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

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Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University

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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)

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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