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Can there be Justice for Benjamin Arum Izang? An Unfortunate Victim of Forum Shopping

So Jos[1] tweeter community was agog with the scandal of the alleged torture of 31 year old Benjamin Arum Izang by personnel of the Operation Safe Haven (OPSH) Military Special Task Force (STF) conducting internal security operations in Plateau State. The family reported that the torture eventually led to Benjamin’s demise because of the fatality of the injury inflicted on him by the military personnel.

The sad event that led to this unfortunate incidence is reported to be an altercation over a fifty-naira egg (approximately 11 cents) between the deceased and a certain Blessing, an egg hawker whose egg was said to be broken by Benjamin. Failure to reach an understanding led Blessing to report the matter to the personnel of the STF, who quickly swung into action, albeit, one that involved the torture of Benjamin.

An investigation by Dickson S. Adama (a media correspondent) revealed that the Media Officer of the STF indicates not been aware of the incident. However, the family and the concerned public are crying for justice as this is not the first of such cases in the State. Rightfully so, scholars and practitioners of peace and conflict consider this incidence as forum shopping,[2] a decision by disputants to choose a security agency to intervene in their dispute, based on the expectation that the outcome will favour them, even if they are the party at fault. Studies[3] including my doctoral research on the military security operations in Plateau State indicates this as a recurring problem when the military conducts security operations in society.[4]

Often, when dispute ensues between two or more parties and both desire to emerge victorious or to exert their position on the other, desperate actions can be taken to ensure victory. One of such actions is the decision to invite a third party such as the military which is often not the suitable institution to handle matters of civilian disputes. In my doctoral research, I detailed the factors that makes the military the most unsuitable agency for this role, key among which is that they are neither trained nor indoctrinated for law enforcement duties. More so, the task and skill of law enforcement and managing civilian disputes which involves painstaking investigation and ascertaining guilt before conviction/serving punishment is the primary role of the police and the criminal justice system, which the military is not a part of. The military trains for war and combat mission, to kill and to obliterate and essentially, their culture and indoctrination is designed along these tenets.

Given this, when the military is involved internally as in the case of Benjamin and Blessing, it engenders numerous challenges. First, with the knowledge that the military dispenses ‘instant justice’ such as punishment before determining guilt, civilians such as Blessing will always seek this option. Tweeps such as @ByAtsen tweeted for instance that ‘same soldiers at the same outpost did this to another who, unlike Benjamin, is still alive nursing his wounds.’ One challenge is that where forum shopping denies justice, it breeds lawlessness and can further evoke public outrage against the military. In turn, this can erode the legitimacy of the security role of the military. Where this occurs, a more worrying challenge is that it can exacerbate rather than ameliorate insecurity, especially where civilians feel compelled to seek alternative protection from coercion from State forces and threats from the armed groups the military was meant to avert.


[1] Jos is the capital city of Plateau State Nigeria. The State was once the most peaceful State in Nigeria (arguable) but is now embroiled in intermittent and protracted violence, between the mostly Christian natives and Hausa/Fulani ‘settlers,’ and series of insurgent style attacks of rural farming communities by marauding herdsmen widely believed to be Fulani herdsmen.

[2] Keebet Von Benda-Beckmann, ‘Forum Shopping and Shopping Forums: Dispute Processing in a Minangkabau Village in West Sumatra’, Journal of Legal Pluralism, 19 (1981), 117–59.

[3] Judith Verweijen, ‘The Ambiguity of Militarization: The Complex Interaction between the Congolese Armed Forces and Civilians in the Kivu Provinces, Eastern DR Congo’ (Utrecht University, 2015).

[4] Sallek Yaks Musa, ‘Military Internal Security Operations in Plateau State, North Central Nigeria: Ameliorating or Exacerbating Insecurity?’ (Stellenbosch University, 2018) <https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/104931&gt; [accessed 14 March 2019].

“TW3” in Criminology

In the 1960s, or so I am told, there was a very popular weekly television programme called That Was The Week That Was, informally known as TW3. This satirical programme reflected on events of the week that had just gone, through commentary, comedy and music. Although the programme ended before I was born, it’s always struck me as a nice way to end the week and I plan to (very loosely) follow that idea here.

This week was particularly hectic in Criminology, here are just some of the highlights. On Monday, I was interviewed by a college student for their journalism project, a rather surreal experience, after all, ‘Who cares what I think?

On Tuesday, @manosdaskalou and I, together with a group of enthusiastic third years, visited the Supreme Court in London. This trip enabled a discussion which sought to unpack the issue of diversity (or rather the lack of) within justice. Students and staff discussed a variety of ideas to work out why so many white men are at the heart of justice decisions. A difficult challenge at the best of times but given a new and urgent impetus when sat in a courtroom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective and impartial when confronted with the evidence of 12 Supreme Judges, only two of which are women, and all are white. Arguments around the supposed representativeness of justice, falter when the evidence is so very stark. Furthermore, with the educational information provided by our tour guide, it becomes obvious that there are many barriers for those who are neither white nor male to make their way through the legal ranks.

Wednesday saw the culmination of Beyond Justice, a module focused on social justice and taught entirely in prison. As in previous years, we have a small ceremony with certificate presentation for all students. This involves quite a cast, including various dignitaries, as well as all the students and their friends and family. This is always a bittersweet event, part celebration, part goodbye. Over the months, the prison classroom leaves its oppressive carceral environment behind, instead providing an intense and profound tight-knit learning community. No doubt @manosdaskalou and I will return to the prison, but that tight-knit community has now dissipated in time and space.

On Thursday, a similarly bitter-sweet experience was my last focused session this year on CRI3003 Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. Since October, the class has discussed many different topics relating to institutional violence focused on different cases including the deaths of Victoria Climbié, Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as the horror of Grenfell. We have welcomed guest speakers from social work, policing and the fire service. Discussions have been mature, informed and extremely sensitive and again a real sense of a learning community has ensued. It’s also been my first experience of teaching an all-female cohort which has informed the discussion in a variety of meaningful ways. Although I haven’t abandoned the class, colleagues @manosdaskalou and @jesjames50 will take the reins for a while and focus on exploring interpersonal violence. I’ll be back before the end of the academic year so we can reflect together on our understanding of the complexity of violence.

Finally, Friday saw the second ever #BigCriminologyQuiz and the first of the new decade. At the end of the first one, the participants requested that the next one be based on criminology and music. Challenge completed with help from @manosdaskalou, @treventoursu, @svr2727, @5teveh and @jesjames50. This week’s teams have requested a film/tv theme for the next quiz so we’ll definitely have our work cut out! But it’s amazing to see how much criminological knowledge can be shared, even when you’re eating snacks and laughing. [i]


So, what can I take from my criminological week:

  1. Some of the best criminological discussions happen when people are relaxed
  2. Getting out of the classroom enables and empowers different voices to be heard
  3. Getting out of the classroom allows people to focus on each and share their knowledge, recognising that
  4. A classroom is not four walls within a university, but can be anywhere (a coach, a courtroom a prison, or even the pub!)
  5. A new environment and a new experience opens the way for discord and dissent, always a necessity for profound discussion within Criminology
  6. When you open your eyes and your mind you start to see the world very differently
  7. It is possible (if you try very hard) to ignore the reality of Friday 31 January 23:00
  8. It is possible to be an academic, tour guide, mistress of ceremonies and quiz mistress, all in the same week!

Here’s looking forward to next week….not least Thursday’s Changemaker Awards where I seem to have scored a nomination with my #PartnerinCriminology @manosdaskalou.

[i] The first quiz was won by a team made up of 1st and 2nd years. This week’s quiz was won by a group of third years. The next promises to be a battle royale 😊 These quizzes have exposed, just how competitive criminologists can be….


“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 over 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 not 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 detonates 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.

Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

A Love Letter: in praise of art

Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.

Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.

I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.

Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.

Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!

The struggle is real

Stephanie is a BA Criminology graduate of 2019 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of her own dissertation.

Last year was a very important time for me, during my second year of studying Criminology I began doing a work placement with Race Act 40, which was an oral history project to celebrate 40 years of the Race Relations Act 1974. The interviews that were conducted during my placement allowed me to get a variety of in-depth stories about racial inequalities of Afro-Caribbean migration settlers in the UK. During my time with the Race Act 40 project it became clear to me that the people who had volunteered their stories had witnessed a long line of injustices from not only individuals within society, but also institutions that makeup the ‘moral fabric’ within society. When exploring whether they have seen changes post and pre-Race Relations they insisted that although the individual within society treated them better and accepted them post-Race relations, to an extent there is a long way to go to improve the hostile relationships that has been formed with politicians and police.

The notion of hostility between politicians and the Afro-Caribbean community was reinforced, as the UK was going through the Windrush scandal which affected the core of every Afro-Caribbean household within the UK. This was extremely important for me as both paternal and maternal grandparents were first generation Windrush settlers. During the scandal my father became extremely anxious and the ramifications of the Windrush scandal hit home when some of his friends that came to the UK in 1961, the same time as he did, were detained and deported on the grounds of them being ‘illegals’. The UK Government used their ‘Hostile Environment’ policy to reintroduce Section 3 paragraph 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, which puts burden of proof on anyone that is challenged about their legal status in the UK’.

The UK government was ‘legally’ able to deport Caribbean settlers, as many of them did not have a British passport and could not prove their legal right to be in the UK and the Home Office could not help them prove their legal rights because all archival documents had been destroyed. This was a hard pill to swallow, as the United Kingdom documents and preserves all areas of history yet, overnight, the memory of my family’s journey to the UK was removed from the National Archives, without any explanation or reasoning. The anxiety that my father felt quickly spread over my whole family and while I wanted to scream and kick down doors demanding answers, I used my family’s history and the experiences of other Black people under British colonial rule as the basis for my dissertation. The hostility that they faced stepping off the Windrush echoed similar hostility they were facing in 2018, the fact that the British government had started deporting people who were invited into the country as commonwealth workers to build a country that had been torn apart as a corollary of war was a slap in the face.

Under Winston Churchill’s government, officials were employed to research Black communities to prove they were disproportionately criminal as a strategy to legally remove them from the UK and although they did not have any evidence to prove this notion the government did not apologize for the distasteful and racist treatment they demonstrated. It is hard to convince Black people in 2019 that they are not targets of poor similar treatment when they have been criminalised again and documents have been destroyed to exonerate them from criminality.

A final thought:

I have outlined the reasons why this topic has been important to me and my advice to any Criminology student who is going to be writing a dissertation is, to find a topic that is important and relevant to you, if you are passionate about a topic it will shine through in your research.

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (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, (London: Ministry of Justice)

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