Williams (2018) which provide detailed accounts of the continual institutional racism within our society. Instead, we have the highly criticised Sewell Report (2011) which completely dismisses the very idea of institutional racism. I have not linked to this document, it is beneath contempt, but if you desperately want to read it, a simple google search will locate it.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/katy_bird/6633864913

In each of the cases above and many others, we know instinctively that something is fundamentally wrong. That what has happened has caused such great harm to individuals, families, communities, that it must surely be a crime. But a crime as we commonly understand it involves victim(s) and perpetrator(s). If the Classical School of Criminology is to be believed, it involves somebody making a deliberate choice to do harm to others to benefit ourselves. If there is a crime, somebody has to pay the price, whatever that may be in terms of punishment. We look to the institutions within our society; policing, the courts, the government for answers, but instead receive official inquiries that appear to explore everything but the important questions. As a society we do not seem keen to grapple with complexity, maybe it’s because we are frightened that our institutions will also turn against us?

The current government assures us that there will be an inquiry into their handling of the pandemic, that there will be some answers for the families of the 126,000 plus who have died due to Covid-19. They say this inquiry will come when the time is right, but right for who?

Maybe you can think of other reasons why April is a criminologically important month, or maybe you think there are other contenders? Either way, why not get in touch?

“Back to the future”: 2019 A Year of Violence?

When I was young, 2020 seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Programmes like Tomorrow’s World held the promise of a future full of leisure, with technology taking the strain in all aspects of human life. Now we’re in 2020 it appears we have plenty of technology, but whether it adds or subtracts from the lived human experience, is still very much up for discussion. Certainly, it is increasingly difficult to separate work from leisure with the liquidity technology brings.

As is traditional for this time of year, the mind turns to reflection on the year gone by. This year is no different, after all it, like many others, has been packed with both good and bad experiences. Personally, 2019 was challenging in a number of different arenas, my patience, temerity and resilience have been tested in many novel ways. Events have caused me to reflect upon my own values and philosophies and my moral and ethical compass has been and continues to be tested. I don’t intend to go into lots of detail here, but it feels to me as if violence is increasingly impinging on all aspects of life. The first few days of 2020 suggests this perception is likely to continue with Trump’s decision to assassinate ‘Iran’s top general and second most powerful official, Qassem Suleimani’.

In December, 2019 we saw yet another general election. Whatever your particular persuasion, it is difficult to view British politics as anything other than increasingly personalised and aggressive. Individuals such as David Lammy MP, Diane Abbott MP, Caroline Dinenage MP, as well as campaigners such as Gina Miller and Greta Thunberg are regularly attacked on twitter and through other media. However,  it is not all one sided, as Drillminster showed us in 2018 with his artistic triumph Political Drillin. It is clear that these verbal attacks are beginning to become part and parcel of political life. Such behaviour is dangerous, on many levels, political discourse is a necessity in a mature democracy and shutting up discordant voices cannot lead to unity in the UK.

In November, we were shocked and horrified by the terrorist attack at Fishmonger’s Hall. This attack on colleagues involved in prison education, raised questions around individual and collective decisions to engage with criminology with convicted criminals. Nevertheless, despite such horrific violence, the principles and practice of prison higher education remain undaunted and potentially, strengthened.

October, saw the publication of Grenfell Phase 1. This document identifies some of the issues central to the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017. Whether this and later publications can ever really make sense of such complexity, offer the victims and survivors comfort and go some way to ensuring justice for all those involved, remains to be seen. Those who have studied CRI3003 Violence with me are likely to be cynical but it is early days.

For much of September, the focus was on the prorogation of parliament and the subsequent court case. As with December, there were many complaints about the violence of language used both inside and outside parliament. Particularly, notable was the attack on MP Jess Phillips’ constituency office and arguments around the inflammatory language used by PM Boris Johnson.

In August, the media published video footage of Prince Andrew with his friend, the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This story rumbles to the end of the year, with more allegations made toward the prince, culminating in an infamous interview which threatens to continue unabated.

July saw the end of a trial into modern slavery, leading to prison sentences for 8 of those involved. The judge concluded that slavery was still thriving in the UK, often ‘hiding in plain sight’. What support is available to those subjected to this violence, is not clear, but prison sentences are unlikely to make any material benefit to their lives.

In June, shocking footage emerged of MP Mark Field forcibly removing a female protester. Strikingly his colleague, MP Johnny Mercer tweeted  ‘if you think this is “serious violence” you may need to recalibrate your sensitivities’. After some years teaching around violence, I have no idea what Mr Mercer feels qualifies as violence, but putting your hands on another’s throat would seem to a reasonable starting point.

May saw attention drawn to the media, with the racism of Danny Baker and inherent cruelty of the Jeremy Kyle Show. Arguments which followed suggest that, for many, neither were seen as problematic and could be dismissed as so-called “entertainment”.

April saw the collapse of the first trial of David Duckenfield, police commander at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Although put on trial again, later in the year, he was found not guilty on the 28 November, 2019. The chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall perhaps spoke for everyone involved when she asked ‘When 96 people – they say 95, we say 96 – are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable. The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is: who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?’ After 30 years, it seems justice is still a long way away for the victims, survivors and their families.

After years of growth in life expectancy, in March the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries published data suggested that this was no longer the case in the UK. Although they offered no conclusions as to why this was the case, evidence indicating that the ideology of austerity costs lives, cannot be discounted.

In February, the Office for National Statistics announced homicidal knife crime was at the highest level for over 70 years.  Despite harsher sentences for those carrying knifes, evidence from the College of Policing indicates that such penalties exacerbate rather than improve the situation.

The new year began with squabbling about Brexit and the expected impact on Northern Ireland. On the 20 January 2019 a bomb detonated in Londonderry, fortunately with no injuries. For those of us old enough to remember “The Troubles”, footage of the incident brings back many horrific memories. Nevertheless, discussions around Northern Ireland and Brexit continue throughout 2019 and into 2020, with little regard for the violence which has ensued in the past.

Many events have happened in 2019, as with every other year and what stays in the mind is an individual matter. I feel that my world has become more violent, or maybe I have just become more attuned to the violence around me. I make no apology for my adherence to pacifist ideology, but this perspective has been and no doubt, will continue to be challenged. I must consider whether there comes a time when ideology, values, philosophy, temerity and resilience, are little more than good old-fashioned stubbornness. Until that point of no return comes, I will stand my ground and for every violent action that occurs, I will try my best to work toward a better world, once in which equality, peace and social justice reign supreme.

Is unconscious bias a many-headed monster?

When I was fourteen, I was stopped and searched in broad daylight. I was wearing my immaculate (private) school uniform – tie, blazer, shoes… the works. The idea I went to private school shouldn’t matter, but with that label comes an element of “social class.” But racial profiling doesn’t see class. And I remember being one of those students who was very proud of his uniform. And in cricket matches, we were all dressed well. I remember there being a school pride to adhere to and when we played away, we were representing the school and its reputation that had taken years to build. And within those walls of these private schools, there was a house pride.

Yet when I was stopped, it smeared a dark mark against the pride I had. I was a child. Innocent. If it can happen to me – as a child – unthreatening – it can really happen to anyone and there’s nothing they can to stop it. Here I saw unconscious bias rear its ugly head, like a hydra – a many-headed monster (you have to admire the Greeks, you’re never stuck for a metaphor!)

If we’re to talk about unconscious bias, we must say that it only sees the surface level. It doesn’t see my BA Creative Writing nor would it see that I work at a university. But unconscious bias does see Black men in hoodies as “trouble” and it labels Black women expressing themselves as “angry.”

Unconscious bias forces people of colour to censor their dress code – to not wear Nike or Adidas in public out of fear that it increases your chances of being racially profiled. Unconscious bias pushes Black and Asians to code-switch. If a White person speaks slang, it’s cool. When we do it, it’s ghetto. That’s how I grew up and when I speak well, I’ve had responses such as “What good English you speak.” Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

How you speak, what you wear – all these things are scrutinised more when you don’t have White Privilege. And being educated doesn’t shield non-White people (British people of colour included) from racist and xenophobic attacks, as author Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book:

“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”

The police can stop and question you at any time. The search comes into play, depending on the scenario. But when I was growing up, my parents gave me The Talk – on how Black people can get hassled by police. For me, I remember my parents sitting me down at ten years old. That at some point, you could be stopped and searched at any time – from aimlessly standing on a street corner, to playing in the park. Because you are Black, you are self-analysing your every move. Every footstep, every breath.

And to be stopped and searched is to have your dignity discarded in minutes. When it happened, the officer called me Boy – like Boy was my name – hello Mr Jim Crow –  like he was an overseer and I was a slave – hands blistering in cotton fields – in the thick of southern summertime heat. Call me Boy. Call me Thug. No, Call me Target. No, slave. Yes master, no master, whatever you say master. This was not Mississippi, Selma or Spanish Town – this was Northamptonshire in the 2000s and my name is Tré.

Yes, Northamptonshire. And here in 2019, the statistics are damning. Depending on which Black background you look at, you are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stop and searched if you are Black than if you are White (British). And reading these statistics is an indication of conversations we need to be having – that there is a difference between a Black encounter with the police and a White encounter. And should we be discussing the relationship between White Privilege and unconscious bias?

Are these two things an overspill of colonialism? Are they tied up in race politics and how we think about race?

Whilst these statistics are for Northamptonshire, it wouldn’t be controversial to say that stop and search is a universal narrative for Black people in Europe and the Americas. Whether we’re talking about being stopped by police on the street or being pressed for papers in 1780s Georgia. Just to live out your existence; for many its tiring – same story, different era.

You are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stopped if you are Black than if you are White (British) – but you know… let’s give Northamptonshire police tasers and see what happens. Ahem.

Bibliography

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print

(In)Human Rights in the “Compliant Environment”

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In the aftermath of the Windrush generation debacle being brought into the light, Amber Rudd resigned, and a new Home Secretary was appointed. This was hailed by the government as a turning point, an opportunity to draw a line in the sand. Certainly, within hours of his appointment, Sajid Javid announced that he ‘would do right by the Windrush generation’. Furthermore, he insisted that he did not ‘like the phrase hostile’, adding that ‘the terminology is incorrect’ and that the term itself, was ‘unhelpful’. In its place, Javid offered a new term, that of; ‘a compliant environment’. At first glance, the language appears neutral and far less threatening, however, you do not need to dig too deep to read the threat contained within.

According to the Oxford Dictionary (2018) the definition of compliant indicates a disposition ‘to agree with others or obey rules, especially to an excessive degree; acquiescent’. Compliance implies obeying orders, keeping your mouth shut and tolerating whatever follows. It offers, no space for discussion, debate or dissent and is far more reflective of the military environment, than civilian life.  Furthermore, how does a narrative of compliance fit in with a twenty-first century (supposedly) democratic society?

The Windrush shambles demonstrates quite clearly a blatant disregard for British citizens and implicit, if not, downright aggression.  Government ministers, civil servants, immigration officers, NHS workers, as well as those in education and other organisations/industries, all complying with rules and regulations, together with pressures to exceed targets, meant that any semblance of humanity is left behind. The strategy of creating a hostile environment could only ever result in misery for those subjected to the State’s machinations. Whilst, there may be concerns around people living in the country without the official right to stay, these people are fully aware of their uncertain status and are thus unlikely to be highly visible. As we’ve seen many times within the CJS, where there are targets that “must” be met, individuals and agencies will tend to go for the low-hanging fruit. In the case of immigration, this made the Windrush generation incredibly vulnerable; whether they wanted to travel to their country of origin to visit ill or dying relatives, change employment or if they needed to call on the services of the NHS. Although attention has now been drawn to the plight of many of the Windrush generation facing varying levels of discrimination, we can never really know for sure how many individuals and families have been impacted. The only narratives we will hear are those who are able to make their voices heard either independently or through the support of MPs (such as David Lammy) and the media. Hopefully, these voices will continue to be raised and new ones added, in order that all may receive justice; rather than an off-the-cuff apology.

However, what of Javid’s new ‘compliant environment’? I would argue that even in this new, supposedly less aggressive environment, individuals such as Sonia Williams, Glenda Caesar and Michael Braithwaite would still be faced with the same impossible situation. By speaking out, these British women and man, as well as countless others, demonstrate anything but compliance and that can only be a positive for a humane and empathetic society.

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