Monthly Archives: September 2011

Troy Davis and the death penalty: the tale of flawed justice

Having spent twenty years behind bars and faced down 3 execution dates for the murder in 1989 of an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail – Troy Davis was executed on the night of the 21 September 2011.

Troy Davis.

Anti-death penalty campaigners, along with the European Union’s high commissioner have expressed “deep regrets” in what was a symbolic case in the continuing efforts to abolish capital punishment in the remaining states of the Union.

Yet the significant factor in the Troy Davis saga was undoubtedly the controversies that enshrouded the initial trial; flawed ballistic tests, non-existent DNA links to incriminate Davis, combined with the fact that out of the 9 original witnesses, 7 would later go on to retract their testimony and claim that they were subjected to police and judicial pressure, were indicative of a judicial vengeance that sought to act swiftly and repressively. Former convict now turned journalist, Erwin James argues that in a system of elected judges, combined with mass media interest, there is bound to be a level of pressure exerted on both lawyers and judges in protecting and serving their interest – yet when justice becomes driven by emotion rather than reason, where does one draw the fine line between vengeance and justice? It is men who make the justice system work, and like all men, they sometimes make mistakes.

From his years of incarceration to his last moments before execution – Davis continued to maintain his claims of innocence, which according to prison psychologist Steve Gassian, “Is incredibly difficult to maintain and repeat your innocence over the years, especially when you are guilty”.

Image from an 'I am Troy Davis' vigil.

For the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), capital punishment in the US condemns the innocent to die – “the use of plea bargains and leniency in exchange for snitch testimony often results in the least guilty serving the most time. Often, police and prosecutors—-whether under pressure or in the effort to further their careers-—make quick arrests and ignore evidence that might point in another direction.”

The conviction and execution of a black man in the southern state of Georgia is, for the campaigners of the CEDP, a confirmation of the relationship between capital punishment, institutional racism and poverty; or put it bluntly, “capital punishment is racist”. While, African Americans constitute 12% of the total American population, 42% of death row inmates are black, this figure rises anywhere between 50-60% in states including North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, and Ohio.

Map of Executions 1608-2001 – The Guardian

Stephen Bright, author of “Neither Equal, Neither Just” argues that such trends are inextricably linked to poverty; 90% of defendants charged with capital crimes are not able to afford an experienced lawyer. For Bright, a major flaw of the system is that, “Good lawyers are a luxury, and many are reluctant or financially incapable or unwilling to defend ‘the poor’. As a result, the lawyers tasked to do so, are often overworked, inexperienced or overwhelmed.”

Furthermore, statistics have shown that the death penalty held no impact on crime rate. In fact, although 80% of executions take place in the Southern states, the “South” continues to have a higher murder rate than the North. In a study conducted by Thorsten Sellin on the patterns of crime in relation to the usage of the Death Penalty between 1989 and 2002 in California (1 death) Texas (239 executions) and New York (0) concluded in finding similar patterns of crime rates, with Death Penalty Champions Texas holding a slightly higher overall average figure.

roughsociety’s final word

Whether or not the United States will ever see a constitutional ban on the death penalty remains to be seen. In its report dedicated to the execution of Troy Davis, Foreign Policy ranked the world’s “top executioners” in accordance to the number of convicts executed per annum. Amongst the regulars, the United States stood as the only “western” and “democratic” nation to execute prisoners at a level that is on par with the likes of North Korea, China, Iran and Yemen.

For more- Death penalty statistics, country by country (The Guardian)

Death penalty statistics from the US: which state executes the most people? (The Guardian)

Sanders Arampamoorthy.


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Music to the ears of all Londoners: Our Ken pledges to cut fares!

Today, mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has pledged to cut bus, train and tube fares by 5% in the autumn of 2012, with fares frozen until 2014, and after that only rising in line with inflation.

A single Oyster fare on a bus is due to reach a staggering £1.40 in January 2012.

Outlining his vision for London, the former Mayor declared war on Boris’ fare hikes. In fact, with another 8% increase scheduled for January 2012, meaning that a single oyster fare would have risen from 90p when Boris first entered office in 2008, to £1.40 by 2012, Red Ken has decided to make fare fairness a central campaign pledge in the 2012 Mayoral elections.

Ken Livingstone adds, “Fares must be cut, on transport grounds to make the system more attractive, but also on economic grounds to put ordinary Londoners first by putting money back in the pockets that will boost the London economy.

I’m drawing a line in the sand – Boris Johnson will hit you with a painful fare increase this coming January, but if I am elected by October the fares will be cut. There could be no clearer choice.”

Join the Sack Boris campaign.

'Sack Boris' Oyster wallet. (I proudly own one!) Eddie Izzard (Left) Ken Livingstone (Middle) Val Shawcross (Right)

Likely to be a popular policy with many disgruntled Londoners across the political spectrum, Boris has little room to manoeuvre on the issue, with fare increases perhaps being the most identifiable product of his reign, obviously putting the cool bikes to one side. And in a year where the London Olympics is likely to weigh heavy on the mind, such a policy may prove a real catalyst for Ken’s return to office.

Now, to really grab the bull by the horns, Ken should seek to address the truly ridiculous issue that has plagued users of London buses for years. A single fare should last for an hour. Once you tap in, you should be permitted to travel around during that time without having to pay again. The fact that this policy has not yet been properly mooted by any mayoral candidates is a gross oversight and one steeped in unfairness. After all, it’s not customers faults that a bus doesn’t perfectly line their route and they should not be penalised for this.

roughsociety’s final word
Regardless of this, having made a big gesture on fares Ken has truly taken the initiative before the mayoral campaign really starts to hot up in the new year. Now it remains to be seen whether Ken can convince the fringe boroughs, who swung the 2008 race Boris’ way to vote for him. If he can, we might just have Ken waving that flag at the Opening Ceremony come August 2012.

Must Watch: Ken Livingstone’s speech to the Labour party conference.

Kenneth Way.

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The dangers of promoting the family unit as a necessity.

Unicef have published a report which concludes that British children are amongst the unhappiest in the developed world. The reasoning behind this finding is that there is too much of an emphasis on materialism as a consequence of parents spending too little time with their offspring.

At a first glance, this doesn’t seem to be too deep. It is clearly obvious that British people work some of the longest hours in Europe. However, the structure the ensuing debate has been framed within is very dangerous territory.

James O’Brien, a radio host on London’s LBC network, introduced the debate on his show this afternoon. O’Brien stated that he believed that though taboo, the most important underlying factor causing the issue raised by the Unicef report was a move away from a central family unit. We have dealt with this issue on roughsociety before, and we clearly believe that this sociological model, the male breadwinner model, is archaic in 21st century Britain. He cited Spain as being a good example of this, where children rank as the fifth happiest in Europe.

LBC's James O'Brien

To say that this is the only way children are expected to grow up “happy”, is to basically say women should not work, should stay at home, should fit the 1920’s model of a housewife.

This is not only outrageous, it is dangerous and could lead to a full blown and serious debate in the public sphere as to whether or not the basic principles of sex equality should be reviewed.

The real problem is that worker’s rights are not protected when it comes to childcare. The report itself mentions this, but this is conveniently forgotten by those debating the issue. It must be a right for women and men to both have the flexibility within their working hours to chop and change as is needed in order to spend some time with their children as the progressive governments in Scandinavia ensure (Incidentally, Swedish children ranked second in the list). In doing so, it will promote sex equality as a standard and it also deals with the second aspect of the report which states that children are now being dealt with in consumerist and materialistic ways. The more time a parent spends with a child, the less guilt they will feel for not showering said child with gifts (O’Brien’s words, not mine).

But in no way does this mean there needs to be a reversion to male breadwinner models in families, and neither do we need to even consider reverting an ever progressive stance on sex equality. It is clearly regressive to suggest that women should not be career driven, or are permitted to be so as long as children are not in the picture. We see that Italy continues to experience decreasing levels of happiness in children, whilst arguably having an even stronger emphasis on family values than most of Western Europe.

We must consider the Conservative aims to promote this family unit and whether or not this is a necessary priority for the government. There was a lot of reactionary statements made in the aftermath of the riots blaming bad parenting and granted, in some cases, this may very well be the case. However, it is ridiculously old fashioned to suggest that a family unit remains the only way in which to bring up a child in a healthy and happy environment. Community involvement is the absolute paramount replacement in our ever changing society. With proactive and productive communities, happiness and stability can begin to flourish, producing young citizens proud to be involved and happy as they grow.

Nico Leon.

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Ed’s Catch 22

Today, Unison leader Dave Prentis, speaking at the TUC’s annual conference, warned of impending strike action by public sector workers over pensions.

Mr. Prentis revealed he was giving 9,000 employers formal notice that his Unison’s 1.1 million members would be balloted. In fact, Unison, Unite, the GMB and the Fire Brigades’ Union will all seek to consult their members regarding co-ordinated industrial action starting in November.

He added, “We’ve had enough. We’ve been patient, co-operative and we must say enough is enough. If we don’t say it now, they [the government] will be back for more and more and more again.”

Unions and the Government have found themselves locked in discussions over pension contribution rises since the beginning of the year and with no resolution in sight strike action is becoming ever likely in the coming months and year.

As typical with a Conservative government, the unions are finding themselves vilified and portrayed as uncompromising nuisances. Francis Maude, the man charged with leading the pension negotiations for the Coalition, said, “Unions need to think about the effect on the public and the damage that will be done to public sympathy for the public sector.” Adding, “Widespread strikes would leave the public ‘disappointed and angry’.”

This brings me to Ed Miliband. Only yesterday the Labour leader, also speaking at the TUC conference, was heckled by trade unionists angry with his decision not to support public sector strikes over pension reforms. Instead, Ed suggested strikes should be seen as a ‘last resort’, and claimed it was a ‘mistake’ to strike while talks continued.

Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC part 1/2

Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC part 2/2

Was this a politically wise move from Ed? Or should he have offered support to the unions in their battle against pension reforms?

The argument against

In choosing to appear moderate and firmly against a strike, the Labour leader has taken leaps and bounds in disproving all those who labelled him ‘Red Ed’ in last year’s leadership election. Ironically, the recipient of much union support, which pushed him over the winning line, Ed’s ‘left’ credentials are now firmly under the microscope.

Rightly or wrongly, Ed has been highly critical of the New Labour era, a period that defined itself with a movement away from the unpopular left and into the realm of catchall party politics. Clause IV was re-written, Michael Foot became a distant memory and Blair ushered in this new era with previously unseen electoral success and a subsequent 13 years of Labour governance. And with this perhaps ‘left’ politics in a traditionalist sense died in British politics.

As a result, it could be argued that the British public have over the years become increasingly ideologically polarised and in the process grown intolerant towards the type of strike action being mooted by the unions. It has long been my personal belief that the British public, blighted by apathy, now care far more about inconvenience than politics and have been desensitised to real political causes for so long they lack the empathy to truly comprehend the merits of the unions and value their beliefs.

In fact, perhaps in many ways unionists are seen as fringe members of society, archaically minded, disruptors of public services with little interest or care for anything or anyone beyond their own niche interests. The PR disaster that has befallen the unions since the 80s has gone some way to erode support for their actions. The Labour leader and his advisers are undoubtedly conscious of this. For this reason, any politically savvy Labour member or backer is painfully aware of the dangers in appearing too supportive of the unions.

This is not helped by the current socio-economic climate in Britain. Figures released today highlighted that 2.5 million Britons are now unemployed. Considering this, the troubles of employed workers and their pension contributions seem even less likely to garner sympathy.

Pooling these factors, one can begin to understand Ed’s apprehension in backing the unions’ strike action. He knows ongoing strike action from the unions could signal political disaster for the Labour party. If strike action was to become increasingly frequent and hard-hitting, then any public support could waver and eventually disappear, perhaps leaving Ed to find his party marginalised on the ideological left and facing another term in opposition with a likely Conservative majority imposing their reforms on the country.

However, despite these points, others would suggest that Labour has stood idly by for too long and abandoned their duty as the people’s party.

The argument for

Advocates of this view would say the Labour leader has failed to read or understand the current public mood. National morale is low, every study, report and statistic points to bleak times ahead. Living standards are declining, joblessness is increasing and soon there will be no services left to cut. As a result, perhaps there has never been a more opportune moment for the public to be won over by the left. In this case, they need a champion.

This raises a pertinent question. In distancing himself from the unions’ actions has Ed missed a massive opportunity to thrust himself into the national limelight, and anoint himself a bonafide political heavyweight?

If the answer to this question is yes, what does this mean? Arguably, for far too long, the Conservatives have demonised the public sector and its workers. Setting out to truly create this image of gluttonous individuals, living on good salaries, with winters of fortune awaiting them in the twilight of their lives. This has stirred up anger and jealously from the private sector. Instead of understanding we are all in these tough times together, many have forgotten this and chosen to place their flag behind this notion of unjust prosperity that must be combated.

In the bluntest sense, Labour have done nothing effective to counter this perception, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the general public and find themselves in the midst of an identity crises. Supporting strike action offered a chance to resolve these issues.

Ed Miliband could have pounced on this opportunity as a means to articulate the wrongness of this public vs. private divide. It would be a difficult and taxing argument to win, but in showing the British public that we are all in this together, instead of sector tribalism, Ed could have captured much public support.

On top of this, he might do well to outline why strike action is required by the unions. Rather than allowing them to become increasingly alienated organisations, Ed could be proving to the public the importance of backing the unions and the mutual benefits this can have on our society. After all, pensions affect us all. To do this, demonising the real culprits responsible for this socio-economic malaise would be key and would also offer protection to public sector workers mindful of their own futures.

An impassioned, motivating Labour leader full of emotive thought-provoking rhetoric could really capture the public imagination. Encouraging unity and proposing a well-thought out alternative to current economic policy could perhaps challange the engrained British mindset. Fire and brimstone might just be the way forward.

This is not to say Ed has made a mistake. Simply, instead of choosing the road less travelled, Ed has chosen the safe path. It’s difficult to tell which will give him the bigger electoral payoff. One can but speculate at the moment. But, Ed has failed to set himself apart from the New Labour stalwarts he has so fervently criticised.

Dave Prentis on ongoing discussions with the Coalition government and proposed strike action.

Kenneth Way.

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The Dale Farm eviction underlines deeper concerns about the difficulties faced by traveller communities in the UK

After weeks of media attention and years of legal battles, on Monday it was confirmed that the eviction of Dale Farm will take place in the week commencing 19th September. Around 400 people face eviction from the site, comprised of some 86 families and 100 children.

After a 10-year legal battle with residents of Dale Farm, Basildon Council have authorised the eviction. Tony Ball, leader of the Conservative-run council, said, “We have always made it clear that this was a last resort for us, and it is with reluctance that we have been forced to take direct action to clear the site.”

While, the travellers legally own the land, they lack the planning permission for their caravans and chalets. A fact which led Mr. Ball to add, “You or I wouldn’t be able to build a house without planning permission. It’s just a question of equality and being treated the same.”

The Dale Farm site. (Top)

One can only wonder how Mr. Ball can claim this is an action of equality, when the group being evicted are perhaps the most routinely discriminated against in the UK. A YouGov poll published in January this year found that around 60% of Gypsies and Irish Travellers believed they were targeted by at least ‘some’ form of discrimination – a statistic that suggests these groups receive the most discrimination in the UK.

It’s my feeling that instead of some form of twisted equality, this eviction displays a complete and utter disregard for this community’s lifestyle and their human rights. As the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) suggested, this eviction would disproportionately affect family life and create hardship. In fact, CERD subsequently implored the Government to suspend the eviction, ‘until culturally appropriate accommodation is identified and provided.’

Similarly, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, warned there was a great risk of human rights violations if the 400 people were forcibly removed. Hammarberg claims, “If they go ahead with the eviction that would be very immature and unwise.”

Here, both CERD and Hammarberg raise important concerns. This eviction is not only morally wrong, but it jeopardises a large number of families and serves to underline the frankly appalling protection, or lack of, afforded to travellers in the UK.

A Question of Accommodation

Having said this, the Dale Farm case brings to the fore a long ignored set of truths in the UK. Gypsies and Irish Travellers, despite being recognised as ethnic groups and protected by the Race Relations Act, see their cultural and social needs frequently ignored by local councils and the Goverment.

There is ample evidence to support this claim. In 2006, the Common Ground report (CRE) suggested that, “Only a quarter of local authorities explicitly include Gypsies and Irish Travellers in their statutory race equality schemes.”

In terms of Dale Farm and the questions this case raises on the issue of accommodation, the Common Ground report claimed, “Only 34 per cent of local authorities have carried out an assessment of Gypsies’ and Irish Travellers’ needs for accommodation, and 28 per cent have no plans to do so.”

In response to this shocking finding, the previous government set a 2011 target for accommodation provision. However, a subsequent 2009 report by the EHRC found that only 13% more pitches were available. This highlighted the painfully slow progress made towards meeting these targets. In fact, the EHRC concluded that 83% of local authorities questioned were behind schedule for reaching this target by 2011. Noting, “At the current rate, it will take 18 years for local authorities in England to create enough permanent pitches.”

Even more tellingly, in terms of planning permission 90% of applications from Gypsies and Irish Travellers are initially rejected, compared to 20% from the rest of the population. A fact which led the EHRC to estimate that, “The entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England.”

This all serves to underline the difficulties faced by Gypsies and Irish Travellers and raises a vital question as to why more isn’t being done to ensure these communities are accommodated in Britain. In terms of the Dale Farm eviction, while there may be legal justification, this eviction symbolises the tumultuous plight of these communities. In destabilising a strong community, living together seemingly peacefully, Basildon Council is acting without any sense of remorse or awareness of the repercussions their actions could have and in the process are displaying a complete misunderstanding of these communities.

Instead, one could argue that Basildon Council has chosen to portray these people as lawbreakers with total disregard for how society functions. But in reality, how much choice do these individuals and families have? With accommodation in short supply, planning permission hard to come by and embarrassing effort made by local authorities to address this, these communities are often left without option. In simple terms, ‘lawbreaking’ can become a means to survival.

In fact, these communities have no influence over the law. They are often poorly educated and have nobody to champion their rights and opinions. ‘Law’ is created around them and enforced upon them. Their thoughts aren’t taken on board or the impact on their lifestyles considered. Therefore, to ensure these communities are treated fairly within British society and given the best chance to prosper much more effort must be made to accommodate their needs. The ongoing ignorance towards them must cease and the recognition afforded to them as a racial group must be respected and appreciated by local authorities and the national government.

The Media Element

To do this, the importance of changing the national perception of these communities is one that cannot be undervalued. Whether it comes from national or local media, out of the mouths of politicians or the average Briton, ignorance and intolerance dictates common thoughts and feeling towards these communities, when in reality little is known of travellers and even more importantly few make any effort to think outside the prejudicial box.

It’s easy to illustate this point. On Friday, the Daily Mail published an article called – ‘Travellers plan to use their children as human shields’. From which the following passage is lifted –

“Aerial photos taken yesterday showed the occupants are turning the camp into a fortress, with watchtowers, barbed wire and hay bales and tyres that can be set alight.

High-pressure canisters that can be detonated have also been stockpiled. One activist, who declined to be named, said: ‘We will take whatever action is necessary to stop innocent people being left homeless. They’re not hurting anyone. We have chains and padlocks to lock ourselves to the concrete blocks. Children will form part of the human barricade.”

Obviously, we all known the Daily Mail isn’t particularly known for its politically correct and positive depiction of any minority group (understatement of the year!), but the language used here not only depicts these people as lawbreakers, but as heartless barbarians willing to put their childrens’ lives on the line.

The local press get in on the act too. An article in the Essex Echo was called – ‘Extremists signing up for struggle at Dale Farm eviction’. The term ‘extremist’ has undeniably become synonymous with terrorism and to a lesser extent the far right. Therefore, considering this contextual meaning it hardly seems acceptable to apply this word to this scenario, where individuals are fighting for the right to stay in their homes and like anyone plan to protect their property. Choosing to do so only fuels tensions between locals and these communities, which breeds misunderstanding, resentment and possible nasty confrontations.

Dale Farm residents outside the High Court.

While, I understand the pitfalls in plucking two media articles out to prove a point, in the case of Gypsies and Irish Travellers this pretty much sets the tone for the majority of coverage these group receive. Propaganda is rife, the misinformed is often the informed and ignorance is bliss. Take the recent hit TV show – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, this show focused on the trials and tribulations of a few traveller families. Although, some might argue this show was harmless, the problem is that for the majority of Britons this is the only knowledge we have of these communities. And, when there is so little awareness it doesn’t take much for damaging and unfair opinions to be formed.

Attitudes Must Change

For this reason, the media should strive to offer greater access to positive individuals from traveller backgrounds. Instead of typical sensationalism, atypical rationale is needed and the media must rise to their responsibility to ensure the public’s opinion isn’t dictated by stories of polluting, impolite, disrespectful lawbreakers, but instead citizens wishing to live an alternative but equally justifiable lifestyle.

Whether or not the Dale Farm eviction happens, this case has brought the experiences of Gypsies and Irish Travellers to the public consciousness. As a result, it’s high time politicians also rose to the challenge. Too often politicians shirk at any mention of Gypsies and Irish Travellers, undoubtedtly fearful that seeming pro-Gypsy/Traveller is a vote-loser. They should seek to address this issue and go about ensuring these communities are treated correctly and respected in their own right.

If this happens, the general public will no longer have an excuse to disregard these individuals. In actuality, many could seek to learn more about these communities, that move among us but who we so immediately cast off as outsiders.

It’s my hope this case serves as a wake up call, and that accommodation provisions are improved, targets are hit and that watchdog organisations provide greater oversight of the portrayal of these communities in our media. If we do this, we could rid our country of one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.

Dale Farm residents pleading for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to stop eviction

Kenneth Way.

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