“Sticks & Stones may break my bones but names can really hurt me”
My partner works in Glasgow. He’s also registered blind, although to look at him, you wouldn’t know it. He has a genetic condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which, in very simple terms, means he has no peripheral vision. This makes negotiating the streets of the city centre, as he goes to and from work challenging, to say the least.
Earlier this week he came home visibly shaken. A cyclist was riding fast down one of the many steep pavements (yes, I did say pavement) close to the University and went careering in front of my partner, missing him by inches and only stopping when Stephen challenged him. At this point the cyclist went right up to Stephen’s face and started hurling abuse at him and pushing him on the shoulder. This continued for a few minutes, with the man totally ignoring Stephen’s explanation about his eyesight, let alone acknowledging that he, the cyclist, should not have been on the pavement in the first place.
What has this story got to do with hate crime? Well, my eyes have been opened this week to what actually constitutes a “hate crime”. Last month an Independent Advisory Group, set up by the Scottish Government, delivered its report on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion. This report was at the centre of discussions at a Holyrood Events conference I attended in Edinburgh on Tuesday: “Tackling Hate Crime and Sectarianism in Scotland”.
The term “hate crime” is misleading in that there’s currently no formal offence of “hate crime” in Scotland. Rather, criminal law deals with “prejudice” rather than “hate”. Did my partner consider his experience was driven by hate? Of course not, and therein lies the problem, because it means that neither victim, in this case my partner, nor perpetrator, recognise the incident to be motivated by hate.
This goes some way to explain why the most recent statistics from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service for the largest hate crime category i.e. racial hatred, actually decreased by 3% from 2014/15 to 3,712 cases. This despite the global events we observe daily on our TV screens.
So, can we pat ourselves on the back and bask in the belief that people in Scotland are much more tolerant? The latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests we can, painting a generally positive picture, with one or two notable exceptions.
But this completely ignores a recurring theme of the conference, that of under-reporting. Sarah Crombie from Victim Support Scotland recounted how she had recently been on a train from Glasgow to Barrhead and the conductor had been the subject of significant verbal abuse from a passenger. When she asked him whether he was going to report the incident, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s not worth the hassle. On this route, it’s a regular occurrence.”
Samina Ansari, from Amina, the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, played a recording of a young Scottish Muslim mother who was in her local park with her four sons and some of their friends. Her youngest son fell over and hurt himself just as a man was walking past with a pushchair. He made a loud comment about it “not being on” and the woman thought he was referring to her son crying so went over to explain. Instead the man started shouting at her about her clothing (she was fully covered) and asking her questions like, “Where are you from? Iran?” He continued shouting abuse and obscenities for five minutes as the woman tried to comfort her sons and their friends who were by now very upset and fearful. This was an educated woman who not only knew about 3rd party reporting centres but also advocated for them and yet her response was the same: “What’s the point?”
Third party reporting allows you to tell the police about an incident without contacting them directly. Many people, for a variety of reasons, including fear, don’t want to speak to the police. These are designated places where you can talk to someone in confidence and they will report on your behalf. Glasgow alone has over 60 of them.
Both of these are good examples that hate crime can include name-calling, as well as intimidating or threatening behaviour. It’s not just the more obvious incidents of, say, physical assault or blackmail. And, as my own partner’s experience testifies to, these occurrences are not isolated. But, rather than face the prospect of reporting it, victims internalise this behaviour as “normal” and develop coping strategies to deal with it. Trust can become more difficult and whole families and groups can withdraw into smaller and smaller circles of safety as a result, with huge consequences for the overall level of trust and social capital across the whole of society.
Until we get to the point where victims believe that it is worth the risks associated with reporting, these incidences will continue to be tolerated. And to those who think we are already too much of a “nanny” state and that people should just “put up & shut up”, this group is not homogenous – they’re human beings, they’re “us”, not “them”. This could be your daughter, your husband, your parent.
Fear can play a huge part in discouraging those affected. But there are initiatives and educational resources which offer real practical help, such as designated “Keep Safe” places. These are local shops, cafes or libraries which have signed up to the simple idea that if a disabled or elderly member of the public is distressed, they will offer help & support. There are now over 200 Keep Safe places across Scotland and it’s expanding all the time. One older lady in Paisley hadn’t left her house for years because she was so fearful. Now, with her Keep Safe card, she knows the places she can go to if necessary. She’s gained confidence and it has, quite literally, transformed her quality of life.
“No. There’s no sectarianism here. No, there’s no Catholics here.”
This response is one which Sarah Robinson, from YouthLink Scotland, encounters all too frequently when she’s out talking to the public. Huge strides have been made on the sectarianism front in Scotland over the last 30 years. But if you think it’s only confined to Rangers and Celtic fans and football, think again. For the first time, Action on Sectarianism brings together all the resources relating to sectarianism, most of which are free for youth workers, teachers and others, to download.
So there are resources and initiatives out there, each seeking to ensure our society is as open and welcoming as we’d like to think. But there’s another recurring theme of the conference which each one of us must take on board: the next time you’re witness to someone on the receiving end of verbal abuse, or worse, don’t just stand there or look away, get out your phone to video what’s happening, so that if the victim has the courage to report the incident, there’s visual evidence of what happened. Or if you feel uncomfortable doing that, why not go up to the person afterwards and just ask if they’re ok? There are many ways and means that we can each take more personal responsibility so that hate crimes are reported and dealt with, rather than remaining an open, festering sore in our train stations, our workplaces, our parks, our shopping malls, as well as our football stadiums.
 Crown Office Hate Crime in Scotland 2015/16: http://www.crownoffice.gov.uk/images/Documents/Equality_Diversity/Hate%20Crime%20in%20Scotland%202015-16.pdf
I was struck last week by two very contrasting images from the same country. The first was the bombing of a Syrian refugee camp close to the Turkish border, by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The al-Kammouneh camp housed 450 families, 2500 people, who had sought refuge there. The scene was brutal, with tents still on fire, human body parts strewn across the ground, and women and children buried under the rubble. A middle-aged man cried to the camera, “Where is the world?”
That same day, in a different part of Syria, a Russian symphony orchestra was playing a concert in the ancient city of Palmyra, which has recently been liberated from Islamic State by Syrian and Russian forces. Syrian soldiers and Russian officials were in the audience, along with UNESCO dignitaries and invited journalists, listening to the sounds of Bach wafting round the famous amphitheatre as the setting sun turned the historic ruins a golden yellow. President Putin thanked the musicians by video link, saying that the performance gave “hope for Palmyra’s revival, as the heritage of all mankind.” It was as though the terrors of Sunni controlled IS, as effected on both people and places, had been wiped clean from Palmyra’s recent history, and enlightened culture had taken its place.
But of course it hasn’t. Whilst there have been significant gains against IS controlled areas, their brutal campaign continues, with three car bombings in Baghdad today alone, killing over 90 people. One of the bombs went off in a crowded market in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood, killing mostly women and children. And the fighting continues in Syria’s 5 year-old civil war, despite the increasingly beleaguered efforts of the 17 nation International Syria Support Group, with America and the United States on opposite sides.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m delighted that Palmyra is now saved, at least for the time being, from further destruction. I would far rather hear the universal language of music than the hate-filled diatribe of IS. But the man in the bombed refugee camp was asking the right question. The same part of the world that authorised the bombing of the refugee camp, also arranged for the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra to be flown into Palmyra for what was, basically, a PR exercise.
I am guilty of doing something not altogether too dissimilar, when my part of the world allows me to befriend refugees, support aid agencies and donate clothes to refugee charities. But this is from the comfort of my own, intact, home in Scotland. My world has not been turned upside down by events outside my control. I still have a roof over my head, food in the fridge and a TV to watch the latest episode of Peaky Blinders. I can hear the calls from children playing in the sunshine in the park opposite; I have time to admire the unfurling of new, translucent green leaves on the trees and the deep pink flowers covering the camellia bush in our garden. My part of the world bears no resemblance, whatsoever, to the world faced by the six and a half million internally displaced people currently in Syria. In the second city of Aleppo alone, there are 1.2 million, just short of the 1.3 million seeking asylum in the whole of the EU during 2015.
It’s Refugee Week next month. Between 20th-26th June, there are events taking place right across the country. Here in Scotland, the theme for this year’s Festival, is Solidarity. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together with people who’ve had to flee their homes and are trying to build new lives here. I hope that our worlds and theirs collide in the best way possible.
(Image c/o The Guardian)