Grenfell: Mis-Trust, Contempt and the Ongoing Struggle to be Heard

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Almost a year on from the most devastating fire in the UK for a century, the Public Inquiry began, following advocacy by INQUEST and others, with “commemoration hearings” dedicated to the memories of the 72 victims who lost their lives. It was an unremittingly painful, yet wholly just and necessary, process.

So much more is to be said and learnt about the circumstances leading up to the fire. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled – is that this mass killing followed a conscious decision  by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had “endured … for years” – what local MP Emma Dent Coad described as “a real disdain for people lower down the social order” – and must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will never shake off.  But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition– in essence, disrespect. It is with this mis-trust and contempt that this short comment is concerned, as we approach the one year anniversary of the fire.

One aspect of this contempt was the apparent in the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the “”failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. This is the context of the observation that “absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority, loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.” These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial and then the Second Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the “severe trust deficit” between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled “particularly in the first few weeks” by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.

The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.

 

Billboards

Image courtesy of  Justice4Grenfell at https://justice4grenfell.org/press-release/3-billboards-outside-grenfell-tower-london/

One area of mis-trust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, RBKCC “promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas”, while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKCC “up to 12 months” to rehome families. Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken.  As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, “For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another.” By late May 2018, almost one year after the fire, only a third of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency,  accommodation.

A further area of mis-trust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that “survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency”. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.

A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster” – and had they been consulted would likely have objected to the appointment. Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention. Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, “at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry”.

This sense of constantly being of constant struggle to be heard, of being treated without sensitivity, being at worst lied to or at best told half-truths, must surely exacerbate feelings of mistrust, of being treated as worthless, as contemptible – exactly the same characteristics which defined many of the ways in which residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBCC), and, more, exactly the ways in which their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed.

In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to count – to be heard – continues.

This blog was originally posted at BRAVE NEW EUROPE, https://braveneweurope.com/steve-tombs-grenfell-mis-trust-contempt-and-the-ongoing-struggle-to-be-heard on 12 June 2018

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Hostile environments and the politics of un-belonging

Anna Colom, The Open University

This article by PhD candidate Anna Colom is a personal reflection on the symposium Hostile Environments: The Politics of (Un)Belonging, co-organised by Victoria Canning, Gabi Kent (Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative) and Umut Erel for the WhoAreWe collaboration at the TATE Exchange. It was first published under the Year of #Mygration Open University series: www.open.ac.uk/mygration

4-Hostile Environment Trail.JPG
This week I became a British ‘citizen’.  While waiting to affirm my allegiance in the official citizenship ceremony, and like so many times in recent months, I thought about what this new status meant for my rights and my identity. But, also like so many times before, I thought about the many people trapped in liminal spaces, existing but without being recognised, unable to move or stay, asked to fill out papers that will be rejected, pushed into bureaucratic labyrinths that can return them from where they escaped. Fellow human beings who, like me, were born in any part of the world by accident. Like me, with hopes and dreams. Where do we belong? And who decides it? For some, these are rather philosophical questions. For others, literally a matter of life and death. And, in between, a myriad of struggles, sometimes endured in the privacy of one’s silent journey through life, others through collective understandings, often invisible, or perhaps turned into social movements of resistance, claiming for the right to be – to belong.

These are the questions, the spaces, the lives, the injustice that Who Are We?, a collaboration between The Open University (OU), Counterpoints Arts and Stance Podcast, helped to make more visible through combining arts, activism and academia at the Tate Exchange. A symposium on hostile environment policies against migration and the politics of un-belonging shed light on what these policies mean for people’s lives and for democracy.

Through the presentations and lively discussion, the  members of the panel showed how the overarching headline of ‘hostile environment policies’ translates to have a varied impact. It can mean you are denied free healthcare in the middle of your cancer treatment, which happened to Mo, a member of the Migration and Asylum Seekers Forum. It means that as a woman facing domestic violence you might be denied accommodation but offered a flight ticket home (even if the law doesn’t allow it), as Sandhya Sharma from Safety 4 Sisters explained. It means the tools and support to seek legal aid are being stripped away. It means you lack voice, are disconnected and isolated from those campaigning for you whilst you are in a detention centre. It means asking doctors to become police, which Docs Not Cops is campaigning against. It means hate violence perpetrated by authorities, as Monish Bhatia from Birbeck University described. It means that the immigration policies are shown as separate from, but actually part of, systemic racism and neoliberal policies, intersecting and reinforcing patriarchy and heterosexual hegemony. It means you escape war legally but your status is then taken away, like 70% of the Syrian population in Lebanon, as explained by Syrian activist Leila Sibai and stated by Human Rights Watch (2017). As OU academic and activist Victoria Canning said, “there is a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to fight against”.

I have always wondered where I belong. I have felt both privileged and an underdog, and many spaces in between. I have learnt that migrating comes with endless longing for something, no matter how privileged in your new home. I have learnt not to take any of my rights for granted and that belonging is an endless struggle. But I have felt privileged after all. I have always had a safe, private place to stay, and warmth, and food and water. I have never been denied free access to quality healthcare, or education and, with it, the essential driving force that learning is to me. I have crossed many borders many times, comfortably, knowing well I could return.

There are millions, however, that have not had this experience – forced to make impossible choices, trapped, illegal, unwanted, dehumanised, in constant fear, too close to death. And, as I became a British citizen, this week has been a stark reminder of the injustice and systemic oppression faced by many whose worth is questioned every day. If citizenship is more than a legal status, if it is also care for your neighbour and to be part of a community, as was indicated in the citizenship ceremony, then it is also a responsibility to engage in practices of solidarity. It is to report, resist and change the policies, the laws, and the everyday racist and patriarchal practices that normalise this hostile environment.

The Injustice of Injustice: Making a feminist complaint and resisting abuses of power within Higher Education institutions

Abolish rape culture

 

Julia Downes, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University

 

This has been a difficult piece to write. Making complaints about abuses of power within institutions as a survivor and resident feminist killjoy who writes about gendered violence in social justice movements is risky. So… I complained about the screening of the film Injustice that is being organised by Students in Secure Environments at The Open University on Thursday 24 May 2018. I am advocating for the screening to be cancelled or, alternatively, for another film to be used as a platform for important discussions about experiences of imprisonment. In this piece, I want to outline my case and explore what the experience of making a feminist complaint (drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed on diversity and complaint as feminist work within Higher Education) can tell us about how power works within and across institutions to silence survivors and protect abusers. How an inability to respond to survivors of gendered violence exposes a tension between prison abolitionist and feminist anti-violence praxis within criminology. Survivors remain at the centre of my work. So, I have written this blog, to use a term from one of Sara Ahmed’s interviewees, as an ‘unexpected little gift’ for us. I am here. I believe you. If the screening does go ahead then this blog post can leave a trace of resistance to it. To create a document of feminist memory as a counter-institutional project, that this happened here. It is an invitation to build collective alliances across academic, practitioner and activist spaces to deal with the complexities of gendered violence within and across our everyday spaces and interactions.

 

What is the deal with the Injustice film?

 

The film Injustice was created by ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ who from his experience of being convicted (he received a suspended sentence) decided to make a documentary film to investigate the world of prisons, crime and the judicial system. The film features interviews with ex-prisoners, activists, prison staff and criminologists, including Dr. David Scott and Prof. Joe Sim. It has been screened across the UK in many cities and Universities including Oxford, Liverpool John Moore, Leicester, Sheffield Hallam, Middlesex, Chester, Central Lancashire, and Birmingham. Reviews have been positive and the film has been praised for its engaging depiction of the ways in which prison does not work. However, important omissions have been highlighted such as the absence of victims, prisoners of colour and women’s experiences of imprisonment.

 

Why complain?

 

I occupy an anti-carceral queer feminist place within critical criminology/zemiology here in the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative at The Open University. I am an activist-scholar who critically questions the utility of the criminal legal system to end gendered violence. I oppose the expansion of the prison industrial complex and am interested in social justice responses developed and used by communities to challenge gendered violence often without recourse to the criminal legal system. So, given my prison abolitionist perspective, you may wonder why I would oppose a film that is critical about prisons, crime and justice and highlights the harmful impacts of imprisonment? Why would I challenge Students in Secure Environments when making education accessible to people placed in prison and discussions about prison led by those most affected is something I am passionate about? However, when the real identity of the film maker became publicly known, the motivations behind the film as a tool for the film-maker to continue to avoid accountability for his violence and abuse, further harm a domestic abuse survivor and abuse his power within institutional spaces were revealed.

Punishment, as a served sentence, does not necessarily constitute accountability and ‘crime’ is not always a useful categorisation for the harms of gendered violence and abuse. There is much about the criminal legal system that fails survivors and abusers. For abusers, the criminal legal system can discourage them from being honest about their actions, magnify anger and fail to offer them appropriate support to understand the harm they have caused and to help them change. The criminal legal system also reduces gendered violence to bad individuals and isolated incidents, which therefore ignores the societal structures and cultures that foster violence against women (including cisgender, transgender and non-binary women). I believe as prison abolitionists, academics, feminists and activists that we share a responsibility to nurture care and accountability within our communities, without resorting to punitive responses (such as police and prisons). In the case of this film-maker there is a need to promote opportunities for him to be accountable for the harms he has caused (and still causes) to his ex-partner. We are being called forth to, as a community, recognise and consider the survivor in this.

On 17 May 2018, it was made public that the identity of the film-maker ‘Unsound Robin’ was in fact Lee Salter, an ex-media Lecturer from the University of Sussex who was convicted for assault against his ex-partner who was his postgraduate student. It was only after the story was reported in the press in August 2016 that Salter resigned from his post. The failures of the University of Sussex to adequately respond to domestic abuse perpetrated by a staff member to a student was investigated independently by Nicole Westmarland. The survivor was made aware of the Injustice film when an attempt to organise a film screening was made at the University of Sussex. His survivor used Twitter to call on Universities to check on who they invite into their institutions, to consider the safety of students, and detailed the impact of Salter’s continued abuse on her.

This statement received a mixed response from the criminology community: a few offered solidarity with the survivor whilst more stood in solidarity with Salter and condemned his outing. However, there was a distinct silence in the UK criminology community. In this uncertainty, upcoming screenings in a number of Universities were cancelled. For Salter, these cancellations became evidence of censorship and victimisation due to his status as a ‘convict’. Discussion about the film screening has also been divided in my discipline. Students in Secure Environments have been firm in making the case for the film screening to continue. They pointed out to me that ‘the film director has independently decided that he is no longer attending any film screenings’ and the ‘the event does not provide a platform or a voice for Lee Salter and the film is not about his own offence’. They confirmed their commitment ‘to working with people with convictions’ and assured me that the panel discussion may be an ‘opportunity to air some of the issues’. A decision was eventually made by The Open University to go ahead with the screening despite concerns being raised by the survivor, students and academics. This situation raises important questions about who holds the power of recognition; how carceral experiences work against accountability; and what we can do as a community to promote healing and accountability?

 

Manipulation of the prison abolitionist community

 

The survivor questions Salter’s motivation for making a film about the criminal legal system. On Twitter, she wrote that ‘it’s really hurtful to see my abuser use the cover of prison reform […] to present himself as a victim of injustice and cast doubt on other people who have survived abuse’. In my experience, prison abolitionist communities hold a valuable ethical and moral position in which they do not ask people with convictions about their offences. However, this trust can, in some cases leave this community open to manipulation. It is evident from Salter’s ‘Why I Remained Anonymous’ blog post that his decision to remain anonymous and use the pseudonym ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ went unchallenged. He reports on how much support he got from this community: ‘The general gist of people working in the area is “you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to”, and then reassurances that I’m still a human being and deserve a life.’ This must have been very validating for Salter. In contrast, in an earlier blog ‘Why I am Withdrawing My Appeal’ he initially considered the criminal legal system to be fair: ‘I entered the process thinking courts were places where there are procedural requirements that enable the consideration of all relevant evidence, and that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty’. This quickly changes as he positions himself as a ‘gagged’ victim of the criminal legal system and smear campaign. He concludes that ‘I have no expectation of receiving what I’d consider to be a fair trial’. It is Salter’s anger at being convicted for assault that motivates his interest in the criminal legal system. He states: ‘Indeed I have been researching courts and the law ever since my case ended and frankly I have no faith in any trial’. His insistence that ‘the film has nothing to do with me or my case’, falls redundant in his admission of the anger and disbelief he holds towards victims and their supporters: ‘I remain angry at the effect that experience of victim groups had on my own sense of reality. I recall vividly drifting past newspaper stands, reading the headlines of the latest heinous crime and thinking “fuck you, don’t believe you”. I still resent them for that’. There is abusive logic at work here in why and how the film was created. We cannot take the film-maker out of the film or rule out that the film does not further target and harm the survivor.

 

Denial and avoidance of accountability

 

There is also little evidence that Salter understands the impact he has had on the survivor and is able to hold himself accountable. His own account of the court process demonstrates his denial of his violence towards women including domestic violence, sexual harassment and coercive control. He makes a series of denials that there is ‘no evidence of any violent or abusive behaviour in the past’, ‘I have seen no evidence that the relationship was abusive on my part’ and ‘there was no sexual harassment’. He insists that he is ‘not a violent or abusive person’. These statements contradict claims made in the Why I Remained Anonymous post, written after he has been outed, in which Salter claims: ‘I never failed to apologise – indeed the main evidence included profusely apologising for what I’d done’. He speaks about the work he has done with a counsellor, probation, social worker and an ex-inmate who has talked to him about restorative justice. In this, Salter describes himself as someone who has been ‘severely punished’ and is now the victim of a ‘vengeance-based CJS and society’. Disturbingly he considers how he has ‘discussed perhaps approaching the victim to see if there’s anything in it that might help her’. To help her. She needs help. There is nothing wrong with him. He has not done anything wrong.

 

The safety of students

 

The recent NUS report Power in the Academy, which was advised by the 1752 group, demonstrates that Higher Education is not a safe space for women. Most perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct are cisgender male academics, who wield power over students’ academic success, wellbeing and career. Sexual misconduct negatively impacts on student learning and progression (e.g. students were found to skip lectures, change supervisors, suspend studies and change institutions). These powerful men tend to be well networked, rich in social capital, they are the important men who are well protected by institutions. We as academics, even if we think of ourselves as radical or critical, are deeply complicit in continuities of power inequalities that operate within our institutions. Abuses of power show us why and how ‘critical’ spaces come to be occupied by predominantly white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle class, and educated minds. Other bodies are pushed out and violence becomes an effective means to protect and affirm the network. Who belongs. Who fits. Who leaves. The damage is held and carried by those who have been violated leaving no blemish or trace on the institution.

I know of at least one Open University student complaint that has been made against the Injustice film screening, who stated: ‘I do not at all feel comfortable attending a university that is welcoming someone who abused their student’. There may be many more. As a large distance learning institution academics are not well connected with our students and we can often feel very disconnected from discussions happening in other parts of the institution. It took me a while to find out who was even organising the film screening. As the screening is not being organised by my home discipline of Criminology and Social Policy and Salter is no longer going to be there in person it could be easy for me to ignore it. However, allowing the screening to proceed unchallenged leaves me complicit in allowing Salter to continue to have his work accessed and validated in academic spaces. Doing nothing therefore contributes to the institutional silencing of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. Allowing silence to spread outwards throughout Higher Education spaces across the country.

 

The Power of Recognition

 

As feminists, we know that criminal legal responses fail many survivors of gendered violence. Successful convictions are rare and even if successful can be experienced as an anti-climax, fail to meet survivors needs for healing and recovery, and does not stop abuse. The ‘myth of the vengeful victim’ (Herman 2005, p. 575) is still alive in our societies and this can obscure the compassion that many victims and survivors have for intimate partners and/or ex-partners who have abused them. Many victims and survivors just want their partners and/or ex-partners to get the help they need and stop being abusive. Asking the question ‘what does justice mean to survivors’ shows us that the needs of survivors frequently surpass the narrow goals of the criminal legal system. Research has shown that many survivors want recognition for the harm they have or are experiencing. In our chapter ‘Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence’ we described recognition as:

the shared perception of something as existing or true: they have been harmed and victimised. Recognition also entails an expectation or entitlement to consideration; it is a form of acknowledgement conveying support. Recognition, therefore, is more than simply ‘being believed’. Recognition encompasses the significance of the experience being acknowledged
(McGlynn, Downes & Westmarland 2017, p. 182)

But who has the power to recognise survivors? It is not the sole power of the criminal legal system. The power of recognition is threaded through every interaction a survivor has around them. With friends and family, on social media, in workplaces and yes, in Higher Education institutions and other spaces of learning. Judith Herman taught us that an abuser demands nothing from the wider community. To look away, ignore it, just watch the film and stop complaining. This can be much easier to hear, as Herman described ‘it is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing’ (Herman 1992, p. 7). Public recognition in community is crucial for survivors. The question is what counts as community? Who has the power? Where is our power to grant recognition for survivors and hold abusers accountable?

 

Reflections on Complaint

 

In closing then, I wanted to add a few thoughts about making a feminist complaint. My own embodied experience of this as a junior colleague, a feminist, a survivor and a white middle class queer cisgender woman. I went to see Sara Ahmed talk recently about complaint. She defined complaint simply as a refusal to go along with something. It is a ‘misfit genre’. That when you raise a concern the response confirms that you are not of them. She spoke about how those of us who challenge power often become sites of negation, the cause of the problem. In the act of making a complaint power is made visible by the way it pushes back at you. Power asks you sit on the discussion panel. It tells you that you are at risk of setting a dangerous precedent. Reduces recognition to a collection for a domestic abuse charity at the screening. In how I hear that our union has been told that experts in criminology have given the screening the green light. The experience of the feminist killjoy is shattering. I couldn’t get out of bed. My mental health disintegrated. I stayed away from my workplace. I spent a lot of emotional labour and time writing this piece. I feel compelled to speak out because no one else does. But my words keep hitting a brick wall. I feel shattered but I will continue to occupy the space I have and keep saying: “No. Survivors. Matter.”

 

You can contact me on Twitter @juliahdownes or via my staff page

 

References

 

Herman, Judith Lewis (1992) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books

 

Herman, Judith Lewis (2005) Justice from the Victim’s Perspective. Violence Against Women, 11(5): 571-602

 

McGlynn, Clare; Julia Downes and Nicole Westmarland (2017) Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence: recognition, voice and consequences. In, Zinsstag, Estelle and Keenan, Marie eds. Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice: Legal, social and therapeutic dimensions. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 179-191

Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University

May.jpg

What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).

windrush

The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.

guardian

The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.

I_Daniel_Blake3

Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (https://archive.is/zhvCc#selection-597.0-605.36).

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)

Elaine

On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)

devi-ka

On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)

Lawrence

But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.

 

This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at: http://davemiddletons.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/government-policy-is-characterised-by.html

Border Crossing Monuments

Evgenia Lliadou, The Open University

 

Abandoned Plastic Dinghies
Figure 1.  Abandoned Plastic Dinghies at the coasts of Lesvos, photo by Evgenia Iliadou

Lesvos Island, May 2017. From where I am standing I can see the Turkish coast. During the night one can also see the lights on the other side of the Greek-Turkish border. The other side. The other side, as well as the people of the other side, is so close but at the same time so far away. The Greek and Turkish borders touch each other at a cognitive vertical line, dividing the sea through the middle, but at a point where the eyes cannot see – some 4.1 miles away. The beach underneath me is full of waste- border crossing waste. The ruins of a grey plastic boat, half buried under the sand, are left there as monuments and reminders of the thousands of border crossings. The ruins of a grey plastic boat are left there as an evidence of a “crime”. Τhat is how ‘irregular’ migration is coldly defined according to the criminal law; as a criminal act. Clothes are lying on the beach. Large sized clothes. Small sized clothes. Adults’ clothes. Children’s clothes. A child’s lifejacket is floating in the sea. It capsizes and finally drifts away on the waves. I cannot help but feel that I have just entered a crime scene. How many people, I wonder, have lost their lives on this little piece of earth alone? How many lives have been wasted here? Wasted lives and dreams are silently lying there, underneath my feet. The macabre feeling that I will confront a dead body washed ashore by the sea has overwhelmed me.

The statue of the Asia Minor Mother – the symbol of the massive forced displacement of 1922 – holding her children is standing still behind me. It has become unnoticeable to people and looks forgotten by both people and time. Her back is turned to the sea and faces the city. Her gaze cries out, “Forget me not!” connoting the unequal game between collective memory and oblivion. I look at her and wonder; has she just arrived? Has she just fled and been washed ashore in one of the ruined plastic dinghies underneath my feet? As I stare at the lifejackets floating in the sea and at the Asia Minor Mother statue holding her children, I cannot help but think that I am standing between two different border crossing monuments in time and space; the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 and the refugee crisis of 2015. Both border crossings monuments connote and manifest refugee journeys, massive deaths, forced displacements, unrecognised genocides, suffering and trauma; a continuum of violence in time and space.

As Walter Benjamin argues, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

This blog was originally posted at http://www.open.ac.uk/research/news/border-crossing-monuments on 8 February 2018

The own-race bias in eyewitness identification

Catriona Havard, The Open University

 

or_lineup

The own race bias is the phenomenon whereby individuals are better at recognising and differentiating between faces that are the same race as they are, and much poorer with faces of another race.

The issue of the own-race bias has serious ramifications when it comes to eyewitness identification and when a witness is faced with the situation where they have to identify a culprit from a lineup who is of a different race. The innocent project organisation aims to reform the criminal justice system to prevent injustice has exonerated 315 people through the use of DNA evidence. 71% of cases involved eyewitness misidentification, the majority of which also involved a witness identifying a suspect from another race.

There are a number of theories as to why people are better at recognising a face from their own race. One theory, the contact hypothesis, argues that through the high level of contact that individuals have with own race faces, they become experts at recognising such faces (Brigham & Malpass, 1985; Slone, Brigham & Meissner, 2000). On the other hand, the comparatively lower amount of contact with other-race faces, leads them to be relatively inexpert at differentiating between other race faces (Hugenberg, Miller, & Claypool, 2007). According to the contact hypothesis, the more experience that one has with a different racial group the more accurate they should be at identifying members of that particular group (Brigham, et al., 2007).

In our latest research we wanted to see if the amount of contact children had with children of another race would influence how accurately they could identify a culprit of another race from a lineup (Havard, Memon & Humphries, 2017). In our study, we showed a group of Caucasian and a group of Asian children 2 mock crimes, one with a Caucasian thief and one with an Asian thief. After a delay of 1 or 2 days the children were shown 2 video lineups, one for each thief and asked if they could identify the culprits they had seen before.  Each child saw one line-up that contained one of the culprits that had been previously seen (culprit present) and one lineup that didn’t contain the culprit, but someone of a similar appearance (culprit absent). With culprit present line-ups, we were interested in whether the children could correctly identify a person from the line-up and if they were accurate with their own race. Whilst culprit absent line-ups,  were used to simulate the situation that the police have arrested the wrong person, and to investigate whether the children would still pick someone,  and make a false identification, even though the person they have seen previously is not there. We were also interested in whether children would make more false identifications for the culprit that was of another race. A measure of interracial contact was also taken, where children were asked about their contact and relationships with children of another race.

Our findings revealed an own race bias for the Caucasian children, this resulted in more correct identifications for the own race culprit from culprit present lineups, and more false identifications of the other race culprit for the target absent lineups. The Asian children from both age groups showed no own race bias and performed equally accurately for culprits of both races. The measures of interracial contact revealed that the majority of Caucasian children in our study had very little contact with Asian children, whereas the majority of Asian children had high levels of contact with Caucasian children. The more contact children had with children of a different race, the more likely they were to make a correct response when trying to identify someone of another race.

This article was originally posted on the OU Psychology blog at: https://oupsychology.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/the-own-race-bias-in-eyewitness-identification/ To find out more about this research you can access the full article here or contact catriona.havard@open.ac.uk

 

Grenfell: unfolding dimensions of harm

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

 

Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.

Physical Harms

The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”

There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.

In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol  are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.

Psychological and Emotional Harms

Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live  for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.

Grenfell

Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

Financial and Economic Harms

There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on).  Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant.  The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.

Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.

Cultural and Relational Harms

A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their  dispersal –  that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder.  They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.

More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster”.

In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt as a cause of the fire per se: as one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.