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Not our brothers’ keepers

Indigo Jo Blogs - 25 May, 2020 - 23:37
Picture of Ellie Williams, a young white women with injuries to her face and right eyelid, lying on a bed with her head resting on a pillow with a butterfly motif.Ellie Williams

Last week a young woman named Ellie Williams (right) from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, posted a long message on Facebook describing having been kidnapped by a group of local Pakistani men and taken to an address where she was beaten and raped as a punishment for not attending ‘parties’ in town due to Coronavirus. The post, accompanied by pictures of injuries she had suffered in the incident, was widely shared on social media and commented on by feminists and left-wing commentators among others. Last weekend it transpired that Williams had been charged with making multiple false accusations of rape against several local men between 2017 and 2019 and following the Facebook post had been remanded in custody for breaching bail conditions (her family say that this was in fact a curfew put in place for her own protection which she broke under duress from the gang).

There have been public protests in Barrow in support of Ms Williams, including an assemblage of cars in a retail park with horns blaring. Today, at one such gathering where many people were out of their cars and gathering close together (no social distancing), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) showed up in his car and was cheered by many of those in attendance before going off in a convoy to Ulverston (see the video attached to this tweet). The claims have led to local Asian restaurants being attacked and forced to close, though the owners condemned and denied any involvement in abuse and said they supported “justice for Ellie”. The Williams family have said they want nothing to do with him and have gained the support of women’s charities. Cumbria Police have issued a video statement claiming that they conducted a year-long peer-reviewed investigation (‘peers’ presumably meaning other police forces; the limitations of that have been demonstrated in police complaints investigations over the decades) that found no evidence of organised abuse of the type described in the Barrow area.

I want to address some of the social media commentary on this alleged incident, as I first found out about it on a Twitter feed run by a particularly obnoxious Leeds-based white feminist:

I want to know what our local institutions, the Council, the Police, are doing, to disrupt the Pakistani/Muslim #GroomingGang network across the North of England. Where are the local Mosques speaking out about this? … As ever, “not all Pakistani/Muslim men are like that”, but there’s a pattern here, and recognising this pattern means we’re forced to act, to protect girls/young women. … I know that the ‘woke’ left thinks all discussion of this is racist. I think that racists will use anything to promote racism. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can afford to refuse to face the issues with integration, the role of women/girls in the way Islam is promoted.

This issue of “what are the mosques doing?” was raised every time the matter of grooming by groups of Asian men was in the news. It’s assumed that everyone from a Muslim background is religious and that they will automatically listen to what an imam says, and that if Muslims are doing it, they all must know about it — perhaps because it’s assumed, as it often is of minorities, that we all know each other. In actual fact, the criminal activity in some of the towns took place well away from the part of town where most Muslims live, so it is quite possible that most local Muslims knew nothing. Muslims do not have the ability to police members of our own community; there is one law and one police force for everybody in any given county or metropolitan area. An imam can give a sermon but it’s the listener’s choice as to whether he takes any notice; every Muslim knows that everything the grooming gangs are doing is against Islam for numerous reasons and none of the excuses hold any water. And the reason Muslims often live separately from others is because of racism; even when Muslims move into previously mostly white middle-class areas of many northern towns, whites start to move out. (It is not only white feminists making these ridiculous claims about Muslim complicity or inaction; I have seen Muslims on Twitter saying similar things.)

I believed Ellie’s story when I first read it. I don’t know how she got the bruises and other injuries shown in the attached pictures if she is not telling the truth. While no doubt the explanation for them will be made clear during the forthcoming legal process, the police have offered no explanation so far. She is 19 now, which meant that she would have been 16 when she made some of the accusations she is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice for making. While false accusations of rape or sexual abuse or harassment have been a factor in previous hate crimes, the family do not appear to be racist and have rebuffed “Tommy Robinson”; comments under recent entries say that he “makes it his show”. However, other recent social media posts about this issue have tended towards violent racism, with one I saw saying that genocide is the answer. I have also seen tweets sharing the addresses of businesses whose owners are supposedly involved. There is a danger of a lot of well-meaning people who think they are not racist nevertheless making a lot of racist assumptions about Muslims based on ignorance and commonly-held but false views, and of people who would normally rail against victim blaming when it refers to rape or abuse victims doing exactly that when it concerns innocent Asian victims of mob violence; the fact is that this is a small group of criminals, we are not our brothers’ keepers in law and we have no power over them. It is up to the police to investigate and if Ellie’s supporters are to be believed, they have done a terrible job. The truth will be revealed in the coming months, however.

Image source: Ellie Williams, Facebook.

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Reflection on “Happy Valley”, series 1

Indigo Jo Blogs - 16 May, 2020 - 17:18
Picture of a middle-aged white woman wearing a black police uniform and hat and police-issue high-visibility waistcoat, getting out of a police car on a street with shops along one side.Catherine Cawood

Last week, while looking for something to watch while doing a large stack of ironing during the lockdown, I stumbled upon the first series of the six-part BBC crime drama, Happy Valley. This drama, set in West Yorkshire, is about the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman’s daughter involving a rapist recently released from prison for drug offences; the central character is a policewoman whose daughter had been raped by this individual and had taken her own life after bearing the rapist’s child. I previously reviewed the second series of this, which sadly was not a patch on this series and contained a number of very unlikely scenarios, as I mentioned in my review back in 2016. The original series from 2015 was a brilliant bit of drama and it’s well worth a watch if you like good British drama. Rape is central to the plot, although there is no rape actually shown. The series is available on Netflix in the UK until 1st June.

The central character is Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire; pronounced Caywood), a police sergeant in her 40s who lives with her sister and the grandson who, because of the circumstances of his birth and his mother’s death, is shunned by everyone else in the family. The grandson has a lot of problems at school and Catherine is always getting called into school to be told about a new misdeed or other of her grandson. She has become aware of the rapist’s, Tommy Lee Royce’s, release from prison and during the series he makes repeated attempts to track down and then contact her grandson. We get the impression that she has made the decision to care for him as much out of duty and because he is all she has left of her daughter than because she loves him; his behaviour both at school and at home is exasperating for her although at one point in the series it becomes clear that part of it is triggered by being reminded that he does not have family that others have. As Royce’s presence impinges on their lives more and more, Catherine struggles to protect him from being either harmed or influenced by him, and this struggle dominates the last couple of episodes after the kidnapping is brought to an end.

The other central character is Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton), who works for an industrial refrigeration company owned by a friend of his late father’s. Kevin has a disabled wife and two children he has ambitions for: the elder has passed an entrance exam for a nearby private school but not attained a scholarship. He asks his boss, Nevison Gallagher, for a rise to accommodate these fees; Gallagher rebuffs him, saying that if he did that for him, he would have to do that for everyone. This triggers a grudge he has for Gallagher; he believes that “half that company should be [his]” and that Gallagher cheated his father out of a share in the business. It turns out that, while they were building up the company, his father took time out to study accountancy rather than continuing to work on building up the company, and when he finished, Gallagher merely offered him a job rather than continuing to treat him as a partner. Therefore, while on holiday, he approaches Ashley, the owner of the caravan site he knows is involved in drug dealing and other illegal activities and suggests kidnapping Gallagher’s daughter Ann to blackmail him for the money he believes Gallagher ‘owes’ him. However, Ashley offers him what he considers a risible sum of money because he could do the whole thing without him.

Gallagher has in the meanwhile discussed the matter with his family who persuade him he should fund Weatherill’s daughters’ school fees. He also decides to take a period of absence from the company and makes Weatherill his deputy for an extended period. At this point, Weatherill obviously regrets his approach to Ashley and frantically tries to back him out of the scheme, but Ashley has engaged Royce and a second ‘worker’, Lewis Whippey (Adam Long), to carry out the kidnapping. Weatherill approaches the police, but cannot explain the situation without giving away his role. The kidnapping goes ahead; Royce manipulates the situation so that he can be alone with Ann and at some point rapes her; as they are aware that the police may be following them, they move her twice, at one point killing a female police officer who had pulled them over and become suspicious. Ultimately Catherine finds Ann, though Royce comes back and assaults Catherine so badly it is Ann who pulls her out of the building.

Still of two white men, one in his 50s and the other in his 30s, wearing dark coloured jackets, looking into a bag which is on a kitchen table. A glass bowl containing bananas and other fruit is in front of them.Kevin and Ashley examine the money

There is clearly a moral to the story of Kevin Weatherill. He is obviously a frustrated man who has harboured a grudge for many years — perhaps his father had fostered this in him — and his reaction to Gallagher’s initial refusal was to look for ways to harm someone close to him. Once Gallagher had had a change of heart, he frantically looked for ways to undo the damage but could neither change the criminals’ minds nor tell the police without incriminating himself. He holds this grudge right to the end, blaming Gallagher’s treatment of him and his father for Ann being raped when Gallagher visits him in prison. One disappointing aspect of Kevin’s story is that it is revealed that he has been sexually assaulted in prison; a police officer remarked, “another inmate took a shine to him” before making a vulgar remark about the subject. In contrast to how carefully rape is dealt with elsewhere in the series (as in, implied rather than shown), this suggestion that prison rape is a comeuppance for Kevin’s actions is a sad use of an old trope. (Though it might explain why remorse was the furthest thing from his mind when Gallagher visited him.)

Happy Valley is set in the Calder Valley, an area west of Halifax in West Yorkshire; while the areas look gritty and urban despite being set among hills, it was actually entirely set in small towns and villages right on the edge of the West Yorkshire urban area. This brings to the public’s consciousness a part of the UK that perhaps not many people are aware of, an area with a lot of deprivation stemming from industrial decay but with a lot of natural beauty. It’s not a very diverse portrait of West Yorkshire, though; there is one non-white face in the whole series that I can remember and that was someone in the first episode, shouting about conspiracies as he is dragged away by the police. Perhaps that’s true of this part of the county, though. If there’s one criticism, it’s that they dragged out the story of Tommy Lee Royce’s pursual of his son after the kidnapping ends for two episodes when it really could have been squeezed into one; once Ann Gallagher is rescued in the fourth of six episodes, the plot switches to the ongoing Cawood family soap opera which is not as gripping as the kidnap story. It’s a great drama up until that point in episode 4, but it spends too much time tying up loose ends; some of this (the fate of Ashley, for example) could have been done in a few short sequences.

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Bread with few roses, as the government push us back to work

Indigo Jo Blogs - 6 May, 2020 - 00:13
A front page from The Times, with the headline "State aid for workers to be cut by chancellor". A smaller piece is headlined, "Top government adviser quits after breaking lockdown with mistress". A strip under the Times masthead shows two women in jumpsuits, one blue and one red, with the headline "Alpha woman-wear (it's all about the jumpsuit)".The front page of this morning’s Times, announcing that the government will cut “state aid for workers” under the furlough scheme from 80% to 60%.

Yesterday a draft of the government’s guidance for “getting Britain back to work” was obtained by BuzzFeed: seven documents giving various advice for how companies might minimise the risk for staff coming back to work by ensuring the ability to keep their distance from each other, wash their hands and clean surfaces more, providing more parking or bike racks, adjusting seating arrangements and various other pretty obvious things. The TUC (Trades Union Council), understandably, criticised the guidance for making employers responsible for deciding what measures to take to ensure staff and public safety: “this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual – which will put their workforce at risk”.

In late March, I did a couple of weeks’ work at a Royal Mail depot in London. Most of the time I was driving a truck on my own, but I had to visit the transport office and then load the vehicles on the depot floor. At this particular depot, they installed a separate entrance and exit by utilising an existing fire door and repurposed a disabled toilet on the ground floor as a hand-washing station. (There are other disabled toilets in the building.) In the transport office, only one person was allowed in at a time and others were expected to wait outside. Driving duties are themselves all solo, but when loading, one cannot get away with interacting with other staff and frequently one has to shout to make oneself heard over the din of machinery. Few were wearing face-masks or other PPE and it certainly was not provided. It was not always possible to maintain the necessary distance.

The problem is: like public transport, workplaces are not designed for the necessities of the Covid-19 pandemic or any other. There is only so much space for parking; at some sites, parking has been used for other purposes. Many only have one door that is convenient for entrance and exit. Not all have the room for ensuring one-way pedestrian flow and if they do, it would mean long detours round buildings rather than direct journeys. Many do not have changing or washing facilities so changing into uniforms on site and washing them on site would just not be possible. Some do not have adequate toilet facilities already, or share facilities with neighbours in the same building. Many are good ideas, such as doing away with “hot desks” that can be used by anyone (in some offices, all desks are ‘hot’), but mean nothing if left up to employers to decide.

Many of the suggestions should have been made at the start of the lockdown for companies that would continue to trade through it; many are already being done. It suggests “Defining the number of customers that can follow 2-metre social distancing within the store”, limiting the numbers of customers in store at any one time and using outside spaces for queuing. Supermarkets have been doing all these things for weeks. It suggests using cashless payments only; many businesses are already doing so. Same for encouraging solo shopping. All the things that have been pioneered in supermarkets will have to be rolled out as more high-street shops reopen; a major issue will be that many just do not have the space outside for a large queue. As far as the logistics suggestions go, many of these are already in place and some were even before Coronavirus was heard of. Scheduling delivery times? Do they think businesses never did this? The problem is that sometimes companies cannot guarantee that a driver will be there on time, perhaps because the goods were late, or the driver was late (or was sick and had to be replaced) or because an earlier delivery took longer than expected. Making sure vehicles are well-ventilated? They all have windows that can open and close. One person refuelling? It should never take more than one person to refuel a truck. They also suggest “finding alternative solutions to two-person delivery”; while this is usually feasible for medium-distance driving jobs, one person cannot get a washing machine up multiple flights of stairs. Perhaps they should ride in two vehicles.

As reported in tomorrow’s Times, the government are already planning to drive people back to work by, for example, cutting the furlough scheme’s payments from 80% to 60% of their original wage from July as they believe that Britain has become ‘addicted’ to the payments. It has always been clear that the government wanted no more disruption to the economy than was absolutely necessary and not to have to subsidise people’s income more or for longer than was absolutely necessary or, perhaps, more than they would not be able to get away with. This is why so many industries are operating as normal and only the retail and leisure industries have really been locked down. Part of the reason there was pressure for a lockdown to be imposed in the first place was that people were being forced to come in to jobs in retail and leisure which put them at risk; easing it for business will mean their staff lose that protection. In many countries in Europe, the majority of industries, including manufacturing, have been shut down by law and people need to fill out a form to tell any passing police officer why they are out of their home. Despite the reports that Spain and Italy have come “out of lockdown” over the past week, really they have moved from an almost total lockdown to our level.

For many people, particularly the middle classes, life under ‘lockdown’ has been quite pleasant; the roads are quiet and the air is clear, and people can go out and enjoy themselves within reason around their local area; many have been busy in the garden. For others, it has been lonely and isolating, particularly those who live alone. Many single parents will not have had face-to-face contact with an adult friend all this time; many women will have been deprived of the companionship of female friends. Almost every day, I see people post on Facebook or Twitter about how they had a brief meeting with their mother for the first time in weeks at a distance or through a window. For people with pre-existing mental illness, the isolation and sudden withdrawal of service may have worsened or changed their symptoms; people who are in institutions have been deprived of trips out and of family visits for this whole period. I am sure many people would not be desperate to get back to work, and certainly would not be willing to take risks with their health and their families’, if there was adequate government support to remain at home; what they do want is to be able to see friends and family, to visit places such as parks and gardens away from their neighbourhood, and these would also carry much less risk if they did not have to rub shoulders with all and sundry at work. And if people want to sit on a park bench and read a paper and have a coffee, they should be allowed to do so. If they are alone (or with others from their household) and apart from others, they are not harming anyone.

There is a slogan that dates from the American women’s suffrage movement and was widely used in American trade unionism: “give us bread, but give us roses too”. The latter sometimes refers to dignity and other times to culture and education. Both government and media are preoccupied with the economy, with “getting us back to work”, but the things that make life worth living seem to have been forgotten about. We can’t live on bread — even home-baked bread — alone.

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