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Recently we saw the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s kidnapper, rapist and murderer. He has received a whole life sentence. As a woman within society I welcome this sentence. As a criminologist I am at a loss. There is a lot to unpick here in terms of ‘justice’ and whether this has been served. It is pertinent to question the use of a whole life order on a violent, misogynistic, kidnapper, rapist and murderer; who cooperated after arrest, who pleaded guilty and expected the full force of the law. But I shall leave that to another day, as the media’s portrayal of the sentencing and aftermath is what is currently fuelling my anger. The message remains the same, women can and should do more to prevent their victimisation.
The sentence given is at odds with the coverage which has followed. Handing down the most severe sentence available in England and Wales represents the seriousness of the offence, and the damage it has caused to those directly involved and those further afield. The possibility that the offender was in a position of trust, has violated this trust and committed abhorrent acts appears to justify the whole life order. The comparison to terrorism, something which violence against women has been linked to before within academia, is also very telling. But what is the focus? The focus is on how women can go about feeling safe in society and make lines of inquiry if they have doubts about a police officer’s conduct! Here the onus is on women acting in a manner of keeping themselves safe. The message remains the same: women should prevent their victimisation. Excellent I’ll add this nugget of information to my bag of ‘top tips for walking alone at night’.
Why aren’t the media building on this platform to challenge misogynist attitudes? Why are they not raising awareness of violence against women? Sarah’s kidnapping, rape and murder is horrific: but what about the women who undergo daily violence at the hands of their partners, family, friends? These individuals are also in a position of trust and abuse this position to cause harm to women! Here the media could raise awareness about how deep-rooted the issue of violence against women is, but instead they reinforce the idea that women can prevent their victimisation, and that violence occurs at night, by a stranger, and will have the offender brought to justice. This is not the reality for the vast majority of women. It is an extreme and exceptional case (no doubt something True Crime will encapsulate in years to come) and this is further reinforced by the sentence given. Yet violence against women is not exceptional, or rare: it is an everyday reality! Something the media has failed to draw attention to. And by failing to cement Sarah’s kidnapping, rape and murder in the wider context of violence against women, it raises the potential to set a standard of violence against women. Those everyday cases which do not fit the same circumstances are not considered an issue.
My intentions are in no way to take away from the abhorrent crimes committed against Sarah. The crimes sit in the context of violence against women which is still a fundament issue overlooked within society, and has been overlooked once again. And the rhetoric which has followed, yet again, is around how women can protect themselves in the future. The message remains the same…
As we prepare to start the new academic year, it is worth reflecting on the beginning of the last one. In 2020 we began the academic year with a whole cohort activity designed to explore visual criminology and inspire the criminological imagination. Students were placed into small (socially distanced) groups, provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:
Year 1: Knife Crime
Year 2: Policing Protest (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and so on)
Year 3: Creating Criminals: the CJS during the Covid-19 pandemic
Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.
As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.
I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2021-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to campaign for social justice becoming real #Changemakers.
When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.
My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.
Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.
This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.
There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.
With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?
Of course Priti Patel the home secretary is correct when she declared that England fans have a right to boo England football players taking the knee before the England versus Croatia match on Sunday. Correct that is, in considering the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 10, Freedom of Expression. This being encapsulated in our own Human Rights Act 1998. But whilst, the home secretary considers such booing, lets call it a form of protest, acceptable, she then adds that the ‘taking of the knee’ is simply ‘gesture politics’ and finds this form of protest unacceptable. The players and others through television advertising have made it clear that the statement is not political, it is simply a reminder of the need to tackle inequality and racism.
So, I’m left considering this, according to Priti Patel, it is acceptable to protest against those that oppose inequality and in particular racism, but it is not acceptable to protest against that in equality and racism. The first is a right, the second is some form of gesture politics. Ms Patel doesn’t end it there though but bemoans the Black Lives Matter protests and the ‘devastating impact they had on policing’. Somehow, I think she’s missed the point. If it is simply about the resources required to police the BLM protests, well the right of expression you say people have (you can boo if you want to) was simply being exercised and the police have a duty to facilitate those protests, devastating or not. If the devastation was about some other impact such as morale, then I think a bit of introspection wouldn’t go amiss. There is far too much evidence to show that the criminal justice system and the application of policing in particular is unequal, unfair and in need of change.
The home secretary is ultimately in charge of policing in this country. A politician, yes, but also supposedly a leader, who should be leading by example. What sort of example have her views set police forces across the country? Carry on folks, this is just gesture politics. No empathy, no understanding and a devil may care attitude, suggests that tackling inequality is not on the home secretary’s, let alone this government’s, agenda. This is not politics of the right, this smacks of politics of the far right. This is something we should all be worried about.
Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.
Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.
On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.
The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.
This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.
Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.
Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.
A few weeks ago, @paulaabowles shared an article on the Criminology Facebook page which posed the question of whether graffiti is art or crime. My response was art. And like all art, not all variations, interpretations or styles are for everyone. I know I can look at some graffiti and be quite taken aback at the brightness, boldness and creativity which shines through. I can also look at some and go ‘eugh’. However I have the same reactions to various classical and well-known pieces. My unrefined self does not get all the hype about a number of Picasso’s works (possibly all the ones I have seen). Nevertheless this is the beauty of art: it is down to individual taste.
So for me, I was fairly certain on my opinions and convictions towards graffiti as an art form, and as an example of the CJS further stigmatising and criminalisation young people’s behaviours: something I am certain we are all quite familiar with at this stage in our criminological journey. However those beliefs and informed views were put to the test over the Bank Holiday (BH) Weekend, and in all honesty I think I am still trying to get to grips with them. It is different now…. It happened to me.
Some context: as those of you who have read various blog posts from myself will no doubt remember, my partner runs a small kiosk near one of the Royal Parks in London. Often during the weekends and summer months, I provide an extra pair of hands to help clean and serve during the busier periods. And as a result of the pandemic, my partner finds themselves going from a team of 4 down to just them, and me when I am able to support: this was the case for the BH Weekend. Off we popped, down to London for a day of serving hotdogs, drinks and ice creams. However our day was thrown off course by some ‘ugly’ graffiti all over the front of the kiosk.
My partner was angry, and felt personally attacked (not really sure by who- but guess that’s besides the point). It is not the first time the kiosk has had graffiti on it, but it is the first time I have seen it in person and witnessed my partner’s response. Rather than starting our working day and opening up, we had to clean the graffiti off. My partner set to this: just over 3 hours later some of it has been removed, but so has some of the kiosk’s paint. It looks a mess. We are now at midday and we cannot afford to remain closed and keep cleaning. We have lost 3 hours of trading time to try and remove it, only to remove some of it and some of the kiosk’s paint. I am informed that we shall need to go to B&Q to try and find some graffiti remover: Capitalism wins again! But seeing my partner cleaning for 3 hours, losing the trading hours and for this end result: I can’t help but feel angry, frustrated and in want of some kind of justice. It’s different now… it happened to me.
But what realistically would justice be in the scenario? What do I actually want as a result? I have no idea. I asked my partner who said they just wanted them ‘not to do it’. It is private property, will my partner call the police? Nope: just nuisance annoying behaviour, but not much anyone can do about it. I feel less inclined to call it art. I like my partner’s use of ‘nuisance’ behaviour: it feels very accurate. I do not think my partner was targeted, I think it was available as a surface to be used for that individual or individuals to express themselves. But I am shaken in my previously held convictions. Shouldn’t something be done. We lost 3 hours of trading, the kiosk now needs to be repainted and we shall need to purchase some graffiti remover. All for some expression of ‘art’? Shouldn’t there be some kind of repercussion?
I am not too sure. I also know when this has happened before, and I have not been present to witness the impact it has on my partner and the kiosk I have been very nonchalant about it. ‘Oh dear, that’s frustrating’, ‘ah well, never mind’. But being there and seeing it: I view it differently. And this is something many of us come to grips with when considering hypothetical moral situations and larger ethical questions. We think we will act one way, but if it happened to us: it is quite possible our opinions, informed views and beliefs would change. I still think graffiti is art, but I am not so convinced in my previous assertation that it is not a crime…
Charge 1: Killing unintentionally while committing a felony.
Charge 2: Perpetrating an imminently dangerous act with no regard for human life.
Charge 3: Negligent and culpable of creating an unreasonable risk.
Guilty on all three charges.
Today, there’s some hope to speak of. If we go by the book, all the prosecution’s witnesses were correct. Former police officer Chauvin’s actions killed George Floyd. By extension, the other two officers/overseers are guilty, too, of negligence and gross disregard for life. They taunted and threatened onlookers when they weren’t helping Chauvin kneel on Floyd. Kneeling on a person’s neck and shoulders until they die is nowhere written in any police training manual. The jury agreed, and swiftly took Chauvin into custody . Yet, contrary to the testimonials of the police trainers who testified against Chauvin’s actions, this is exactly what policing has been and continues to be for Black people in America.
They approached Floyd as guilty and acted as if they were there to deliver justice. No officer rendered aid. Although several prosecution witnesses detailed how they are all trained in such due diligence, yet witnesses and videos confirm not a bit of aid was rendered. In fact, the overseers hindered a few passing-by off-duty professionals from intervening to save Floyd’s life, despite their persistent pleas. They acted as arbiters of death, like a cult. The officers all acted in character.
Teenager Darnella Frazier wept on the witness stand as she explained how she was drowning in guilt sinceshe’d recorded the video of Chauvin murdering Mr. Floyd. She couldn’t sleep because she deeply regrated not having done more to save him, and further worried for the lives many of her relatives – Black men like George Floyd, whom she felt were just as vulnerable. When recording the video, Ms. Frazier had her nine-year-old niece with her. “The ambulance had to push him off of him,” the child recounts on the witness stand. No one can un-see this incident.
History shows that her video is the most vital piece of evidence. We know there would not have even been a trial given the official blue line (lie). There would not have been such global outcry if Corona hadn’t given the world the time to watch. Plus, the pandemic itself is a dramatic reminder that “what was over there, is over here.” Indeed, we are all interconnected.
Nine minutes and twenty seconds of praying for time.
Since her video went viral last May, we’d seen footage of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin shoving himself on top of ‘the suspect’. Now: During the trial, we got to see additional footage from police body-cameras and nearby surveillance, showing Chauvin on top of Mr. Floyd for nine minutes and twenty seconds. Through this, Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonary critical care physician, was able to walk the jury through each exact moment that Floyd uttered his last words, took his last breath, and pumped his last heartbeat. Using freeze-frames from Chauvin’s own body cam, Dr. Tobin showed when Mr. Floyd was “literally trying to breathe with his fingers and knuckles.” This was Mr. Floyd’s only way to try to free his remaining, functioning lung, he explained.
Nine minutes and twenty seconds. Could you breathe with three big, angry grown men kneeling on top of you, wrangling to restrain you, shouting and demeaning you, pressing all of their weight down against you?
Even after Mr. Floyd begged for his momma, even after the man was unresponsive, and even still minutes after Floyd had lost a pulse, officer Chauvin knelt on his neck and shoulders. Chauvin knelt on the man’s neck even after paramedics had arrived and requested he make way. They had to pull the officer off of Floyd’s neck. The police initially called Mr. Floyd’s death “a medical incident during police interaction.” Yes, dear George, “it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate.” Today, at least, there’s some hope to speak of.
What does April mean to you? April showers as the title would suggest, April Fools which I detest, or the beginning of winter’s rest? Today I am going to argue that April is the most criminogenic month of the year. No doubt, my colleagues and readers will disagree, but here goes….
What follows is discussion on three events which apart from their occurrence in the month of April are ostensibly unrelated. Nevertheless, scratch beneath the surface and you will see why they are so important to the development of my criminological understanding, forging the importance I place on social justice.
On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, with more than 1,500 lost lives. We know the story reasonably well, even if just through film. Fewer people are aware that this tragedy led to inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well, as Limitation of Liability Hearings. These acknowledged profound failings on the part of White Star and made recommendations primarily relating to lifeboats, staffing and structures of ships. Each of these were to be enshrined in law. Like many institutional inquiries these reports, thankfully digitised so anyone can read them, are very dry, neutral, inhumane documents. There is very little evidence of the human tragedy, instead there are questions and answers which focus on procedural and engineering matters. However, if you look carefully, there are glimpses of life at that time and criminological questions to be raised.
The table below is taken from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry Report and details both passengers and staff onboard RMS Titanic. This table allows us to do the maths, to see how many survived this ordeal. Here we can see the violence of social class, where the minority take precedence over the majority. For those on that ship and many others of that time, your experiences could only be mediated through a class based system. Yet when that ship went down, tragedy becomes the great equaliser.
On 15th April, 1989 fans did as they do (pandemics aside) every Saturday during the football season, they went to the game. On that sunny spring day, Liverpool Football Club were playing Nottingham Forest, both away from home and over 50,000 fans had travelled some distance to watch their team with family and friends. Tragically 96 of those fans died that day or shortly after. @anfieldbhoy has written a far more extensive piece on the Hillsborough Disaster and I don’t plan to revisit the details here. Nevertheless, as with RMS Titanic, questions were asked in relation to the loss of life and institutional or corporate failings which led to this tragedy. Currently it is not possible to access the Taylor Report due to ongoing investigation, but it makes for equally dry, neutral and inhuman, reading. It is hard to catch sight of 96 lives in pages dense with text, focused on answering questions that never quite focus on what survivors and families need. The Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] is far more focused on people as are the Inquests (also currently unavailable) which followed. Criminologically, HIP’s very independence takes it outside of powerful institutions. So whilst it can “speak truth to power” it has no ability to coerce answers from power or enforce change. For the survivors and family it brings some respite, some acknowledgement that what happened that day should have never have happened. However, for those individuals and wider society, there appears to be no semblance of justice, despite the passing of 32 years.
On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He was the victim of a horrific, racially motivated, violent assault by a group of young white man. This much was known, immediately to his friend Duwayne Brooks, but was apparently not clear to the attending police officers. Instead, as became clear during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry the police investigation was riddled with institutional racism from the outset. The Macpherson report (1999) tries extremely hard to keep focus on Stephen Lawrence as a human being, try to read the evidence given by Duwayne Brooks and Stephen’s parents without shedding a tear. However, much of the text is taken is taken up with procedural detail, arguments and denial. In 2012 two of the men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were found guilty and sentenced to be detained under Her Majesty’s pleasure (both were juveniles in 1993). Since 1999, when the report was published we’ve learnt even more about the police’s institutional racism and their continual attacks on Stephen’s family and friends designed to undermine and harm. So whilst institutions can be compelled to reflect upon their behaviour and coerced into recognising the need for change, for evolution, in reality this appears to be a surface activity. Criminologically, we recognise that Stephen was the victim of a brutal crime, some, but not all, of those that carried out the attack have been held accountable. Justice for Stephen Lawrence, albeit a long time coming, has been served to some degree. But what about his family? Traumatised by the loss of one of their own, a child who had been nurtured to adulthood, loved and respected, this is a family deserving of care and support. What about the institutions, the police, the government? It seems very much business as usual, despite the publication of Lammy (2017) and Williams (2018) which provide detailed accounts of the continual institutional racism within our society. Instead, we have the highly criticised Sewell Report (2011) which completely dismisses the very idea of institutional racism. I have not linked to this document, it is beneath contempt, but if you desperately want to read it, a simple google search will locate it.
In each of the cases above and many others, we know instinctively that something is fundamentally wrong. That what has happened has caused such great harm to individuals, families, communities, that it must surely be a crime. But a crime as we commonly understand it involves victim(s) and perpetrator(s). If the Classical School of Criminology is to be believed, it involves somebody making a deliberate choice to do harm to others to benefit ourselves. If there is a crime, somebody has to pay the price, whatever that may be in terms of punishment. We look to the institutions within our society; policing, the courts, the government for answers, but instead receive official inquiries that appear to explore everything but the important questions. As a society we do not seem keen to grapple with complexity, maybe it’s because we are frightened that our institutions will also turn against us?
The current government assures us that there will be an inquiry into their handling of the pandemic, that there will be some answers for the families of the 126,000 plus who have died due to Covid-19. They say this inquiry will come when the time is right, but right for who?
Maybe you can think of other reasons why April is a criminologically important month, or maybe you think there are other contenders? Either way, why not get in touch?
A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.
When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.
Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.
My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.
On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.
Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles. Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists. Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories. Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes. Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.
The optimist in me is unequivocal. We can make it through. Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions. In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution. The answer is in us as a collective. Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.
Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them. Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail. Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink. Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species? Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other.
The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose. People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual. The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues. In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well.
It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other. After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others. Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them. We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest. Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving. Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand. As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made. Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse. People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation. We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again.
In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam. This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters. Wipe the slate clean and start again. So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much. Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues. One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in. Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace. In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses. Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties. It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door. In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons. A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong. When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community. If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic. For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded. My advice to those who rule, listen to your base.