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Let me start by apologising for the tone of this blog and emphasis that what follows is rant based on my own opinion and not that of the university or co-authors of the blog. On 3 January I was incensed by a story in the Guardian outlining comments made by Simon Dudley, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead’s Conservative leader, regarding homelessness and the impact (visually) that this could have on the forthcoming royal wedding. Mr Dudley commented that having homeless people on the streets at the time of the wedding would present “a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light” and that “Windsor is different and requires a more robust approach to begging” (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018, online). Unfortunately, I am no longer shocked by such comments and have come to expect nothing less of Conservative leaders. I am however profoundly saddened that such a deep rooted social issue is brought back into the spot light, not because it reflects wider issues of inequality, disadvantage, poverty, or social exclusion that need addressing but because of a class based narrative driven by a royal wedding. Is Windsor really in need of special treatment? Is their experience of homelessness really worse than every other city in the UK? Or is simply that in an area with such wealth, and social connection, showing the world that we have a problem with homelessness is taking it a step too far. Whatever the reason, Shelter’s (2017) tweet on the 29 December reminds us that homelessness is ‘…a crisis we are not handling as a country’.
As we approached the Christmas period it was estimated that children experiencing homelessness had reached a 10 year high with headlines like ‘Nearly 130,000 children to wake up homeless this Christmas’ (Bulman, 2017) marking our approach to the festive season. Similarly, Shelter warned of a Christmas homeless crisis and as the temperatures dropped emergency shelters were opened across London, contrary to the policy of only opening after three consecutive days of freezing temperatures (TBIF, 2017). Yet the significance of these headlines and the vast body of research into the homelessness crisis appears lost on Mr Dudley whose comments only add to an elitist narrative that if we can’t see it, it isn’t a problem. My issue is not with Mr Dudley’s suggestion that action is needed against aggressive begging and intimidation but with his choice of language. Firstly, to suggest that homelessness is a ‘sad’ thing is a significant understatement made worse by the fact that the focus of this sadness is not on homelessness itself but the fact that it undermines the tone of an affluent area. Secondly, the suggestion that the police should clear the homeless from the streets along with their ‘bags and detritus’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018) is symbolic of much of the UK’s approach to difficult social issues; sticking a band aid on a fatal wound and hoping it works. Thirdly, and more deeply disturbing for me is the blame culture evident in his suggestion that homelessness is a choice that those begging in Windsor are ‘…not in fact homeless, and if they are homeless they are choosing to reject all support services…it is a voluntary choice’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018). Homelessness is complex and often interlinked with other deeply rooted problems, therefore this blame attitude is not just short sighted but highly ignorant of the difficulties facing a growing proportion of the population.
Shelter. (2017) A safe, secure home is a fundamental right for everyone. It’s a crisis we are not handling as a country [Online]. Twitter. 29 December. Available from: https://twitter.com/shelter?lang=en [Accessed 4 January 2018].
Sherwood, H., (2018) Windsor council leader calls for removal of homeless before royal wedding. The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/03/windsor-council-calls-removal-homeless-people-before-royal-wedding [Accessed 04 January 2018].
The Big Issue Foundation. (2017) TBIF joins the Mayor of London’s Coalition to tackle rough sleeping [Online]. The Big Issue Website. Available from: https://www.bigissue.org.uk/news [Accessed 4 January 2018].
 a charity offering advice and support to those facing or experiencing homelessness
The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.
Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.
One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives.  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty without which Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.
In the immediacy of the Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example, teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.
Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights. Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.
In the words of Scrooge:
“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)
 The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.
Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)
One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media. An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld. It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss? Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood. Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!). In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones. Of course all in good humour, I thought.
Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping; or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day. The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight. There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions. Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.
Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas. Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore? Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone. Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with? If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.
According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile. The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion. He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned. “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). This is the true message of Christmas today.
Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East
Sallek is a graduate from the MSc Criminology. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Having spent the early years of my life in Nigeria, one of the first culture shock I experienced in the UK was seeing that its regular police do not wield arms. Unsurprising, in my lecture on the nature and causes of war in Africa, a young British student studying in Stellenbosch University also shared a similar but reverse sentiment – the South African police and private security forces wield arms openly. To her, this was troubling, but, even more distressing is the everyday use of most African militaries in society for internal security enforcement duties. This is either in direct conflict to the conventional understanding on the institutions involved in the criminal justice system, or African States have developed a unique and unconventional system. Thus, this raises a lot of questions needing answers and this entry is an attempt to stimulate further, thoughts and debate on this issue.
Conventionally, two spheres make up state security, the internal sphere of policing and law enforcement and the external sphere of defence and war-fighting. However, since the end of the Cold War, distinguishing between the two has become particularly difficult because of the internal involvement of the military in society. Several explanations explain why the military has become an active player in the internal sphere doing security enforcement duties in support of the police or as an independent player. Key among this is the general weakness and lack of legitimacy of the police, thus, the use of the military which has the capacity to suppress violence and ‘insurgence.’ Also, a lack of public trust, confidence, and legitimacy of the government is another key reason States resort to authoritarian practices, particularly using the military to clamp down civil society. The recent protests in Togo which turned ‘bloody’ following violent State repression presents a case in point. The recent carnage in Plateau State, Nigeria where herdsmen of similar ethnic origin as the President ‘allegedly’ killed over fifty civilians in cold blood also presents another instance. The President neither condemned the attacks nor declared a national mourning despite public outcry over the complicity of the military in the massacre.
Certainly, using the military for internal security enforcement otherwise known as military aid to civil authority in society comes with attendant challenges. One reason for this is the discrepancy of this role with its training particularly because military training and indoctrination focuses extensively on lethality and the application of force. This often results to several incidences of human rights abuses, the restriction of civil liberty and in extreme cases, summary extrajudicial killings. This situation worsens in societies affected by sectarian violence where the military assumes the leading role of law enforcement to force the return to peace as is the case in Plateau State, Nigeria. The problem with this is, in many of these States, the criminal justice system is also weak and thereby unable to guarantee judicial remedy to victims of State repression.
Consequently, citizens faced by the security dilemma of State repression and violence from armed groups may be compelled to join or seek protection from opposition groups thereby creating further security quandary. In turn, this affects the interaction of the citizenry with the military thereby straining civil-military relations in the State with the end result been the spinning of violence cycle. It also places huge economic burden with lasting impact on State resources, individuals, and corporate bodies and where the military is predatory, insecurity could worsen. The sectarian violence in Plateau State and the Niger Delta region in Nigeria where such military heavy-handedness remains the source of (in)security shows the weakness of this approach, and unless reconsidered, peace could remain elusive. Thus, now more than ever, this ambiguous (dis)order requires reconsideration for a civil approach to security in Africa.
The academic year is almost over and it offers the time and space to think. It’s easy to become focused on what needs to be done – for staff; teaching and marking assessments, for students; studying and writing assessments – which leaves little time to stop and contemplate the bigger questions. But without contemplation, academic life becomes less vibrant and runs the risk of becoming procedural and task oriented, rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure, mindlessly trying to make sense of words, without actually taking time out to think what does this actually mean. We’re all guilty of trying to fill every minute with activity; some meaningful, some meaningless that we forget to stop, relax and let our minds wander. Similarly, writing becomes a barrier because we focus on doing rather than thinking. With this in mind what follows is not a reasoned academic argument but rather a stream of thought
As some of you will remember, a while ago Manos and I had a discussion around words in Criminology (Facebook Live: 24.10.16). In particular, whether words can, or should, be banned and if there is a way of reclaiming, or rehabilitating language. Differing views have emerged, with some strongly on the side of leaving words deemed offensive to die out, whilst others have argued for reclamation of the very same terms. Others still have argued for the reclamation of language, but only by those who the language was targeted toward.
All this talk made me think about the way we use language in crime and justice and the impact this has on the individuals involved. This can be seen in everyday life with the depiction of criminals and victims, the innocents and the guilty, recidivists and those deemed rehabilitated, but we rarely consider the long-lasting effects of these words on individuals.
The recent commemoration (27.07.17) of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 brought some of these thoughts to the forefront of my mind. This legislation partially decriminalised sex between men (aged 21 or over) but only in private, meaning that homosexual relationship were confined and any public expression of affection was still liable to criminal prosecution. This anniversary, coming six months after the passing of “Turing’s Law” (officially, the Policing and Crime Act 2017) made me think about the way in which we recompense these men; historically identified as criminals but contemporaneously viewed in a very different light.
I view the gist of “Turing’s Law” as generally positive, offering the opportunity for both the living and dead, to clear their names and expunge their criminal records. After all it allows society to recognise the wrongs done in the name of the law to a not unsubstantial group of citizens. For me, where this legal righting of wrongs falls down, is in the wording. To offer someone a pardon suggests they are forgiven for their “sins” rather than acknowledging that the law (and society) got it wrong. It does not recognise the harm suffered by these men over the course of their lifetimes; a conviction for sexual offending cannot be shrugged off or easily explained away and leaves an indelible mark. Furthermore, whilst the dead are to be pardoned posthumously, the onus is on the men still living, to seek out their own disregard and pardon.
Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be
forced coerced to do another’s bidding. It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.
Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.
Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.
It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).
Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.
Lee, Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12