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Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DPn5dvawbDqU&psig=AOvVaw0yd1_IN4i6nvRNKI_g5i7z&ust=1624102316299000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAoQjRxqFwoTCLCyseeKofECFQAAAAAdAAAAABAf

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.

The Chauvin verdict may not be the victory we think it is

Photo by Tito Texidor III on Unsplash

At times like this I often hate to be the person to take what little hope people may have had away from them, however, I do not believe the Chauvin verdict is the victory many people think it is. I say people, but I really mean White people, who since the Murder of George Floyd are quite new to this. Seeing the outcry on social media from many of my White colleagues that want to be useful and be supportive, sometimes the best thing to do in times like these is to give us time to process. Black communities across the world are still collectively mourning. Now is the time, I would tell these institutions and people to give Black educators, employees and practitioners their time, in our collective grief and mourning. After the Murder of George Floyd last year, many of us Black educators and practitioners took that oppurtunity to start conversations about (anti)racism and even Whiteness. However, for those of us that do not want to be involved because of the trauma, Black people recieving messages from their White friends on this, even well-meaning messages, dredges up that trauma. That though Derek Chauvin recieved a guilty verdict, this is not about individuals and he is still to recieve his sentence, albeit being the first White police officer in the city of Minneapolis to be convicted of killing a Black person.

Under the rallying cry “I can’t breathe” following the 2020 Murder of George Floyd, many of us went to march in unison with our American colleagues. Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council [NREC] organised a successful protest last summer where nearly a thousand people turned up. And similar demonstrations took place across the world, going on to be the largest anti-racist demonstration in history. However, nearly a year later, institutional commitments to anti-racism have withered in the wind, showing us how performative institutions are when it comes to pledges to social justice issues, very much so in the context race. I worry that the outcome of the Chauvin verdict might become a “contradiction-closing case”, reiterating a Facebook post by my NREC colleague Paul Crofts.

Vague statement, and seemingly have done nothing since last June #performativeallyship

For me, a sentence that results in anything less than life behind bars is a failure of the United States’ criminal justice system. This might be the biggest American trial since OJ and “while landmark cases may appear to advance the cause of justice, opponents re-double their efforts and overall little or nothing changes; except … that the landmark case becomes a rhetorical weapon to be used against further claims in the future” (Gillborn, 2008). Here, critical race theorist David Gillborn is discussing “the idea of the contradiction-closing case” originally iterated by American critical race theorist Derrick Bell. When we see success enacted in landmark cases or even movements, it allows the state to show an image of a system that is fair and just, one that allows ‘business as usual’ to continue. Less than thirty minutes before the verdict, a sixteen-year-old Black girl called Makiyah Bryant was shot dead by police in Columbus, Ohio. She primarily called the police for help as she was reportedly being abused. In her murder, it pushes me to constantly revisit the violence against Black women and girls at the hands of police, as Kimberlé Crenshaw states:

“They have been killed in their living rooms, in their bedrooms, in their cars, they’ve been killed on the street, they’ve been killed in front of their parents and they’ve been killed in front of their children. They have been shot to death. They have been stomped to death. They have been suffocated to death. They have been manhandled to death. They have been tasered to death. They have been killed when they have called for help. They have been killed while they have been alone and they have been killed while they have been with others. They have been killed shopping while Black, driving while Black, having a mental disability while Black, having a domestic disturbance while Black. They have even been killed whilst being homeless while Black. They have been killed talking on the cellphone, laughing with friends, and making a U-Turn in front of the White House with an infant in the back seat of the car.”  

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (TED, 2018)

Whilst Chauvin was found guilty, a vulnerable Black girl was murdered by the very people she called for help in a nearby state. Richard Delgado (1998) argues “contradiction-closing cases … allow business as usual to go on even more smoothly than before, because now we can point to the exceptional case and say, ‘See, our system is really fair and just. See what we just did for minorities or the poor’.” The Civil Rights Movement in its quest for Black liberation sits juxtaposed to what followed with the War on Drugs from the 1970s onwards. And whilst the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was seemingly one of the high points of British race relations followed with the 2001 Race Relations Act, it is a constant fallback position in a Britain where racial inequalities have exasperated since. That despite Macpherson’s landmark report, nothing really has changed in British policing, where up until recently London Metropolitan Police Service had a chief that said it wasn’t helpful to label police as institutionally racist.

Photo by Jack Prommel on Unsplash

Scrolling the interweb after the ruling, it was telling to see the difference of opinion between my White friends and colleagues in comparison to my Black friends and colleagues. White people wrote and tweeted with more optimism, claiming to hope that this may be the beginning of something upward and forward-thinking. Black people on the other hand were more critical and did not believe for a second that this guilty verdict meant justice. Simply, this ruling meant accountability. Since the Murder of George Floyd, there have been numbers of conversations and discourses opened up on racism, but less so on White supremacy as a sociopolitical system (Mills, 2004). My White colleagues still thinking about individuals rather than systems/institutions simply shows where many of us still are, where this trial became about a “bad apple”, without any forethought to look at the system that continues enable others like him.

Even if Derek Chauvin gets life, I am struggling to be positive since it took the biggest anti-racist demonstration in the history of the human story to get a dead Black man the opportunity at police accountability. Call me cynical but forgive me for my inability to see the light in this story, where Derek Chauvin is the sacrificial lamb for White supremacy to continue unabted. Just as many claimed America was post-racial in 2008 with the inaugaration of Barack Obama into the highest office in the United States, the looming incarceration (I hope) of Derek Chauvin does not mean policing suddenly has become equal. Seeing the strew of posts on Facebook from White colleagues and friends on the trial, continues to show how White people are still centering their own emotions and really is indicative of the institutional Whitenesses in our institutions (White Spaces), where the centreing of White emotions in workspaces is still violence.

Derek Chauvin is one person amongst many that used their power to mercilessly execute a Black a person. In our critiques of institutional racism, we must go further and build our knowledge on institutional Whiteness, looking at White supremacy in all our structures as a sociopolitical system – from policing and prisons, to education and the third sector. If Derek Chauvin is “one bad apple”, why are we not looking at the poisoned tree that bore him?


Referencing

Delgado, Richard. (1998). Rodrigo’s Committee assignment: A sceptical look at judicial independence. Southern California Law Review, 72, 425-454.

Gillborn, David. (2008). Racism and education: Coincidence or conspiracy? London: Routledge.

Mills, Charles (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, George (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. London: Routledge.  

TED (2018). The urgency of intersectionality | Kimberlé Crenshaw. YouTube [online]. Available.

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces. Available.

We are not the same…respectfully

Disclaimer: whilst I can appreciate that it’s Women’s History Month and it would be appropriate that we all come together in support of one another, especially in the notion of us vs them (men). However, I am undoubtedly compelled to talk about race in this matter, in all matters in that sense. I can only speak on the influence of the women who are around me and of women who look like me. Black women. So, to the lovely white girl on twitter who felt the need to express under my thread how disheartened she was by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism … from the bottom of my heart, I am not sorry.

Sometime last year I stumbled across a book called They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by the marvellous Stephanie Jones Rogers. The book protested against the belief that white women were delicate and passive bystanders to the slave economy due to masculine power in the 18th century. Instead, it explores the white supremacy of white women and the high level of protection they had which, which often led to the lynching and killing of many Black men and boys (Emmett Till, 1955). The book also looks at the role of enslaved wet nurses, as many white women perceived breastfeeding to be uncultured and therefore avoided it. However, while enslaved children were flourishing and healthy, many of the white babies were dying. As a result, Black mothers were forced to separate from their babies and dedicate their milk and attention to the babies of their mistresses.

Consequently, this led to the high rise of neglect and death of black babies as cow’s milk and dirty water was used as a substitute (Jones-Rogers, 2019). Furthermore, Rogers goes on to explain how the rape of Black women was used to ensure the supply of enslaved wet nurses. As you can imagine the book definitely does not sugar coat anything and I am struggling to finish it due to my own positionality in the subject. One thing for sure is that after learning about the book I was pretty much convinced that general feminism was not for me.

When I think about the capitalisation and intersectional exploitation that black women endured. I lightly emphasise the term ‘history’ when I say women’s history, because for Black women, it is timeless. It is ongoing. We see the same game play out in different forms. For example, the perception that white women are often the victims (Foley, et al., 1995) and therefore treated delicately, while Black women receive harsher/ longer sentences (Sharp, 2000). The high demand of Black women in human trafficking due to sexual stereotypes (Chong, 2014), the injustice in birth where Black women are five times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women in the UK (University of Oxford, 2019) and the historical false narrative that Black women feel less pain than white women (Sartin, 2004, Hoffman et al, 2016).

So again, we are not the same…. Respectfully. 

It is important for me to make clear that we are not the same, because we are viewed and treated differently than white women. We are not the same, because history tells us so. We are not the same, because the criminal justice system shows us so. We are not the same, because the welfare system and housing institutions show us so. We are not the same, because of racism.

This year’s women’s history month was more so about me learning and appreciating the Black women before me and around me. As I get older, it represents a subtle reminder that our fight is separate to much of the world. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that, without having to feel like I am dismissing the fight of white women or the sole purpose of feminism in general. I am a Black feminist and to the many more lovely white women who may feel it’s unnecessary or who are disheartened by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism, I am truly, truly not sorry.

P.s to Nicole Thea, Sandra Bland, Toyin Salau, Blessing Olusegun, Belly Mujinga and Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong. I am so sorry the system let down and even though you are not talked about enough, you will never be forgotten.

References:

Chong, N.G., (2014). Human trafficking and sex industry: Does ethnicity and race matter?. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(2), pp.196-213.

Foley, L.A., Evancic, C., Karnik, K., King, J. and Parks, A. (1995) Date rape: Effects of race of assailant and victim and gender of subjects on perceptions. Journal of Black Psychology, 21(1), pp.6-18.

Hoffman, K.M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J.R. and Oliver, M.N. (2016) Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(16), pp.4296-4301.

Jones-Rogers, S.E.(2019). They were her property: White women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Sartin, J.S. (2004) J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology: Hero or villain?. Southern medical journal, 97(5), pp.500-506.

Sharp, S.F., Braley, A. and Marcus-Mendoza, S. (2000) Focal concerns, race & sentencing of female drug offenders. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 28(2), pp.3-16.

University of Oxford. (2019) NPEU News: Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Why? {Online}. Available from:https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/mbrrace-uk/news/1834-npeu-news-black-women-are-five-times-more-likely-to-die-in-childbirth-than-white-women-why {Accessed 29th March 2021}

What about women?

Strong women feel good about each other's success.
https://onedio.co/content/24-empowering-short-poems-from-feminist-poet-rupi-kaur-12146

This month marks Women’s History Month. It’s a time where I reflect on how privileged I am to be surrounded by a group of women who have added so much to my life just by being in it.  

I am also reminded of writers and poets (both past and present) like Woolf, De Beauvoir, Lorde, Walker, Kaur, Attwood and Evaristo whose words have not only added so much to my outlook on life but they also continue to remind me that as a woman I need to continue to listen, provide support and uplift other women. It is incredibly sad but necessary that we need to be reminded of the need to support one another.  

Women’s History Month has coincided with the murder of Sarah Everard, another of the many women who have been murdered by men whilst walking home alone. The policing and arresting of women at Sarah’s vigil, the justifications for such arrests and the events themselves are now being reported as false. Followed by the government’s predictable draconian response to silence and restrict protesting rights is maddening. And more importantly, the solidarity illustrated with women gathering to pay their respects to Sarah has now been spoilt due to these damaging enforcement responses.  

I find it so sad that commentary by some women surrounding the murder of Sarah had taken the stance of defending men. There are so many very good men in this world, and it is true that not all men are bad, but the reality is that men tend to be the perpetrators when other men, women and children are murdered.  

We live in a society which reinforces gender inequality, oppression and stereotypes about women to the point that women internalise misogyny. As a result, some women are quick to defend men to the point that, in some cases, men who are the perpetrators are presented as the victims. And the women who are actual victims are blamed for their own victimisation. 

This attitude towards women comes at the detriment of not allowing the space for people to begin to consider that femicide and gendered violence are the damaging consequences of living in an unequal society. The pain caused to the victims also becomes either diluted or made invisible. This is especially the case with Asian or Black women’s victim experiences, as these are rarely found within the news, and if shown, are rarely believed. 

There are many obstacles faced by women who attempt to flee routine gendered violence. Attempts to seek support can result in many women losing their homes, jobs and contact with their friends and families. As well as this, women who intend to report being victims of gender-based violence may battle to overcome the stigma that is attached to being a victim. For women with visas that state that there is ‘no recourse to public funds’ escaping violence becomes even more difficult, post Brexit, this now also applies to women from the EU. 

Whilst online debates occur surrounding Sarah Everard’s case, the reality is that many women are scared to walk alone. Many are also scared to live within their own homes due to the fear of violence. If we are quick to defend men in light of such tragic events how will we ever be able to support these women? How will they ever feel empowered to report being victims of crime? Yes, not all men are bad, but when a case like Sarah’s is publicised perhaps our first response should be  empathising with other women.  

Another Lone Gunman #BlackenAsiaWithLove #SpOkenWoRd

A lone gunman killed numerous people at a public place in America.

Another lone gunman shot up a school, another a nightclub, and

Another killed a kid walking down the street.

A few years ago, 

Another lone gunman shot up a movie premier, dressed as one of the film’s villains.

Another – armed with a badge-

Took a woman’s life after a routine traffic stop.

Plenty of his comrades routinely did the same.

Another lone gunman in blue, killed a kid playing in the park, and 

Another shot a man who was reaching for his wallet as he’d demanded.

Another shot a man with his kid in the backseat, while his girlfriend live-streamed it, and

Another took 8 minutes and 46 seconds to kill again.

Another watched while it happened, while

Another kept the crowd at bay.

Another. And another, and

Last week, in another American city, another lone gunman murdered more.

The lone gunman in blue responsible for safely apprehending this latest lone gunman said: This poor lone gunman just had “a bad day.”

We bide our time till next week’s breaking news.

Never Fear….Spring is almost here (part II)

David Hockney, (2008), Arranged Felled Trees https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/49564201146

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.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU

Reflecting on International Women’s Day

Disclaimer: In my experience this repels the boys from the yard

On International Women’s Day I wanted to write a blog to celebrate the incredible women who have inspired me, supported me, fought for the rights of women all over the world both past and present. Perhaps that post will come but I felt sadness and anger, rage that made me want to shout and swear from the rooftops that feminism is not done. Gender equality has not been completed. We may have advanced a few levels, but patriarchy is still alive and free right here in England as well as throughout the world. The reality is that gender equality is a myth. Ordinarily I’m more hopeful and positive and maybe the pandemic combined with finishing my PhD is pushing me over the edge. But as well as celebrating International Women’s Day I wanted to identify some of the areas in which there is work to do, both in the UK and worldwide.

On the week of International Women’s Day, the media has been filled with women, but not for the right reasons. Let us start with the interview broadcasted on International Women’s Day with Megan Markle and Prince Harry which highlighted not only her position as a woman but also the intersectionality of being a woman of colour in the royal family and the implications of this. The interview was responded in an appalling manner by Piers Morgan who questioned her experience of feeling suicidal which was then reflected on social media (never read the comments!!!). A woman’s experiences with mental health were questioned and ridiculed. Not long after the tragic death of Caroline Flack, people – including many other women – have forgotten to #bekind. The investigation over the disappearance of Sarah Everard was responded to by the Met police advising women in the local area not to go out at night, perpetuating a culture of victim blaming. A woman’s actions were being questioned. So here we are in 2021 with our internal thoughts and emotions and our external actions being judged by others. When women have spoken out about our right to feel safe walking home at night, about how we walk the long way home and hold a key between our fingers for protection, #notallmen resurfaces on Twitter, in a similar tone to #alllivesmatter last year. When one group renews a call for equality, the patriarchs and supremacists oppress harder. These are just a couple of examples in the media, the public domain, this week but there is also clear inequality in domestic life.

Twitter trending hashtags, 11th March 2021

Throughout the pandemic there have been numerous reports suggesting that women have disproportionately undertaken childcare which has had a devastating impact, particularly for single mothers. While data from the Office for National Statistics shows that home schooling is distributed equally in mixed sex couples, women have undertaken substantially more of non-developmental childcare – the bathing, bedtime routine, feeding etc. I recall the days of being a working single parent with a small child. With no after school club and no family available to chip in, I relied on childcare swaps, a childminder (who I couldn’t afford to pay more than a couple of days per week). It was a case of beg, borrow or steal whatever childcare I could get to get to work and would often miss lectures because I didn’t have any childcare (note to students – if you have childcare responsibilities and are struggling please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I have almost a decade of experience juggling kids with studies and I am always happy to share tips or just have a mutual rant about how hard it is!). I cannot imagine how I would have managed with the pandemic if my children were younger. I am lucky enough to work in a team where my colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when my teenager pops her head in asking for food or help with schoolwork but I do have friends telling me how their male counterparts have given them advice on how to juggle virtual meetings with parenting small children. Men (not all men – some men are excellent allies) having no clue how hard women have to fight as women to do it all – the career, the childcare, the housework, all while earning less than our male counterparts (currently 15.5% less). Of course the data on equal pay is complex but the bottom line is we get paid less, it’s harder to advance our careers because as we live in the bodies that produce babies and we have career breaks when we take maternity leave or go part time while the children are young – the only way that can change is if we choose not to have kids and we are criticised for that too!

I have so far established that the UK is hostile in the media and not equal in the home and employment but where do we sit globally? It was placed 21st on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Do you think you could guess which countries are higher than the UK? Go on, spend a minute and write down who you would expect to be in the top 20. Of course, there are the countries one might expect – Iceland is top of the list, Norway, Finland and New Zealand too. But let’s throw a curveball in there. Albania. Having worked with and interviewed many female Albanian asylum seekers and refugees who have usually fled Albania due to at least one but often many forms of gendered violence this comes as quite a surprise to me. Of course, I have a biased experience and have only come into contact with those who have had devastating experiences of patriarchy in the country. Rwanda is up there too within the top 10. Not long after the devastating genocide in Rwanda where women were brutally raped as a weapon of war (see here for a cheeky plug and an analysis of sexual violence in conflict in a different geographical context). Today, women make up half of the politicians in the country. Women have risen up and have taken power. In the UK I look at the female politicians in power today and in recent years and I recoil in horror. Priti Patel is probably (barring the Queen) the most powerful female politician in England. I witness first hand in my work with asylum seekers the harm she causes every day. Intentional harm, following in Theresa May’s footsteps to create a hostile environment for migrants. These women are not the people I want to look up to, or want my children to look up to. In fact, one of the few shared interests my daughter and I have is our disdain for these women.

The women I do look up to are those asylum seekers Patel and her band of merry men at the Home Office are trying to repel. Those who have fled situations that I, as a middle class white woman cannot even begin to comprehend. All the women who I have interviewed in my doctoral research had either fled gendered violence including forced and child marriage, domestic abuse, sex trafficking and honour violence; or their gender had intersected with other forms of persecution making their living situation untenable because they were women. They fled life or death situations to the point of leaving their homes, families and countries because their governments could not, or would not, protect them. They arrive in the UK and are faced with the hostile environment conjured by May and continued by Patel and both the Home Secretaries in between. They face structural violence in the forms of forced poverty, illegal detention, substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation perpetrated under the mandate of women. All the while being vilified by the tabloids and swathes of the public. Some of my participants arrived here as children and were bullied in school because they were asylum seekers, being told that they were taking jobs and money. The bullies could not comprehend that they were prohibited by law from working and were given £5 per day to live on. They then hid their identities, never telling anyone that they were an asylum seeker, lying to their friends about why they couldn’t go on college trips abroad, why they couldn’t have a bank account, why they couldn’t get a job or go to university.

I want to celebrate Amira* who defied the odds. She came here when she was in her early teens, knowing just a few words of English. She worked hard to learn the language and passed her GCSEs and A-levels, gaining a competitive Sanctuary scholarship which funded her university education. I want to celebrate Drita, an Eastern European woman who was physically abused by her father as a child, forced to marry an abusive man who eventually left her destitute with three children. She then left her children with her parents while she sought work, got a boyfriend who sold her into sex slavery, set her room on fire to kill herself but managed to escape, picked up her children and fled a lifetime of gendered violence from every man she had ever met. She spent 2 days in a lorry with her children to get to the UK. Not really the UK, she would have gone anywhere, just out of her country to safety. These women are survivors. These women fought to stay alive. They fought to escape. They didn’t escape. They arrived here to face May’s legacy of a hostile environment. These women are terrified every time they have to report to the Home Office, every letter they get threatens them with detention and deportation and reminds them that they or on bail, literally equating them with a process usually found in the criminal justice system. These women are heroes and should be celebrated for surviving. On International Women’s Day yes, let us celebrate all that all we have achieved so far but it cannot end here. Each year we need a renewed call for action for women.

*All names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants

Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management

Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.

I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.

In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.

Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.

The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex. 

With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.

Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally.  History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.

When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.

Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.

In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.

Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.

Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.

Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.

In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.

References
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8

A pit and no pendulum

Laughter is a great healer; it makes us forget miserable situations, fill us with endorphins, decreases our stress and make us feel better.  Laughter is good and we like people that make us laugh.  Comedians are like ugly rock-stars bringing their version of satire to everyday situations.  Some people enjoy situational comedy, with a little bit of slapstick, others like jokes, others enjoy parodies on familiar situations.  Hard to find a person across the planet that does not enjoy a form of comedy.  In recent years entertainment opened more venues for comedy, programmes on television and shows on the theatres becoming quite popular among so many of us. 

In comedy, political satire plays an important part to control authority and question the power held by those in government.  People like to laugh at people in power, as a mechanism of distancing themselves from the control, they are under.  The corrosive property of power is so potent that even the wisest leaders in power are likely to lose control or become more authoritarian.  Against that, satire offers some much needed relief on cases of everyday political aggression.  To some people, politics have become so toxic that they can only follow the every day events through the lens of a comedian to make it bearable.  

People lose their work, homes and even their right to stay in a country on political decisions made about them.  Against these situations, comedy has been an antidote to the immense pain they face.  Some politicians are becoming aware of the power comedy has and employ it, whilst others embrace the parody they receive.  It was well known that a US president that accepted parody well was Ronald Reagan.  On the other end, Boris Johnson embraced comedy, joining the panel of comedy programmes, as he was building his political profile.  Tony Blair and David Cameron participated in comedy programmes for charity “taking the piss” out of themselves.  These actions endear the leaders to the public who accept the self-deprecating attitude as an acknowledgment of their fallibility.   

The ability to humanise leaders is not new, but mass media, including social media, make it more possible now.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is something that, like smoking, should come with some health warnings.  The politicians are human, but their politics can sometimes be unfair, unjust or outright inhuman.  A person in power can make the decision to send people to war and ultimately lead numerous people to death.  A politician can take the “sensible option” to cut funding to public spending directed at people who may suffer consequently.  A leader can decide on people’s future and their impact will be long lasting.  The most important consequence of power is the devastation that it can cause as the unanticipated consequence of actions.  A leader makes the decision to move people back into agriculture and moves millions to farms.  The consequence; famine.  A leader makes the decision not to accept the results of an election; a militia emerges to defend that leader.  The political system is trying to defend itself, but the unexpected consequences will emerge in the future. 

What is to do then? To laugh at those in power is important, because it controls the volume of power, but to simply laugh at politicians as if they were comedians, is wrong.  They are not equivalent and most importantly we can “take the piss” at their demeanour, mannerisms or political ideology, but we need to observe and take their actions seriously.  A bad comedian can simply ruin your night, a bad politician can ruin your life. 

Is justice fair?

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.       

https://www.pikrepo.com/flrpo/lady-justice-statue

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