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It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]
Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”
Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.
My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.
My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.
My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.
My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters” – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.
My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”
Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales. Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%. This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16. The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately.
I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story. Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines. The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights. Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein? Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.
My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him. As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft. Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court. As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury. The judicial system has moved a long way since then. Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases. Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency. Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims. The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years. Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.
My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it. The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice. To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.
There is a representation of justice. A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other. This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority. The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair. To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life. Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.
The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public. The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata. Well, at least in principle. There is a difference between representation and reality. This is something we learn from early on. As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup. It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations. Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet. Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing.
Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need. It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth. Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era. Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism. The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised. Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice. Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing.
This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”. Desirable and available to all citizens. A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account. Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation. The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring. There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart. The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo.
On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened. Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical. Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive. Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people. For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice. If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental. Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations.
Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system. It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems. From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented. Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower. Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change. Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.
I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?
And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question. Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?
If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance. I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.
If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do. In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.
If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.
The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.
“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Mary Adams, recent Graduate and mature student.
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!
The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: I would have to say they are all equally important for understanding different aspects of Criminology. In first year I loved The Science of Crime which showed how things have evolved over time, and that what we now see as funny was actually cutting edge in its day. True Crime also makes you look beyond the sensational headlines and separate fact from fiction. In second year Crime & Justice gave a brilliant grounding in the inner workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system. And in third year, the Violence module explores personal and institutional violence, which is especially relevant in current times
The academic criminology book you must read: Becker’s Outsiders and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics are a must. I also found Hopkins-Burke’s An Introduction to Criminological Theory and Newburn’s Criminology essential reading for first year as well as Finch & Fafinski’s Criminological Skills. For second year I recommend Davies, Croall & Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. If you choose the Violence module in third year you will be grateful for Curtin & Litke’s Institutional Violence. And don’t forget Foucault’s Discipline & Punish!
The academic journal article you must read:
There are so many excellent journal articles out there, it’s difficult to choose! Some of my favourites have been:
'Alphonse Bertillon & the measure of man' by Farebrother & Champkin;
'Bad Boys, Good Mothers & the ‘’Miracle’’ of Ritalin by Ilina Singh';
'Detainee Abuse & the Ethics of Psychology' by Kathryn French;
'Attachment, Masculinity & Self-control' by Hayslett-McCall & Bernard;
'Grenfell, Austerity & Institutional Violence' by Cooper & Whyte;
'The Phenomenology of Paid Killing' by Laurie Calhoun;
'A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists' by J. Arrigo.
The criminology documentary you must watch:
Without a doubt, a must-see is the Panorama documentary London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame. I would also highly recommend the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment
The most important criminologist you must read:
Of course you must read Lombroso, Beccaria & Bentham. I also enjoyed reading work by feminist criminologists like Pat Carlen, Carol Smart & Sandra Walklate. And of course, Angela Davis is a must!
Something criminological that fascinates me:
What fascinates me is how the powers that be, and a good proportion of the public, cannot seem to realise that social injustice is one of the major factors behind why people commit crime. And the fact that putting more & more people in prison is seen as a ‘good’ thing is mind-boggling!
The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
The fact that it is such a diverse subject & incorporates so many other disciplines
The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
Question everything! Don’t take anything at face-value. Try to look beyond the attention grabbing headlines to find out the real story. Read, read, read!
The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Unfortunately I think there are many pressing problems facing society today, the main ones being social injustice & inequality, systemic racism, institutional violence, and mass incarceration
When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Some people joke that I’m learning how to be a criminal! Others think it’s all about locking people up! I tell them it’s all about looking at the mechanisms in-built in our society that disadvantage & discriminate against whole groups of people, and that, unless we are part of the rich & powerful elite, any one of us could find ourselves in the ‘out’ group at any time. I also tell them to stop reading The Daily Mail, vote Labour, and question everything!!
Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights. A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights. The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights. In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals.
This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law. In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group. These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all. This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws. The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation.
Take for example “entrapment”. Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis. The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society. The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax. So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals? It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.
The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction. As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison. It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery). It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category.
The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced. Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them. This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested. For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) .
The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing. During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live. It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police. This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.
In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:
“It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”
This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise. For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts. The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing. The struggle continues…
Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm
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
George Floyd’s words: “I can’t breathe”, have awaken almost every race and creed in relevance to the injustice of systematic racism faced by black people across the world. His brutal murder has echoed and been shared virtually on every social media platform – Floyd’s death has changed the world and showed that Black people are no longer standing alone in the fight against racism and racial profiling. The death of George Floyd has sparked action within both the white and black communities to demand comprehensive police reforms in regards to police brutality and the use of unjust force towards ethnic minorities.
There have been many cases of racism and racial profiling against black people in the United Kingdom, and even more so in the United State. Research has suggested that there have been issues with police officers stereotyping ethnic minorities, especially black people, which has resulted in a vicious cycle of the stopping and searching of those that display certain physical features. Other researchers have expounded that the conflict between the police and black people has no correlation with crime, rather it is about racism and racial profiling. Several videos circulating on social media platforms depict that the police force does harbour officers who hold prejudice views towards black people within its ranks.
Historically, black people have been deprived, excluded, oppressed, demonised and brutally killed because of the colour of their skin. As ex-military personnel in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and currently working as a custody officer, I can say from experience that the use of force used during the physical restraint on George Floyd was neither necessary nor proportionate to the circumstances. In the video recorded by bystanders, George Floyd was choked in the neck whilst fighting for his life repeating the words “I can’t breathe”. Perhaps the world has now noticed how black people have not been able to breathe for centuries.
The world came to halt because of Covid-19; many patients have died because of breathing difficulties. Across the world we now know what it means if a loved one has breathing issues in connection with Covid-19 or other health challenges. But nothing was done by the other police officers to advise their colleague to place Floyd in the recovery position, in order to examine his breathing difficulties as outlined in many restraint guidelines.
Yet that police officer did not act professional, neither did he show any sign of empathy. Breath is not passive, but active, breathing is to be alive. Racial profiling is a human problem, systematic racism has destroyed the world and further caused psychological harm to its victims. Black people need racial justice. Perhaps the world will now listen and help black people breathe. George Floyd’s only crime was because he was born black. Black people have been brutally killed and have suffered in the hands of law enforcement, especially in the United States.
Many blacks have suffered institutional racism within the criminal justice system, education, housing, health care and employment. Black people like my own wife could not breathe at their workplaces due to unfair treatment and systematic subtle racial discrimination. Black people are facing unjust treatment in the workplace, specifically black Africans who are not given fair promotional opportunities, because of their deep African accent. It is so naïve to assume that the accent is a tool to measure one’s intelligence. It is not overt racism that is killing black people, rather the subtle racism in our society, schools, sports and workplace which is making it hard for many blacks to breathe.
We have a duty and responsibility to fight against racism and become role models to future generations. Maybe the brutal death of George Floyd has finally brought change against racism worldwide, just as the unprovoked racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence had come to embody racial violence in the United Kingdom and led to changes in the law. I pray that the massive international protest by both black and other ethnicities’ will not be in vain. Rather than “I can’t breathe” reverberating worldwide, it should turn the wheel of police reforms and end systematic racism.
“Restricting someone’s breath to the point of suffocation is a violation of their Human Rights”.
In an uncomfortable irony, my regular blog entry has fallen on the 8 May 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe. I say uncomfortable because I find this kind of commemoration particularly challenging to comprehend, given my pacifist tendencies. I’m therefore going to take a rather circuitous route through this entry.
On the 20 March 2020 I wrote the first Thoughts from the Criminology team blog entry (focused on Covid-19), just a few hours after the University had moved to virtual working. Since then the team has tackled the situation in a variety of different ways. In that I detailed my feelings and observations of life, as we knew it, suddenly coming to abrupt halt. Since then we have had 7 weeks of lockdown and it is worth taking stock of where we are currently.
At present the UK has recorded over 30,000 deaths attributed to the virus. These figures are by necessity inaccurate, the situation has been moving extremely fast. Furthermore, it is incredibly challenging to attribute the case of death, particularly in cases where there is no prior diagnosis of Covid-19. There has been, and remains a passionate discourse surrounding testing (or the lack of it), the supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (or the lack of it) and the government’s response (or lack of) to the pandemic. Throughout there has been growing awareness of disparity, discrimination and disproportionality. It is clear that we are not in all this together and that some people, some groups, some communities are bearing the brunt of the current crisis.
Having studied institutional violence for many years, it is evident that the current pandemic has shown a spotlight on inequality, austerity and victimisation. The role of institutions has been thrown into sharp relief, with their many failings in full view of anyone who cared to look. In 1942, Beveridge was clear that his “five giant evils” could have been addressed, prior to World War 2, yet in the twenty-first century we have been told these are insurmountable. Suddenly, in the Spring of 2020, we find that councils can house the homeless, that hungry children can be fed, that money can be found to ensure that those same children have access to educational resources. We also find that funds can be located to build emergency hospitals and pay staff to work there and across all other NHS sites.
Alongside this new-found largesse, we find NHS staff talking about the violences they face. The violence of being unable to access the equipment they need to do their jobs, the violence of being deprived of regular breaks, the violence of racism, which many staff face both internally and externally. We hear similar tales from care workers, supermarkets workers, delivery drivers, the list goes on. Yet we are told by the government that we are all in this together. This we are told, is demonstrated by gathering on doorsteps to clap the NHS and carers. It can be compared with the effort of those during World War II, or so we are told. If we just invoke that “Blitz Spirit” “We’ll Meet Again” at the “White Cliffs of Dover”.
However, such exhortations come cheap, it costs nothing in time, or money, to clap, or to sing war time songs. To do so puts a veneer of respectability and hides the violent injustices inherent in UK society and the government which leads it. It disguises and obfuscates the data that shows graphic racial and social economic disparity in the death toll. Similarly, it avoids discussion of the role that different individuals, groups and communities play in working to combat this horrible virus. As a society we have quickly forgotten discussions around deserving/undeserving poor, the “hostile environment” and those deemed “low-skilled”. It camouflages the millions of people who are terrified of unemployment, poverty and all of the other injustices inherent within such statuses. It hides the fact that these narratives are white and male and generally horribly jingoistic by ignoring the contribution of anyone, outside of that narrow definition, to WWII and to the current pandemic. It is trite and demonstrates an indifference to human suffering across generations.
Let’s stop focusing on the cheap, the obvious and the trite and instead, once this is over, treat people (all people) with respect. Pay decent wages, enable access to good quality nutrition, education, health care, welfare and all of the other necessities for a good life. And by all means commemorate the anniversary of whatever you like, but do not celebrate war, the biggest violence of all, without which many more lives would be improved.
On Good Friday, Christians will remember one of the most important covenants in their faith. The arrest, trial and execution of the head of their church. Jesus, an inspiring figure across centuries, will be in the garden of Gethsemane asking his father “to take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), but finally accepting his fate. The significance of this self-sacrifice is the glue that connects the faith to its followers, because it is a selfless act, despite knowing in advance all that is to follow. The betrayal, the rejection, the torture, the humiliation and the eventual death. Even the resurrection, appears distant and therefore he will momentarily wish to abstain. Then, comes the thought; if not me, who? This act is conditional to all that will follow and so his free will ultimately condemn him.
These are steps that inspired many of his followers to take his word further across the world and subject themselves to whatever fate they were to suffer. The message rests in pure religious motives and motivations and over the years has eroded the implicit humanity that it contains. People have been able to demonstrate their destructive nature in wars, crime and continued injustices. Against them some people have taken exception and in acts of altruism willingly, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People of, or without, faith, but with a firm conviction on the sacrament of humanity.
People stood up against oppression and faced the judgement of the apartheid regime that murdered them, like Steve Biko. People who spoke out against social injustice like Oscar Romero, who was shot during mass. Those who resisted fascism like Ilektra Apostolou, a woman tortured and executed by the Nazis, and countless others throughout time. These people maybe knew the “risks” of speaking out, of making a stand, but did it anyway. A free will that led them to their damnation, but for millions of others, they became an inspiration. At the worst of times, they shine and take their place in history, not for conquering and victories, but for reminding us all of the nobility in being principled.
Selflessness offers a signal to all, of how important it is, for all of us to be part of our society. It is when we dig deep on those qualities, that some may not even know that they have. I remember reading the interview of a person tortured during a dictatorship, being described as a hero; their response was incredibly disarming. “I am not a hero; I was just there”. I am quite aware that I write this blog at a time of self-isolation, lockdowns and the daily body count of the dead. Over a period of weeks, our lives have radically changed, and we live in self-imposed confinement. We are spectators in a medical drama with serious social implications. Those we do not quite know, but it looks very likely that these reverberations will last for at least a while.
It is interesting to see a renewed appreciation for professionals, namely health care and for those professions that we did not hold in high regard previously. Hero as a term seems to be rebranding itself and this may be one of those long-term effects afterwards. Just to remind us all that on this Good Friday, numerous professionals in the health care system, carers, teachers, public transport, logistics, council and retail workers will be going to work with their free will, knowing some of the risks for them and their families. This is their testament, this is their covenant and that forms part of our collective civilisation. Whilst people remind us to wash our hands, I kiss their hands for their altruism