At approximately 12:03am on 1st January 2021, there was a period of about 45 seconds where I felt hopeful. Rum was largely responsible for that, but I truly did let myself believe that this year I would once again feel the arms of my friends around me, or experience the riotous communion of violently throwing myself around a mosh pit. Needless to say that hasn’t happened, for a whole plethora of reasons, about half of which were entirely out of my control. I’m by far not the only one, so I won’t test our fraught and traumatised attention spans by listing them all here.
2021 for me and thousands of others was largely about fighting fires, grieving, and trying to purge ourselves of the memory of watching Matt Hancock’s hands slithering over the arse of Gina Coladangelo like a squirrel that just found a coconut.
Normally on New Years Eve, particularly after a difficult year like this, I have been one of those people who has set myself a list of goals fairly stereotypical to those of the rest of the population. Drink less, lose weight, actually finish a piece of writing. Maybe add a vague and entirely unimaginative target of changing every single aspect of my life and personality. New Year, New Me, huns.
But not today. Toxic positivity, frankly, can get in the bin. The inspirational quotes and affirmations littering social media have only ever made me feel more like a square peg in this world. Growing up, it told me I needed to forgive in order to grow and repair, when the reality was that allowing myself to be rightfully and authentically angry was what finally kept me safe. The most healing and most beautiful moments I have had this year have involved starkly real conversations and moments of vulnerability with friends and strangers about what we’ve all been going through. Sometimes those words have been solemn and quiet, sometimes they’ve been hiccupped out through sobs while swaying erratically with a glass of wine, and other times they’ve been howled with hysterical laughter at the absurdity of everything. Often all of those things have happened in the same zoom call.
I don’t know what this year will hold. I expect that, much like this one, I’ll see more horrors as well as wild and unexpected joy. Personal growth is important for sure, but most of us try to do that as a work in progress rather than cram it into the gloomiest month of the year, only to feel we’ve let ourselves down when we don’t quite hit our targets. Or still feeling empty even when we do. I know how I want to feel and I know the people and situations that make me feel like that. Resolutions will only distract me from the real work I need to do for myself and my community.
Regardless of whether you are into football or not, if you live in the UK it is impossible that you could have missed the events of the Euro cup final against England and Italy at the weekend, and the events that have followed it.
The entire tournament has been dogged by the England team being booed by their own fans, and even their own government for taking the knee against racist abuse. Marcus Rashford was constantly accused of “playing politics” because apparently that is what trying to make sure kids don’t go hungry these days is. We saw poisonous soundbites of how they should “stick to scoring goals” and “keeping politics out of football,” as if football could be anything but intensely political.
Priti Patel talked of the fans “right” to boo England for what she referred to as gesture politics, refusing to say whether she herself would boo them. Boris Johnson made similar remarks adding disingenuously that he “fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest” at the exact time he was drawing up legislation to make sure that peacefully protesting can come with a prison sentence.
Said fans, media outlets and politicians sharp started changing their tune when it became clear the team were actually looking at a chance of getting to the final, suddenly declaring about ‘how proud’ they were of “their” team and appropriating the spontaneous and beautiful excitement around it to drum up nationalistic rhetoric. But within seconds of the last missed penalty their true colours began to show once more, with tweets and comments on instagram threatening and abusing black players in ways that even the wilfully ignorant could no longer ignore.
Meanwhile, before the game and after, fighting amongst large groups of fans broke out both in and around the stadium, lapped up of course by the press. Media outlets love footage of a good scrap, even better when its mingled with naked England supporters bouncing around with their cock out and a lit flare up their arse. They love people being stamped on and streets twinkling like the first frost with the broken glass of Leicester Square. Newspaper cartoonists satirize it, drawing pictures of overweight men with protruding foreheads. The journalists and MP’s begin to clutch their pearls, using words like ‘yobs’, ‘thugs’ and ‘disgusting’ and certainly in some cases those words might fit very well.
The outraged public will demand something is done about it, and true to form those same politicians, the ones who for months have been dropping lit cigarette ends in the dry grasses of a disenchanted island, will give us blood. In the next few weeks we’ll see photo releases and police appeals asking for the identities of those fighting in the streets, calls for stadium bans and court dates issuing dramatic sentences akin to those of the summer riots of 2011.
But those who have made careers out of committing violent atrocities on our communities for decades will carry on without consequence. More than that, anyone displaying the slightest bit of emotion when calling them out are labelled criminals and extremists. It’s fine to deport people back to dangerous places they don’t remember, or have never lived in. To allow children to drown in sinking boats. To order air strikes on people who have done fuck all to us. To murder tower blocks of working class residents by ignoring dozens of warnings and requests for repair.
You can starve the disabled to death with benefit sanctions as long as you do it with a suit and a smirk. You can use racial slurs that Enoch Powell would have twitched at as long as you have a Be Kind banner in your profile picture.
You can do all of that, but we get an assortment of social media bans, public order offences or harassment convictions if we call you a cunt for doing so.
This is the violence of civility and we are dying from it every day. It is the toxic smog we are forced to breathe in, but we are not allowed to try and turn off the taps. The political gaslighting that demands that you only complain about the knife at your throat in the “right way,” and the right way is something they dictate where they can move the goalposts constantly so that there never is a right way, for you.
No matter how you felt about the smashed windows, the people forcing their way through the barriers or the bloke in the stadium being caught on camera hoying a key of ching up his nose, we cannot say that they were the conjurers of the racist abuse we have seen of black players and citizens. Which will be proven when those people are inevitably offered up as the sacrificial goats and racism continues, as ever, to be propagated by policy and policing, cheered on by an emboldened right wing and utterly uncontested by the parliamentary opposition.
We want accountability at its source and will not have rules of etiquette imposed on our rage at the violence we receive every day. Jailing the dogs fighting in the pit and not the ringleaders clutching their blood spattered money and their ecstatic spectators will do nothing.
Matt Hancock has said many things both before and during this pandemic that has stopped me in my tracks, but seeing his comments today did so for entirely different reasons.
During a session including both the Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Committees he spoke about how work culture here in the UK contributes to the spread of illnesses: “Why in Britain” he pondered “do we think its acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms or a runny nose, thus making your colleagues ill?”
I was staggered. I mean lets just ignore the fact that most of the cabinet have been spreading the virus around faster than the rumours regarding why Mark Francois has “mysteriously” vanished from public life, I’ve said this very thing myself. Admittedly in bad faith and temper when I’ve been lying in bed shivering and sick with fever after contracting something at work. But this is something that I, and certainly not any politician, should be blaming my fellow colleagues for. It’s always hard to tell what is genuinely a lack of self awareness or a cold blooded lack of empathy with Matt Hancock. I suggest it’s a combination of both. He demonstrates sentience on a level with the sourdough starter that you made at the beginning of lockdown and then forgot about after 3 weeks of fighting nanas in the supermarket for flour. But he didn’t stop there:
“We are peculiarly unusual and outliers in soldiering on and it being the culture that ‘as long as you get out of bed you should still get in to work’. That should change.”
Well thanks for that Comrade, but before we hand you your red and black Gorro Miliciano, lets look at why people do this shall we?
Firstly, it would be misleading to suggest the Tories are to blame for this. In fact it would be equally so to suggest capitalism as a whole is to blame. It has been this way for as long as the working classes have been exploited by the ruling ones, and we are not outliers in the slightest. It is the same the world over. But the health secretary does need to realise that he and this current Conservative government is what what upholds, reinforces and makes toxic work culture flourish here in the UK.
I work in the charity sector, and when I’m in the office I spend the majority of my time doing joint work with social workers. For the past previous two christmases I have spent all of my annual leave close to hospitalisation thanks to chest infections that have aggravated my asthma. Both of these started out as a common cold, picked up from my large poorly ventilated office where dozens upon dozens of social workers have dragged themselves in wheezing and sneezing like elderly pugs. It was almost so easy to be bitter about it. “Why the merry hell have they come in like that?” I usually cursed under my breath about my fellow workers. Unless you work with or are close to any social worker it is hard to comprehend the amount of pressure they are under, especially at the moment. Like teachers and the medical professions, they are under more strain than ever, with strict deadlines and an ever increasing list of expectations with an ever decreasing amount of time and resources to do it. Prior to covid, they were told they couldn’t do possibly their job from home, despite it being normalised and expected that they take their laptops with them when they leave the office to try and desperately finish notes and assessments while the kids are in bed. They get ill a lot, partly down to stress and partly due to the fact that the nature of their work requires them to be in the community for a great deal of the day. For me to blame them for coming in ill would be to entirely miss the bigger picture.
For myself, I have a lot firmer boundaries these days when it comes to coming in ill. I did it for too many years and my health is permanently damaged as a result. Not signing off sick too late and coming back before I’m fully recovered. If I’m ill, I’m staying off and my ears are entirely immune to the whine of any manager or HR tyrant who tries to say otherwise. But it’s easy for me to do that these days. I’m in a job that I get a reasonable amount of paid sick leave and actually my manager is quite easy going when it comes to these matters. This hasn’t always been the case for me and it certainly isn’t the case for millions of workers throughout the UK. For people on zero hours contracts, paid sick leave doesn’t exist. Same if you work for an agency or are in the hospitality business. I was sacked as a teenager from my waitressing job at a restaurant after a viral infection put me in hospital for a week and I couldn’t use my legs. Even when I was discharged I was using sticks to hold myself up, yet my boss couldn’t understand why this meant I couldn’t carry a tray up two flights of stairs. Self employed people too often can’t survive on what statutory sick pay offers and the conditions required to get it and have to take on work as it’s a choice between getting evicted and feeding your children.
For those who are disabled or chronically ill, needing time off again is a choice between dragging your broken body into work or facing a panic attack as you have to ring your manager again and you are dragged in a meeting with HR who give you a disciplinary and command you to stop having a complex and debilitating medical condition. The fact that giving people who are well documented to have disabilities and serious conditions a disciplinary for being ill is absurd as it is cruel.
Even for those in my sector where there is a bit of protection and leeway if you become unwell, many people do still drag themselves in simply because we are now so under staffed and resourced that if we don’t come in, our service users will be left stranded in dangerous situations or without the care that they waited too long for in the first place.
If Matt Hancock and his colleagues are serious about changing this culture, then its them that need to implement it instead of again implying that the British population’s tendency to destroy their health for their employer is some jolly. They have deliberately decimated workers rights over their last decade in power, and continue to do so which is what happens when you value your profit over your communities. They forced people who were not well enough to work back into employment under threat of destitution and stage attack after attack on welfare. Shortening the working week and implementing Universal Basic Income would also do not just for the health of the nation, but also the economy. The pandemic needs to make us rethink how we organise society entirely. It’s not just a case of us going back to normal. Because that was destroying us too.
Danny* is a man I speak to in my town whenever I run into him. Danny has intermittent periods of sleeping on the streets due to ongoing health issues and not feeling safe in the direct access homeless accommodation he is sometimes offered by the local authority.
I bumped into him yesterday and I stopped for a chat as it’d been months since I’d last seen him and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that homeless people are being even more ignored during the pandemic as people are even more fearful of getting too close or handing over money. Danny is nice, and always enthusiastically excited to talk to anyone who acknowledges he is actually there. He has a wealth of hilarious stories about his past escapades around the world and we often chat about those, or food, or our friends or what the fuck I have managed to do to my hair during lockdown. And books of course, because Danny always has a couple of books with him, particularly when he is street homeless and we spent quite a while talking about the things we like to read yesterday.
Danny says he isn’t that fussy what he reads, usually just what he can get his hands on, though his favourites are anything to do with history and the world wars. Library access is an issue when you don’t have an address or never stay anywhere long enough to have proof of one, so he reads what he is given by others or buys them from a charity shop which he promptly re-donates once he has finished them. He’s currently reading some Phillip Pullman which he is enjoying, and hadn’t realised was part of a trilogy. He then starts to tear up as he told me that a girl of about 15 had noticed he was reading His Dark Materials and excitedly spoke to him about it before running to her house and bringing back the rest of the series for him. We figured out a couple of titles we can swap when I see him next weekend. He tells me that he sometimes meets in a local pub with a group of men who are also homeless or vulnerably housed to drink and get out the cold for a bit and they’ve formed a sort of book club where they all discuss what they’ve been reading and swap titles that they are finished with.
Connection is desperately vital to us and books or art of any kind can give us that even in our darkest hours. If you have ever lived in poverty it can become a lifeline. Of course we hear more and more talk about internet access and in an increasingly tech focused world it has shifted from a luxury to a necessity as we rely on it solely to apply for work, benefits, banking and paying bills.
When I was at my most destitute, books kept me alive, and for once that isn’t me being dramatic. During the time I was living alone in a tower block, having gas and electricity on the meter was sporadic to say the least. But I didn’t need those things to read. I didn’t need an internet connection or even a lamp, really, I just needed daylight and occasionally a few candles. During a period where sometimes I could go days without talking to someone, reading helped me connect in a way I was struggling to in the real world. Sometimes to an author, sometimes to a character or even just a feeling or an idea. It transported me away from squalor to places I’ll probably never visit and took me away from what was an oppressively mundane and friendless existence. I’m always utterly astounded when I’m looking through my books now and spot one I have had from my teenage years. Because despite leaving home with two bags and travelling across the country, living in countless places before I got to my current home- sometimes in a very immediate and unplanned way- I somehow managed to keep them with me.
Abundance, nourishment and health isn’t just gained from money, materials and minerals . Growing up as a kid, opinions on books and reading just for recreation was mixed. I was lucky to have both a parent and a teacher who instilled that love of reading in me and encouraged me to write myself, but there were also times that taking time out to read got me in trouble as it was seen as a pointless, frivolous activity. But without it I would never have written a word. Learning to connect with ideas, and people, learning to have empathy and outrage at the suffering in the world is brought me to the warming fires of anarchism and all of the beautiful mad souls I have met as a result who have given me some hope that this world can be better than what it is.
So you can imagine my reaction this morning at the government’s announcement to ban any ‘anti capitalist material’ in English schools. The guidance states that “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation”. It later goes into examples of these supposedly extreme stances which it classes as “A publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or to end free and fair elections”. What they class as an organisation is anyone’s guess when we’re talking about a political party that tried to legislate any gathering of more than 20 people as an illegal rave in 1994.
While the Conservatives insist that the new legislation will mean that lessons will reflect a diversity of issues and that schools should be aware of their duties around impartiality around political issues in the classroom, they hardly have a good track record in this sort of thing. Human rights academics such as Dr Richard McNeil Wilson who is a counter extremism expert in Florence and Labour politicians John McDonnell and Beth Winter have voiced their concerns that it sets us on a dangerous path. Because oddly, this new clause does seem to just relate to the relationships, sex and health education curriculum and while I’ve no doubt that teaching has changed vastly since I was last at school, I can’t remember the sexual health nurse warning us about the dangers of toxic shock syndrome then giving a demonstration on how to make a Molotov straight after putting a condom on a banana. The timing is a little too unsettling when we have seen thousands of school aged children showing just how good they can be at organising in wake of the climate change school strikes and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. So while it might seem that this is only a small change made for a subject that it shouldn’t make any difference to, we have to take notice of this and because this government does nothing by accident and is likely very much an indication of what we are to see more of in the future.
Sociology classes would get pretty weird. Like listening to Killing In The Name Of by Rage Against the Machine on the radio, where just as you’re looking forward to the spicy bit, it just cuts out entirely to the last two bars. History lessons have often failed to truly represent how every single civil right we have was won, with almost every adult and child learning more about the role of Britain in the slave trade from the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down in Bristol than they ever did at school. This being introduced would certainly extinguish the current campaigns that are ongoing to change this, and teach our colonial history in a more honest way. I don’t expect teachers to be handing out copies of The Anarchist Cookbook , but at this rate you couldn’t show a Sky Arts documentary on Pinter in a classroom because of Danny Dyer growling about kicking in “fascist slehhhhgs” and branding Oswald Mosley a “Melt”.
Yes, there’s still the internet as many have pointed out, but I’m working regularly with families who often don’t have WiFi or have to decide whether they’re using the last of their electricity to cook the tea or charge their devices. Access to books, to the arts, to music and cultural resources has faced an onslaught over the last decade with library and youth work closures. Prisoner access to books, which is vital for mental health and rehabilitation becomes increasingly difficult despite the tireless work being done by charities who set up to try and provide them. In America, the prison industrial complex is so brazen that private facilities have been charging prisoners five cents a minute to read ebooks and places bans on certain subjects which include carpentry, starting a small business and African American studies, presumably to ensure that inmates are more likely to stay trapped in the cycle of poverty and crime, meaning prison bosses and stakeholders never lose their most valuable assets.
It might not seem like a priority, especially when we look at the other issues that poor and working class communities are facing at the moment, but access to the arts has long been known to be part of the poverty cycle, not just a side effect of it and it has positive effects to our wellbeing and overall life experiences. The Workers Educational Association founded in 1903 knew this, bringing learning and culture to poor, working class mining communities, some of who would have left school at an exceptionally young age if they had been at all.
I’ve delivered theatre projects with kids at risk of being permanently excluded from school. Organisations like that are also fast disappearing thanks to ‘austerity’, but they did more to keep kids engaged in learning and out of the criminal justice system than any formal learning setting did. One of our kids had been so disassociated from any kind of education or engaged with anyone outside the estate she lived on for so long that she thought that all Jewish people had been killed during the Second World War and was astonished to find out otherwise. It might seem funny, but she was bright, hilarious and had aspirations that she had been indoctrinated into thinking were unrealistic. Because her relentless barrage of problems at home and life experiences meant she found it difficult to function in a traditional school setting, but thrived in ours.
There’s a reason why funding to all of these things are the first to go whenever the word ‘cuts’ or ‘budgets’ is mentioned. An empowered working class is dangerous. Empowered, learned and organised young people are a fucking nightmare for them in an increasingly divided world. We are told that books and the arts are frivolous luxuries for working class communities and made to feel guilty for even complaining about their demise when there’s “more important things to worry about”. The wealthy are happy to enjoy or borrow from working class culture when it suits them, but not as quick to support access to it. Look at the percentage of people from working class backgrounds actually employed within in the arts, either as artists or even front of house staff. You can’t pay your bills with “exposure”, a phrase which every artist, writer and musician I know is bitterly familiar with.
I’ve no doubt that our kids will find ways to gain access and disseminate information and knowledge to each other. Tell them you don’t want to have access to something and they’ll find their way through the barriers like flowers growing through cracks in the concrete to get it. Hopefully enough to pull the whole building down.
Instead of a song, Ive put a list of organisations below which could all do with your money and your time especially in these times. If you know of anymore, feel free to add to the comments on the facebook page.
https://www.chavsolidarity.com Home of Lumpen, a journal for working class writers which gives paid work and what is often the first experience of publication for writers from poorer backgrounds as well as providing excellent workshops on class throughout the uk.
https://www.borderlinebooks.org A gateshead based charity providing books to prisoners, refuges, homeless shelters and people seeking asylum who have no funds for books
Cannylittlelibrary@gmail.com a collectively run radical library based at Newcastle’s Star & Shadow providing access to alternative books and zines and information and books on DIY, info for action, feminism, queer and working class struggles
Http://beyondbarsuk.wordpress.com a collective of volunteers who send books and other educational materials free of charge to incarcerated LGBTQIA people across the UK.
The best way I could describe him to someone who has never heard of him is to imagine that Britain elected the Wheelers from Return To Oz into government and made the stupidest one Health Secretary. I don’t know what it is. The disconcertingly insincere smile that doesn’t match the eyes, the childishly macabre voice or the fact that he inspires the same feelings of creepiness, revulsion and dread in people as my number one childhood nightmare did.
He’s always been the poster boy for confident incompetence, but ever since he was appointed health secretary he has turned blaming others for his Party’s deliberately irresponsible and bloodless handling of the pandemic into an art form.
So far he has blamed the Chinese, fat people, poor people, the Labour Party and Identity Politics among many others for their handling of the Coronavirus. So who is it this week? Not surprisingly it’s young people this time, since the UK’s recent 2988 increase in Covid-19 cases has been mainly within 20-29 year olds.
The way he has framed it implies that anyone under 30 has put our nation in danger with their hedonism and their illegal raves. Where some bloke who tells everyone he once punched a copper in the Poll Tax Riots takes your temperature on the door by licking your forehead, before sending you off to do lines of Chinese cocaine off the back of a coughing live bat.
“Don’t kill your gran”, Hancock told them. You will give her the Rona.
But what are we really looking at here. It is absolutely no surprise that this age group would be the demographic dominating the rise and it isn’t for the reason we are being told. Government advice surrounding the virus is so disconnected and bizarre it often reads like a series of statements written by the Duolingo owl.
Don’t Kill Your Gran
But they still encouraged you to use the Eat Out To Help Out scheme. Go out, treat your friends, treat your family. You’ll be saving our country by doing so and likely be served by someone who is aged between 20-29, because they’ll get sacked if they don’t. But that’s fine. It’s safe. As long as you practice social distancing.
I doubt very much anyone in the cabinet has worked in a bar or restaurant or they might realise just how laughable it sounds telling pissed people to social distance . As someone who was employed in hospitality between the ages of 15 to 23, it’s hard enough trying to keep their hands off your arse most days, and unless they now have fully ascended Jedi’s as door staff at Yate’s now, I’m not sure how they’re supposed to split up a fight from 6 feet away.
Don’t Kill Your Gran
But people in their twenties in service jobs are more likely to be on zero hour contracts which affords them very little rights. They’re less likely to be unionised or otherwise organised in the work place. They aren’t easily going to be able to refuse to go to work and earn the wage that they need to give half of to their landlord because apparently landlords are the only ones who cant suffer a loss of income.
Don’t Kill Your Gran
Or maybe they don’t have a landlord. Since we have nearly half a million multi-generational families in the UK thanks to gentrification, lack of social housing and mortgage companies requiring a twenty grand deposit and a blood oath before they’ll lend you enough to buy a converted BT phone box to live in. Kind of hard not to kill gran when your back and forwards from work all the time and have to share a bathroom with her.
Don’t Kill Your Gran
Because you know if she dies it is your fault right? No matter that she’s 70 and still working in the local primary school because she got fucked over for her pension and cant afford to retire yet. No matter that the Tories have already killed a lot of grans already with their austerity measures, constant welfare cuts and their decimation of the NHS. That while they encouraged us all to put victory rolls in our hair for VE Day and form a conga line of nationalist propaganda as deadly pathogens hung in the air, they never adequately protected our care home residents- you know— those who were actually around in the war or its immediate aftermath.
What they tell us is that it is safe to travel to work, it is safe to be at work, it is safe and necessary to put your kids back in school so you can return to work and you are a terrible parent if you don’t. Hey shielded people, you must also come back to work to pay your mortgage and bills but you must also never leave the house because it’s selfish to expect healthcare if you get ill. It is safe to spend money in shops, pubs, bars and restaurants and you must do this as much as you can unless you hate the British way of life, but you must not seek out any meaningful human connections at one of the most upsetting and uncertain points of your life that do not involve your debit card, or we’ll hit you with a massive fine that you’ll have to take on extra shifts to pay off.
Don’t kill your Gran. But also, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.
Yes, you heard that right. I said what I said. Have you ever rewatched a childhood favourite, only to suddenly pick up on the subliminal messages you were being fed that inadvertently shaped you into the person you are today? As a child of the eighties, some were not exactly subtle: The absolutely traumatising Watership Down, complete with its themes of environmental destruction, anti capitalism and a rebellion against the bunny version of Pinochet and his oppressive regime. The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride and The Wizard Of Oz, which, if you’re a Wicked fan, will give you the nod that Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West was really an anarcha-feminist animal rights activist with a hatred of spycops who was racially persecuted then victimised by a vicious dictator’s propaganda machine.
But I digress. Last night while stumbling across a familiar old film due to being laid up with a foot injury and a couple of glasses of wine for company, I realised that something had turned me into a dangerous subversive long before I ever read Goldman or listened to Conflict.
Dirty Dancing. Hear me out…
Right from the beginning we meet our plucky protagonist, Baby. A smart and idealistic young woman from an all American middle class family, who’s dream is to join the Peace Corps, naïve in the belief that she can make the world a better place by doing so. The year is 1963, and she and her family are arriving at Kellerman’s Mountain House to spend the summer there. All teenagers dress like mini clones of their parents and they love going out and taking fox trot classes together while drinking soda. The All American Dream.
But quite quickly we see another side to Kellerman’s and it’s complex social structures. It isn’t quite as simple as rich holiday makers vs poor staff. All the waiting staff appear to be Ivy League College students working for the summer and employed quite deliberately by Kellerman to romance the daughters while their approving parents spend more money in the bar, happy that their coming of age teenager is dating a future doctor or lawyer. Kellerman even tries to palm off his detestable nephew Neil onto a horrified Baby- an utterly condescending horrorbag who looks like a boujie 80’s cartoon Willo The Wisp, and openly brags that the only reason girls like him is money.
And it is at this point we meet the other side of the class divide- The Entertainment Staff, including Johnny Castle. Clearly a bit rougher from blue collar backgrounds they are explicitly instructed by Kellerman that they have different rules and are to give the rich young women of Kellerman’s nothing but dance lessons or there will be consequences. For what wealthy businessman would bring his family back to Kellerman’s next year if he learned his little princess was getting felt up by a beautiful, virile penniless artist behind the bins the whole time they were there?
Kellerman’s is a model village of capitalism. It despises poor people but relies on them for exploitation and profit, so it keeps them hidden behind the scenes and tells them they should be grateful to be a part of it. Hidden that is until Baby is introduced to them when she unwittingly engages in manual labour. Clutching the Watermelon of Proletariat Revolution, the door is kicked open to a world she has never seen before. Dirty, passionate and unashamedly real. Here they can be themselves, here they can scream and dance, away from social niceties. Here they are equal. Remember the film is set in 1963, but segregation wasn’t fully ended in the United States until 1964, yet in this loud, hazy room we see black, white and hispanic workers dancing raucously together.
Baby’s face say’s it all. She stands there completely out of her depth, not really knowing how to act. Of course she falls instantly in love with the wildling Johnny Castle, who absolutely screams anarchist as he fucks off the insults of the smarmy waiters in his entirely all black wardrobe.
He understands how this world works, and so does Penny, his childhood friend. Both have been exploited sexually, laboriously and emotionally by their wealthier and better resourced counterparts on the resort.
Penny is understandably suspicious of Baby and her motives, particularly when she tried to help her after discovering Penny is pregnant and struggling to access money to pay for a termination. Baby quite condescendingly tries to tell Penny it must be a mistake that Robbie-the father of the baby- is not going to help her and she decides take it upon herself to reason with him. But Robbie is not going to be told by a woman, not even one of his class. He is confounded that he is being asked to take responsibility and support Penny. Or, as he says “some people count, some people don’t” before he hands her a copy of The Fountainhead by Ayn Fucking Rand. And that’s it. That’s the point when Baby looks at him like she wants him dead and realises she will have to destroy her own kind.
Make no mistake, if Dirty Dancing was made in 2020, Robbie would be wearing a fucking Pepe badge with a Gadsden Flag telling black people he couldn’t be racist because he signed a petition to free Bill Cosby.
The way Robbie treats women and the way that Johnny treats women is worlds apart. Right from the beginning we witness what appears to be the aftermath of an attempted sexual assault on Lisa by Robbie. On the other side of the divide, Johnny treats Baby as an equal, refusing to infantilise her by using that demeaning moniker and asks her what her actual name is instead- Frances.
As well as class consciousness, class privilege is also a theme. Baby’s reluctance to tell her dad about her relationship after he has told her he doesn’t want her having anything more with “those people”. When Johnny has more of his artistic licence taken away for a more corporate and uniform approach from Neil, Baby cannot understand why he agreed to it and doesn’t just “fight it and tell them your ideas”. She’s always seen that work for her and the people around her, but as Johnny points out “You don’t know them like I do-they’re rich and they’re mean”. Because at this point there is no organisation in the workforce and if he tries to stand up to them, he will pushed even further into the poverty cycle.
He wins some smaller battles though, namely absolutely chinning budding date rapist Robbie for a suggestive remark towards Baby. I’ll be honest, I thought she’d be unbearably liberal and all “don’t sink to his level, violence is not the answer”, but she clearly gets off on it and has a taste for the riot porn now.
When Johnny is fired after his relationship with Baby is discovered, it looks like they are all just about to pack up, go home and accept defeat from The Man. But oh no. Johnny turns around. Its time to organise and bring the Kellerman’s down in their own kingdom. As what has to be the dullest and whitest end of season show plays out on the stage in the main hall, we see the quietly seething staff starting to gather and surround the oblivious guests, the tension tantamount to Bastille Day before it all kicked off.
Their excitement as Johnny strides back in is only equal to that of Baby’s who is now no longer afraid to follow her head and heart to join him. She’s basically Kropotkin with a perm, renouncing her riches to follow the cause.
Together with the rest of the dancers they then gyrate their way to the revolution, seizing the means of production and making it their own under the gaze of the crestfallen Max Kellerman who realises now its time to step aside and adapt or crumble.
And they all live subversively ever after.
Obviously I’m desperately praying you’re not sat there taking any of this seriously. Apart from what I said about Watership Down, I meant every word of that. This movie is astoundingly white, with I think exactly one none white character having even a tiny speaking part. The only bit that is even remotely plausible is Baby’s look of mortification after she blurts out “I carried a watermelon”, because hey, we’ve all been there.
And I’m not joking about organising in the workplace or unions either. Join one. Up the Wobblies. Before the Neil’s of this world force us all to give up Cuban soul dancing for the Pachanga.
Here’s some Idles for ya. Namely because it’s a cracking cover of a song from the soundtrack and also because I’m ridiculously excited that I’ll be seeing them in May.
As part of my work, I run courses with women aimed at empowering them and increasing their personal safety, mainly around the issue of domestic abuse. While they are from a cross section of different backgrounds, coming from an area that has been hit hard by austerity it’s fair to say that most of my learners are living well below the poverty line. The functional illiteracy rate is higher than the national average here and many of them have been through the criminal justice system and/or prison on more than one occasion. There’s a bit of a myth that women like this “don’t do politics” and that theres a massive apathy and ignorance when it comes to social issues.
But sit in on one of my groups and you’ll notice something pretty quickly; These women are fiercely political and usually carry strong feminist views. Just not necessarily in the way modern feminist and leftist circles would want them to, which is precisely why the women in my groups wouldn’t engage with them, even if they were welcome.
Historically, this hasn’t always been the case. Poor and working class women have always been driving forces of social change and equality, and not in the way your history teachers and politicians would have you believe. From the Russian Revolution to rent strikes in Glasgow, working class women have always organised and they have done it well. Here in the UK it was their grassroots organising that formed the first women’s refuges for those fleeing domestic abuse.
My area was one of the first which trialled Universal Credit. It was a mess. Everything that community workers, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence advisors warned them would happen, did. It demanded that vulnerable people living hand to mouth with a myriad of compounding issues should suddenly able to manage a monthly budget. It introduced joint claims, insisted that payments being made to couples are put into the bank account of just one, trapping mainly women into abusive relationships, and left thousands without money for months as claim forms seemingly vanished into thin air.
While Theresa May paraded around in her ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, she also introduced the rape clause to child benefit, essentially forcing victims of sexual violence to prove they conceived a third child through rape in order to put food on the table.
The women on the receiving end of all of that were sat in my classes. Progress isn’t about putting more women in positions of power that actively strips resources from other women, and it isn’t about getting women with privilege to speak for the ones who don’t either because they will always prioritise their own needs and see the struggle of less advantaged women an afterthought once their own aims are achieved.
The Suffragettes are a good example of how both their tactics and the role and experience of working class women have been downplayed and ‘nicewashed’ into popular belief. The suffragettes smashed shit up. They blew up the chancellor of the exchequer’s holiday home. So far, so good direct action. My problem with this is that much of it was at the instigation of Emmeline Pankhurst, a wealthy white woman with social connections who encouraged the suffragettes not just to commit criminal acts but to wilfully get themselves sent to prison and overwhelm the system to achieve their aim- much like what we are seeing in the Extinction Rebellion movement now, which they are just beginning to realise they were wrong about.
Prison is horrible. But we know the experiences of white middle class, particularly high profile political prisoners is different than those from marginalised communities. That was true then and is true now. Because when we talk about the Suffragettes, may still believe that part of the reason it was so revolutionary and surprising was that it was well heeled, privileged young women who were having themselves thrown in jail. But this isn’t reflective of the reality. Many poor, working class and disabled women also received prison sentences and it is fair to say their experience was not the same as their wealthier, more famous counterparts.
Back then, prisoners were put in 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions. Their uniforms were different, as were their roles within the prison, the poorer ‘criminal’ classes being slung in 3rd. You can guess where the more prominent WSPU members were placed and the treatment that they received was worlds apart. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of her cell floor being scrubbed by 3rd division prisoners as she lay incapacitated after she was force fed. Another Suffragette, Mary Nesbitt, jailed in 1912, found her cell “unacceptable” when some graffiti on the wall informed her that it had previously been inhabited by a sex worker who had been jailed for one month for soliciting. She demanded to be transferred and astonishingly this request was granted immediately.
However other activists, like Minnie Baldock who came from a poorer background, struggled to pay for childcare when she was jailed and her husband was away at work. Of course the official line from the jails was that prisoners were treated the same. But when Lady Constance Lytton was released from Newcastle Prison following her hunger strike in 1909 after only serving two days of her sentence, she had her suspicions as to how true this was. Lytton was told the reason for her staggeringly early release was her weak heart. She had indeed suffered from this all of her life, but suspected her social status was the driving factor for the decision.
Determined to prove her theory, on her release she rejoined the WSPU under the assumed name of Jane Wharton. She altered her appearance, cutting her hair short and changing her fashion. She was arrested and jailed again for protesting the force feeding of the hunger strikers outside Walton Gaol, this time for two weeks. This time she was placed in 3rd Division. She was never given a proper medical whilst incarcerated and was subject to force feeding from which she never truly recovered. She suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923 aged 54 years old.
While a range of women in the movement were subjected to force-feeding, we do know that it was first performed on the poorer factions of the WSPU, probably as a sort of test run.What we don’t know is the kind of force feeding they were exposed to. As you can imagine just by the name, there is no pleasant way to exact this on someone. Many of those who experienced it had lasting health problems as a result and talked of indescribable pain. But it wasn’t just performed via the nose and mouth as the illustrations in the papers of the time will show you. It was also performed vaginally and rectally for no justifiable or practical reason, but was likely inflicted on lower ranking and disabled members of the WSPU rather than their more privileged counterparts. Many of who were left to starve once they began hunger strike until they grew weak, when they were then released until they recovered, and then recalled in what was known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. This method was only ever employed because of the authorities fear that a prominent and good standing Suffragette would be to die within their prison walls.
Not all of the more affluent Suffragettes had the empathy and insight of Constance Lytton. Figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were happy keeping their privilege for themselves and fiercely opposed their socialist kin Sylvia’s attempts to bring class consciousness into the women’s movement. It is no surprise at all to learn that a number of the Suffragettes later joined Mosely’s British Union Of Fascists, for their intention was only ever to be equal to men of their own class.
We know lots about what happened to them, and far less of the experience of working class suffragettes. They certainly wouldn’t have had family members who were able to send baskets of food and fruit so they did not have to rely on prison sustenance as others talked of, and much of their story is missed as many also didn’t have the literacy and connections to publish what they had endured.
Prison for the people around me has not been baskets of fruit and kindly wardens. It has been violence, sexual abuse and a cycle of poverty and trauma that very few have been able to break free from. Isn’t just enough to eradicate these systems and prejudice from all of our movements- we must be conscious that our own actions aren’t supporting the divisions that have been engraved onto us since birth.
The revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War did much to relieve some of the appalling conditions women were living in at the time and anarchist women organised themselves and fiercely resisted Franco’s Army who subjected them and their children to horrific abuse and torture when they captured them. However even within their own movements they had the same gendered expectations imprinted on to them. Even those women that were fighting on the frontline were still largely assumed to be responsible for child rearing and household chores. Imagine: “Evening Darling, long day?” “Oh yes, very productive. Shot lots of fascists in the face” “Marvellous! Me too. Good job little lady, now whats for tea?” Im being facetious of course, but you see the problem.
Because lets go back to the women in my classes. You’re unlikely to see them on women’s marches. Most modern feminist circles are not seen as relevant to them because they are deliberately excluded from them, even though they are the first to be affected by regressive policies. On the 9th November 2016 when it was announced that Donald Trump had won the election, I happened to be running a class that day about the early warning signs of domestic abuse and they talked a lot about Trump that was entirely relevant to the conversation; The abuse of power, the meaning of authentic consent and the best way to snap the finger bones off a man who puts his hands somewhere he shouldn’t.
If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting it. Not because they don’t take interest in the world events or lack critical thinking, but because when you are living in poverty, every bit of your energy is spent on meeting your and your children’s basic needs you aren’t likely to have detailed knowledge of current events, let alone get involved in an anti fracking campaign miles away from your home, even if that is an issue you find concerning . Myself and other activists I have worked with have all dipped out of movements before because of poverty or mental health issues associated with poverty, with apologetic mumblings about how we have to take time out from organising. That isn’t right. Those sorts of everyday struggles should be at the very heart of what we do. People say poor and working classes are apathetic when it comes to politics, when actually the left has all of its priorities wrong. Last year I started a campaign to get government to force utility companies to stop charging more on metres than billed customers. My mistake was sharing it mainly in my usual left circles. Electricity charges aren’t dramatic or newsworthy and not a great deal of people were interested as they have never been in fuel poverty and think shitting into a compost toilet at Boomtown for a few days a year when the class A’s kick in makes them the fucking Lorax.
It didn’t take off among them, but out of the few thousand that got involved, the vast majority were from poorer backgrounds who seemed slightly surprised at something that was relevant being brought to the table, particularly from those who had more conservative views. To them “we”- The Left, or what is perceived to be The Left- are normally concerned about having Jane Austen on paper notes that’s never in their hands for more than a few minutes as another debtor demands payment.
Not that representation isn’t important. Of course it is, but if we aren’t ripping down the structures that allowed the vile abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez who headed the Jane Austen campaign to thrive at the very same time then it often becomes tokenism, a few crumbs to placate us rather than a catalyst for radical change.
This isn’t about the attacking the middle class either, because whether they are aware of it or not, the gap between rich and poor is ever widening and some are not on the side of the crack that they think they are. I’ve seen people who were relatively comfortable left destitute within 8 weeks in this system. Even those of us that have been part of the most deprived communities rarely organise there unless it’s to counter the far right. It’s because we are often seen-even affectionately- as a sort of oddity in them and we subconsciously think we won’t engage our own family and neighbours. I know this to be true, after a hazy conversation in a bar last week after a family members funeral where me and a long time friend of the family tried and failed to have a slurred conversation about the BLM movement which, at the point it looked like we were making progress, was interrupted by another member of the wake who casually remarked about my brother’s “golliw*g hair”. It can honestly feel like firing a water pistol at the sun, but that is where change needs to come from- not the left or right, but from the bottom, smashing up.
It isn’t impossible to create truly feminist movements which have class consciousness at its core and recognises how our individual identities collectively shape and are affected by it, rather than allowing it to be hijacked by those who are using it as a shield to cry oppression when their positions of power are threatened or obstructed. Or ridiculed by those who are afraid it is a threat to them.
Gentrified feminism, gentrified rebellion, serves no one but the ruling classes ultimately and the time has come for those who most need it to break down the door and squat the building so that it provides shelter for all. The revolution will not have an Insta filter.
Wouldn’t be right not to sign this off with Poison Girls.
I remember registering at a new GP surgery shortly after I had moved home and being asked to go in for an initial appointment where they ask some basic questions and take a couple of tests as a new patient. The nurse asked me:
“Is there any history of illness in the family”.
Unable to recall any pattern of diabetes, heart disease or cancers, I replied: “Heroin?”
I was being facetious. Well, partly, anyway. Because addiction does run through my clan like a slow burning wildfire that has smouldered on our family tree since as long as I can remember. Whether it be opiates, Valium or alcohol, there’s not been one of us that hasn’t worn it’s crown. After losing my uncle when I was ten I suddenly found I was the only one in my class who knew what an overdose was and that I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Some have been higher functioning than others, but even my own beloved grandfather- a lifelong Muslim- saw no contradiction with strolling out of mosque everyday to grab a couple of John Smiths in a pub called (of all things) the Adam and Eve.
And now this week, we have suddenly and unexpectedly been forced to say goodbye to another much loved member of our fold. It was the bottle that got him, and in our world there isn’t much of a stigma about alcoholism because it’s seen as normal. I remember once meeting them all in the local pub and ordering a soft drink as I was working later on.
“Eeeeeee, is she definitely your daughter!” someone shrieked with laughter at my mam. Of course it was immediately decided I must be pregnant, as that was the only possible explanation they could come up with as to why I had refused, and I spent the next hour with barely coherent acquaintances staggering up to me, patting my stomach, offering ginger biscuits and saying “you’re still allowed a couple you know”. Not that I’m about to become the poster girl of the Temperance League anytime soon. I’ve had my own struggles with addiction and unhealthy coping mechanisms on and off, and I certainly don’t class myself as any more functional.
But there’s a tendency in addicted families and communities to rewrite events when something happens that scares us. With our latest family member, the form that has taken is a rumour that he died of Covid-19. Which he didn’t. But it makes some of those who knew him feel better rather than admit he died of living a lifestyle that is identical to theirs. If they believe that, they can carry on as they are now. But hiding the truth is insulting, even if I understand why they do it. It hides how ill he got. It hides the events that led him to that path and it hides how eventually he did try so hard and determinedly to save himself. It was just sadly too late. There has been a huge surge in alcohol and drug intake during the pandemic, which was entirely predictable as we all found ourselves in a state of collective trauma and uncertainty which left some of us reaching for any vessel with a ‘DRINK ME’ label on it to escape to another world.
But it veils our passion. It kettles our love and anger that drives us to change the things keep us miserable. Because it forces us to nurture that other craving more, pretending to us that it is nourishment.
I’m certainly not here to give an intervention to anyone, but if you have found yourself in this position more recently, either because of the pandemic or for other reasons that have left you overwhelmed, it’s okay. You aren’t by yourself and there are hands reaching out to pull you up if you look up to grasp one.
Since the BLM protests began, there is a phrase being used that many activists have been familiar with for some time, but for most of the world seems a shocking and unfathomable statement.
Defund the police.
At first it was something scrawled in paint on walls as fires burned, or passionately shouted through megaphones by protestors. When I’ve used this phrase myself I have barely got to the end of the sentence before being interrupted by someone eager to tell me that I’m a dangerous radical and that we don’t live in a world of rainbows and unicorns.
But then this week, a headline I thought I would never see in my lifetime cast across my eyes: Minneapolis council voted to defund its police department. LA too is said to be considering it, and it has caused absolute hell on as you would expect.
I need to start off by saying this is not as revolutionary as you may think. There is a misconception that defunding the police will look like a morning where you wake up and can’t call the police if you are in danger, leading to a world that is suddenly plunged into something out of The Purge. This is not the case. No model I have seen believes that doing so would be the safe or responsible course of action.
We overuse our police force entirely. Go ask your cop friend or family member, they can tell you more about this than I ever could and they are more fed up with it than we are. When they signed up, chances were it wasn’t to spend time writing mountains of paperwork over a bit of lost property or being forced to listen to both sides of completely minor yet utterly ludicrous and prolonged neighbour disputes about one side’s tree dropping conkers into another one’s garden. White middle class people in particular often think of them as some sort of customer service, perhaps to complain about a rude shop assistant or because someone parked in ‘their’ spot, or because they saw a black person walking into their own house. Most of us here in the UK also remember that time a bunch of people called the cops because KFC ran out of chicken, to the point where the police had to make a public appeal to beg them not to do it because it wasn’t a policing matter.
Covid-19 brought out a horrible side to a frightened general public who were encouraged to assess the actions of their neighbours with little evidence whatsoever and pick up the phone to police, fresh with new powers in wake of the virus, or report anonymously online. Which caused particular chaos given the government civil guidelines appeared to have been written by The Riddler, leaving people to try and decipher them like shit Christmas cracker jokes.
Increasingly the police are also being used to deal with people in mental health crisis. This is often because crisis teams often refuse to see a patient unless they consent. They have also been affected massively by austerity cuts and if the patient is experiencing psychosis and does not believe they are ill, this can become a huge problem. Cells are not the place for mentally ill people and neither the police, the patients or their families want this. While triage schemes in some areas have helped some access more appropriate support more quickly, we are still seeing deaths in custody of people and children who should not have been there in the first place.
And quite frankly, this type of work was not why the police were created. They were created to keep minorities and a discontent working class in their place. Their existence is brand new in terms of human existence, though Kings and Rulers certainly had their own enforcers before that time.
We need to build communities that catch people in times of danger instead of letting them fall, as well as having a huge focus on prevention work. We have an element of personal accountability in this, as we have a habit of deciding what is ‘our’ problem. An example of this is a personal one. I once had a seizure in the street late at night. Upon waking I was still not fully functioning and entirely postictal. People who walked past pretended not to see me. Eventually I was found by police who thankfully took me to hospital, but by then I’d been there for about an hour and a half in near freezing weather. My point is they weren’t what I needed and someone stopping even just to call an ambulance wouldn’t have been too taxing.
One of the arguments I have come across criticising the Defund The Police movement is that it will leave poor, impoverished communities vulnerable, while the rich will hire their own private police forces which are already in existence in some areas. My reply to that would be that if you are from a non white community, or an impoverished one, if you have a disability or mental ill health, or an addiction, or been homeless, chances your experience of the police is not a protective, positive one already.
Besides, the movement is not calling for the abolition of cops altogether.
I support victims of domestic and sexual violence in my work, both adults and children. I am a police and prison abolitionist. Do I encourage my service users to contact the police if they are in danger? Yes. If they are reluctant to have them involved, do I look at ways they can overcome those barriers? Yes. Because right now there is little viable alternative for them. To discourage this on the grounds of my political views would be irresponsible at best, and manslaughter at worst, and I am saying to you, if you are in a similar situation, do not let anyone make you feel guilty if you have to contact the police and decide to take things through the criminal justice system.
I have personally met people who’s lives have been saved because they called the police, but I accept that many of the people I support do not want their involvement and have a range of valid reasons for that. As workers we have had to find other ways to try and keep people safe in other ways, such as therapy, home security or rehousing, rather than keep pushing a criminal justice agenda. I’m not just talking about the police here. The court system itself is horribly oppressive, unjust and discriminatory. Most rape and sexual assault cases never even make it that far, and the ones that do can be traumatising because of the revictimisation that occurs during the process. More and more often we are seeing victims of serious crimes have to wait over a year for their trial, keeping their anxiety and cortisol levels up at dangerous levels, then wonder why they drop charges rather than continue to lie awake every night in dread.
Prevention work would have a massive effect in harm reduction where domestic abuse is concerned, particularly if we invest more in therapeutic and emotional resilience work for children. We know so much more about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and how this effects development and behaviour, yet we are still lacking much of the trauma informed practice we know works into childrens social care and childrens mental health services. When they are employed, it is often at the point where a child or young person’s experiences are already having a visible, negative effect on their life. What I dream of seeing is a time when give therapeutic work to children who have witnessed or been subject to abuse at the point of disclosure, rather than waiting until they show any sign of distress or underdevelopment, which many may not until their experiences are severely impacting on their own relationships, growth and mental well being.
And as more appropriate, holistic services have been privatised and stripped of their resources or defunded, we find we are trying to shield people from storms with broken umbrellas. Understaffed or under-resourced services are not the only issue.
I don’t just want to go after the police, I want to go after the entire criminal justice system because I sit within it, and for the large part it is not fit for purpose.
We need to completely change all of our structures- not just the police- in order to keep people safe and dismantle discrimination, and I do mean all. Many political organisations I have encountered are still clinging to their archaic procedures and attitudes. They are as complicit in the revictimisation of survivors as any court room I have ever seen. There is a tendency when women come forward to disclose sexual or physical abuse and harassment from other members, for the organisation to state they will deal with it internally because they need to protect themselves from police scrutiny- only to then cover the abuse up and isolate the victims instead.
This is gaslighting, and it is allowing predators to roam within our own house. Right now, several large unions and traditionally left wing or progressive organisations have serious problems with predatory people being protected within them, and if you do not think we are fucking coming for you next to rip down those walls, you are in for a terrible surprise. New minds full of radical ideas and energy are coming into our groups and unions right now, and rather than let the usual gatekeepers manipulate and exploit it and turn that energy and passion into vulnerability and disillusionment, you are getting pushed out of the way this time because you are part of the problem.
While activist groups blocking victims from disclosing to the police only to offer no safety or support to protect them is abhorrent and discriminatory, it is not unreasonable for activists involved in social change to be wary of their involvement. There is the current spycops scandal, of course, which allowed citizens to be spied upon when undercover police pretending to be someone else helped themselves to activist women who they saw as a perk of the job. We also know they spied on the families of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel fearing a ‘race war’, and rather than use resources to find their racist killers, they spied on their grieving families instead.
Their job will always be to prevent any change of social order, and quash the fires of revolution that threaten structures of power, and that is why it needs to be defunded. There will still be cops responding to any emergency where no other service is appropriate, but the millions that is wasted on many of their current essential duties- such as harassing homeless people for being homeless- can be better spent on housing, drug treatment, domestic and sexual violence programmes and youth work. Don’t believe it is a viable option? Look at all of the money that has been ploughed in to police to tackle knife crime? Add up every penny given to their internal prevention programmes, amnesties and extra boots on the street. It didn’t do anything. Yet when we look at the model Glasgow used- a city with extraordinarily high gang related knife fatalities-to tackle knife crime which saw fatalities decline by 69% in a decade. They treat knife crime not as a policing issue, but a public health one, working on the basis that violence is preventable, not inevitable. They funded youth work, NHS schemes. They developed role models, talked to offenders and ex offenders about the cycle of violence. Extend that work right across our society and it is not unreasonable to think we can have real change.
Reform has been tried, and it has only brought about the most minor of improvements. Even the authorities that have tried to implement reform have admitted that more policing and prisons is not keeping us safer. Crime targets that police are asked to meet mean their priorities are protecting property and capital, and the Crown Prosecution Service’s decisions on what is in the public interest to pursue are severely questionable. I have lost count just this year on how many rape cases I have seen be discontinued, but I have witnessed someone cry uncontrollably in the dock as they were handed a suspended sentence for not paying a 7 year old speeding fine because they had been made homeless shortly after the offence occurred, and had only just started getting back on their feet by the time police caught up with them.
When something isn’t working we should not be afraid to build something new. Quite often police and prison abolitionists are accused of treating everyone like a victim, when really the opposite is true. It’s about saying we can stop creating victims on the first place and we all have a part we can play in that. For me, it should be more terrifying to actively decide to keep trying things we know do not work, and shunning the ones that we do.
There has been various excellent articles written about domestic abuse during Covid-19 measures, highlighting the rise of incidents of violence and the unique situation the pandemic has services facing. Rather than just repeat most of the same, I’m going to attempt to give more detail as to the problems we are facing and why simply knowing the statistics and monitoring its rise is not enough.
I’m writing this utterly exhausted and dejected, so forgive me if I’m not as coherent as I would like to be. Myself, like many other domestic abuse workers who aren’t refuge based are working from home right now, watching all of this unfold and trying to deal with it in isolation. We have even less contact from our colleagues who we both give and receive support from and cannot talk about what we are seeing happening before or very eyes in any meaningful way, to keep in line with confidentiality of the people we support. But this isn’t about us, so I’ll stop with the whinging.
We did know this was coming. Domestic abuse tripled in Hubei, the province were the outbreak first started, and 90% of all violence was reported as being domestic related. Other countries which have also implemented quarantine rules such as Brazil, Spain, Greece, France, Germany and Cyprus have also seen steep rises of domestic abuse incidents. Here in the UK, a decades worth of austerity measures from the Conservative party have left domestic and sexual abuse services severely under-resourced as well as other statutory agencies that work with victims of domestic abuse, such as children’s services, drug and alcohol organisations and mental health services.
Here in the UK, 15 organisations and charities have signed a letter to the ministry of housing, communities and local government asking them to give specific funding for domestic abuse survivors to access specialist services, arguing that the general funding allocated to all those in need is simply not sufficient.
Some refuges have had to lockdown and stop taking referrals because of the virus and we are already starting to see the impact here in just two weeks of quarantine measures. Since then, domestic homicides have rocketed here with nine people now dead in four separate incidents (at the last count. It could easily be more now) which is nearly double the domestic murder number average of one a week previously.
It isn’t just homicide we are looking at though. During this last two weeks I have never seen so many call outs for mental health crisises, attempted suicides, both accidental and intentional overdoses from the people I support. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen calls for help increase by 25%.
Frontline mental health services and charities have also seen a massive increase in people struggling to cope with with the pandemic. People are losing their jobs and despite what is being reported, evictions are still taking place, all of which could easily drive a vulnerable person back to their abuser if they have no other resources.
For the ones who are still living with a perpetrator, the chances to disclose are frighteningly scarce. There is never any privacy to tell anyone what is happening. Rooms are always occupied, phones are being checked. Even if you did, where would you go? Elderly or sick relatives are out of the question.
With the media all whipping us up into a frenzy about “covidiots”, victims of domestic abuse could easily find themselves even more isolated as we are all encouraged to turn into effective snitches on each other. That woman you keep calling the police on for keep allowing her boyfriend in and out of the house? Telling him to stay away could be far too dangerous as one referral I dealt with last week demonstrated. People seem eager to call 999 for incidents such as this , yet “don’t want to get involved” when they can hear screaming and smashing coming from the house next door for the third time that week.
The referrals we are getting through are horrifying. But some days, it is disturbingly quiet and that frankly worries me even more. Hardly any children remain in school, so the kids aren’t able to tell their teachers about what is going on at home. Most survivors do not want to call the police at the best of times, but now even less so for fear of stretching resources even further or fear of prosecution for having someone in their home who they shouldn’t have. They aren’t able to go to their GP and won’t attend Accident and Emergency for fear of catching the virus or of being a burden on already overworked staff.
For disabled people experiencing domestic abuse, their family and friend not seeing them for weeks on end, is expected rather than being seen as suspicious. Survivors working in hospitals and care homes face more accusations of infidelity as they work exhausting hours to keep people alive. Perpetrators will use their own ill health or vulnerabilities to persuade their victim to allow them back in their home and there have been incidents of abusers pretending to have Covid-19 in order to enforce the entire household to isolate with them.
What the pandemic has taught us- that many of us working on the frontline of domestic abuse already knew- is that survivors need a community behind them. This means fully resourced and trained professionals, but also their colleagues, their neighbours and the people they interact with on a daily basis. Isolation is the biggest tool that abusers will use. Look at what we can do as friends and neighbours. If you don’t know yours well and it is safe to do so, it won’t seem unusual to let them know you are there if they need to borrow a teabag or bit of milk (you absolutely don’t have to ask them directly about what you suspect). If you are an active part of mutual aid groups and haven’t already done so, now is a good time to discuss how you can support those experiencing domestic violence. If someone you know has openly talked to you about abuse in their relationship, try and set up a safe way they can let you know if they are in danger. This might be a trigger word or if you are using video technology, a gesture, such as holding three fingers to the camera to let someone know they are in danger with an agreed plan of what they wish you to do.
If you yourself are in fear of what is happening in your relationship with your partner, or ex, or a family member remember that although services may be running differently at the moment, we are still there. A lot of websites such as Refuge or Women’s aid have a 24 hour number and a ‘leave now’ function on their website. The Women’s Aid website has an online chat service that is available between. If you can, check ways you can contact your local domestic abuse service during this time. Many of my male or LGBT service users often assume their local service would not support them. Their literature should state clearly that you are welcome there, so do have a look if you can, but if you are in any doubt or have had bad experiences with local services, specialist projects such as the Mankind Initiative (for men) and Galop (for LGBT folk) are still operating.
We are physically keeping our distance to save lives, but we still need to connect by other means to save more.