Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Crime mapping : revealing problem people and problem places?

Home Secretary, Theresa May
(c) UK Home Office

Criminal activity in the Whitehall area outstripped that of the riot centres of Tottenham and Hackney in December 2011. Over twice as many violent crimes took place in Whitehall, and possession, supply and production of drugs was approximately 5 times higher there, than in either Tottenham or Hackney.

Time to get more police out to regain control of the streets of Whitehall? Will residents, institutions and businesses in the area move out? Will parents choose to move in order to send their children to school elsewhere? Will it affect property prices? Will the area become disenfranchised and run down?

Of course not. Exclusion and marginalisation is not for those who live, work and do business in this area.

Therein lies the problem with ideas of crime mapping; spatially, it relies on normative assumptions of crime to reaffirm 'problem people' and 'problem places'.

Described as “a feminist in kitten heels” by Amber Elliott, Theresa May launched the new version of the UK's crime map. According to the BBC, the Home Secretary revealed that the new website would make the police more accountable:
"Since October, the public have been able to use the police.uk website to see how their force performs in a range of areas like crime rates, quality of service and victim satisfaction," ...

"[On Tuesday] we'll launch the next stage of crime mapping, in which we'll start to map crimes to or near a range of public places. 
"By May, crime maps will show the public what happens after a crime has occurred - what action the police took and what the criminal justice outcome was." 
"Armed with the information from those crime maps, people can attend their local neighbourhood beat meeting and hold their local police to account for their performance," ... 
"That will help drive up local policing standards and help drive down local crime."
The map will now cover 'crimes' committed in public places, such as nightclubs, subways, and parks.

As the statement above illustrates, the assumption is that people will view this map as a means to ascertain what crime is like in their (prospective) neighbourhood. Therefore, people will not be using this map to assess the likelihood of 'crimes' close to where they work, thereby hiding other 'problem areas' and 'problem people'.

It also fails to address who victims might be and what recourse to help they have.

I do not know who the victims of the crimes in Whitehall are. However, in amongst their number, I am presuming that some will have been tourists, as this area contains a number of well-known tourist sites.

Tourists consulting City of London map (c) David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA3.0
If this is a reasonable assumption to make, then it seems that crime mapping has not been produced with the millions of tourist that visit our shores in mind, despite the financial benefits that they bring. How might they attend future meetings? Who are their local police force? How might they understand what is happening with their case?

Whilst Theresa May asserts that crime mapping will drive up local policing standards and that local crimes will be driven down, it is already being used, but it does not appear to have dramatically reduced the numbers of 'crimes' committed in Whitehall between December 2010-December 2011.

Perhaps more pertinently, given that this is a critical criminology blog, is the fact that crime mapping uses normative, state-defined notions of 'crime'. There are a whole host of crimes that are not included on this map. State, corporate and environmental crimes are most obvious in their absence.

Crime mapping does not include deaths in police custody, as internal inquiries reveal that no criminal action need take place. It would not include the rendition of Libyan dissidents, because it is a civil case. Nor would it include this fraud, as it too has been investigated internally, rather than criminally. Let alone state environmental contamination.

Although these 'crimes' took places in what might also considered public places, the latest crime mapping website will exclude them as 'problem places'. In other words, we will not see local police stations or financial institutions identified as 'criminal' on this map.

Moreover, normative, state-defined 'crimes' include those UK rioters who have been criminalised following their involvement in the UK riots; ordinarily, would they have been punished (think Bullingdon club exploits)?

Some 'crimes' have dubious origins. For example, the construction of anti-social behaviour orders, and their expansion from their original, intended use, have led to the prosecution of thousands of young people.

The above demonstrates how the state, through its institutions such as the criminal justice system, has the power to define and reconstruct what 'crime' is. By mapping the city through these definitions, certain places become identified as more of a 'problem'.

Stigmatisation follows, as people and businesses move out, leading to a downturn in private investment in the area, whilst government cuts hit welfare services that the more socially and economically disadvantaged need. This is the real 'crime'.

As my Whitehall example demonstrates, crime mapping in its present form is a nonsense. 

Friday, 27 January 2012

Foreign Affairs Committee & The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Human Rights Work 2010-2011

Palace of Westminster at night (c) David Iliff

A cumbersome title, but by no means a cumbersome subject. I attended this debate yesterday to ascertain how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are promoting human rights across the world, and to see what concerns the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) have with their work.

What follows below will more or less be a straight report of the proceedings, littered, here and there, with my initial thoughts and observations. I will provide a more thorough analysis of this debate, and the FAC's report on the FCO's human rights work and the FCO's response to it, in due course.

To understand this debate, one needs to know that the term 'debate' does not adequately express what took place. There was no to-ing and fro-ing between the FAC and FCO; it was basically one long FAC question session, answered by an FCO minister, Alistair Burt, at the end.

The various cross-parliamentary FAC members raised their concerns, one by one, which Alistair Burt then answered in part via a written FCO statement, before replying orally to some of the concerns raised in the final few minutes. For those concerns that he could not answer, he will seek a written response from the Foreign Secretary.

Although allegedly annual, this was the first debate to take place on the FCO's human rights work in over 3 years. Some FAC members lamented the setting, and posited that it should have taken place in the House of Commons. Moreover, each of the FAC members expressed their displeasure that they had been allotted a total of 90 minutes only to debate this issue, in contrast to previous debates that had lasted 180 minutes.

Human rights records in Bahrain, Libya, Burma, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka were all discussed in relation to the UK's diplomatic relationship with them. Oddly, nobody debated the UK's relationship with the USA (Guantanamo, state-sponsored drone assassinations, the death penalty etc.)

Rather than go through each of the members concerns, I will set out the main concerns below.


  • Why did the UK government sell arms to a number of regimes that, although were not using them against their own people at the time of sale, later went on to do so?
  • How did the UK government fail to consider the impact of these sales, and the potential human rights abuses, given the autocratic regimes (e.g. Bahrain) that they were selling to?
  • How could the UK government sanction an international arms fair at which (banned) cluster bombs were being exhibited?

Stop cluster bombs march (c) pxkls

  • How does the UK use its burgeoning commercial relationship to engage China on human rights issues?
  • How does the Foreign Secretary “see trade and promotion of human rights as mutually reinforcing?” (quote taken from letter said to have been sent from Foreign Secretary to FAC Chair 25/01/2012)
  • How did the FCO omit Bahrain from their list of states that they had concerns over?

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • Although in need of modernisation, why is the UK's rhetoric on the ECHR so openly dismissive?
  • Given this, how will the UK be able to do more than not downplay human rights issues in its discussions with other nations?

Other FAC members called for the FCO to press Russia on Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky, China on its arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators, and Sri Lanka to hold an independent tribunal looking at war crimes committed during the civil war.

Amongst other points, Alistair Burt's response pointed to the help that the FCO had provided in reforming China's criminal justice system, the flexible approach the FCO had taken to revoking arms licenses during the Arab spring, and the human rights projects that the FCO continued to fund across the globe. The FCO has also recently produced these guidelines for overseas security and justice assistance.

Before I offer a short critique on this debate, it is important to note that many other citizens are not afforded the opportunity to see how their government works. In this respect, we are lucky to live in the UK. Equally, the role of the FAC, and other committees, institutions and organisations, inside and outside, of parliament, demonstrate the democratic freedoms that we have.

However, these things on their own do not mean that all is well. The time afforded this debate and the lack of one in the preceding 3 years illustrate a lack of concern for international human rights.

Alistair Burt (c) Sam Friedrich
Business-like in his performance, Alistair Burt offered little detail in his responses to the concerns that the FAC raised. It may be that the FCO has done sterling human rights work on the Chinese criminal justice system, but that does not address why it imprisons its political critics.

Whilst arms licences may have been revoked during the Arab spring, no explanation was offered as to why we armed dubious regimes prior to these demonstrations. The likes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not recognised as bastions of human rights. Just who would we not sell arms to?

My over-riding impression, which may admittedly be tainted by my own experiences of the FCO, was that this was a tick-box exercise. The FCO provided generalised responses to show that it cares (to some degree) about international human rights issues, without addressing core concerns or the inherent contradictions and dichotomies of its actions.

If the FCO are to promote an UK vision of what constitutes human rights today, it needs to take a long hard look at what it, and other government departments (e.g. UKTI) do, and change. We can not possibly expect other nations to take us seriously on human rights, when we are only too willing to eschew them in return for financial gain.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Jay-Z and the (dis)empowering language of hip-hop

Jay-Z (c) i am guilty

The post below will discuss how language is used in hip-hop. It will discuss words, lyrics and song titles that are not appropriate for the workplace, or for a less mature audience. Please navigate away now if concerned.

The rapper Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce recently had a daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. The NME reported that Jay-Z had written a poem indicating his unwillingness to include the word “bitch” in his lyrics again.

Time pondered whether Jay-Z would be able to avoid using the term in his public performances, given that it appeared in just over 50% of his previously recorded work. As it happens, Jay-Z has denied that the poem is his, and so, there is no suggestion that he will no longer use the term.

The Guardian published this article by Tricia Rose who writes from a feminist perspective on the harms associated with the use of the word “bitch”, especially for black women. The piece raises issues that hold true of hip-hop and society at large, but it omits the way that female hip-hop artistes use the word “bitch.”

Lil' Kim is one such artiste who has widely used the word “bitch” in her music. Please note that I do not have access to Lil' Kim's official lyrics, but her website referred me to the elyrics.net site when I clicked on the 'lyrics' tab.

She has written tracks called “Queen Bitch” and “It's Kim Bitches (Get That Money),” and has peppered other cuts such as “Suck My Dick” with the word. Take the chorus from the latter:
(Ay yo, come on here bitch) 
Who you talking to? 
(Why you actin' like a BITCH?) 
Cause y'all niggas ain't shit 
And if I was dude 
I'd tell y'all to suck my dick 

Lil' Kim (c) Emillio
Just as hip-hop has adopted the word “nigga,” remoulding it away from its original racist form. Lil' Kim is reconstituting the word “bitch,” through her use of vocabulary that is contextually relevant to her background and industry. I am not saying that I agree with her take on empowerment, but she is repossessing “bitch” within the sphere of hegemonic masculinity, thereby blunting the hostility associated with it.

Moreover, to portray hip-hop as one homogenous genre responsible for sexism and a perceived hostility to woman is to ignore the many levels on which hip-hop is being played out. It is of the social, the cultural, the historical, the local, and (increasingly) the global, because of the commercial.

In their paper, “Misogyny in Rap Music: A Content Analysis of Prevalence and Meanings,” Ronald Weitzer and Charles E. Kubrin (2009) note the difficulties that male artists have offering alternative takes on hip-hop. They refer to a documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes:
Byron Hurt (2007) asks one aspiring rapper why rap artists focus on violence and misogyny. The rapper freestyles a verse about whether he could have been a doctor, a father, or police officer. He then says, ‘‘That’s nice, but nobody wanna hear that right now. They don’t accept that shit.’’ When Hurt asks, ‘‘Who is ‘they’?’’ the rapper answers, ‘‘The industry. They usually don’t give us deals when we speak righteously.’’ (p. 6, Weitzer and Kubrin, 2009)
This begs the question as to whether some hip-hop artists are 'for real'? Have they become actors playing a part? Do their lyrics genuinely portray their lives, or is it a script given to them by their directors?

As hip-hop has become more mainstream, so have the demands to meet a market that is more profitable than ever. It is the larger record companies that have the funds to perpetuate these negative stereotypes, in their plugging and marketing of their artists to mainstream commercial radio stations. As DJs have set-lists that they have to adhere to, this means that the listener is only listening to a narrow version of hip-hop culture.

In their analysis of misogyny in rap, Weitzer and Kubrin (2009) broke their findings down into 5 separate themes. In the songs that they identified as misogynystic (22% of a total of 403 tracks analysed), the use of the term “bitch” was characterised within 'naming and shaming'.

Beyonce Knowles (c) Asterio Tecson
Whilst 'naming and shaming' occurred in 49% of those tunes found to be misogynystic, the 'sexual objectification' of women appeared in 67% of them. This theme is relevant to the whole of society, not just hip-hop, and contributes to hostility against women.

Jay-Z's wife, Beyonce, is a successful mainstream pop/R&B artist. Within the music industry, she is considered influential. Have a look at her website; I would argue that the sexual objectification here, and in her videos, is just as harmful to female equality as the overtly masculine lyrics used in hip-hop.

Hip-hop is not to blame for hostility towards women. This existed long before hip-hop. True, hip-hop has not helped portray women in an equitable manner, but some females are contesting and renegotiating this negativity, by taking ownership of words such as “bitch.”

In societies with an apparent abundance of choice, equally it seems that we are constricted by it, left with little option but to consume what we are fed. Similarly, it appears that we try to narrow down our options when seeking to explain social ills, apportioning the blame to particular 'problem' people and/or cultures.

The roots of hostile and negative stereotyping of women are manifold; cultural, sexual objectification and mainstream commercialism, amongst other issues not discussed here. Furthermore, as consumers of it, we too are to blame.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Open secrets and the need to know

Reprieve protest during visit by President George W. Bush (c) art makes me smile
On a day when Wikipedia turned off its English language edition, in protest at the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), it is somewhat ironic the the UK government have pulled the plug on the Gibson inquiry.

Not that the inquiry was ever likely to reveal all. Many critics, including human rights organisations and lawyers, were going to boycott the inquiry in protest at the government's decision to hold much of it in secret.

The investigation is now going to focus on documents that were recently unearthed following the revolution in Libya. Would the UK government have ditched the Gibson inquiry right now had these papers not come to light? Following the investigation, is it really any more likely that we will ascertain the truth(s) regarding the UK's complicity in rendition and torture?

At every turn the UK government appears to have been unwilling to reveal the extent of their knowledge of rendition and torture. The case of Binyam Mohamed is especially relevant.

The UK government tried to stop the release of 'torture documents' that demonstrated their complicity in his torture, and when defeated in the High Court, they appealed. And lost.

All this was done in the name of 'national security', yet all the Judges decided that any threat to 'national security' was not serious. Which begs the age old question: in whose name is 'national security' being evoked?

Furthermore, the Judges ruled that there was overwhelming public interest in disclosing this material. Discourses of 'national security' and 'public interest' are not that far removed from similar, concurrent discussions on UK libel laws.

Ian Hislop (c) Nikki Montefiore
These laws have been criticised for denying freedom of expression and for permitting “libel tourism.”Anyone may be subject to legal action by the rich and powerful, individuals and multi-national corporations alike, if someone reads something critical of this person or organisation in the UK, regardless of where he, she, they or it reside.

As such, UK libel laws can be perceived as forms of 'individual security' and 'organisational security', protecting these private members of the public and commercial operations from scurrilous rumour and/or genuine criticism. Indeed, many powerful, wealthy individuals have used these laws to prevent stories being printed about their private lives, on grounds that it is not in the public interest.

Interestingly, the UK government is keen to change these laws as it is crushing freedom of expression in scientific and academic debate. The BBC reported that:
There will be a new requirement in the bill that a statement must have caused, or be likely to cause, substantial harm to someone's reputation, if it is to be considered defamatory.
Given the UK government's stance on renditions and torture, I find their position on libel laws quite hypocritical. As noted above, the UK government has sought legal means of gagging those that have criticised its means and methods of extracting information.

As with the wealthy, individual libel-seekers, these court cases cost money. Unlike the wealthy, individual libel-seekers, these court cases are paid for by the public. How much did it cost the UK government in their legal actions against Binyam Mohamed? 

Whilst the government is keen to raise the bar for those bringing libel cases against those that 'defame' them, the state will continue to act as Judge and Jury in its construction of public inquiries. Not only does it put an end to investigations when it chooses, as per Gibson, it also selects those that act as its arbiters.

I am not questioning the integrity of those that conduct such reviews, but with their selection comes the kudos of having been chosen, and the significant implications that this may have on a future career should they find something unpalatable and detrimental to their 'benefactor'. There are powerful, vested interests at stake here, something more than 'national security' and public interest.

Whilst some secrets have become public, in equal measure they are being silenced by those that have the power to do so. The key to resuscitating an open, truly democratic, UK is by opening up discussions on what constitutes public interest, so that we can then determine what 'national security' might mean.

For me, that interest means knowing what the UK has, or has not been, involved in, and acknowledging it. In knowing that we have nothing to hide, the UK government would actually make me feel more secure in my nation, and what it stands for. 

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