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It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]

Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”

Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.

Protestors in downtown Louisville, my hometown.

My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.

My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.

Those who believe themselves t be white will defend their rights against these dead Black bodies

My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.

My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters”  – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.

My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”

Protests in my hometown, Louisville, KY

“I can’t breathe”: Criminology, Science and Society

Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect.  In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder.  Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon.  After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth.  This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder.  The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment. 

There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point.  Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society.  In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool.  As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced.  The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.   

When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.

This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law.  It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton).  In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.* 

The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.

Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.

Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.

If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong.  If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.  Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement.  For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression. 

Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.

Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.

If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.

*Even that can now be given as an affirmation

For the Trayvons, Since Blackface is a weapon #BlackenAsiaWithLove

2 April 2012 Hanoi

 

The real Blackface that’s the weapon is the minstrel show,
The Blackface that labeled me out,

Showing people a side of me never seen

But projected onto me,

Such that when so many see my own Blackface,

They see that other

They see that other one.

The one told to them over their kitchen tables.

The one sold to them at the movie show –

Hoop dreams

Baller creams

Holla dolla-dolla bill, y’all.

‘Cause we also know that there are real Black faces

That see those minstrel black faces

Staring them back in the face,

So blinded by the light that they cannot see their own.

 

That’s one side of Trayvon’s story-

Then we all know how precious of a story this really is

That a mother lost her darling son

That a grandmother lost the one who used to babysit for the other gran’kids

That the little cousins are still unclear about where that dear boy is.

 

Blackface means that as soon as your voice starts to drop

As soon as that fuzzy hair starts to sprout all over

As soon as your knock knees start to look bold

You’re no longer a kid

Your childhood is lost

And you must learn to act in ways that would make most sane adults stumble

You learn how not to offend white people

How to speak in a soft voice

Or perish

How to walk slowly, with an unassuming gate

Lest you appear as a threat

With the knowledge that any of these threatened folks can annihilate you

Wipe you from this earth

Where only a generation or two ago

Men hanged like tree-ripened fruit

Aged on a rope in an instant

From kid prankster

To adult menace in a matter of moments

We’ve all seen that photo of one of America’s last lynchings

Not nearly the first

Not nearly the haste, carnage and human waste that made people cease.

 

In 1930, not in anywhere near the deep south

Not from one of our southern willows that sway

But in the mid-west

In Indiana, less than a 150 miles from where Michael Jackson was born

And less than 30 years before he came to be,

So that years later when he sings about hate in our multicultural hearts

Or smashes a window in the video

Enraged with anger

Mad from hypocrisy

The sort that we all know all too well

The gap between the promise and dream.

The reality versus the verses etched all around the capital,

Versus the slave hands that laid those very stones.

The women folk whose very gender made them slaves

And the Black women whose faces made them chattel –

But exploitation of a sexual kind

Yes, we all know too well

What a Blackface can do

How a Blackface can scare you

Even when it’s yours.

So, we now the rage Michael felt,

The hate he seemed to have fought though lost,

Internalized but never giving up.

Yet he was born into a world that hated Blackfaces

Where his was a real threat,

Lest he learn to sing and dance.

The hate is real life minstrelsy.

 

It’s that same song and dance that we as boys learn to perform

And I am tired of dancing

Trying to make nice when people approach me as cold as ice

Smiling and trying to behave

While all their body language tells me that they are scared to death of me

And that they see my Blackface as chilling.

We all know that all the Trayvons in this place

Learn from an age too early to have to teach kids such harsh cruelties of life

That by 13, he could be nearly 6 feet tall and that factor alone endangers his life

Were he to play sports and his body develop.

He would stand no chance of being treated like anything other than a gladiator.

So it’s even more ironic that Trayvon was a scrawny boy they called “Slim”

Seems there’s no real way to win

Though I think that if we as a people can get through this

If we as a nation can have this conversation

The one mothers like Trayvon’s have with their sons

For we all know how people react to Black

 

CONned by CONfederates #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I come from a town named after the French king who supported America’s independence struggle from Great Britain. A large statue of him sits in front of our old courthouse, across from the old town hall. The fleur-de-lis covering his robe was consequently adopted as the symbol of my city, as well as New Orleans and several other municipalities around our nation. I am from a county named after a slaveholding ‘founding father’, the nation’s third president, who was the governor of the Virginia territory that was split then to eventually create my ole Kentucky home.

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Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the same time as he was a prominent slave-owner. Our nation fought for nearly two centuries to (openly) recognize the long-term relationship Jefferson had with a teenage slave. Contemporary CONfederates & other zealots fought against recognizing their descendants.

Dixie Highway is one of the largest roads crisscrossing my city, and it’s even the best way to get to Fort Knox, where our nation used to hold its gold. There are other CONfederate activists who are venerated locally in bronze. I never had to “wish I was in Dixie.”I was born there.

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Rosa Parks statue in downtown Montgomery, AL

Although the Sons of CONfederate Veterans resisted, my parents’ alma mater moved a 70-foot-tall CONfederate monument off its campus and out of the city. It wasn’t destroyed, but perhaps, hopefully, better contextualized.

There are umpteen items in my hometown named after President Zachary Taylor who was born into a prominent plantation-owning family. He held slaves during his short-lived term and danced all around the issue of slavery with his CONfederate chums.

Where my grandparents are from in Alabama, the Black high school is named after a CONfederate war general. Right now, the first white house of the CONfederacy sits smack in the middle of the seat of city, county, and state government.

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“First White House of the Confederacy,” Montgomery, AL 2013.

History needs to be re-written to include all the people that made the history.

A racist and no solution

Photo by King’s Church International on Unsplash

I am a white, middle class some might say (well my students anyway), ageing, male.  I wasn’t always middle class, I’m from working class stock. I’m a university lecturer now but wasn’t always. I spent 30 years in the police service in a small, ethnically diverse, county in England.  I didn’t consider myself a racist when I was in the police service and I don’t consider myself a racist now.  Nobody has called me a racist to my face, so why the title? It’s how I’m constantly labelled.  Every time someone says the police are racist or the police are institutionally racist, they are stating that about me. Just because I have left the police organisation doesn’t change who I am, my beliefs or my values.  So, if the police are racist, then by default, I must be.

I’m not suggesting that some police officers are not racist, of course some are. Nor am I denying that there has been and probably still is some form of institutional racism within the police service, perhaps as a whole or perhaps at a more localised or departmental level. But bad apples and poorly thought-out, naïve or even reckless policies, strategies and procedures are not enough to explain what is going on in policing and policing of ethnic minority groups in particular. I’m talking about policing in this country, not across the pond where policing is very different in so many ways that it is hard to even suggest a realistic comparison. That of course is the first problem, what happens in the United States of America is immediately translated into what happens here.

As a lecturer, I constantly hear from students and read students’ work about the racist and brutal police, often interchanging commentary from the United States with commentary here in the United Kingdom, whilst also failing to recognise that there is different policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Institutional racism, as defined by Macpherson, is now part of the lexicon, but it no longer has the meaning Macpherson gave it, it is now just another way of saying the police are and every police officer is racist. Some students on finding out that I was a police officer show an instant dislike and distrust of me and sometimes it can take the whole three years to gain their trust, if at all.  Students have been known to request a different dissertation supervisor, despite the fact that their research subject is in policing.  This is not a complaint, just a statement of facts, painful as it is.

As I try to make sense of it all, I have so many unanswered questions. What is exactly going on? What is causing this conflict between the police and ethnic minority groups? Why is there a conflict, why is there distrust? More importantly, how can it be fixed? Some of the answers may lay in what the police are asked to do, or at least think they are asked to do. Reiner suggests that policing is about regulating social conflict, but which conflict and whose conflict is it? Other authors have suggested that the police are simply a means to allow the rich and privileged to maintain power. There may be some merit in the argument, but most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged. The rich and powerful of course commit crimes but they are nowhere near as tangible or easy to deal with. One the problems might be that the rich and powerful are not particularly visible to policing but the disadvantaged are.

Maybe some of the answers lay in notions of stereotyping, sometimes even unconsciously. Experience or narratives of experiences cause a wariness, even a different stance to one people might normally assume. Being thumped on the nose by a drunk, does tend to make a person wary of the next drunk they encounter. So, could stereotyping be a problem on both sides of the divide? My dissertation student that didn’t want me as a supervisor was later to reveal experiences of racist abuse aimed at the police officers she went out on patrol with.  Policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful.  If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.

I get the sense though that the problem is much deeper routed than policing.  Policing and the problems of policing is just a sub plot in a much wider issue of a divided society and one that is in constant conflict with itself.  If the police are guilty of racism, then it is society that has caused this.  Our society’s values, our society’s beliefs. An unequal society where the poorest suffer the most and the rich get richer regardless.  A society where we are all equal but only because someone somewhere said so at some time, it is not reality.  I think of Merton’s ‘American Dream’, I don’t buy into the whole concept, but there is something about not having opportunities, equally when I think of Lea and Young and the concept of relative deprivation, whilst not explaining all crime, it has some merit in that notion that the disenfranchised have no voice. 

As I write this I am conscious that I have commentated on a very emotive subject particularly at this time.  As I watch the events unfold in America, I fear the worst, action followed by reaction. Both becoming increasingly violent and I see the possibility of it happening in this country. I fear that the term ‘police racism’ will become another convenient label.  Convenient in the sense that the problems are seen solely as that of policing. If we examine it through a different lens though, we might just find that policing is simply part of the whole rotten tree, society. Fix society and you fix policing. If the label racist fits, it fits the society we live in.  

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Within Grey Walls

“Waking up to gray walls and black bars…in the silence of ones own thoughts, leaves one to a feeling of somberness…as those around begin to stir and began their individual day, hope creeps into ones mind….as the discussions regarding legal strategies began, hope then becomes more than just a shadow…as guys began to discuss their potential future beyond prison and being locked in a cell for days at a time, hope becomes more than just a fleeting moment!  Silence can sometimes be ones own enemy on death row:-…So I condition myself to discover the “why” I fight through the fits of depression and despair, instead of focusing on the “how’s”….because pursuit of the “why’s” bring about methods of finding a solution….encouragement to remain hopeful!”

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (1).     

Without the right to life, we cannot enjoy the freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, what if one’s life was imprisoned and waiting to be ended for crime? In addition, what if a person was to be put to death for associating with a particular demographic?

The death penalty is the authorization of the state to kill a citizen for a crime, whether it’s murder, rape, treason, or more severe crimes, such as crimes against humanity and genocide (2).

Whilst the death penalty can be a deterrent, provide justice, and be the ultimate punishment for a crime and justice for victims, it is also used in some countries to persecute minority groups, such as the LGBT community (3) (4). (In references, there is a link to an interactive map of countries that utilize the death penalty for LGBT groups).

According to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), around 82% of cases involving capital punishment, race was a determining factor of giving this punishment, in comparison to white counterparts (5). However, the justice system is far from perfect, and miscarriages of justice occur. Due to issues of racism and racial bias (particularly within the American Justice System), this has seen members of minority groups and innocent people put on death row whilst a criminal still walks free. A damning example of a miscarriage of justice, and a clear demonstration of racism, is the case of George Stinney, whom, at the age of 14, was wrongly accused of murdering 2 girls. He was taken to court, tried by an all white jury, and was given the electric chair (6). 

This, ultimately, is the state failing to protect its citizens, and causing irreparable damage to others. The George Stinney case is a condemnatory example of this. On top of that, it is hard to measure deterrence, and whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing crime.

However, what is it actually like being on death row?

June 2017 saw the start of a new friendship – a unique friendship. What simply started out with me wanting to reach out and be a ray of light to someone on death row, turned into a wonderful experience of sharing, support and immeasurable beauty. In June 2017, I began writing to a man on death row, and simply wanted to be a ray of light to someone in a dark place.

He has shared some of his thoughts of what it is like to be on death row:

“Perseverance. This is key when facing a day in prison (physically and mentally) because is never “where” you are physically, but your ability and willingness took push through those times of adversity and overcome the very things that have the power to bring you down….such as evil”. BUT- when we examine the word “evil” look closely…. Do you see it yet? ….. It’s “LIVE” backwards and to me its when we lose our patience to “LIVE” that we have brushes with “evil”…no???? So within these walls I do my best to find the “silver lining” and develop the better aspects of me”.

Now, it may seem effortlessly -but- in all honestly….its very difficult to face each day with the uncertainty of knowing whether the presence I have is one that has significance….in here I have to prepare myself on a constant basis in order to be the best version of myself no matter what lays ahead.

Thankfully….I have met an incredible person, who guides me by way of her words…offers me comforts by way of her thoughts and prayer and encourages me through her never ending presence! She is beautiful in every aspect of the word…She has helped me to discover that EVERYTHING and NOTHING awaits beyond forever! 

References

(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDH) Article 1 Available online at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/    Accessed on 21/01/2020

(2) Louise Gaille ’15 Biggest Capitol Pros and Cons’ Available online at: https://vittana.org/15-biggest-capital-punishment-pros-and-cons  Accessed on 24/03/2020

(3) The Human Dignity Trust ‘Saudi Arabia: Types of Criminalisation’ Available online at: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/country-profile/saudi-arabia/  Accessed on 24/03/2020

(4)  Death Penalty Information Centre ‘Executions By Race and Race of Victim’ Available online at: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/executions-overview/executions-by-race-and-race-of-victim

(5) Ibid

(6) Snopes Fact Check ‘Did South Carolina Execute 14-year-old George Stinney, then declare him innocent 70 years later?’  Available online at:  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/george-stinney-execution-exoneration/  Accessed on 24/03/2020

Other

Interactive map of countries where the death penalty is used against the LGBT community: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/?type_filter=crim_gender_exp

Human Writes: https://www.humanwrites.org

“TW3” in Criminology

In the 1960s, or so I am told, there was a very popular weekly television programme called That Was The Week That Was, informally known as TW3. This satirical programme reflected on events of the week that had just gone, through commentary, comedy and music. Although the programme ended before I was born, it’s always struck me as a nice way to end the week and I plan to (very loosely) follow that idea here.

This week was particularly hectic in Criminology, here are just some of the highlights. On Monday, I was interviewed by a college student for their journalism project, a rather surreal experience, after all, ‘Who cares what I think?

On Tuesday, @manosdaskalou and I, together with a group of enthusiastic third years, visited the Supreme Court in London. This trip enabled a discussion which sought to unpack the issue of diversity (or rather the lack of) within justice. Students and staff discussed a variety of ideas to work out why so many white men are at the heart of justice decisions. A difficult challenge at the best of times but given a new and urgent impetus when sat in a courtroom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective and impartial when confronted with the evidence of 12 Supreme Judges, only two of which are women, and all are white. Arguments around the supposed representativeness of justice, falter when the evidence is so very stark. Furthermore, with the educational information provided by our tour guide, it becomes obvious that there are many barriers for those who are neither white nor male to make their way through the legal ranks.

Wednesday saw the culmination of Beyond Justice, a module focused on social justice and taught entirely in prison. As in previous years, we have a small ceremony with certificate presentation for all students. This involves quite a cast, including various dignitaries, as well as all the students and their friends and family. This is always a bittersweet event, part celebration, part goodbye. Over the months, the prison classroom leaves its oppressive carceral environment behind, instead providing an intense and profound tight-knit learning community. No doubt @manosdaskalou and I will return to the prison, but that tight-knit community has now dissipated in time and space.

On Thursday, a similarly bitter-sweet experience was my last focused session this year on CRI3003 Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. Since October, the class has discussed many different topics relating to institutional violence focused on different cases including the deaths of Victoria Climbié, Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as the horror of Grenfell. We have welcomed guest speakers from social work, policing and the fire service. Discussions have been mature, informed and extremely sensitive and again a real sense of a learning community has ensued. It’s also been my first experience of teaching an all-female cohort which has informed the discussion in a variety of meaningful ways. Although I haven’t abandoned the class, colleagues @manosdaskalou and @jesjames50 will take the reins for a while and focus on exploring interpersonal violence. I’ll be back before the end of the academic year so we can reflect together on our understanding of the complexity of violence.

Finally, Friday saw the second ever #BigCriminologyQuiz and the first of the new decade. At the end of the first one, the participants requested that the next one be based on criminology and music. Challenge completed with help from @manosdaskalou, @treventoursu, @svr2727, @5teveh and @jesjames50. This week’s teams have requested a film/tv theme for the next quiz so we’ll definitely have our work cut out! But it’s amazing to see how much criminological knowledge can be shared, even when you’re eating snacks and laughing. [i]


So, what can I take from my criminological week:

  1. Some of the best criminological discussions happen when people are relaxed
  2. Getting out of the classroom enables and empowers different voices to be heard
  3. Getting out of the classroom allows people to focus on each and share their knowledge, recognising that
  4. A classroom is not four walls within a university, but can be anywhere (a coach, a courtroom a prison, or even the pub!)
  5. A new environment and a new experience opens the way for discord and dissent, always a necessity for profound discussion within Criminology
  6. When you open your eyes and your mind you start to see the world very differently
  7. It is possible (if you try very hard) to ignore the reality of Friday 31 January 23:00
  8. It is possible to be an academic, tour guide, mistress of ceremonies and quiz mistress, all in the same week!

Here’s looking forward to next week….not least Thursday’s Changemaker Awards where I seem to have scored a nomination with my #PartnerinCriminology @manosdaskalou.

[i] The first quiz was won by a team made up of 1st and 2nd years. This week’s quiz was won by a group of third years. The next promises to be a battle royale 😊 These quizzes have exposed, just how competitive criminologists can be….


Black son of the south (A 2-part short story in prose). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Pt. 1: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

As the sun rises, and over the horizon, I can see the first capital of the Confederacy, I am forced to remember that this is the south.

There’s country music blasting from the speakers in this restaurant, and the young woman serving me has such a twang, you’d think she’s about to sing…her own rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.

The waitress calls me ‘Sweetie’ though she’s clearly half my age.

I’d much rather be called ‘sweetie’ than sir, not that I’m ashamed of being middle-aged.

I appreciate coming back down south and feeling this cosy feeling from virtually everyone I meet. Plus she’s sincere, too. I can see that the staff here are mixed, and yet I have this burning feeling that there’s more here than meets the eye.

In this part of the country, we pride ourselves on our gentile ways.  For years I’ve wondered if this is just how we southerners learned to cope with an excessively violent past.

My grandparents fled from here in the 40’s, just after the war, so terrorized were they of establishing a life of dignity outside the cotton fields they plucked as kids. Now, there is a localised justice initiative to mark the numerous racial hate crimes known as lynching.

The initiative has an eerie collection of jars filled with actual soil from (known) lynching sites. There’s at least one of these large pickle jars full-o-dirt from every county in this state alone. You know it’s Bama, too; there’s so much of that familiar chalky, red clay that’s still all around us. Dirt so red, you now wonder if it’s ferrous or blood!

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Notoriously, lynching is NOT a practice of the antebellum south, for black labour was far too valuable to just maim, torture and burn up black bodies like what’s done in these heinous hate crimes then.

I know not every white person down here is a descendant of slave-holders, slave-drivers or slave-catchers. Many may have never owned a single slave, yet…

Yet, any white person down here benefits from white-skin-privilege. Even white immigrants have famously fallen into line, capitalising on the slave economy, commoditizing King Cotton in one way or another. Not only Stevie Wonder, but even Wikipedia can see that.

The Wiki history entry of the in-famous commodities firm Lehman Brothers’ opens dryly like this: “In 1844, 23-year-old Henry Lehman, the son of a Jewish cattle merchant, emigrated to the United States from RimparBavaria. He settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a dry-goods store…”

Henry’s brothers came over within a few years – legally, supposedly – and thus began the in-famous firm. The brothers quickly saw that the farmers were rich during harvest and broke when it came time to plant. The dry-goods store quickly began accepting raw cotton as a form of payment. They hoarded cotton when it was plentiful and cheap, selling it when stocks drew low; economics running counter-cyclical to farm life. Did it matter to the brothers that the cotton was produced by slaves?

The brothers opened their first branch in NYC in 1858. That’d be New Yawk ‘fore the Northern War of aggression, y’all. Their firm dug so deep into the commodities trading economy that the youngest Lehman brother’s son, Herbert, was eventually a senator, 4-time governor of New York, and among other accolades is quoted in the current US passports espousing the value of immigrants to the nation’s roots and success. Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy has been called “the biggest corporate failure in history!”

Did you know there are entire regions of the United Kingdom that evolved on the back of King Kotton as a commodity? Manchester, “famed as the world’s first industrial city,” was nicknamed Cottonopolis. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by slavery! Ironically, the liberation of one group of people depended upon the enslavement of another. His-story should tell both sides, else it’s a damn lie. Did you know those cotton mill workers were sent aid by the Union government when the Civil War curtailed these cheap exports?

But anyone down south was in one way or another entangled in the slave economy as much as all of us today can’t have a smartphone free of labour and land exploitation. The fact that I may never see a child mining tin in Indonesia, or set sights on bonded labourers toiling away for cobalt in the Congo, does not admonish me and my gadgetry from any responsibility to do better.

So, the pleasantries that we southerners find necessary are well-crafted ways of disarming one another from a past filled with mass artilleries in everyday life.

I am a Black son of the south.

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@ The Equal Justice Initiative

Free from these chains, I hasten to think what life was like for my grandparents. Armed with their southern draws, having actually grown up cultivating the region’s cash crops, what life could they possibly have imagined for themselves as adults there?

What I do know, however, and I’ve heard this from my own elders, is that while they couldn’t imagine a future there for themselves, they did dream of that vision for us.

And so, here I am living my life…somewhere. Over the rainbow.

A $40 tip at the all-day-breakfast joint (A Prose about this American moment). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

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1st Sunday 2020 Sunrise over Lake Jordan, Alabama

It’s 6:20am.

I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.

Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.

A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.

 

The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.

And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.

 

The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.

 

As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”

Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.

 

I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.

 

 

“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.

“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.

They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.

And yet I do appreciate their labour.

 

In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.

Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.

“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.

 

Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.

Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.

This satellite town, for example, sits just outside the seat of Civil Rights and grew during Jim Crow around a large paper mill that one can still smell miles away.

 

 

Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.

 

I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.

This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.

 

She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”

 

 

She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.

She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”

By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.

 

As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).

 

 

This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.

 

Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.

From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.

I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.

 

“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.

 

Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.

Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”

It’s Tuesday morning.

 

Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.

It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.

I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.

I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.

 

I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle,  or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).

 

It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.

 

The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.

Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”

“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.

“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.

 

I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.

I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.

 

I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.

 

Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.

 

Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.

 

 

 

 

 

*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.

A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

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