Crime and privilege
This piece first appeared over at The Topsoil
A lot of people had disturbing experiences in the cells after the Fortnum & Mason arrests, one girl was told she couldn’t use her own tampon because they didn’t know what was in it, another was denied her contraceptive pill, mothers were kept locked up for close to 24 hours while worrying about their children who’d been left with childminders. These experiences shouldn’t be belittled. And it’s important that we talk about the political aspects of the arrests and the charges as well as the bullying treatment that many people encountered.
But it is also important to recognise the extent to which most of us who were arrested had a great deal of privilege even in that situation. I, and a number of other people, had some good experiences of talking with very sympathetic arresting officers and jailers, about cuts, about our arrest. The woman who arrested me referred to me and the other woman in the van with me as clearly “nice young ladies” who she was sure wouldn’t have been involved in anything “violent” and were acting out of conviction, not just to cause trouble. Want to know how she reached these conclusions? I’m guessing it’s because we’re both white, have middle class accents, are university educated, and because I felt fairly comfortable talking to her. Even among the people who were arrested some of us were treated better than others. I was horrified to hear some of the experiences that women and girls who are younger, less confident or with a less conventionally feminine appearance or behaviour than me, suffered, from being denied contraceptive pills to having their appearance insulted and being ‘told off’ by a succession of men who didn’t identify themselves. All of these aspects of privilege and power are present in everyday life, but when you’re locked up they become central to your experience and every interaction.
There’s a real sense of solidarity among those who were arrested. Not just with each other but with other protesters who’ve been arrested for what seem like political reasons. There’s an assumption here though that most arrests are not political. We want to say loudly that protesters aren’t criminals. Well, do we mean then that most people who the courts and police designate ‘criminals’ are bad people, that they do need to be locked up? What makes us so different from them? Our skin colour, our accents, our sense that what we’re doing is right?
‘Crime’ itself is a political concept. And our notions of who is likely to be a ‘criminal’ influence how we, as a society, respond to stories of police malpractice. Smiley Culture, a black musician, recently died in suspicious circumstances in police custody. This has been a fairly high profile case, but still relatively few people have heard about it, compared to those who’ve heard of Ian Tomlinson’s death. There is a disproportionate number of deaths of black people in police custody.
I haven’t researched the statistics for other disproportionately represented groups, but I’d put money on it being anyone who isn’t like the police. People with learning disabilities, people with working class accents, people who feel uncomfortable with the police because of past experiences or cultural expectations and react with fear or anger. As I said I’m really not arguing that anyone’s experience should be downplayed, that if you’re white, male and upper class then you should just suck it up when you’re unfairly treated. But I do think that this is a good opportunity to extend the sense of solidarity to groups who don’t blog about their experiences in police cells, who don’t have friendly journalists ringing for quotes. To be careful that we don’t protest too much about not being like the other criminals. Those impoverished or homeless criminals. Those black and working class criminals. Those mentally ill or learning disabled criminals.
It’s at these political flashpoints that we need to build practical solidarity. So, F&M arrestees and supporters, let’s go on the Smiley Culture march for Human Rights and Justice. Let’s talk about his death when we’re using our privileged voices, networks and communication channels to talk about our own situation. And while we’re focussed on the cuts we might not have time to pick up any other campaigns, but we can make sure that we incorporate anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ablism and anti-classism into all of our anti-cuts campaigning. Not as an optional add-on, but because we won’t win otherwise. We won’t win the battle against cuts without being genuinely on the side of the people who will bear the brunt of the cuts. And we won’t win the war against inequality and injustice if we don’t call it out wherever we see it, even if it’s a group that we agree with only ever featuring male and white voices, or a friend we campaign with using the word ‘chav’. Let’s think hard before defending ourselves with concepts that rely on oppressive divisions.