Close your eyes and think of three criminals in as many seconds. The first images that come into your mind will do. Done it? There is a strong likelihood that most of us thought of the same kind of people. Your selection might look something like this: there is a rioter (black, hurling bricks at crouching police); a ‘hustler’ (a roving thief, light-fingered and expert at robbery with violence); and there is a terrorist (his face hidden by the tell-tale black and white kerchief of the Palestine liberation Organisation or a similar group, his fanaticism revealed by his wild gestures with an unwieldy - Russian made - rifle).
These archetypal criminals occur in our imaginations for a reason. Our imaginations - at least as far as crime is concerned - have been hijacked. The media - and here I’m including thrillers and detective stories, James Bond movies and TV cop shows as much as the news - has developed the ‘crime problem’ to the point where fiction dominates fact. We see criminals only in terms of stereotypes. Our vision of criminals prowling the streets and looking for trouble is as media-derived - and so as predictably scripted - as a comedy-show or a detergent advertisement
Britain’s recent riots provide a good example of how our understanding of what is going on is distorted. Night after night our televisions have shown buildings buckling to reveal interiors blazing as disturbances occurred on the streets of Birmingham, Liverpool and Tottenham We demand drama from the news, and here it was delivered. Yet the meanings of these pictures are not found in the riot-torn streets, but are made by those who write the scripts and edit the sequences in which the images appear. Those participating in the riots are depicted as merely criminals, and crime is reduced to something that exists outside politics: a nasty but inevitable feature of all societies, rich and poor, communist or capitalist. The news presents a taken-for-granted consensus that the law exists to protect us - it is depicted as if it was neutral.
Yet the agents of that law - the police - are clearly not impartial. The riots in Brixton were sparked off by the shooting of a black woman in the back when she was in her nightdress (leaving her paralysed for life), and the riots in Tottenham followed the death of another black woman, who died from a heart-attack whilst police searched her home. These incidents are exceptional only in their tragic outcomes: black people in London and other big cities report constant, and often violent, harassment from the police. However, the popular press refuses to document black Londoners’ experiences of racist policing. And it was left to the establishment journal The Economist to substantiate accusations of police racism, by pointing out that the police were making comments like ‘There’s nothing like a bit of coon-bashing’ during the riot.
Of course crime cannot be presented as apolitical all the time. As I write, riots flare again in South Africa, partly in response to the hanging of the young poet Benjamin Moloise and partly in response to the killing - in cold blood - of three young black people by the police. In South Africa the denial of the politics of crime appears on a larger screen and all but those whose interests are connected to the inhuman apartheid regime can see that its opponents are not simply ‘criminals’.
Riots in Frankfurt, Amritsar, Belfast or Christchurch also reach our television screens occasionally. They are always reported in ways that justify the eventual prosecution of those involved as ‘criminals’, and it is made to seem as if this term is completely self-explanatory when given to such behaviour. Whilst the actions of those who have power, such as Union Carbide, owners of the factory at Bhopal where negligence caused over 2,000 deaths, do not have the label criminal attached to them. Nor did De Lorean, the owner of a car factory who fraudulently obtained millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in Northern Ireland. Even the explosion of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand was seen less as a crime than as a mistake by the French Secret Service. And the illegal occupation of Namibia by South African forces is virtually ignored by the media.
Yet if we ask what is really going on - whether we are likely to be victims of crime - another picture emerges. The statistics that are available show that for most white middle-class people, the risks of being directly affected by crime are negligible. Yet we are all encouraged to live in constant fear of attack, robbery and - most of all - mugging. In particular, both black and white women are encouraged by the media and by politicians to be frightened of going out in the dark, afraid of being alone in a house and wary of public transport. The quality of our life (as individuals and as a community) is diminished by these fears.
It is true that crime rates are rising, but the increase affects the poor much more than the wealthy. According to American research a poor black woman (income under $3,000) is almost six times as likely to be raped as a rich white woman (income over $25,000). Crime shadows racism everywhere: in London, compared to a white person, an Asian person is 50 times more likely and a Afro-Caribbean person is 36 times more likely to be attacked. In Tower Hamlets, a borough where I used to live, there were 111 racist attacks in the first half of this year alone.
So the people most likely to be victims of crime are not the comfortable middle-classes who are encouraged to call for sterner law and order measures, but the inhabitants of run-down inner-city areas. Most crime entails the poor robbing the poor. And the gains from this ‘street’ crime are small, much smaller than their richer cousins’ ‘suite’ crime, the white-collar tax-evasion variety, in which millions of dollars, pounds, roubles and yen are swallowed up every day.
The links between street crime and poverty are obvious. In Handsworth, the scene of recent riots, of the 1,434 school-leavers this summer, only 99 found jobs. Of these 42 were Asian and only 8 Afro-Caribbean. Those who, due to lack of employment opportunities in their area or domestic commitments, cannot get work, or who can only get badly-paid, tedious and alienating jobs are often reduced to shop-lifting or burglary by the sub-breadline existence that welfare payments allow.
There are two main reasons why the links between crime and poverty are not given much publicity. First, if they were, it would become obvious that solving the crime problem would entail closing the gap between rich and poor. Western society encourages people to think of themselves as successful if they possess all the trappings of wealth - furs, cars, freezers, and stereos. Yet it systematically prevents everyone from legally achieving this level of consumption by creating economic structures in which, as in the UK, 13 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, an even greater number are low-paid and many of those who do domestic work are voluntarily unwaged. And the second reason is that the politicians of the Right can win votes out of the ‘crime problem’. For whilst we fret and tremble they can engage in a confidence-trick, by being strong and square-jawed and making Daddy-will-look-after-you speeches, reassuring us that by spending thousands of millions of dollars they are solving the problem.
As things stand, more and more money is spent on the police (to combat ‘enemies within’ such as striking miners, airport controllers and peace protestors) and the army (to counter such ‘evil empires’ as the Sandinistas, the Filipino freedom fighters and the Russians). If this money was used to alleviate poverty in ways that empowered the poor, rather than fostered their passivity, then the resulting change in political consciousness in inner-city areas would virtually eliminate ‘street’ crime. Such expenditure would also enable the financing of alternatives to prison, which is a major breeding-ground of career criminality.
Greater numbers of police often exacerbate the very problems that they are trying to cure. By arresting petty offenders, they feed people into a criminal justice system that teaches them how to be professional criminals; either by association or via the not-so-tender mercies of an employment market which rarely accommodates people with criminal records.
Neither can we expect that the current ‘toughening up’ of sentencing by the courts will help deter criminals. The sad fact is that America is one of the most crime-ridden societies and that it has one of the world’s highest rates of imprisonment. Similarly, it is clear that the courts amplify rather than reduce already existing social prejudices against women and black people. For example, a British man who killed his wife, and who cut up and cooked her body before dumping it was only given a six year sentence on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The judge said that he had been provoked by taunts as any ‘normal’ man might have been. A book called How to Successfully Plead Manslaughter, which had been found in the defendant’s flat with some passages underlined, was not allowed as evidence as the judge ruled that it was not certain who had underlined these passages. I
In the UK, women are five times more likely to be jailed than men, when both sets of people have no previous convictions. And, although community service would seem to be an ideal punishment for female offenders (since families - for which they often have responsibility - would be less likely to be broken up) men are twice as likely as women to receive a community service order rather than a prison sentence (National Council for Civil Liberties, 1984). Women who do not fit the feminine stereotype and become criminals can expect to be doubly punished: once for breaking the law and a second time for not being an acceptable stay-at-home woman.
But if we are living in the face of a dangerous law-and-order booby-trap, we need to address alternatives. Foremost amongst these is the need to challenge the belief that the solution to the crime problem lies in an authoritarian crackdown. For the Right uses our fears about crime as an excuse for the introduction of new laws giving the police greater powers. In the UK, for instance, the Government is soon to restrict any expression of so-called ‘public disorder’, which could range from shouting in the street to protesting apartheid. To counter these drastic reductions in our civil rights, we need to demand that the police are made more accountable to the communities that they work in.
We also have to demand that the politicians address the problems of poverty and inequality which are the root causes of the crime problem. And we should demand that they stop skimming the surface, fanning fears and using the issue like a ventriloquist’s prop to win the assent of silent (but voting) majority.
And we have to be eternally vigilant: asking, whenever we hear the word criminal being bandied about, who has the power to decide which meanings are given to the term and which are silenced. As we sit on a time-bomb of ‘law and order’ repressiveness, we should remember the words of Angela Davis that ‘The real criminals in this society are not all the people who populate the prisons across the State, but those who have stolen the wealth of the world from the people’.
This special report appeared in the blind justice - the creation of criminals issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.