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The crime of war

Recently after yet another military campaign coming to an end, social media lit all over with opinions about what should and should not have been done as military and civilians are moving out. Who was at fault, and where lies the responsibility with. There are those who see the problem as a matter of logistics something here and now and those who explore the history of conflict and try to explain it. Either side however does not note perhaps the most significant issue; that the continuation of wars and the maintenance of conflict around the world is not a failure of politics, but an international crime that is largely neglected. For context, lets explore this conflict’s origin; 20 years ago one of the wealthiest countries on the planet declared war to one of the poorest; the military operations carried the code name “Enduring Freedom”! perhaps irony is lost on those in positions of power. The war was declared as part of a wider foreign policy by the wealthy country (and its allies) on what was called the “war on terror”. It ostensibly aimed to curtail, and eventually defeat, extremist groups around the world from using violence and oppressing people. Yes, that is right, they used war in order to stop others from using violence.

In criminology, when we talk about violence we have a number of different ways of exploring it; institutional vs interpersonal or from instrumental to reactive. In all situations we anticipate that violence facilitates more violence, and in that way, those experiencing it become trapped in a loop, that when repeated becomes an inescapable reality. War is the king of violence. It uses both proactive and emotional responses that keep combatants locked in a continuous struggle until one of them surrenders. The victory attached to war and the incumbent heroism that it breeds make the violence more destructive. After all through a millennia of warfare humans have perfected the art of war. Who would have thought that Sun Tzu’s principles on using chariots and secret agents would be replaced with stealth bombers and satellites? Clearly war has evolved but not its destructive nature. The aftermath of a war carries numerous challenges. The most significant is the recognition that in all disputes violence has the last word. As we have seen from endless conflicts around the world the transition from war to peace is not as simple as the signing of a treaty. People take longer to adjust, and they carry the effects of war with them even in peace time.

In a war the causes and the motives of a war are different and anyone who studied history at school can attest to these differences. It is a useful tool in the study of war because it breaks down what has been claimed, what was expected, and what was the real reason people engaged in bloody conflict. The violence of war is different kind of violence one that takes individual disputes out and turns people into tribes. When a country prepares for war the patriotic rhetoric is promoted, the army becomes heroic and their engagement with the war an act of duty. This will keep the soldiers engaged and willing to use their weapons even on people that they do not know or have any personal disputes with. Among wealthy countries that can declare wars thousands of miles away this patriotic fervour becomes even more significant because you have to justify to your troops why they have to go so far away to fight. In the service of the war effort, language becomes an accomplice. For example they refrain from using words like murder (which is the unlawful killing of a person) to casualties; instead of talking about people it is replaced with combatants and non-combatants, excessive violence (or even torture) is renamed as an escalation of the situation. Maybe the worst of all is the way the aftermath of the war is reflected. In the US after the war in Vietnam there was a general opposition to war. Even some of the media claimed “never again” but 10 year after its end Hollywood was making movies glorifying the war and retelling a different rendition of events.

Of course the obvious criminological question to be asked is “why is war still permitted to happen”? The end of the second world war saw the formation of the United Nations and principles on Human Rights that should block any attempt for individual countries to go to war. This however has not happened. There are several reasons for that; the industry of war. Almost all developed countries in the world have a military industry that produces weapons. As an industry it is one of the highest grossing; Selling and buying arms is definitely big business. The UK for example spends more for its defence than it spends for the environment or for education. War is binary there is a victor and the defeated. If a politician banks their political fortunes on being victorious, engaging with wars will ensure their name to be carved in statues around cities and towns. During the war people do not question the social issues; during the first world war for example the suffragettes movement went on a pause and even (partly) threw itself behind the war effort.

What about the people who fight or live under war? There lies the biggest crime of all. The victimisation of thousands or even millions of people. The civilian population becomes accustomed to one of the most extreme forms of violence. I remember my grandmother’s tales from the Nazi occupation; seeing dead people floating in the nearby river on her way to collect coal in the morning. The absorption of this kind of violence can increase people’s tolerance for other forms of violence. In fact, in some parts of the world where young people were born and raised in war find it difficult to accept any peaceful resolution. Simply put they have not got the skills for peace. For societies inflicted with war, violence becomes currency and an instrument ready to be used. Seeing drawings of refugee children about their home, family and travel, it is very clear the imprint war leaves behind. A torched house in a child’s painting is what is etched in their mind, a trauma that will be with them for ever. Unfortunately no child’s painting will become a marble statue or receive the honours, the politicians and field marshals will. In 9/11 we witnessed people jumping from buildings because a place crashed into them; in the airport in Kabul we saw people falling from the planes because they were afraid to stay in the country. Seems this crime has come full circle.

Do we have to care?

In recently published The end-to-end rape review report on findings and actions the responsible minister admitted that “victims of rape [are] being failed”.  This stark admission is based on data that indicates that the current situation on dealing with rape is far worst than 5 years ago.  The ministers are “ashamed” of the data but luckily in their report they offer some suggestions on how to improve things; what to do to bring the conviction rates to the 2016 level and to move more cases forward for trial, leading to successful convictions.  At that point, the report presents the Criminal Justice System [CJS] as a singular entity that needs to address the issue collectively.  This, in part, is a fair assessment although it ignores the cultural differences of the constituent parts of the system.  Nonetheless, the government has identified a problem, commissioned a report and has a clear “ambitious” plan of how to address it.     

The report indeed presents some interesting findings and I urge people to review it whenever they can (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/end-to-end-rape-review-report-on-findings-and-actions).  We know for example already that the number of cases that went into prosecution were low; in the last years this has become even lower.  That despite the prevalence rate remaining more or less the same.  Victims report that they are treated poorly, not believed arguing that the investigative model needs changing.  No wonder the ministers appear apologetic of the situation.  A headline crime category that is likely to cause an uproar and whilst thinking of the political fallout they come out in support of the victims!  Who wouldn’t?  Supporting a victim of crime, any crime is one of the main objectives of the CJS; once they have handed out retribution and prioritised on making an example of specific crimes and focusing on particular criminals, then their focus is on the victims!  The findings were expected, but even so when reading about the higher vulnerability of disabled women to rape and sexual abuse, underscores the systemic failure to deal with this crime.  It does not read like care!             

If I was an agitator, I would say that a criminal committing rape has less chance (statistically) to be convicted than someone who commits theft; but then I will be making a criminological cardinal sin; conflating criminalities and confusing the data.  In our profession we deal with data all the time.  Many of them come in the form of metrics looking at the way different crimes are reported, recorded etc.  We also know that context gives a perspective to these data.  Numbers may look the same, but that is arguably part of the problem.  It does not take into account the source of the data and their circumstances.  Not all numbers are the same and most importantly they do not measure similar trends.  The way the success rates are to be measured is not dissimilar from before and without owning a magic ball, it can be foreseen that rape will remain as is.  Of course, the metrics may change colour to signal improvement, but that will not alter the fundamental issues.    

On the day, one may have their car broken into, to report the incident can be a requirement from their insurance if they are to cover the cost.  On the day, the said person got raped by a current/former partner the matter is not about insurance.  These acts are not similar and to treat criminality as a singularity draws up uneven comparisons.  In this case we have a list of recommendations trying to ameliorate the bad metrics.  What are the recommendations?  The focus is again on the police and the Crime Prosecution Service [CPS] and the court experience the victims will have.  Again, indicates that these institutions have been criticised before for similar failings.  The change of practices in the police does not go as far as exploring the institutional culture.  The CPS’s requirement to do more is tied with the successful cases they will prosecute.  The need for the two organisations to work together more closely has been a discussion point for the last 20 years; as for the better experience in courts, it is definitely welcomed but in recent years, Victim Support as an organisation was stripped bare, the additional services cut and the domestic violence shelters disappearing.  The call for more services was continuously met with the offer of voluntary organisations stepping in, into such a complex area to provide help and support.  One may think that if we are to prioritise on victim experience these services may need to become professional and even expand the current ones. 

Lastly in this document the tone is clear; the focus yet again is reactionary.  We have some bad data that we need to change somehow; we have got some clear action plans and we can measure them (as the report intimates) at regular times.  This approach is the main problem on dealing with rape!  It does not offer any interventions prior to the crime.  There is nothing to deal say with rape culture, the degradation of women, the inequality and the rape myths that women are still subjected to.  Interestingly there are mention of empathy toward the rape victim but there is not a plan to instil empathy for people more widely.  No plan to engage the educational system with respect for the other (whoever the other is; a woman, a person of colour, disability, different origin) regarding sexual behaviours.  The report tenuously mentions consent (or lack of understanding it) instead of making plans how it can be understood across.  Unfortunately, this crime reveals the challenges we face in the discipline but also the challenges we face as a society that has traded care for metrics and the tyranny of managerialism.    

Vaccine day

I had my first Covid-19 vaccine recently and the day was emotional, to say the least. I am 99% compliant with Covid-19 restrictions, partly because it is the law but primarily because I believe it is the right thing to do to protect others. In fact, there have been many times over the last 15 months where I have avoided the news for my own sanity so half the time, I do not exactly know what the latest rules are. I am guided by my own risk assessments and am probably more restrictive than the law in most scenarios. Up until vaccine day I thought that I wasn’t scared of contracting Covid-19, that I was complying as an act of altruism and that I would not be able to live with myself if I unwittingly passed the virus on to somebody vulnerable to severe illness and death.

Back in March 2020 when infections then the death toll started to rise, and the NHS became increasingly overwhelmed I would watch what my daughter and I called ‘the Boris show’ where the Prime Minister and the scientists would recall the daily death data, hospitalisations and cases. Each ‘next slide please’ bringing more bad news. Each day I would think about the families of every single one of those people who had died. It was quite overwhelming, and I eventually had to limit the information I ingested, living in both a physical and informational bubble. I recall the death toll announcements were met with responses from the covid-deniers, ‘but they’re old or ill anyway’, and ‘but they could have been hit by a bus and still counted as a covid death’. As a victimologist, this infuriated me. Who were these people to flippantly dismiss right to life based on age or health? It frustrated me that people with no knowledge of statistics, medicine or science were making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence from Bob on Facebook. But then again perhaps these are the tales people told themselves to get through. If they deny it, they have nothing to fear.

A few months later in June 2020, my somebody close to me contracted Covid-19. I was told they were doing well and seemed to be recovering from the virus. They died more than 28 days after having first being diagnosed with Covid-19, but it was Covid-19 that killed them. I know because I saw them to say goodbye a couple of hours before they died. This person who was always so full of life, love and who saw the good in everyone and everything, was now fading away. But what haunts me to this day was the sound of their lungs. The sound I’d heard people talk about on the news. Crisp packet lungs. And it was that sound that was like an earworm in my head on my way to the vaccination centre.

I’ve been looking forward to getting vaccinated since vaccines were on the horizon so I was excited when I received the text invitation. I booked to attend the Greater Manchester vaccination centre at the Etihad stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club. It was well organised, despite the large numbers of people coming through. First, I was required to check in and was allocated the Moderna vaccine and a green sticker which ensured staff could direct me to the correct queue. Then I checked in at another desk where I was given some information, asked some health questions and, most importantly, I was asked, ‘do you want the vaccine?’. Those who have sat one of the research methods modules I have taught this year will have heard me discuss the importance of informed consent and this also applies to real life situations such as this. After this I joined another queue and finally reached the vaccination point, had the jab, waited for 15 minutes and left. Just like that. The whole thing took about an hour and given the volume of people being vaccinated (the site is a mass vaccination hub for a large area), I found it to be incredibly efficient. Every staff member I met was informative and did what they could to put people at ease.

From the moment I left home to go to the vaccination centre, to the moment my head hit the pillow that evening, I couldn’t help reflecting on the last 15 months. I felt a wave of emotions. I felt extreme sadness and sorrow at all the lives lost and all the families and friends left behind. It has been a traumatic time for so many of us. Getting the vaccine, I felt some sort of release from this, like it was nearly over. I have worked from home throughout and have had little social interaction, except when the gyms have been open or I have undertaken caring responsibilities for various friends and family. There were also a few weeks towards the end of lockdown 1 where my sister came to stay after returning from India. Overall, I have been alone with a teenager at a desk in my living room. It’s been awful. I’m tired and I need a break. I am well overdue a mum-cation. I felt some hope that sometime soon I might be able to get a parenting break and that my daughter can also get a break from me. I said earlier how I believed I had not feared contracting covid but having the vaccine and the relief I felt made me realise that I was more scared than I would care to admit. I am young(ish) and extremely healthy and I would probably be at low risk of developing serious symptoms but what if I was an unlucky one?

Aside from my personal experiences, I felt a collective relief. The global pandemic has created global trauma. There are still countries being ravished by the virus without the resources to operate mass vaccination of entire populations. I worry for the world and wonder what borders will look like after, if there ever is an after but I’ll ponder this further in another blog later. Getting vaccinated and being part of a mass vaccination programme made me feel cautiously optimistic. However, a few weeks on and we are now in a situation where the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Deaths have risen by 42.5% in the last week and hospital admissions by 44.7%. The numbers are still incredibly low in comparison to the first and second wave but every one of those deaths and hospitalisations matter. They are not a number on a presentation slide. They are people who have families and friends, who are cared for by the NHS. Every one of the deaths is a loss to these people, and has a butterfly effect in terms of the impact each death has.

Restrictions are set to lift imminently I believe (still avoiding the news) and it makes me feel uneasy to say the least. I’ve seen experts whom I trust argue on both sides of the fence. Some say this is dangerous, others suggest summer is the best opportunity to lift restrictions. It sometimes feels like we are living in some kind of twisted experiment. Regardless, I will continue to assess and manage the risk to myself and those around me. I’ll probably wear masks way after it is legal to do so and expect I will still be cautious about who I am physically close to and how I socialise. There’s things that I love and miss such as the theatre, cinema and the occasional gig but I don’t feel ready. I have a feeling this pandemic is far from over.

Refugee Week 2021

This year’s refugee week begins today, 14th June 2021 with the theme ‘we cannot walk alone’. The aim is to encourage all of us to reach out and help someone new. This week is close to my heart as border criminology is one of my key research interests. I am strongly committed to impactful research, activism and contributing my time and resources to helping refugees and making those fleeing persecution feel welcome in the UK’s hostile environment. As the resident border criminologist, I want to introduce Refugee Week activities at the University of Northampton but also to suggest how we can help ensure nobody walks alone.

The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary. Beginning on Monday at 2pm we welcome Gulwali Passarlay who fled Afghanistan at the age of 12, travelling alone through 8 countries to the UK where he was eventually granted asylum. Having spent the last few years interviewing, supporting and advocating for refugees I have heard many stories of survival. No two have been the same but each shares such painful paths that I cannot imagine. Each time I hear a refugee speak about the situations they fled I feel humbled, and grateful that despite its array of flaws, the UK is safe. In our Outsiders module, students were recently asked to challenge assumptions of minority groups. Hearing the stories of refugees from the mouths of refugees is enough to shatter any assumptions, rhetoric and media narratives about those fleeing persecution so for those who have undertaken or will sit the module next year this is a must!

On Tuesday 15th June at 2pm there will be an introduction and update to the City of Sanctuary movement.  Being a City (or Town) of Sanctuary means committing to becoming a place which welcomes those seeking safety. The movement extends to universities, many of which offer Sanctuary Scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees. The Northampton Town of Sanctuary movement wants the University of Northampton to become a University of Sanctuary. Dependents of asylum applicants who arrive in the UK as children, go to school and college here, make friends, speak English, and have GCSEs and A-levels, are then unable to continue in their education as they would be liable to pay international student fees. Asylum seekers currently receive £39.63 per week from the government and are prohibited from seeking employment. They are not entitled to student finance. They are at the end of the road, forced to sit quietly and wait for the letter to come through their door with a decision.

In my own research, many of the asylum seekers I interviewed had been in the asylum process for years. For those who arrived as children and attended school here, once they left college and all their friends were going to university, they were left behind with nothing to do. This had enormous impact on their mental health and their sense of identity. They hid their asylum-seeking identity from their friends in fear of judgement, creating false narratives about who they were. This was often due to past experience of xenophobic abuse after disclosing their immigration status at school. Upon leaving school they would further advance these false narratives, making up stories about why they were not working or going to university. Just one of the people I interviewed managed to secure a Sanctuary Scholarship, despite many of them submitting applications. Having seen the impacts of exclusion from higher education, I want to see every university being a University of Sanctuary, but let’s start with the University of Northampton.

The third talk of the week is delivered by Emma Harrison from IMIX, an organisation which delivers valuable work in changing the conversation around migration and refugees. We’ve all seen the headlines and media reports of ‘illegal immigrants’ (the term ‘illegal immigrant’ infuriates me but that’s another future blog). We’ve heard Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul the ‘broken’ immigration system. The plans include further criminalisation of people seeking safety, avoiding death, rape, persecution, war; and extreme sentencing rules for those who help them reach a place of safety. The media and political rhetoric are relentless and a change in the conversation is desperately needed. I often feel hopeless about my work, that the work of myself and other border criminologists falls on deaf ears. I was at a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote was discussing the abolition of immigration detention. Immigration detention is pointless and harmful and research outputs have been good at pointing out the harms but perhaps we need to tell them what they want to hear: immigration detention is a pointless waste of money. I am looking forward to listening and hope I can pick up some tips to alter the way I communicate findings to different audiences. This talk is on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm.

The final talk of the week is delivered by a representative from the British Red Cross on Friday 18th June at 11am. The British Red Cross do a range of invaluable work from practical support such as supplying clothing and food, to finding missing family members of people seeking sanctuary. The talk will be focussed on the work the organisation does in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire during the pandemic. One of the first things I intend to do when I move to Northampton is to familiarise myself with the local service provision for refugees and asylum seekers and get involved so for me this will be a good place to start.

I encourage all our students to attend at least one of these events. They are all virtual so you could even listen while you sunbathe in the park. To attend, please email Nick who will forward a link. For our students who are interested in supporting refugees, we have a Student Action for Refugees branch at the university who coordinate student efforts to help refugees. There are many other ways we can all contribute to making sure people do not ‘walk alone’. We can read books such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains or The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, or watch one of the films free on the British Film Institute’s Refugee Week event. We can have conversations with others and try to think about what refugees might be going through. Next time you see a news report about a conflict talk about what you would do in that situation, what belongings you would take, which of your family would you leave behind? Having conversations such as these helps to build empathy and compassion. We can go further to challenge racist and xenophobic assumptions. I often ask, ‘what is your fear?’ to which I can invariably rationally explain why whatever they disclose will not materialise. Do one, all or some of these things. But I implore you to do SOMETHING to contribute not only to Refugee Week but to making the UK a more welcoming place.

A smorgasbord of thought (AKA a head full of magic)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/2823810363https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/2823810363

Its been a few weeks since I’ve written a blog and whilst there are plenty of topics to pick from, I never quite got my head round writing about anything in depth. I’ve thought about a lot, I never stop thinking about a lot, some it meaningful and some of it not. I like to think that some of the stuff is quite profound but that’s just in my imagination, I think. Anyway, rather than trying to put together some deep and meaningful narrative about the state of the world I thought I’d provide a few highlights.

When I read Jes’ blog the other week about graffiti, I couldn’t help thinking that we do far too much to try to justify and somehow nullify the effects of criminality. For all our theorising and empathising as criminologists, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that crime results in victims and being a victim of crime is at best an unpleasant experience.  So, I have to disagree with Jes on one point, grafitti is not art, its criminal damage, vandalism if you like. Very rarely have I ever gazed upon a graffiti covered bridge, wall, shop front, shutter, railway station siding or railway carriage and thought to myself, wow that’s nice. Let’s call it what it is.

I think it was the same week that I read a post on ‘LinkedIn’ about the silence surrounding the murder of Julia James, a 53-year-old Police Community Support Officer.  The silence the author of the post was referring to was the contrast between the public response to Julia James’ death and that of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive.  No vigil, no public outrage, no ‘claim the streets back’.  I wondered what dictates the public response to such horrific events.  Is it age, occupation, circumstance or just timing?

I watched the news this week somewhat bemused by the response of some industry chiefs and business owners.  The airline industry is less than pleased with the government’s approach to relaxing of restrictions around travel and some business owners are apoplectic about the fact that the removal of restrictions might be delayed. It might be a bit simplistic to state this, but it seems that they value business more than lives.

As for those that went on holiday abroad, thinking they wouldn’t need to quarantine when they came back only to find that the rules changed, and they now have to.  More fool you, maybe I’ve missed a trick here, but I don’t think the Covid virus and its mutations will wait for you to enjoy the rest of your holiday before spreading a little more. Don’t complain about quarantine nor the cost of testing, you put yourself in that position, now take some responsibility and suck it up instead of blaming someone else.

In a conversation, a friend of mine told me ‘the problem is people don’t like being told what to do’. This was said in the context of Covid and our discussion about the idiots that think any rules or guidance just doesn’t apply to them. The comment did however make me think about a paper I read some time ago by Storch (1975).  When the new police were introduced into this country in 1829, there were few who looked upon them favourably.  One of the main issues was simply that the populace did not like being restricted in their ‘immoral or illegal’ pastimes. We can have a debate about who makes the rules but it seems to me the most pressing point is that little has changed. Take off the rose-tinted glasses, there never was a golden era of policing, the police have never been liked and never will be.  I wonder how the population would act if there were no police though?

I’m a little weary now, all of this thinking and writing has worn me out. Time for a lie down in a darkened room.

Making a Criminal: A game on criminology

Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game.  This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation.  You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes. 

Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination. 

Think of a criminal.  Try to think of their face first.  What do they look like?  Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones.  Hair colour and style.  How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs.  Can you tell their gender, age and their race?  Any other features?  What are they wearing? 

Now try to keep that image in your mind.  You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime.  What crime has this person committed?  Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before?  What made them do the crime(s) they did?   

How do you feel about them?  What do you wish to be done about them?  What is your solution to your imaginary villain?  Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images? 

Our mind is truly wonderous.  It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done. 

This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence.  The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory.  This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface.  You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime.  It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you. 

Bring back to mind your criminal.  Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal.  For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal?  What you don’t think you are a criminal?  Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime.  Ever!  Are you sure?  Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras? 

Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person.  Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination.  Criminals are always other people.  Crime is something unthinkable.  Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room.  The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things.  Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences.  If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness.  Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime. 

Previously, I mentioned investigative processes.  Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal.  Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact.  Why?  Because of how we feel about crime.  Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions.  Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!                        

The UK is not Innocent: “Babylon, for True” #SubnormalABritishScandal

Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.

Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021)

The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.

Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”

Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).

Bernard Coard’s seminal 1971 text that hasn’t aged a day

Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.

In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.

We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!


References

Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.  

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

Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.

Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].

It’s different now… it happened to me

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…

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}

Yorkshire Ripper: Not an Obituary

Photo by Dhivakaran S on Pexels.com

Wilma McCann, 28

Emily Jackson, 42

Irene Richardson, 28

Patricia Atkinson, 32

Jayne MacDonald, 16

Jean Jordan, 21

Yvonne Pearson, 22

Helen Rytka, 18

Vera Millward, 40

Josephine Whitaker, 19

Barbara Leach, 20

Marguerite Walls, 47

Jacqueline Hill, 20

As the team northerner I took it upon myself to write about Peter Sutcliffe after hearing of his death. Sutcliffe was a serial killer who operated in West Yorkshire and the North West of England. He was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to kill 7 more in the 1970s, and was serving 20 life sentences for his crimes.

Ironically, the ripper was killed by covid-19, the deadliest killer of 2020 (incidentally I asked students to imagine covid-19 being a serial killer in a lecture yesterday). Reports suggest that he was in ill health prior to contracting the coronavirus, was obese and had diabetes. He died 2 days after his diagnosis after refusing treatment.

When I started writing about the Yorkshire Ripper, I couldn’t help but think about his victims. Those he killed (named above – remember them), those he harmed and who survived, the relatives of both and the women in the areas in which he would prey on his victims, who feared leaving their homes every day for half a decade. These are the people I am thinking about, those who are in my thoughts. How do they feel about the news of his death? How have they felt every time they have heard his name for the last few decades? How, 40+ years later, are the living victims coping?

I didn’t know a lot about Peter Sutcliffe. It was before my time so when I read about the secondary victimisation as a result of police and the prosecution blaming the victims it made me angry. Peter Sutcliffe would prey on women, often prostitutes. The police at the time differentiated between the victims who were sex workers and the victims who weren’t and referred to those that weren’t as ‘innocent victims’, insinuating that the sex workers were not entirely blameless and may have precipitated their fate. Thankfully, West Yorkshire Police have issued a statement to apologise for the language and tone used at the time but the damage has already done.

I’d like to say society has learned from its mistakes, but sadly I don’t think we have. There is still evidence of victim blaming, particularly in cases of femicide and rape. Think of the Grace Millane murder and the protests in Ireland after a barrister suggest the jury consider the victim’s underwear, questioning consent. I hope one day we, as a society, learn. I hope the victims of Peter Sutcliffe get some sort of relief from both his passing and the apology from West Yorkshire Police.

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