Saturday, April 12, 2008

On Hate Crime, by Ade Varney

Much has been written about the brutal killing of Sophie Lancaster. The petition to widen the definition of 'hate crime' to include crimes against subcultures and people who dress differently has now been handed to the Government. We asked the promoter, Ade Varney, one of the supporters of S.O.P.H.I.E., "Stamp Out, Prejudice, Hate and Intolerance Everywhere", to tell us about the motivation behind the campaign, the kind of reaction he encountered, the country's attitude to alternative cultures, the issues of rehabilitation and Britain losing its moral compass. Here are his thoughts:

7,126 people have signed the petition.
People in other countries wanted to sign, but discovered they couldn't as it only accepted UK citizens. I find that to be extremely encouraging, even despite them not being able to sign. It showed we had what amounted to international support, at least in principle.
At the time, I didn't quite know what sort of target I was aiming for. In a way, it started as a kind of experiment, if you like but also a gut reaction to the tragedy which affected us all. I had no idea how many signatures I needed to bring about any real change, so my thoughts were to see where it took us and if not successful, I'd run it again, in paper form as well as the electronic.

It might come as a surprise to some people, but reactions to it were mixed. Those who understood the problems faced by subculture could see absolutely no reason why a petition, which sought to 'widen the definition of hate crimes' should not be signed by anyone who also rejects racism and its associated partners in crime.
Then there were those who had questions, based on the notion that society can have too much, over-cloying legislation, which could potentially limit individual freedoms of expression. I'm afraid my answer to some of these included: "Such as? You mean the freedom to hurl abuse at someone for the way they look?"
Then I encountered a few aggressive responses, accusing me (or at least the petition) of potentially widening the gap between subculture and 'normal' society (whatever 'normal' is supposed to mean!).
Interestingly, not a single person I encountered from the media, saw any reason at all why this petition could not represent something good. I started hearing of MEPs and MPs voicing their support. One or two people commented that goths are asking for it by dressing that way, which to me sounded reminiscent of the old Picklesque argument surrounding the seduction of helpless rapists, by ladies in short skirts. That's something else I can't abide with and frankly, represents something rather sinister, if not just monumentally stupid.

I remember vividly when the attack first happened. It was posted on the Whitby Gothic Weekend Forum, by a close friend of mine and close relative of Robert's, whose topic carried the heading: "Lost My Faith In Human Nature". I could only watch, helplessly, as this hideous story unfolded, both in public forum and private email. Watching my friend getting more and more upset, with every new posting, I realised something terrible was about to occur. The pair were both in intensive care, on what amounted to life support, with Sophie responding less well to treatment. When it came to Rob arising from his coma while it looked increasingly as though Sophie's equipment might have to be turned off at the end of the week, I and many others started to feel strong emotions stirring inside. I just remember thinking even though I've never met this girl, I felt somehow connected to her. I started imagining what her family and what poor Rob must be going through. Believe me, I'm not the sort to get involved in other people's tragedies, but honestly, this was something very different. I was literally aching for her to get well again; to give someone a sign she was still in there...

When finally the tragic news was released, you could feel a tangible wave of anger and despair arising from those who had been following the story. I think what hit me the most was she could have been someone I knew; someone I loved; a relative or just a friend. How the hell would it feel to lose someone like that? To know how much she suffered and to know what a brave person had been lost to us all brought with it a suffocating feeling of anger and sadness. It was an intoxicating mix of indignance, outrage and deep sadness, floating in a body of senseless reason. The base-motive for killing her was one we'd all experienced - only now, this had escalated to its worst possible conclusion.

I think to say the entire country is in the grip of ‘ultraviolence’ may sound a little sensationalist. It’s easy for us to over-catastrophise the evidence, when we can just as easily place most of these attacks in rougher parts of the UK. However, there is a strongly perceivable rise, just lately, in the amount of alcohol-fuelled attacks upon defenseless and vulnerable people. I’m remembering Gary Newlove and the young disabled man who was set upon last year and I keep hearing about some rather horrendous instances of subculture abuse happening across both here and in other parts of the world, too, such as the Emos being mobbed recently in Mexico and a punk killed in Russia. My first instinct was bring perspective in on this suggestion, but when you think about it, we’re seeing some grains of truth to it, aren’t we?

It’s an age-old problem, harking back to the days when subculture started. In those days, the mainstream objectors seemed to come from a sector of society, we sometimes termed ‘trendies’. Something to do with them dressing in what was commercially available in shops, instead of creating their own look, as we did. Today, I suppose some call them ‘Chavs’, but either way, their attitude and behavior amounts to exactly the same thing. However, just lately, it seems as though the nature of more recent attacks seems to know less boundaries. For instance, I remember fights between Mods & Rockers; before my day, there were the Teds. There were unspoken rules which excluded women from a beating at least. Violence can’t be viewed as ‘honorable’ but compared with today, it seemed there were at least some principles at play.

Attitudes to punishment and rehab really depend on personal viewpoint, quite apart from the law, really. My own personal beliefs don’t include thoughts of an afterlife. I believe we only have one shot at life. Since Robert Maltby’s shot at true love and happiness with his beloved Sophie was wrecked in losing her and Sophie’s own shot was taken away on a tide of selfish, merciless brutality, I can see no sense whatsoever in giving her killers a shot of anything but a lifetime of incarceration, with no hope of ever mixing again with society. They can’t undo their hideous work by pretending to be ‘good people’ because to my mind, they’ve blown their shot at life and I believe their sentences should reflect this very sentiment as a warning to others. That’s just my own personal view. What others believe is up to them, but to say I’m not alone in my thoughts, would be an understatement.

There are many ways people neglect children but to fail to supply theirs with a moral compass has to be the worst kind ever. It occurs to me, that for those parents NOT to even ATTEMPT to supply a grieving society; fellow human beings, who have been devastated by their own offsprings’ behavior; with statements to the effect they disown them for this... Or even to just to say "Despite our efforts, we have no idea how they turned out this way…" is bad enough… But to sneer at the victims of crimes they are partly responsible for and to be seen openly laughing at times during solemn court proceedings tells me exactly everything I need to know, concerning the deficit of moral fibre in their hearts.

I don’t profess to be a social scientist. But from the point of view of the man in the street and going by a short survey I undertook among Goths, it’s hard not to get the impression certain areas of society are on the moral decline. There is a clear case for calling our government to task over many things, but how far does the responsibility to act like a sane and correct human being fall to authority is the question we have to ask. I think as long as our country persists on its path towards economic recession and an air of authoritarianism which champions rights for the criminal, I can’t see much hope of change on the horizon. However, in times like these, I believe it falls to the people to try and instigate change. Okay, so the S.O.P.H.I.E campaign is just one small group but it’s been gathering weight and momentum lately, propelled by the public outcry for justice. I regard it as just the start, but because so many people regard it as such a good start, a growing number of people feel bound to give it everything they have. Personally, it gives me hope. Whatever the case, I believe hope is important for all concerned – and does seem to concern a lot of people!

Now we’ve reached the closing date, it’s rather out of my hands but we do have a growing number of representatives in parliament towards this cause. People across the country are at this moment writing to their local MPs to gain back up for the petition and it seems to be having an effect. Only time will tell, but I might as well be honest with you and say that although this petition has impacted a sizeable crater of awareness both across the alternative community and the general public, I don’t dream for a second, that a simple change to the Home Office’s Wording on hate crimes will magic the problem away instantly. But to have this poison traced and illuminated while it creeps through our society was a job worth doing. Although I feel like I (along with those who pushed it hard) have succeeded, we don’t stop here. There is a lot more that can be done. Education, for starters. I think it helped in my day, with racism, to some degree, and we can only hope for the same for alternative dressers in future. There’s a lot we can do, if we all pull together. I’ve pledged to work closely with the S.O.P.H.I.E Campaign, after this trial and sentencing is done, to fill any potential vacuum of complacency which might result over time, to keep awareness glowing brightly and come up with ideas to assist people who are at risk, in avoiding danger. So an education drive which cuts two ways – firstly to help minimize risks and more fundamentally, to investigate means of educating children and teenagers on the positive aspects of diversity and difference in people.

[Ade Varney]

1 comment:

Erica said...

This trend makes a lot of sense to me, not that I am condoning it, and the attackers seem to be the age which I should expect to be affected. I don't think that it would only be Muslim youth that would be affected by the internet propaganda wars. There are many western kids who grow up without stable home environments who would be easily influenced by what amounts to an information war online by people older then them.

I don't necessarily think that individuals need to be affected directly but there could be a lot of secondary affects on their friends and culture, as generations grow up together. Kids can be brutalized by the media as easily as they can by real people. And we've been having violent media wars since at least the Iraq war started. Kids who are 16 now would have been 10 or 11; a much more sensitive time in their growth especially since culture wars were not very forgiving before then either. If they become criminals its partially what they are trained to do, however by making the penalties so lax, it is what they will continue to do when they should begin to know better.

We should start figuring out ways to begin rehabilitating some of these kids now before it becomes a much bigger problem, just like they are going to have to deal with the youth who lived through war zones in Iraq. I view this as a similar if less widespread phenomenon. However people are changeable. I think your educational campaign is a good idea. As it should bring more reasonable voices to the debate.