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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.
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.
Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.
Often when I visit different cities around the world, I notice that huge contrasts in the standards of life experienced by others are ‘plain for the eye to see’ within such small spaces.
What seems interesting is that inequality between the rich and poor are striking within western countries that are often perceived as being quite wealthy, ‘forward thinking’ and technologically advanced. This brings me to my recent trip to San Francisco, a city partly characterised by the beautiful red Golden Gate bridge which is situated near a beach where sun kissed, athletic and healthy-looking San Francisco residents seem to spend their free time socialising, sailing on boats, walking their pedigree dogs and playing sports. Of course, the view of the isolative Alcatraz prison to the East of the bridge dampens the illusion that San Francisco is a city which has historically upheld progressive and rehabilitative ideas. Whilst today, within this very same space, and more evidently, within a few blocks walk from this location, residents experience life in a very different manner. Many individuals are homeless, have significant physical and mental problems, the occasional prostitute hangs around attracting business and drugs are taken and offered out to passers-by. And on that very same red bridge many individuals attempt to and/or take their own lives out of desperation. So, for me, San Francisco exemplifies a city that is steeped in inequality.
In fact, a recent United Nations (2017) report points to high housing prices, the lack of social, educational and healthcare services for poorer Californian populations and tough responses to issues of homelessness and petty crime as being key to the increasing and continued levels of inequality within cities such a San Francisco. Last week in seminar sessions [CRI1007] we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What appears interesting here is that despite an international agreement that every individual should have a Right to Life, domestically, San Francisco’s approach to the provision of social and medical care for individuals results in the lesser quality and length of life for poorer populations. As in San Francisco the Right to Life is limited, as the city does not seem to be obliged to protect individuals who may die due to ill mental or physical health, the lack of medical insurance or the numerous experiences of poverty.
Prior to visiting San Francisco, I was quite excited to revel in its famous music scene and its picturesque charm. Yet, despite it being a fantastic place to visit that is full of eccentricity and character, the sombre tone of the city was made blatantly clear. I did however, leave feeling incredibly grateful for non-government organisations and communities who often provide for those who are viewed as being ‘deviant’ and not worthy of help. Such as the Gubbio Project, which, with the help of volunteers and public donations, provides Church shelter and basic provisions for the homeless. However, it is clear that a greater amount of support is required for the poorer residents of San Francisco.
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