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Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: #MakeSomeSpace

When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.

My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.      

Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.

This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.

There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.

With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?

Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

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Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.

Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.

On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.

The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.

This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.

Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.

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