AWARDED THE BSC BLOG OF THE YEAR 2018
Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He previously taught at the University of Sussex and has received several awards and nominations for teaching excellence and academic support.
In an atmosphere of widespread alarm about the rise of youth violence in London, UK drill music has been identified as the prime suspect by the media and the police with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick and the Met’s gang-crime chief, Commander Jim Stokley ordering a clampdown on this new Black British music genre. Despite entirely legitimate concerns with public safety, however, is it at all reasonable to suggest that UK drill causes the violence it is accused of inspiring, or are drill artists cursed by forms of violence that are only scantily acknowledged, if at all, when the issue is discussed? Unsurprisingly, this question divides opinion and stirs up strong feelings on both sides of this never-ending chicken-and-egg conundrum, which also urges for an understanding of the problem as a political rather than a (purely) criminological one. Policing our way out of it, therefore, seems utterly misplaced when policing is part of the problem rather than its solution. Such a controversial claim invites skepticism, as it should, yet a cursory glance at the Met’s response to UK drill music reveals a host of hostile, unfair, illegitimate, and discriminatory tactics that have informed the policing of Black Britons and Black British music and culture in the post-war years. For what it’s worth my own research illustrates this fairly clearly, but this blog posting will hopefully inspire more nuanced and considered responses than the ones to which we are currently exposed.
Denounced as ‘demonic’ and ‘nihilistic’, UK drill music came into the orbit of the London Metropolitan police after a series of violent incidents were linked to the content of drill music videos that circulated online: provoking rival drill collectives by describing the harm that awaits them, and keeping a tally of stabbings in YouTube “scoreboards”. In response to such fatalities, the Met took action by removing 30 YouTube videos and used a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) against the drill collective 1011, building on the government’s Serious Violence Strategy whose aim is to target those who ‘glamorise gang or drug-selling life, taunt rivals and normalise weapons carrying’. In addition to such action against “gang-related” videos, the Terrorism Act 2000 has been revisited to bring convictions against individuals that are identified in those videos, without any proof that the targeted music videos were linked to specific acts of violence. The pursuit of drill artists as terror suspects has the potential to prevent targeted individuals from ‘associating with certain people, entering designated areas, wearing hoods, or using social media and unregistered mobile phones’. Given the seriousness of the offences with which drill artists are being charged, such responses might seem justifiable, albeit controversial, but only if they are divorced from the context in which (youth) violence emerges in the first place. Put simply, the reactive responses adopted by the government and the Met could be described as attempts to end an infection by simply arresting the virus, rather than treating the environment in which the disease is being hatched in the first place.
This might sound like a hopelessly radical assertion were it not defended by mainstream official bodies such as The Youth Violence Commission whose Interim Report confidently states that ‘debates around the potential impact of drill music on youth violence are, in the main, a populist distraction from understanding and tackling the real root causes’. Despite or rather because of the gravity of the problem, however, context and perspective are not a luxury but a necessity. Drill music is not made in a vacuum but in specific places (deprived social housing estates in London) informed by conditions of life where violence is a fact of life rather than a lifestyle. Blaming UK drill music for broadcasting violence, therefore, is to blame rappers for living a life where inequality, poverty, and social exclusion are not abstractions but a daily experience. Add to this the persistence of police racism as a crucial factor in the hostility, marginalisation and criminalisation that young Black Britons grow up with, and the policing of drill music can be seen as legitimating the very practices it hopes to eliminate. Increased support for stop and search operations, and other anti-gang initiatives such as Operation Trident and the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix may seem rhetorically effective as “crime-fighting tools” to law enforcement agencies and political parties alike, but they are only marginally successful overall, while also leading to discriminatory outcomes that were described as ‘shocking’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume.
This of course is nothing new in the history of policing against Black Britons, as my work demonstrates, punctuated as it has been by a host of discriminatory practices that include: the ‘sus laws’ of the 1970s, the saturation policing tactics of Operation Swamp ‘81, or the Special Patrol Groups (SPGs) in the 1970s and the 1980s; only to be succeeded by Operation Trident in the 1990s, and Operation Shield, the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix, and Operation Domain in the early to mid-noughties. What unites such policing initiatives is the suspicion of Black British forms of culture, mostly music, as seen in the police overstaffing of Black cultural events (e.g. Notting Hill Carnival) and the harassment of Black people in meeting places such as youth clubs, music venues and other semi-public venues; gradually paving the way for the only recent withdrawal of the Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696 which targeted grime music as a criminal subculture, in ways that are hardly dissimilar to the banning of drill music as grime MC Lethal Bizzle rightly tweeted.
Pronouncing such practices dead, when they recur so frequently, is to piously deny facts in favour of an uninformed, uncritical and misplaced view of the police as allies rather than as perpetrators of the burning injustices that “drillers” so fiercely express in their lyrics. This is not to deny or condone the violence that UK drill music broadcasts and even celebrates, but to accept it as a reality that is forged in the crucible of social and racial injustice for which we are all responsible if we do not hold Criminal Justice System professionals to account for the harm they inflict in our name. Discussing UK drill as criminogenic while excusing the harm that discriminatory policing inflicts on our fellow citizens amounts to little more than a cop out. As does the tendency to treat the issue as a public health emergency alone, rather than a racial and social justice priority. The challenge for (critical) criminologists, therefore, is clear leaving us no choice but to tackle violent crime boldly, making it difficult for our colleagues, our elected representatives or our law enforcement officials to dodge a bullet as far as London’s knife crime is concerned.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.
Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton
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