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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.”
Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people. Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died. No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.
We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?
When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.
I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress. The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress. I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store. We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance. So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.
As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out. As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out. The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work. If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.
I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.
“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”
“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”
“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”
Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).
I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant. Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics. I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals. It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.
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.
Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September) and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.
As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.
In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.
I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.
I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.
I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.
I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk. I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.
I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate. I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.
I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front. They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff. They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.
And then I think, what if…
What if campuses are a free for all. Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes. Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.
What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.
What if social distancing becomes all too difficult. Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.
What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course. What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?
What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.
What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic? How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality. Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?
And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others. We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.
Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.
* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.
Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect. In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder. Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon. After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth. This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder. The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment.
There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point. Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society. In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool. As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced. The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.
When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.
This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law. It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton). In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.*
The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.
Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.
Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.
If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong. If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement. For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression.
Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.
Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.
If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.
*Even that can now be given as an affirmation
In March 23, 2020, the UK went into lockdown. The advice given, albeit conflicting in parts, was clear. Do not leave your home unless absolutely necessary, banning all travel and social interactions. This unprecedented move forced people to isolate at home for a period, that for some people will come to an end, when the WHO announces the end of the pandemic. For the rest of us, the use of a face mask, sanitiser and even plastic gloves have become modern day accessories. The way the lockdown was imposed and the threat of a fine, police arrest if found outside one’s home sparked some people to liken the experience with that of detention and even imprisonment.
There was definite social isolation during the pandemic and there is some future work there to be done to uncover the impact it has had on mental health. Social distancing was a term added to our social lexicon and we discovered online meetings and working from home. Schools closed and parents/guardians became de facto teachers. In a previous blog entry, we talked about the issues with home schooling but suffice to say many of our friends and colleagues discovered the joys of teaching! On top of that a number of jobs that in the past were seeing as menial. Suddenly some of these jobs emerge as “key professions”
The first lesson therefore is:
Our renewed appreciation for those professions, that we assumed just did a job, that was easy or straightforward. As we shall be coming back eventually to a new normality, it is worth noting how easy it will be to assign any job as trivial or casual.
As online meetings became a new reality and working from home, the office space and the use of massive buildings with large communal areas seemed to remain closed. This is likely to have a future impact on the way business conduct themselves in the future.
Given how many things had to be done now, does this mean that the multi occupancy office space will become redundant, pushing more work to be done from home. This will alter the way we divide space and work time.
During the early stages of the lockdown, some people asked for some reflection of the situation in relation to people’s experiences in prisons. The lockdown revealed the inequality of space. The reality is that for some families, space indicated how easy is to absorb the new social condition, whilst other families struggled. There is anecdotal information about an increase on mental health and stress caused from the intensive cohabitation. Several organisations raised the alarm that since the start of the lockdown there has been a surge in incidents of domestic violence and child abuse. The actual picture will become clearer of the impact the lockdown had on domestic violence in future years when comparisons can be drawn. None the less it reveals an important issue.
The home is not always the safest place when dealing with a global pandemic. The inequality of space and the inequality in relationships revealed what need to be done in the future in order to safeguard. It also exposed the challenges working from home for those that have no space or infostructure to support it.
In the leading up to the lockdown many households of vulnerable people struggled to cope with family members shielding from the virus. These families revealed weaknesses in the welfare system and the support they needed in order to remain in lockdown. Originally the lack of support was the main issue, but as the lockdown continued more complex issues emerged, including the financial difficulties and the poverty as real factors putting families at risk.
Risk is a wider concern that goes beyond personal and family issues. The lockdown exposed social inequality, poverty, housing as factors that increase the vulnerability of people. The current data on Covid-19 fatalities reveal a racial dimension which cannot longer be ignored.
During the lockdown, the world celebrated Easter and commemorated Mayday, with very little interaction whilst observing social distancing. At the end of May the world watched a man gasping for breath that died in police custody. This was one of the many times the term police brutality has related to the dead of another black life. People took to the streets, protested and toppled a couple of statues of racists and opened a conversation about race relations.
People may be in lockdown, but they can still express how they feel.
So, whilst the lockdown restrictions are easing and despite having some measures for the time being, we are stepping into a new social reality. On the positive side, a community spirit came to the surface, with many showing solidarity to those next to them, taking social issues to heart and more people talked of being allies to their fellow man. It seems that the state was successful to impose measures that forced people indoors that borderline in totalitarianism, but people did accept them, only as a gesture of goodwill. This is the greatest lesson of them all in lockdown; maybe people are out of sight, appear to be compliant in general but they are still watching, taking note and think of what is happening. What will happen next is everyone’s guess.
I am a white, middle class some might say (well my students anyway), ageing, male. I wasn’t always middle class, I’m from working class stock. I’m a university lecturer now but wasn’t always. I spent 30 years in the police service in a small, ethnically diverse, county in England. I didn’t consider myself a racist when I was in the police service and I don’t consider myself a racist now. Nobody has called me a racist to my face, so why the title? It’s how I’m constantly labelled. Every time someone says the police are racist or the police are institutionally racist, they are stating that about me. Just because I have left the police organisation doesn’t change who I am, my beliefs or my values. So, if the police are racist, then by default, I must be.
I’m not suggesting that some police officers are not racist, of course some are. Nor am I denying that there has been and probably still is some form of institutional racism within the police service, perhaps as a whole or perhaps at a more localised or departmental level. But bad apples and poorly thought-out, naïve or even reckless policies, strategies and procedures are not enough to explain what is going on in policing and policing of ethnic minority groups in particular. I’m talking about policing in this country, not across the pond where policing is very different in so many ways that it is hard to even suggest a realistic comparison. That of course is the first problem, what happens in the United States of America is immediately translated into what happens here.
As a lecturer, I constantly hear from students and read students’ work about the racist and brutal police, often interchanging commentary from the United States with commentary here in the United Kingdom, whilst also failing to recognise that there is different policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Institutional racism, as defined by Macpherson, is now part of the lexicon, but it no longer has the meaning Macpherson gave it, it is now just another way of saying the police are and every police officer is racist. Some students on finding out that I was a police officer show an instant dislike and distrust of me and sometimes it can take the whole three years to gain their trust, if at all. Students have been known to request a different dissertation supervisor, despite the fact that their research subject is in policing. This is not a complaint, just a statement of facts, painful as it is.
As I try to make sense of it all, I have so many unanswered questions. What is exactly going on? What is causing this conflict between the police and ethnic minority groups? Why is there a conflict, why is there distrust? More importantly, how can it be fixed? Some of the answers may lay in what the police are asked to do, or at least think they are asked to do. Reiner suggests that policing is about regulating social conflict, but which conflict and whose conflict is it? Other authors have suggested that the police are simply a means to allow the rich and privileged to maintain power. There may be some merit in the argument, but most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged. The rich and powerful of course commit crimes but they are nowhere near as tangible or easy to deal with. One the problems might be that the rich and powerful are not particularly visible to policing but the disadvantaged are.
Maybe some of the answers lay in notions of stereotyping, sometimes even unconsciously. Experience or narratives of experiences cause a wariness, even a different stance to one people might normally assume. Being thumped on the nose by a drunk, does tend to make a person wary of the next drunk they encounter. So, could stereotyping be a problem on both sides of the divide? My dissertation student that didn’t want me as a supervisor was later to reveal experiences of racist abuse aimed at the police officers she went out on patrol with. Policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful. If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.
I get the sense though that the problem is much deeper routed than policing. Policing and the problems of policing is just a sub plot in a much wider issue of a divided society and one that is in constant conflict with itself. If the police are guilty of racism, then it is society that has caused this. Our society’s values, our society’s beliefs. An unequal society where the poorest suffer the most and the rich get richer regardless. A society where we are all equal but only because someone somewhere said so at some time, it is not reality. I think of Merton’s ‘American Dream’, I don’t buy into the whole concept, but there is something about not having opportunities, equally when I think of Lea and Young and the concept of relative deprivation, whilst not explaining all crime, it has some merit in that notion that the disenfranchised have no voice.
As I write this I am conscious that I have commentated on a very emotive subject particularly at this time. As I watch the events unfold in America, I fear the worst, action followed by reaction. Both becoming increasingly violent and I see the possibility of it happening in this country. I fear that the term ‘police racism’ will become another convenient label. Convenient in the sense that the problems are seen solely as that of policing. If we examine it through a different lens though, we might just find that policing is simply part of the whole rotten tree, society. Fix society and you fix policing. If the label racist fits, it fits the society we live in.
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
Some people volunteer because they have to, I volunteer because I want to. From a personal perspective I knew that the foodbank was the place that I wanted to be at.
I started volunteering in 2016, doing just 1 day a week and as the years have gone by it has meant more hours spread over a couple of days, especially during the Christmas holidays which are incredibly busy. Proving that many volunteers are necessary and needed to help keep it going.
It is a place that suits me because its local and fits around my studies. I am able to learn new skills and gain insightful knowledge. The volunteers are very welcoming and warm people. However, over the years I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the use of the foodbank and its diversity. In theory, its usage should be on the decrease.
Within the foodbank, we deal with some very complex individuals who require different approaches. It sounds cliché, but I volunteer to make a difference and eradicate the myth that the foodbank is used for those in society that are labelled as people who can’t budget properly.
I have found that service users are predominantly people living on low incomes. People who are working on zero hours contracts; or have reduced hours and having their wages topped up with benefits like Universal Credit. As a result, they just don’t have enough money coming in; leaving hardly anything for essentials such as food and heat. I found during my research that many families have been without electricity, that means no cooking facilities or warmth! Pushing them further into poverty. In this day and age people should not be without the basics.
In my time as a volunteer I have met some lovely people who have been affected by different adverse life events and it is heartbreaking to witness, but equally by giving something back I can see their eyes light up when they are given their food parcels. I feel I am learning to be more compassionate. However, if the person has no access to electricity how are they supposed to cook or provide a meal for their children without electricity?
On a weekly basis we see many different people from so many backgrounds; from civil servants, to social workers and the homeless. Service users can often be emotional and sometimes defensive, who feel they don’t deserve to be given food because they are working. The foodbank does not discriminate, it sees everyone as equal.
What does that say about the world we live in? That being food poor or food insecure is something that must stay hidden and not be talked about…people living with food insecurity would rather go without, than ask for help. The basic income does not cover the essentials such as food after paying bills.
It makes me mad that poverty is an accepted part of society and service users state they feel undervalued and unaccepted. The question that must be asked ‘Is poverty violence? The answer is a resounding YES, due to the structures within society that prevent people living with food insecurity from accessing food. Therefore, locking them into poverty, preventing them from moving out of the cycle of deprivation.
It is left to charitable organisations to do whatever they can to help that person to be able to eat and survive. But how long can these charities go on for? The Trussell Trust began in 2000 in the UK….
Children and families should not be going without food, as it is a fundamental right that everyone should have access to the basics. Food insecurity is more prominent now than ever with The Trussell Trust (2020) reporting an increase of 81% in emergency food parcels.
The foodbank is available to help people to access a 3 day food parcel to ‘see them through” a difficult period in their lives. During my time spent conducting my dissertation within the foodbank, food poverty was a combination of a variety of reasons such as low income, often together with a contributory factor such as an adverse life event. For example, the loss of employment or breakdown of a relationship which will only add more shame and stigma. The foodbank is not just about giving away free food, it’s about offering a safe place to sit and get warm and service users can relax, tell their stories and feel free for as long as they can, before they have to face more challenges from the world.
Furthermore, some in society see the foodbank as the sticking plaster that holds the poor in society together. I would say that without the foodbank many people would be committing crimes or be starving. Some politicians have stated that food banks are the heart of community cohesion. The only time I have seen the local MP at our foodbank is for a photo opportunity. The poor in society are forgotten and its about time they weren’t!
The service users are people who are neglected by society and the government, who by definition, make them feel they are to blame for their situation. By visiting the foodbank we show them respect and compassion.