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

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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

Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory Today?

Critical Race Theory was launched as an analytical framework to expose institutionally racist social structures. Instead of being embraced, however, it currently finds itself attacked by various governments around the world

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Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author (with Mark Carrigan) of the forthcoming The Public and Their Platforms: Public Sociology in an Era of Social Media and Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (with Melayna Lamb).

Two decades ago, a group of distinguished American legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Cheryl Harris, Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado and Charles Lawrence founded Critical Race Theory (CRT). Introduced as a theoretical perspective and an innovative mode of scholarship – blending academic research with storytelling – CRT aimed at exposing institutionally racist social structures that routinely produce unjust outcomes for people of colour, and especially Black people. As such, CRT was unsurprisingly opposed by those who felt attacked by it. Derrick Bell’s classic essay: Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?  gives us a hint, as does Patricia Williams’ observation about how ‘statements alleging oppression sound like personal attacks, declarations of war’.

Bell and Williams committed those words to paper in the early 1990s. Their analysis, however, loses none of its resonance today as recent attacks on CRT demonstrate. It therefore seems appropriate to ask: Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory today? As examples from the US, the UK and France illustrate, there are good reasons to fear those who fear CRT – especially when they want to silence it through inflammatory rhetoric and punitive policy-making that reveals a reactionary stance towards social justice, that is as alarming as it is dangerous.

In the US, a recent White House memo described CRT as ‘divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda’ that ‘is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government’. In disconcertingly McCarthyist language, the same document instructs all Federal agencies to:

‘identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory”, “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil. In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these unAmerican propaganda training sessions’.

In the UK, the government’s Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, also railed against CRT – emphatically declaring that ‘this Government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory’ and stressing that ‘any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory as fact or which promotes partisan political views […] without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views is breaking the law’. So consumed was Badenoch in her anger at CRT that she suggested that bestselling anti-racist authors like Reni Eddo-Lodge and Robin DiAngelo ‘actually want a segregated society’. In France, the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, claimed that ‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America, were responsible for ‘conditioning’ the violent extremist who assassinated school teacher, Samuel Paty, last October.

All this could be dismissed as mere authoritarian posturing, yet these histrionic outbursts become translated into policy. In the UK, government guidelines on school curricula that target ‘divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society’ attest to that. As does the assignment of equality roles to people whose views undermine the agendas that they are supposed to prioritise. Consider the appointment of a Race Equality chief (Tony Sewell) who downplays the reality of institutional racism. Or perhaps the head of the No. 10 policy unit (Munira Mirza), who also considers institutional racism a ‘myth’ and thinks of race disparity audits as ‘dangerous and divisive’. Last but not least, think about the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (David Goodhart), who staunchly defends ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies, and ‘white self-interest’. Such a line-up of “equality-bashing” equality chiefs is hardly accidental or a transient deviation from the norm. It personifies how governments think and act when their interests are threatened by calls for fairness and justice.

It is little wonder that CRT became the target of a witch-hunt, in an attempt to de-legitimise it and avoid addressing the substance of its critical analysis – out of fear that it might expose how social inequality is normalised, legitimised and institutionalised through ideas, people and decision-making processes. The hostility against CRT therefore starts making sense when social justice is perceived as dangerous and threatening to political agendas that depend on inequality to preserve self-interest. Worse still, this brand of political conservatism (authoritarian populism redux?) does not simply oppose interventions to promote equality and social justice. It institutionalises its objection to such interventions by dismissing them as ‘ideological’ and declaring them ‘illegal’.

Ironically, such an irrational fear of CRT bolsters confidence in it as a critical framework which helps us analyse why and how a government might attack Black or anti-racist scholarship as ‘ideological’ and ‘illegal’, when that same government acts in an ideologically-driven and unlawful manner. Examples include: denying institutional racism despite ample evidence to the contrary (see, e.g. here and here), ignoring scientific advice on public health emergencies, introducing police powers against evidence of their discriminatory outcomes, deriding ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘left-wing criminologists’, acting unlawfully through the prorogation of parliament in the heyday of Brexit, breaking international law with its internal market bill and passing Covid-19 regulations by ministerial decree without parliamentary scrutiny.

The cumulative effect of such recklessness indicates a haughty contempt for evidence, the rule of law, academic freedom, dissent and accountability. Seen in this context, crusades against CRT sound like frustrated screams at reality, instead of attempts to listen to the evidence, respect the law or engage with counterbalancing arguments. Despite all the clamour about CRT dominating school curricula – which is unfounded – it is the single-minded opposition to CRT that proves to be one-sided, thereby ‘promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society’ to use the government’s own wording against itself. Fear of CRT by those who are challenged by it, appears more dangerous and threatening that CRT could ever be. Political rhetoric and policymaking that is based on wilful blindness and angry reaction to embarrassing facts runs the risk of (mis)educating entire generations of citizens, by desensitising us to social injustice. Instead of sharpening critical thinking skills and promoting ethical conduct, the “war” against CRT deliberately misleads, obfuscates and frustrates the development of truth-seeking and truth-telling citizenship – through subterfuge and bluff that attempts to convince us that calling out policies that create harm and victimise people promotes victimhood, instead of highlighting social injustice.

Resisting such desperate attempts to mute CRT to inaudibility, it seems to appropriate to end this article by amplifying its message through the voice of my favourite CRT scholar; Patricia Williams. In The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Williams buttresses ‘truth-denying truisms’ of colour-blindness, or post-raciality, by reminding us of the ‘power of racism as status quo’. According to Williams ‘it is deep, angry, eradicated from view, but strong enough’ to make up ‘its own breed of narrower, simpler, but hypnotically powerful rhetorical truths’ that ‘that set up angry, excluding boundaries’ tempting people to ‘sink so deeply into the authoritarianism of their own worldview’. In just a handful of phrases plucked from a book that brims with eloquence and insight, CRT – in Williams’ hands – emerges as the thoughtful, considered antidote to the noisy bullishness of CRT’s attackers. One may disagree with Williams’ analysis, or reject CRT altogether. Judged against the baseless pronouncements of those who wish to suppress it, however, CRT succeeds at unmasking the ideological commitments of those who whip themselves up into rage to avoid criticism; blaming scholars for pointing out the divisions that their political agendas create.

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

Twitter: @lfatsis

Copyright: Photo by Lan Nguyen from Pexels

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