Sunday, January 01, 2006
Cutting to the Chase - Police car chases are the staple of prime time TV entertainment, but in reality they are rarely necessary and kill a lot of innocent people - the evidence shows that the public are safer when the police slow down...
Giving our Consent - Why do rapists get away with it so often, and why isn't the British public more aware of the scale of the problem?
Just a couple of pieces from me for now, but more are on the way... And in addition to these, I am very pleased to have two pieces from other contributors.
White Riot - A lot of people have asked me about the racist riots in my country of origin and being hard-pressed for time I did what a large number of her friends have done - e-mailed Vanessa Badham who is currently staying in Wollongong, New South Wales to ask her. She has sent back a very readable report/opinion piece, which I urge you to read.
Rebels Without a Cause - And we have a piece by Daniel Simpson on the war in northern Uganda, from which he returned recently after writing stories for Associated Press. Daniel previously worked for the New York Times reporting from the former Yugoslavia and resigned from that paper for the noblest of reasons, having been singled out by the US ambassador in Belgrade as an asker of awkward questions.
As ever all feedback, comments, fact-checking, scrutiny, and the like is welcom and appreciated (you can e-mail at respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk). Wishing all readers a very happy new year or at least one better than 2005...
Alex Higgins, Tottenham, London, England
How the world stayed much the same in 2005
Iraq - The US and Britain's folly and shame just won't go away
The cost of the war in US dollars - watch it go up every second here
The cost of the war in Iraqi lives - 100,000 still best estimate (as of last year, certainly higher by now)
The cost of the war in Coalition soldiers' lives - 2,376 - 17 every week
Seymour Hersh on Bush administration plans to escalate the air war over Iraq
George Monbiot on the use of napalm and phosphorous by US forces in Fallujah
Dahr Jamail on Coalition attacks on Iraqi hospitals
Beatriz Saldivar from Mexico holds a poster of her family member Sergeant Daniel Torres who was killed in combat in Iraq last April outside the U.S. embassy in Madrid Dec. 17, 2005.
Sign a petition for a negotiated end to the war at IraqPeaceTalks.org
Kashmir - the scandalous limits of international disaster relief
Justin Huggler - Failures on the road to disaster
New Orleans - richest ruling class in world history leaves its poor out to dry
Mike Davis - The Predators of New Orleans
Mike Davis and Anthony Fontenot - 25 questions about New Orleans
USA Today - toll rises as New Orleans evacuees find dead in their homes after official search called off
Darfur - what left to say?
Johann Hari: No one left to kill
Protect Darfur: Sudanese people 'live in fear'
Protect Darfur: "UK shame" as Darfurian refugees sent back to their tormentors
Photos from Philip Cox
Planet Earth - 2005 is the hottest year on record
The Met Office and university of East Anglia - Statement on the Climate of 2005
Torture - Still a bad thing
Jack Straw lied to the parliamentary select committee
Amnesty takes a trip with Jack Straw
Do something about all this...
Rising Tide, GreenPeace, Make Poverty History, Voices in the Wilderness (USA), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Protect Darfur, Iraq Occupation Focus, Not in our Name , B'Tselem, Free Burma Coalition, Colombia Solidarity Campaign, Free Tibet, Passion of the Present, Camapign Against the Arms Trade, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Trade Union Conference, Iraq Union Solidarity Camapign, Indymedia, etc. etc - try the links in the margin!
For a democratic, global revolution - not a dream but a moral and practical necessity long overdue...
A world to win, and all the above to lose...
Vanessa Badham gives her own account of the racist riots in Sydney and Australian race relations. Her piece is unedited, but I have provided links that provide more information on the points she has made - and I agree with her on every one.
Two young men who "looked Middle Eastern" hide in a bus while others jeer at them,
I was first alerted to the trouble brewing in Cronulla not by the media but by an old friend from school whom I encountered in an all-night bar in Sydney last Saturday night. Around four in the morning, and after some hours of heavy drinking, dawn was pouring into the rammed, throbbing confines of Gilligan's on Oxford Street and I barely comprehended why Kris was showing me a text on his mobile phone which read something like "All you Aussies out there, come down to Cronulla
Beach tomorrow so we can reclaim our land". He had been sent it by a dodgy relative and I thought nothing of it.
[The Sunday Mail on the role of text messages in organising the riot]
Recovering from my inevitable hangover the next day, I was contacted late in the afternoon by my friend Alison, who was ringing to apologise that she wouldn't be able to meet me for dinner that night, as the police had advised all citizens of Cronulla (where she lives) to stay indoors. "Eh?" asked Badham, flicking on the television to see the smashed windows and racist thugs wearing t-shirts reading "ethnic cleansing squad" amongst other racist epithets ("Mohammed is a camel-fucker" was another) churning up the streets.
Cronulla is in suburban Sydney, in the South East. It is in a local government area called the Sutherland Shire. "The Shire", as it's known, has the lowest amount of ethnic diversity of any local
government area in Australia - a mere 9% of the inhabitants do not identify as Anglo-Saxon. It is also where I went to school. Those of you who have heard me tell stories about school may remember that our school captain wrote in the yearbook that he hated "Asians", we had a
rapist in our year and the worst excesses of the binge-drinking, violently masculine Australian suburban culture were what you could expect at any party where alcohol and nitrous oxide bulbs were involved. It is an area whose inhabitants never leave - if you grow up there, you are statistically unlikely to choose to live anywhere else, and it's dominated by an enormous shopping mall, Miranda Fair, that employs just about everybody.
You can understand why I got the hell out and fast.
"Shire people" aren't all bad, of course, but there are quite a lot who are not very nice. Certain values - like tolerance, compassion, multiculturalism - are not encouraged by the local culture. Materialism, prejudice and bigotry are quite popular. To be successful in the Shire is to have an SUV, a plasma TV, a two-storey house with a swimming pool, go to a lot of barbecues, watch rugby league and pop out some kids with names like Taylah and Brody.
The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, believes that The Shire is "a part of Sydney which has always represented to me what middle Australia is all about".
John Howard is, of course, the same man who in 1988 made explicit calls for Asian immigration to Australia to be "slowed down" because it was "divisive". He is the same man who, since becoming Prime Minister, will not say "Sorry" to Aboriginal people for the genocide of their people
on which the modern nation of Australia has been built. He is the same man who called teaching the history of the government-run kidnapping of Aboriginal children (the "stolen generations") "a black armband view of history". John Howard ran an election campaign in 2001 on the (completely false, and proved so) accusation that asylum seekers coming to Australia were throwing their children in the ocean to force the Australian navy to rescue them. John Howard turned back a ship called the Tampa from Australian waters when it was found to be carrying asylum-seekers rescued from a sinking ship, and paid the government of Nauru to take them at phenomenal, unnecessary cost to the Australian taxpayer. His famous policy call on immigration and aslyum was "‘We will decide who comes to Australia and the manner in which they come." There are, of course, THOUSANDS of other examples of John Howard's racism. Type the words "John Howard racism examples" into Google and you'll get 152,000 hits (and a lead news story).
[Note: I checked this and got no fewer than 2.54 million hits, AH]
So combine a white, materialistic enclave in otherwise very multicultural Sydney with a Prime Minister who has made racism into public policy. "Asians" are no longer John Howard's bugbear in the way that Arabs and Muslims are - the "war on terror" is very easy to join if the enemy aren't white. While all terrorism suspects are of "Middle Eastern appearance", according to the news, rather a lot of white folk in the Sutherland Shire believe it's positively patriotic to rip hejabs off Muslim girls. To be fair, it's not just in the Shire - there are a lot of white folk throughout Australia who are happily letting John Howard convince them, every election time, that bigotry is patriotism.
Two men being attacked by racists at Cronulla Station, photo SMH
Now imagine that you're part of Sydney's Lebanese-Australian community. You're as likely to be a Maronite Catholic as a Muslim, and your family could have been here for 60 years, but you've grown up in a country with a tradition of racism (evidence: lots of dead Aboriginal people, the "White Australia" immigration policy that didn't end until the 1960s) and you've been called a "leb" your whole life. You are considered "shifty", "greasy", "oily", "violent" by a vocal minority of the community but in John Howard's Australia, it's that vocal minority that has the government's ear - and the mouths of the right-wing talkback radio hosts. Rather typically, some of the youth of your oppressed ethnic minority defend their beseiged identity by forming gangs.
A couple of years ago, some Lebanese-Australian boys gang-raped some girls. The right-wing media had a field day - as if rape was PURELY a Lebanese-Australian activity, ALL Lebanese-Australians must be rapists and OUR WOMEN WERE NO LONGER SAFE. Of course, as I mentioned before, my Sutherland Shire high school had a rapist, but he was white and never made the papers. The tabloids and the radio hosts happily played to community paranoia that Lebanese-Australian gangs were out to out rape us all, the gangs resented the it, and tension between elements of the community began to build to a violent level. The masculine culture of the White Shire loves an excuse for violence, and the misplaced patriotism of "protecting our women" and teaching those terrorists/Muslims/Lebanese-Australian kids a lesson was the excuse.
[ABC News investigation into racism against Lebanese in Australia following the hysterical responses to the gang-rape case]
The riots have NOT come out of nowhere - there have been years and years of skirmishes between angry Lebanese-Australian gangs and packs of opportunistic white racists on the streets of suburban Sydney. These tensions have been broadened and magnified, of course, by a government and media fuelling a justification for the military circus in Iraq by Muslim-bashing, the terrorism furphy and the electoral virtues of racism. White supremacists seized on their opportunity to ignite trouble and in the heat and frustration of a humid Sydney summer, text messages flew around a ready group of potential rioteers, already encouraged towards active participation in violence by John Howard's favourite talkback radio host, the truly slug-like Alan Jones. One of my students, who happens to live in the Shire, went out to see what the noise was about and ended up with a glass bottle smashed into his leg, with bloody results.
[Click here to read a report by The Age on Alan Jones' role in nurturing white racism among his listeners]
Don't Over-Complicate Riots: PM, Sydney Morning Herald
Since the original violence of the other weekend, there have been other, smaller skirmishes, the onset of an even nastier vendetta, a few arrests and a refusal from the Prime Minister to condemn the violence as racially motivated. Apparently, there will be no damage done to Australia's reputation in the international community - which would, of course, explain why fifty of you emailed me about this when it happened.
[Indymedia in Sydney - careful before reading those comments...]
On behalf of all Australians who love multiculturalism and deplore violence (and we are, I believe, the majority) I would like to say SORRY SORRY SORRY I AM SO EMBARRASSED PLEASE DON'T HATE ME I DO WHAT I CAN I PROMISE. I say this very loudly - so the whole world and my less enlightened compatriots will hear it.
Visit lovely Australia...!
Cutting to the Chase
Car chases are popular. Any action film since Bullit and The French Connection that is running out of plot can always stick one in somewhere. Any television network seeking to fill a time slot can always commission a documentary of real life car chases, perhaps with a reporter in the back of a police car. Pick up a copy of Grand Theft Auto and you can have a virtual go yourself, smashing your way round the streets of the fictional San Andreas with the radio blaring, while the pixel-citizens jump out your way and yell pre-programmed abuse at you. One website, www.pursuitwatch.com even allows TV viewers in the Los Angeles area to receive a text message whenever there is a live high speed police car chase on the box, so fans of real-life chases don't miss any of the action. The site tells its readers that:
You can expect to see about 4 chases per month on live television. When you get the alert, you'll know a chase can be seen on your TV as it happens. This service now is totally free!
In action films a standard device is for cars to hurl through a market-place and knock over the stalls. Another one is to avoid hitting a woman with a pram by an inch. High speed boy-racers drive over ramps, gaps in bridges, on their side, spin 360 degrees in the air. Bad guys also drive off cliffs and into deep ravines where they explode in a ball of fire, while incompetent police cars tend to slam into each other as the cunning hero outwits them. Near-impossible stunts, near misses, comedy moments (like James Bond driving a tank through a lorry carrying mineral water in the centre of St. Petersburg in Goldeneye), a driver trying to flee his pursuers and simultaneously fight off someone in his vehicle - seen it all before. One device action film-makers don't use, however, would be the high speed chasers running straight through a pedestrian.
By comparison, a computer game like Grand Theft Auto is more realistic, in as much as when you drive around a city at high speed you stand a high chance of killing virtual by-standers - and you do.
Walking past a bus shelter near Monument Way, off Tottenham High Road earlier this week, just round the corner from my house, I was struck by a Witness Appeal Board, asking for anyone with information on this incident:
ON SAT 12TH NOV 05 AT 12:44PM A FATAL ROAD COLLISION OCCURRED BETWEEN A POLICE VAN AND A PEDESTRIAN
By "collision between", they cannot mean that the pedestrian drove into the van. Clearly the police had run him down. Who was he? What happened? If you were there, you could ring up and give the police information about themselves in strictest confidence.
Life Style Extra at Sky.com, ran a short piece announcing that Ali Korkut Kanidagli, a man in his early twenties from North London, was killed after a police van "ploughed into two men in Tottenham, north London, on Saturday afternoon". The second man is recovering in hospital, and a policewoman in the vehicle was being treated for whiplash injuries. Scotland Yard announced that there would be an investigation by the Directorate of Professional Standards, and the matter had been referred "as a matter of course" to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The IPCC's website states that Ali was killed when a police van responding to an emergency call span out of control and careered on to the pavement. Neither they, nor the British Transport Police Federation website states how fast the van was going.
This incident so very close to home, or at least my home, is not an isolated one. In June this year, Home Office Minister Hazel Blears admitted in a parliamentary answer to an astonishing 60% increase in injuries and deaths involving police cars in England and Wales last year. In a period of twelve months from 2003-4, there were 2,000 casualties involving police cars, and 31 deaths - an increase of 11 deaths and 700 injuries from the previous year.
In 2004, Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the now disbanded Police Complaints Authority, complained of an "unacceptable death toll" from police vehicles. Then, there were 27 fatalities from April 2003 to March 2004: "In my view, still to have the number of fatalities around the 30 mark, which is probably what we are looking at this year, is an unacceptable death toll." By comparison, in the 1997-8 period, there were nine such deaths. Accidents involving police vehicles, Sir Alistair noted, now accounted for one in a hundred of all traffic accidents. In 2003, the PCA had issued much the same warning - that the death toll from these accidents was "far too high". 31 people had died in the previous year, though the PCA then said that this represented an encouraging decrease from 42 the year before that. The Home Office has responded to these trends by defending current practice - "Emergencies do call for an urgent response".
The number of accidents involving police vehicles is huge. In 1997, for instance, there were a jaw-widening 27,721 incidents in total - that in a year of relatively low fatalities. This reflected a general increase in such accidents throughout the 1990s and in previous decades. Much of this followed from the exemption of the police and other emergency services from speeding limits. Audrey Farrell, in 'Crime, Class and Corruption: The Politics of the Police', wrote in 1992:
"Police cars in London alone were involved in accidents at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a year in the 1970s. After the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act waived speed limits for emergency vehicles the police car accident rate moved up to over 4,000 a year in the 1980s and in 1988 they were involved in 5,400 accidents. In London the accident rate involving personal injury with police cars is two and a half times that of taxi cabs."
High speed car chases and speeding by police vehicles in response to emergency calls carry a high risk and take a heavy toll. Does the need to respond to emergencies as soon as possible and pursue criminals on the roads justify the risks? The evidence suggests that in the majority of cases, the answer is no.
Farell cites a Home Office study carried out (now over 20 years ago) in 1984, 'Crime And Police Effectiveness', which found that:
"It is now recognised that the advantages of fast response are less than had been previously supposed... in most major cities the police can get to the scene of a crime within minutes... a large American study found that no more than 3 percent of crimes reported to the police resulted in arrests which could be attributed to the speed with which a patrol reached the scene of the crime... Where offenders are disturbed in the course of crime, they can make good their escape... in seconds rather than minutes."
So in only a very small minority of cases could speeding be justified. For the overwhelming majority of cases, the minutes saved by driving dangerously fast are not worth the risk to everyone involved.
High speed pursuit, too, is rarely worth it - and sometimes police departments themselves have come to the same conclusion. In November 2003, East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire police were issued with new guidelines prohibiting high speed car chases, instead suggesting other methods of dealing with criminals fleeing in vehicles, such as helicopters and the use of Stingers (devices that puncture car tires). The decision followed a PCA investigation that studied over 80 incidents in which 90 people were killed. Humberside police said that the guidelines had, in any case, "been their policy for some time" (BBC Online).
In Australia this year, the Sydney Morning Herald carried out an investigation into police car chases in the state of New South Wales highlighting the fact that the police in NSW resorted to car chases more often even than the notorious Los Angeles force:
The Herald investigation revealed police made four times as many high-speed pursuits as Los Angeles, the reputed car-chase capital of the world. Mostly they were chasing traffic offenders, rarely suspects in serious crime.
Police in NSW were also involved in more fatal pursuits than police in other states, after taking population and other factors into account. Many of those killed were innocent passers-by, including children. [Emphasis added]
The investigators, Debra Jopson and Gerard Ryle, looked into the subject following the death of Tabatha Berg in January 2004. Tabatha, aged 3, was asleep in the back of her parents' car when a Holden fleeing New South Wales police came driving at speed in the opposite direction on the wrong side of road - the businessman inside (also killed) was fleeing a pursuing police car. Tabatha joined Laura McGrath, 18, who pulled over after hearing police sirens and was killed by a 15 year-old joy-rider who drove straight into her, Mansae Paea, 17, who dropped his parents off at church and was then hit by a car fleeing the police and Christopher Kopff, 24, whose vehicle was hit a by a police car driving on the wrong side of the road trying to join the pursuit of a suspect.
Reporters Jopson and Ryle noted that New South Wales police did not even keep a record of by-standers killed in police pursuits - "The number of passers-by killed in the course of a police pursuit in NSW is one toll state authorities do not publish". They incorrectly gave the figure of fatalities as 9 in 10 years. After further investigation, they found that the actual figure is 54.
In defence of police practice, Deputy Commissioner Dave Madden responded to the fallout from Tabatha's death by arguing that: "If we discontinued pursuits we would be giving a green light to any criminal, any hoodlum or any offender that knows all they have to do is speed up to get away from police, and they are right." But in fact, as Humberside Police in England have found, there are other, less dangerous options and the need to arrest "any hoodlum", in Mr. Madden's choice words, doesn't justify the high risk of killing innocent people and contributing further the most common cause of violent death - traffic accidents.
The pointlessness of many such chases is illustrated by the example of Matthew Robertson, 19, and Dylan Raywood, 17 who were trying to escape police through a suburb in south-west Sydney and drove into a gum tree in February this year. Both were killed. Another young man in the car escaped. Matthew and Dylan were known to the police - if the police had considered the risk and called off the chase, it would not have been beyond them to find the two teenagers later and arrest them. Instead, they pursued them to their deaths, to the outrage of local residents - already angry after the injury of another police suspect fleeing police who drove into exactly the same tree a few weeks previously.
The case with the biggest impact on Sydney was that of a 17 year-old Aboriginal boy, Thomas Hickey who was killed while riding a bicycle, which tipped forward, throwing him off and leaving him impaled on the spikes of a metal fence. His family and local residents believed, rightly or wrongly, that a police car's pursuit of Hickey had led to the accident. His gruesome death, combined with years of anger at racist police conduct and high rates of Aboriginal poverty prompted fierce riots in Redfern, Sydney's largely Aboriginal district.
Thomas "TJ" Hickey
Cameron Murphy, the president of New South Wales' Council for Civil Liberties, welcomed a new investigation by the state's slothful police watchdog following the Sydney Morning Herald's reporting:
"It is long overdue that there was an inquiry into this issue. We have had many tragic and terrible events that have resulted in loss of life that could have been avoided. I think it is a tragedy if someone has committed a relatively minor crime and that results in the death of a police officer who is trying to apprehend them, or an innocent person who is driving on the road, or even the suspect."
Writing for Atlanta Magazine Online, Doug Crandell notes that in the USA:
"According to the FBI, police pursuits are responsible for about one death every day, including roughly one law enforcement officer every 11 weeks. At least 10 people have died as a result of high-speed chases in metro Atlanta and Augusta since last year."
In the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in July 2002, John Hill wrote in an article entitled 'High-speed police pursuits: dangers, dynamics, and risk reduction':
Available data indicate that the number of pursuits continues to increase, as well as the number of pursuit-related injuries and deaths. A traffic accident constitutes the most common terminating event in an urban pursuit, and most people agree that these pursuits should be controlled. ...Some research indicates that police pursuits result in about 350 deaths per year and the number of pursuits increases each year. One organization estimates that about 2,500 persons die each year as a result of police pursuits and that another 55,000 are injured. Although some law enforcement sources argue that these estimates are exaggerated, they concede that the 350 figure may be too low. [Emphasis added]
Again, note that the death toll is not being properly counted - a staggering admission of callous conduct on the part of US law enforcement agencies. Doug Crandell wrote from some personal experience:
My 9-year-old daughter had just asked me what she needed to do to get a college scholarship. I suppose our conversation could have been about anything and it too would’ve stuck in my mind forever. But her ironic line of questioning still haunts me and fuels my anger—pushing me to research the law en-forcement policies that nearly put my daughter in mortal danger. I would later be stunned to discover that about one person dies every day as a result of police pursuits, the majority of which begin after routine traffic violations.
In our case, a fatal crash was narrowly avoided. At the risk of sounding the braggart, it was my defensive driving skills that kept us alive, not the police’s experience or standard operating procedures designed to keep innocent civilians safe. I did my best to crank the steering wheel as far left as I could and to offer to the fleeing motorist only the passenger’s side front corner of the car as a deflected target. As I did so, the truck clipped us hard and shot off into a gas main and then a nearby yard before the cops dragged the driver out of the vehicle and quickly arrested him. We’d avoided the dreaded head-on collision that certainly would have injured us severely or—and I can still barely let myself think of it—killed my child.
...No less than eight Cobb County police officers arrived on the scene. We were ordered onto the sidewalk by one, and just moments later, another approached and de-manded that we get back into our vehicles. I pointed to our totaled car and explained that we were involved in the accident. He made no effort to recognize our predicament and didn’t seem to notice that I was clutching a visibly shaken fourth-grader at my side.
In England, Robert Scutts today continues to suffer from serious memory and balance difficulties. In 1995, then only 17, he was hit by a police car driving over the speed limits. His father, Jeremy, recalls:
"Robert ran out at the pedestrian crossing to catch his bus. He either didn't hear the police siren, or couldn't tell which direction it was coming from. The car was on him before it saw him. He was going to university and then join the air force. As it was, he didn't even finish his A-levels."
The police car had been responding to call to pursue burglars, (who were running on foot). Jeremy Scutts was taken to see Robert as he lay in a coma in hospital. The police drove him there - at more than 80 miles an hour. "I really think police cars should take into account the level of the incident they are responding to. Even when the police drove us to the hospital to see Robert, the officer was going 80mph. I kept thinking what might happen if another car pulled out."
And so on. "Sadie was a lovely, healthy child and she has been reduced to someone who will have to struggle for the rest for the rest of her life unnecessarily," Brian Stevens, a steelworker from Newtown in Birmingham told the BBC. His daughter Sadie, 11, had her leg below her right knee amputated after being run down by an armed response vehicle in February 2004. Her family welcomed the efforts of readers of a local newspaper, the Evening Mail, to raise money for Sadie, since "While she will get some state support, it can be slow to materialise and equipment provided is not always top of the range." Not always top of the range - unlike the vehicle that crippled her. Pc James Hibbert, who admitted driving without due care and attention, was fined £400 and ordered to pay £700 costs.
Accidents can occur while police are trying to carry out useful parts of their job as best they can, but much of this conduct is simply callous and indefensible. In many cases, police break speed limits and take risks with the lives of others for its own sake. Farell quotes a Policy Study Institute Report, 'Police in Action' which stated that car chases "offer a kind of excitement that police officers particularly hanker after." And again from an Inquest report, 'Death in the City':
A key ingredient in modern police culture is the car chase... The usual impulse which leads to cars racing through built up areas at 100 mph is not aggression but boredom. The car chase is one of the rare opportunities for mobile patrols to feel that they are seriously involved in maintaining law and order." [Emphasis added]
For the less conscientious, speeding offers bored, frustrated officers the chance to feel like they are making a difference to crime rates (even though they rarely do in reality), that they are in charge, that they are being real cops like the ones on television. Saying that, as already noted, the police themselves pay a heavy price for their work on the roads, as a look through the list of police officers killed while on duty demonstrates.
But if some police officers and governments can be criticised for a careless attitude towards public safety, they are perhapds joined by television producers and members of the public who have made the car chase something of a rather unpleasant fetish. I am not referring to silly films like David Cronenberg's Crash, but to sensationalist documentaries such as Cops.
In February 2003, Jim Hahn, then Mayor of Los Angeles, gave a press conference to deliver the message that car chases were not a spectator sport:
"Police pursuits are not entertainment. They're certainly not a video game. They are life-and-death situations that put drivers, police officers, pedestrians, other innocent members of the community at risk."
Hahn's particular concern was that some of those fleeing the police were driven on by the special attention and live television coverage they received. But what of the fact that by making car chases into entertainment, viewers are choosing to ignore the human cost - and blithely accepting the notion that most of these pursuits are actually necessary or beneficial to the public at large? The reality is that, overall, the public are safer when the police drive more slowly, and keep to the speeding laws they are usually required to enforce.
Rebels Without A Cause
By Daniel Simpson
“When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.” (African proverb)
Ugandan night commuters
GULU, Uganda - What can atone for the mutilated children who’ve learned to smile without lips, to clasp pens with stumpy limbs and even to flirt with forgiveness? For the militia of abducted villagers and teenage gunmen terrorising northern Uganda, the first step towards justice crushes an egg.
On a knoll outside Gulu, a bustling town on the frontier of Africa’s most neglected war zone, 60 former rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) line up to repent of their crimes at a traditional cleansing ceremony. All have recently surrendered to the government, or been captured in skirmishes with Ugandan troops. Their right feet are bare. On their left, some sport battered flip-flops; others the footwear of choice for guerrillas across the continent: green wellington boots.
Wailing ululations from local tribeswomen crescendo above a bassline beat out by a drummer in a “50 Cent” T-shirt as the procession of LRA commanders, footsoldiers and their child brides hobbles towards a solitary egg, propped up in the dust by a forked stick. The first foot cracks its shell, smearing the branch with a slimy coating for the others to tread on before shaking hands with a tribal chief clad in white robes and a pinstriped jacket. Reconciliation is officially under way.
“This is just a peace-building measure to build confidence, to let them come back, let us have peace and then people are going to talk,” explained Rwot David Onen Acana II, who was crowned paramount chief of the Acholi tribe in January after studying conflict resolution strategies at Birmingham University. “An egg symbolises purity and innocence and yet there is life in it, so we do this as a means of purification and indicating the innocence of these people because they were taken against their will.”
The LRA doesn’t accept recruits; it kidnaps them. Tens of thousands of abducted Acholis, a substantial proportion of them children, have kept the northern insurgency alive for 19 years. Their obedience is secured at gunpoint, sometimes accompanied by orders to commit atrocities as grotesque as murdering their own families and eating the boiled corpses.
Aftermath of LRA atrocity in northern Uganda
Those not cowed by guilt or fear are brainwashed with a concoction of apocalyptic Christianity and tribal spiritualism cooked up by the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, who claims to be a prophet. The rebels have issued no demands except to say they’re purifying the north to govern in accordance with the Ten Commandments, most of which they ignore.
The tide could be turning, however. Government offers of amnesty, plots of land and a stipend from the state have enticed thousands of LRA fighters out of the bush over the past year, including a wave of high-profile defections. Mr Kony’s charismatic spokesman and his dreadlocked director of operations were both lined up in penance before Mr Acana, but the warlord holding northern Uganda to ransom remains at large, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) prepares to indict him for crimes against humanity.
Opposed from the outset by the United States, which has undermined its attempts to hold war criminals to account in Burundi and Sudan, the new court has much to prove. When the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, asked the ICC to intervene last year, prosecutors seized on their first major case, but the implications are stark for an ongoing conflict that can only be resolved peacefully by making rebels an offer they can’t refuse. The struggle to end the war is now at odds with efforts to put international outlaws on trial.
Humanitarian relief organisations are as upset as the Ugandan mediators who accompanied Mr Acana to The Hague in March to plead for a delay in proceedings. The ICC might be a good thing in principle, argues Oxfam, but if four people out of five in northern Uganda have been driven from their land, alleviating their suffering ought to trump what other critics dub “international law fundamentalism”. Having previously announced that indictments were imminent, the court now says it has no timetable for prosecuting Mr Kony and his top lieutenants. In Gulu, confusion reigns.
“There are definitely institutionalised tensions between the ICC, the amnesty process and conventional approaches to peace-building, which are by and large geared to rewarding the most violent to stop them being violent,” said Dr Tim Allen, a specialist on East African conflicts at the London School of Economics. “But the aid agencies complaining about this come across as daft: they’re now campaigning against the court they helped to set up.”
Aid workers and tribal elders also lobbied President Museveni to pass an amnesty law underpinned by traditional justice rites that hark back to days when warriors bent spears to cement a truce. Sceptics, both Acholi and Western, have questioned the utility of these ceremonies in confronting cannibalism, sex slavery and mass mutilation, but Mr Acana is a keen advocate.
“This process is not yet conclusive,” said the soft-spoken chief after overseeing the cleansing. Public truth-telling rituals would follow, he continued, with the local community deciding whether to demand redress, as happens at the open-air village courts which cross-examine Rwandan genocide suspects. “Those who will be singled out will have to go through this traditional process until we reach a point of compensation and reconciliation and that is where forgiveness comes in.”
Surprisingly few speak openly of revenge. Geofrey Obita was 16 when rebels hacked off his lips, ears and fingers and stuffed them into his pocket, together with a letter warning all Acholis to expect the same treatment if they collaborated with the government. Hunched on a Gulu veranda over a bottle of soda, which he sips through clenched teeth via a straw, Geofrey insists he bears no grudge against the younger boys who ambushed him two years ago.
Children who have fled the war for the cities and refugeee camps
“I have forgiven them, because even if I catch them, my ears and my fingers are not going to grow back,” he said. “There is an amnesty, so I can do nothing to them.”
Others are less charitably inclined. Fearing reprisals were they to return to their old homes, senior rebel defectors live in Gulu barracks. Resentment festers in the surrounding region, where the government has herded 1.5 million people into fenceless concentration camps patrolled by Ugandan soldiers and kept alive on food handouts from the United Nations, which describes the conditions as “sub-human”. Swollen stomachs and glazed eyes betray the prevalence of disease and malnutrition; alcoholism and prostitution are rife. Demobilised LRA commanders, meanwhile, get armed guards, mobile phones and monthly allowances of up to £200.
“In the bush, these people show no mercy,” a local relief worker protested. “I think they should expect the same after all they’ve done to us.”
Tempting as it may be to have faith in cults of collective healing, it is unclear what power they possess. From the perspective of the penitents waiting under a mango tree for their absolution, it’s largely a question of going through the motions of a ritual more commonly performed to welcome back relatives who’ve been away from home.
“It has been done since time immemorial by our ancestors and elders and the paramount chiefs are obliged to carry out their duty,” explained Joaquim Opoka, a 54-year-old former headmaster who served 10 years in the LRA as secretary, general dogsbody and occasional infantryman. “That is why they have summoned us.”
The message of redemption is broadcast widely. Three nights a week, repentant rebels take to the airwaves of Mega FM to beg their former cohorts to join them in laying down arms. “Kony come home,” warbles the chorus of a song in heavy rotation on Gulu’s most popular radio station. Everyone should be eligible for amnesty, believes Mr Acana, no matter how serious their crimes.
“Kony can return and lead a normal life here,” he said. “It might only be his own feelings of guilt that can drive him away.”
Wary of rushing to judgment, some anthropologists argue that Western conceptions of punitive justice are just as alien to Acholi beliefs as tribal rituals might seem to supporters of the ICC.
“We have to really understand how they’ve come to define and practise justice before we dismiss it,” cautioned Dr Erin Baines, a Canadian academic who came to Gulu to study traditional healing rites. “I remember a woman once said to me: ‘First the whites came as missionaries and they brought for us religion. Then the colonialists came and they brought for us the state and boundaries. And now the ICC is here to bring us justice. We know what justice is’.”
Injustice has prevailed in the north since President Museveni fought his way to power in 1986 and took revenge on Acholis for their involvement in earlier massacres of southerners. The vicious rivalry between north and south is rooted in imperial policies of divide and rule: when the British colonised Uganda, they told Acholis they were born warriors and sent them to join the King’s African Rifles; southern tribesmen staffed the administration.
Since Uganda gained independence in 1962, the balance of power has swung by coup and countercoup, from the tyrannies of Idi Amin and Milton Obote to President Museveni’s civil war. Aid workers and Acholis alike accuse the president of exploiting the LRA rebellion to subjugate the north while the rest of the country enjoys relative stability and prosperity. The war also allows him to maintain a semi-militarised state, despite calls for cuts in defence spending from the international donors who supply half of his government budget.
“Is it chaos or conspiracy? In the end it’s probably a bit of both,” said Jim Terrie, senior East Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Museveni’s scared of talks because they open a Pandora’s box of northern grievances. He’s only really interested in a resolution on his terms.”
Foreign powers have largely left him to it. The war festered for 17 years before the United Nations spoke of moral outrage; until then, Western governments were more interested in touting Uganda as an African success story. President Museveni’s economic reforms have earned him plaudits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while President George W. Bush has hailed his efforts to combat AIDS and added the LRA to the State Department list of terrorist organisations.
Earlier this year, Washington presented President Museveni with a fleet of trucks worth $800,000 as part of an ongoing programme of military aid. Having urged the ICC to investigate allegations of torture, rape and other abuses by the Ugandan army, human rights activists also want America to rein in its ally.
“The Bush administration must ensure that Mr. Museveni does not interpret continuing U.S. support, including military assistance, as a blank cheque to violate civil and political rights and avoid his responsibility to protect civilians,” Human Rights Watch said in January.
Military success for the government generally gives Acholis fresh reason to mourn. The most brutal phase of the war followed Operation Iron Fist, the biggest Ugandan offensive to date, which pushed the rebels back over the border from their southern Sudanese hideout in 2002. Supply lines from Khartoum were cut, so the LRA took to looting northern Uganda. Estimates of the death toll vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands.
The search for a peaceful outcome hobbles on. Government mediator Betty Bigombe telephoned Mr Kony last month to renew truce talks, which collapsed in February after the LRA’s chief negotiator, Sam Kolo, negotiated his own surrender.
Ms Bigombe, a World Bank consultant who has dealt with the rebels since 1994, describes Mr Kony as a man with multiple personality disorder. The cult leader seems friendly, others report, until the spirits begin to talk through him.
"On good days, he talks to God and on other days he thinks he is God," the State Department’s Donald Yamamoto told U.S. lawmakers earlier this month when a Congressional committee questioned whether Mr Kony was a rational actor. Either way, President Museveni has yet to come up with a coherent peace offer.
Nobody seems to know what the rebels want. Not even Mr Kolo, their former spokesman.
“I’m no longer in the LRA,” he replied when confronted in a bar after the cleansing ceremony. “Please go and ask Joseph Kony.”
Never too young to learn
Link to anarchists in Uganda!
"Uganda has become a basket of War criminals, dictators, Social parasites, liars(Cadres), bent politics and state wankers. Uganda anarchists are fed up of this basket. Anarchism is the only remmedy that can heal our people. We believe in a system that has no leadership but delegates elected and appointed by the populace. Delegates that can be re-called at short notice when delegation is turned into power. A democracy that is built from the grassroot and managed by grassroot people. A system that is accountable to its people. We don't believe in national passports or national borders. Our task is to inform the masses but not tell them what to do."
Poster condemns the Ugandan government's role as a protector of US strategic and economic self-interests in Central Africa
Amnesty International film on war crimes in Uganda
A demonstration is attacked by state forces in Uganda, Indymedia South Africa
Giving our Consent
"Three or four times a year, we in Britain go through a ritual known as Outcry Over Judge's Remarks in Rape Case" wrote the political commentator Joan Smith in 1990 and in keeping with this tradition, we have the slightly eye-brow-raising tone of news coverage following the collapse of a rape trial in Wales where the prosecution threw the towel in once it was clear the woman in question was unable to remember whether she had given consent or not.
At Swansea Crown Court, Judge Roderick Evans ruled that "drunken consent is still consent", Genevieve Roberts writes for the Independent (Nov 24th) and instructed the jury to return a not-guilty verdict even if they disagreed with it. Since the woman conceded under questioning that she could not remember whether she had consented or not, prosecution barrister Huw Rees felt there was no longer evidence of a rape. The defence could argue its case that the accused man had merely decided to have sex with a paralytic 21 year-old he didn't know in the corridor outside her home after obtaining her permission, which is not illegal, though it's not something you'd write on your CV either.
The woman in question attended a party at Aberystwyth University where she drank two shots of vodka and two glasses of wine. She became ill, threw up and slipped over in the University arts centre toilets, then staggered out for some fresh air - "I was in an awful state. I have never been that drunk in all my life... I was losing all focus and feeling very dizzy." She told the court that a concerned woman had urged her to go home accompanied, and so she returned to her flat alongside a part-time University security guard whom she had not met before. She claimed she could remember looking for her keys, then lying on the floor and that she "could feel that something was happening", though she was not fully conscious.
But she did not know what exactly, and two days later went to a university counsellor. After the Dyfed-Powys Police investigated and questioned the security guard, she discovered for the first time that she had had sex. She maintains that, "If I had wanted to sleep with him I would have taken the few steps to my bedroom."
Maybe there was a rape, maybe there was not. Perhaps the security guard's actions took him right to the edge of the law but not quite over. Since the woman was drifting in and out of consciousness, it seems likely that the defendant was in fact breaking the law under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which stipulates that an unconscious woman is unable to give consent. Huw Rees has been asked to submit a report to the Crown Prosecution Service to explain his reasons for calling off his own prosecution. Vera Baird, a criminal QC, Labour MP and head of the All Party Parliamentary Groups for Domestic Violence and the group for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, argues that Judge Roderick Evans' decision was incorrect.
Another photograph of a paralytic woman - the sort of picture the press are always using to illustrate excessive drinking
What the case does illustrate, either way, is how staggeringly easy it is to rape someone and get away with it. Men who fancy both their chances and the woman on the other side of the room might take note - and a significant number do. Since only 10% of reported rapes - themselves a small percentage of the total - are brought to court, and of these the conviction rate is 5.6%, the chances of getting away with it are already high. The key is to be careful in choosing your victim.
Some of these prejudices were brought to the public attention this week by an ICM poll commissioned by Amnesty International as a part of Amnesty's campaign against violence towards women, the results of which suggest that some old arguments need to be gone over again. The poll found that:
"...a third (34%) of people in the UK believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner. For instance, more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Around one in 12 people (8%) believed that a woman was totally responsible for being raped if she’d had many sexual partners.
Similarly, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk..."
These are views people are less likely to hold when considering other forms of violent crime such as assault or mugging, where the victim is rarely deemed to be responsible even if they were drunk or wearing stilettos or winked at the criminal who attacked them. Just over a fifth of the survey's respondents thought that women were responsible, either partially, or for a particularly harsh 5% completely responsible, if they were raped while walking along a deserted street at night. It is a minority who still hold these kinds of views, but a substantial one for a rapist in court to work on. It is possible that this view is reinforced by the media predilection for illustrating almost every article on binge drinking with loud, vomiting or unconscious women, even when the story is about men. (Hence the photographic examples in this article...)
The number of recorded rapes in Britain in the last year was 12,867. This is itself a small fraction of the total - police estimate about 15% of the total. The British Crime Survey, generally regarded as the most accurate source of statistics on crime puts the estimated a figure of rapes in Britain at 80,000 a year, a figure which almost no one in the ICM poll was close to getting.
80,000 rapes a year is almost reminiscent of Bosnia or Vietnam in wartime. It is a truly awful figure of unrecognised suffering up and down the country.
'...when I was at the house of a friend, a Ripper murder was reported on the news and my friend's mother made a contemptuous spitting noise as the faces of the Ripper's victims came up on the screen, including Mum's. "They deserve everything they get," she said.' (p65)
This view was more widely held than many appreciate, and extended to some of the police working on the investigation, one of whom openly told journalists at a press conference that the Ripper's victims were sluts. The police released a statement in 1982:
"...the Ripper, having previously murdered prostitutes, is now seeking victims among innocent women." ('Crime, Class and Corruption: The Politics of the Police', Audrey Farrell, 1992, p128)
The wordlview of a serial killer and his pursuers in the police was not so very far apart on that issue. Recall that prostitution is not a criminal offence in Britain, nor was it then.
Rapists benefit not only from the view that some women deserve whatever they choose to do to them, but also from popular perceptions about the kinds of people who commit this crime of opportunity, as Cochrane wrote:
'The myths surrounding rapists - that they are wild-eyed types with shifty eyes and unkempt beards - are another factor that lets women down in court. It is very difficult for an accuser who has been drinking to secure a conviction against a defendant who is smartly turned out, holds down a job and has a girlfriend.'
Most rape is committed by a person known to the victim, another aspect of the crime where public opinion lags behind the reality. In fact, in Britain, it was not until 1992 that rape within marriage was even made illegal.
Cartoon by Jacky Fleming
The onus falls on the rest of us to consider how we can expose the sexual assault of women and young girls that takes place in our midst on a large scale and bring the perpetrators to account for their crimes, because it will not happen by itself. Getting the responsibility of the rapist and the victim in some perspective would be a good place to start.