Stop Blaming Drill for Making People Kill

UK Drill music finds itself accused again of inspiring violent crime in Britain’s major cities. A closer look at the most recent source behind such claims, however, tells a different story

image of author
Lambros Fatsis is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (with Melayna Lamb). In 2018, he won the first-ever ‘British Society of Criminology Blogger of the Year Award’ and recently won an Outstanding Research & Enterprise Impact Award for his work on the criminalisation of drill music.

Nearly three years have passed since UK drill music was discovered as the malignant source of Britain’s “knife crime epidemic”. Portrayed as “the knife crime rap” – if a Sunday Times Magazine cover (May, 5 2019) is anything to go by – drill became policed as such, following a long history of racial(ised) criminalisation of Black music genres. Despite the absence of tangible evidence that could link drill music to criminal wrongdoing (see, e.g. here, here and here) and ignoring the protestations of law reform and human rights organisations, leading legal professionals, the expert witnesses they instruct, social scientists and 65 signatories of an open letter— drill is still summoned to stand trial for glorifying violence, glamourising outlaw lifestyles and causing “crime”.

The latest instalment of such unfounded, ill-thought, irresponsible and discriminatory panic-mongering came earlier this week, in the form of a report by Policy Exchange, which recycles moralising platitudes about “gangsterism”, “(black) criminality”, stop and search and “knife crime” to show ‘[h]ow gangs are drawing another generation into a life of violent crime’. Lacking in rigour, (re)citing shaky evidence, using contested terminology carelessly and making wild assumptions, this report is not only deeply flawed. It also peddles injurious falsehoods and fails to uphold high standards of evidence. Posing as a research report, it actually amounts to what a colleague described as: presupposition, police statistics and Google. A timely response is therefore needed and this blog article aims at providing it, focusing on the unsound arguments made about drill music— that liken it to a criminal outfit (which it is not), instead of treating it as an art form (which it actually is).

Gangs, Drill Music and Social Media

In a section entitled The Legitimisation of Gang Culture, this Policy Exchange report uncritically echoes the familiar refrain about how gangs use drill music and social media to celebrate violent crime. This can be true and legal guidance from the CPS and the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy maintain that it is. Alas, the reality is neither as simple as that, nor does it become “reality” because law enforcement institutions tell us so. Before jumping into facile conclusions about how gangs, drill and social media all conspire to plunge society into violence, what “gangs” are officially defined as— tells us a lot about whether they really are as dangerous as they sound. Section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 defines gangs as a group which: (a) ‘consists of at least 3 people’, (b) ‘uses a name, emblem or colour or has any other characteristic that enables its members to be identified by others as a group’, and (c) ‘is associated with a particular area’. Such a definition is too vague to be helpful, other than as a prosecutorial tool for targeting those whose activities are stereotypically associated with “criminality”. In the context of drill music, this means that anyone who raps on camera with at least 3 other people, wearing T-shirts with the drill collective’s name or logo in their neighbourhood, can be identified as a gang member and prosecuted as such. Inferring gang association through appearances in drill videos that circulate on social media is hardly “evidence” and complicated further by the fact that the pose, imagery and performance of “gang lifestyles” have been a staple in various rap subgenres (drill included) since the emergence of gangsta rap in the 1990s.

Doing Violence to Drill

Ignoring the dangers of relying on criminal justice definitions for understanding “crime” is not the only error in this report. Neither is the absence of any criminological approach to “crime”, “knife crime”, “gangs” or “violence”. The report’s author also assumes that one can write confidently about music genres and forms of cultural expression that they are ignorant of, or that such knowledge is not even necessary—when making claims about how dangerous and violent drill music is. Context and nuance become irrelevant, as do the artistic conventions of the music. All that is needed is a court verdict without looking at: how the prosecution’s case was made, what evidence it was based on, whether such evidence is relevant, admissible and has sufficient weight to withstand scrutiny, whether such evidence has significant prejudicial impact but little probative/evidential value, what expert witnesses were relied on, what are they experts of/in, what their credentials/qualifications are, or whether the success of such evidence depends on making an emotive case to the jury by portraying defendants in a  negative light, or whether the law itself, expert witnesses for the defence and relevant academic research on “rap on trial” challenge simplistic connections between drill music and violence.

Worse still, the fact that much of what drill music is and does is fictional and performative rather than literal or factual, is grudgingly admitted (albeit sketchily) but not accounted for when interpreting how drill rappers consciously pander to the voyeuristic demand for “digital slumming”/“gangbanging” by staging and embodying, exaggerated, hyperbolic and often fabricated violent personas in search of the material rewards that online infamy promises; even at the expense of commodifying their own stigmatisation. Nor is there any serious reflection on what social conditions make such activity a potential source of income, in a social context that denies people secure employment, decent housing, access to healthcare, equal educational opportunities and fair treatment by the criminal justice system. For the report’s author, it is enough to accuse drill rappers for creating violent content without interrogating the violent context in which such music is made and blaming that perhaps. Besides, there is no such thing as society is there? People are mere individuals who make their own independent choices in ‘self-selected circumstances’ they fully control. Everything else is a distraction or leftist propaganda.

Evidence of Things Not Known

A more charitable reaction to this report might excuse the author for not being an expert in rap culture or Criminology, allowing some margin of error in that regard. Besides, didn’t the report mention the work of Keir Irwin-Rogers, Craig Pinkney and Simon Harding? Aren’t they Criminologists who also write about such issues? Isn’t it enough to just mention three academics, but otherwise ignore a large body of research that buttresses the report’s arguments on stop and search, gangs and youth violence, and knife crime? Isn’t it enough to base an entire report primarily on news media sources, a few government publications and vague allusions to ‘analysis by Policy Exchange’ to advance unreliable, scarcely evidenced claims that are often correlation-causation fallacies of the kind that first-year undergraduate research methods courses caution against? Does it matter that there is no information whatsoever about how ‘key statistics’ were produced to inform us that ‘at least 37% of cases were directly linked to drill music in 2018 and 23% in 2019’? Do we really need to know how such data was collected, how such research was conducted, what methodology was used, what the exact findings were, or whether such research was peer-reviewed? Does it matter that 37% on page 13 becomes 36.5% on page 23? Does it matter that these figures are probably based on cases that relied on rap material as “evidence” during a period (2018-9) when the validity of such “evidence” wasn’t contested by rap experts— like the members of the Prosecuting Rap Expert Network (of which I am part)? Is it significant that drill music is “believed” to incite violence in some pages (53, 58), but is otherwise indiscriminately blamed for violent crime? I can go on, but won’t. It would suffice to say that if there is any evidence of anything in this report, it points to the very opposite of the ‘painstaking research’ that we are promised in an endorsement, penned by none other than Trevor Phillips himself.

The Politics They Hide

None of the above should occasion surprise, knowing as we do that this is a Policy Exchange report after all. That is to say, a report produced by a think tank whose members include: David Goodhart, who staunchly defends ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies, and ‘white self-interest’ and is the charity’s Head of Demography, Immigration & Integration (!), Eric Kaufmann who also advocates for white racial self-interest politics, but does not consider that racist (in a Policy Exchange report, obviously!) and other conservative bigwigs like Charles Moore and Tony Sewell. But make no mistake about it, Policy Exchange is an ‘independent, non-partisan educational charity’. It’s just a coincidence that its reports drip with the kind of right-wingery which considers ‘[t]he real injustice [to be] the disproportionate way young black men are victims of crime, not policing tactics’ (p.7) – can’t it be both? – and complains about the fate of a ‘far-right activist’ who ‘was jailed for branding immigrants and refugees as rapists at a series of marches that were linked to an attack on two Asian men’, compared to those pesky drill rappers who ‘do not receive similar scrutiny and treatment’ (p.54)—despite the discriminatory suppression of their music by the state and its criminal justice institutions. If this scathing blog has made you think that this is all that is problematic with this Policy Exchange report, I promise that I have merely scratched the surface. Read it in full to find out more about how sneakers (Adidas), music (drill) and social media (take your pick) are to blame for violent crime, but a socio-political and cultural context and policies that exclude, marginalise, criminalise and confine aren’t.

Contact

Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

Photos courtesy of author and Mark Angelo Sampan from Pexels

Re-engaging with ‘real life’: reflections on empirical research post-lockdown  

The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. The world changed for all of us.

Victoria Canning is a Senior lecturer at University of Bristol, co-coordinator of European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, associate director at Border Criminologies, trustee at Statewatch. Violence, harm and torture researcher. Actively against border harms.

I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but this last 18 months has been challenging – not only in the everyday ways we all quickly came to know, but for undertaking empirical research. No doubt many of us pondered if and how Zoom could really replace ‘real life’ interviews. How would focus groups run when it’s hard enough to pull people together pre-pandemic, never mind during enforced isolation? As an activist ethnographer, being pulled from communities I usually work with was a new and fresh kind of research hell – how could I continue authentic critical discussion on border harms if I’m sitting day in day out on my own in what would become an isolated office for 18 months. Yes – it’s fair to say there were layers of problems we were all abruptly presented with, and always in the shadow of the new ‘C’ word and the anxieties it brought with it. Research barriers seemed endless.

Whilst many managed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ (who doesn’t hate that term by now?), there is perhaps now a secondary challenge to consider: going back to the old normal as lockdowns come to an end and the ‘in person’ world begins to open up again.

In this short blog, I will reflect on just that – re-entering the ‘real world’ with a project I am working on in Denmark. It won’t fit everyone’s research, and might even be completely unrelated to yours, but some of the processes may resonate. It was to include a six week stay, epidemiological analysis, and focus groups, all focusing on organizational responses to survivors of sexualized torturous violence. In any case, it is fair to say that nothing turned out like it was supposed to.

Here is a bit of an insight into how things have developed, what fell on its face, and mainly what things have been like since getting back to it. To quote Mary Schmich ‘my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience’, but let’s see how it goes…

  1. Take it easy on yourself

The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. Sure, not everyone has been equally impacted, and some demographics and individuals have been hit harder than others. But the world changed for all of us.

The extent of this change didn’t hit me until I was back in empirical ‘real life’ mode. The project I’m working on is with the Danish Institute Against Torture and was awarded by the British Academy in – wait for it – March 2020. After a long time formulating it with colleagues here, all we wanted to do was get started. Barrier after barrier understandably arose: people could not access the archives to translate the torture files needed for the epidemiological aspect of it. People were hyper busy and, well, dealing with an actual pandemic. Suddenly we were all forced to recognize more was happening than our own bubble (but more on this later).

As soon as I was double vaccinated and likely to travel, planning began. It would now have to be less than six weeks. Focus groups weren’t allowed. Interviews were. In any case, I was desperate to get started – virtual meetings have been great, but (for many people) human interaction needs more than this. Video software increases our own self awareness so rather than natural expressions; it can be a little wooden. When I’m presenting, I want to gauge when I’m making sense, when I’m talking nonsense, and when my Northern Irish dialect has left colleagues stumped. I couldn’t get all that from the virtual world.

After so much anticipation, planning, changing to address barriers, the last thing I anticipated was feeling anxious, a little lost, overwhelmed and – bizarrely – homesick. I’ve never been an anxious person, and probably since my undergraduate degree have never really worried about presenting to crowds. Many people do experience presenting as opposite to this, and many people have experienced or often get anxiety. In short, no matter how relaxed or not that you normally are, be aware that lockdown can change how we feel in public. Confidence, sociability and ability to engage for long periods of time have definitely reduced. Even texting and emailing to arrange meetings, interviews or activities is draining in a way it wasn’t before. Months of reduced contact definitely plays with patience and willingness to be flexible (read: I’ve become a bit of a crank…).

So, the advice here is threefold. Firstly, recognize that this is all fine. We’ve been under utterly bizarre circumstances and dealing with exacerbated work and social stress. Build downtime into schedules where you won’t be prioritizing other people’s time schedules. And make sure to use it. Secondly, don’t over stretch yourself or your schedule. It is tempting to cram as much in as possible we might feel we have lost so many other opportunities and indeed time when some things were put on hold. Some things are more tiring than before – like using facial muscles in conversations that have been hibernating since March 2020. Thirdly, not everything will go to plan, but at this point it is worth realizing that the world will still turn if a few interviews don’t go ahead or some data isn’t useful. Of course, I didn’t apply this to myself at the time, and can confirm you will only end up exhausted and absolutely no further on.

  1. Take it easy on others

It is easy to forget that everyone else has had a tough time, especially if you are relying on others to help with your own work. Things like Zoom fatigue and long covid have not gone away, and anxieties about the use of social space can be felt differentially. What is OK for you is not OK for everyone. Moreover, many sectors experienced intensified workloads, and the shift from online only to dual spaces comes with its own extra energies and time restraints. Plan with people in advance, but keep in mind that everyone is busy in their own way. For those who have lost others during the pandemic, being pushed back to the old normal can have its own issues.

Let’s look at two examples when this advice would have been useful in hindsight. The first was presenting a workshop in September – the first ‘in person’ presentation I had given since March 2020. As mentioned, I’m seldom nervous about presenting my own work. But this occasion – 18 months into isolation – was nerve wracking, stomach churning and sweat inducing… and this was with a friendly crowd! Then the chair (Andrew Jefferson) welcomed everyone to their first workshop in 18 months. I’d been so anxious about being out of practice that I hadn’t stopped to think everyone else is also slowly edging into ‘real life’ too. People were just as cautious, but also enthused to be back in a covid-secure room with their colleagues. (As a side note, if you work with students, keep this in mind – in person events can be a lot to take, even for the most confident of people).  

The second example is on using people’s time. Some people I was working with were so busy that only the lunch hour was free. Research is important, but so are working conditions. If a person only has lunch free for actual work (not socializing), they are too busy. It is tempting to force people into activities when your own time is limited, but in a worst case scenario there is now still a chance for discussion online.

  1. Expect bureaucracy

A lot of it. The extent to which travel allowances and regulations are changing is difficult enough for governments to keep up with, never mind researchers. Moreover, the complex differences between countries and even regions need specific focus and clearance. In the Danish case for example, the UK was a green area except for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland which is, well, most of the UK. Things like PCR tests changed between regions, and whether or not a locator form was needed was completely unclear. By all accounts, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.

The pace of change also may mean that there can be no singular point of contact to ask, so build in time to check around – and really do. Sorting out covid-risk assessments, PCR booking and other travel forms was at least a full day’s work. At the same time remember that it is practically impossible for any one individual administrator to be able to know all this. If you manage teams or researchers, it is a good idea to embed these time requirements into overall planning time. The last thing you will want is a surprise on how much time it takes, or worse – to miss doing a small task that will be required for entry to another country and thus risk the project or time spent on it anyway.

  1. Embed keeping well, and not just in the neoliberal sense

We are all told how important wellbeing and self-care is, even as universities (and many other environments) intensify workloads and reduce our capacities to build looking after ourselves into our working environments (which I have talked about at BSC conferences before).

This doesn’t change the significance of looking after ourselves, or how important it is that we do so as we come out of lockdowns – whenever that may be where you are. Workplaces have an ethical requirement to ensure our wellbeing. Take as much as you can that is of relevance to you, and build in what matters to you most when on fieldwork. I always admire people who can start with early morning yoga and an herbal tea – if that is you, crack on and build it in. I’m much more likely to be found outdoor swimming or staring vacuously at shop windows, internally complaining about the price of things I’ll never buy before opting for a beer in the end. Whatever – just make sure you do it, even if ‘it’ means doing absolutely nothing.

And if and when things get too much, use the systems in place that we often refer students or others to, but don’t always do ourselves. Again, workplaces have an obligation to support you – and so they should. Take what is available if it’s right for you.

  1. Don’t overly sweat barriers and hiccups as much as we all used to

The penultimate piece of advice here is one I never seem to take myself, but swear to do going forward. If we have collectively learned anything, it is that there are much bigger things in the world that can – again in the words of Schmich – ‘blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday’. After such a turbulent era, it’s worth regrouping and thinking about what is realistic, what is essential, and what is unlikely to fit without causing you and others unnecessary stress. If something can be picked up later without causing undue issues, do so. If someone is too busy to meet during a research stay, let them choose a time for a virtual meeting when it suits them later on.

This is especially important if you are in a position of influence and have capacity to make post-lockdown research life easier for others. Collegiality, avoiding unnecessarily short deadlines, ensuring work/life balance should really be how we build going forward. A lot of people have lost, a lot have faced undue anxieties and stress, and a lot of things have changed even if in small ways. People do not need to be bubble wrapped, but we do need time to adjust.

Finally, this meandering blog started with Mary Schmich’s approach to advice. If you haven’t made time to listen to ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ since the late 90s to hear the rest of it, now is as good a time as any. It might even be the most useful advice here.

References

Luhrmann, Baz. (1999), Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen), Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack, available at Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen – YouTube

Schmich, Mary (1997), Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young, Chicago Tribune, 1st June, 1997, available at Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young – Chicago Tribune.

Contact

Victoria Canning, University of Bristol

Email: Victoria.canning@bristol.ac.uk

Twitter: @Vicky_Canning

Images: courtesy of the author

BSC Annual Conference 2021 (online) at The Open University: some reflections

The event helped to foster a stronger sense of identity and community within our team at a time when home-working has left many of us feeling detached and isolated.

Between July 7th and July 9th, the Open University’s Department of Social Policy and Criminology (SPC) hosted the BSC’s annual conference online. The event went better than any of us could have imagined, and the feedback we received during and afterwards has been positive, and generous. It goes without saying that there were one or two tech glitches, but overall, we ‘got off’ lightly.  Expectations were modest in the sense that we would not / could not replicate the usual BSC conference process and experience. The initial thinking around this was that it would operate as a ‘place-holder’ type event. To that end we believe the conference over-delivered in some ways. There are too many people to mention for their help by name, but Louise Westmarland must be singled out for instigating the whole thing and making it happen, alongside the BSC team who offered close support and guidance along the way.

Using MS Teams for such a complicated event gave us some concern. We toyed with the idea of using other platforms, but we figured that simplicity would be best. We had the main conference room, which hosted 5 plenary sessions focused on important and pressing criminological themes and issues – broadly reflecting the interests within SPC. We had 14 presentation rooms running in parallel for the 3 days (for the delivery of several hundred papers). There were separate rooms for publishers with their own presentations and consultations, activities run by the various BSC networks, and fantastic evening entertainment orchestrated by Dave Turner – live jazz, live rock, a magician, a quiz, ‘crim dine with me’, and a virtual bar. In all, we had approximately 450 registrants, logging-in from as far away as Australia, Hong Kong, and the USA. Despite only starting to plan the conference in the early Spring, it all seemed to come together well.

Having a team dedicated to managing the various meeting rooms proved invaluable. We sought the help of various colleagues (too many to mention) from the support arms of the faculty, and our associate lecturer colleagues. It’s not something we initially envisaged, but rather, it was a last-minute scramble to resolve a problem we identified with the tech, following a sobering test run. We are very grateful to those colleagues who gave up their time to support the event. The involvement of so many people in making this event happen has helped to foster a stronger sense of identity and community within SPC at a time when home-working has left many of us feeling detached and isolated from one another.

The plenaries got off to a great start, with the Wednesday morning session delivered by Jonny Ilan, exploring the criminalisation of drill music. This was followed on Wednesday afternoon by a ‘harm and crime interface’ session, with papers from Tanya Wyatt and Lois Presser, with Nigel South as discussant. Thursday morning saw Molly Dragiewicz, Kate Fitz-Gibbon, and James Messerschmidt exploring gendered harms. Later in that day there was a plenary to reflect on criminal justice considering Black Lives Matter, with Prabha Unnithan, and Katheryn Russell Brown, with Azrini Wahidin as discussant. Finally, Friday morning offered a focus on decolonisation, with Leon Moosavi, and Kerry Carrington. The parallel sessions provided an impressive breadth of topics and coverage of criminological enquiry, with many closely tracking the focus of the plenary sessions.

Mike Hough was a well-deserved winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award; David Maguire won the criminology book prize (sponsored by Routledge) for his fantastic book Male, Failed, Jailed: Masculinities and ‘Revolving-Door’ Imprisonment in the UK; Alison Hutchinson won the research poster prize (Sponsored by Sage) with an excellent poster on the harms of the fishing industry; and Swansea University won the National Award for Excellence in Teaching Criminology and Criminal Justice 2021.

Being online proved to be advantageous on several levels. It enabled the use of chat boxes for comments and questions throughout, which meant otherwise reticent attendees (within a face-to-face meeting) could take advantage of an arguably less daunting option. People could easily hop in and out of sessions, or to sit in a meeting whilst looking after children, and still ‘be there’ in some sense, rather than being excluded had they physically needed to attend. Our plenary sessions included global experts, pioneering in their focus, who otherwise might not have been able to participate face-to-face. Also, there were the financial savings for institutions and individual attendees, and indeed, the environmental benefit of hundreds of attendees not having to travel. The BSC have indicated that future conferences will entail some online element. Surrey 2022, for example, is set to be a hybrid delivery model, and we wish them every success with this.

There was a wider sense of inclusion both in terms of the aspiration and delivery of the conference. Although we held the usual postgraduate morning on day one, we were also careful to integrate postgraduate papers throughout all the parallel sessions. The online nature of the conference in some ways acted as a ‘leveller’, whereby usual power dynamics between some of the more-established names in criminology and relatively inexperienced presenters were less pronounced than usual (in part because of digital competency!).

Overall, we are delighted to have been able to host such a prestigious event, to showcase The OU and SPC, and to positively engage with some of the most pressing issues and debates in criminology (and beyond). It was a step into the unknown for us, but a thoroughly enjoyable and welcome one! We couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of colleagues across the University and the BSC — a huge ‘thank you’ once again to everyone who supported the event, and thank you to all those presented and attended. We look forward to Surrey 2022!

Tony Murphy and Keir Irwin-Rogers

(on behalf of the conference organising team)

Contact

Tony Murphy, The Open University

Email: Tony.murphy@open.ac.uk

Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University

Email: Keir.irwin-rogers@open.ac.uk

Twitter: @KeirIrwinRogers

Images: courtesy of the authors