A community racial attacks monitoring unit is threatened with closure because its exclusive focus on race no longer tallies with the funding priorities of its council’s ‘hate crime strategy’.
IRR News explores the depoliticisation process which threatens all community-based anti-racist groups, be it via the government’s ongoing strategic partnership strategy or courtesy of the newly emerging ‘hate crimes’ agenda.
Birmingham group faces closure
Twenty years ago, Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit (BRAMU) was established by community activists after a Home Office report found that victims of racial harassment and racist violence were reluctant to report such incidents to statutory organisations, particularly where these organisations were felt to be the source of the discrimination.
The unit has since then provided support and advice to, and campaigns on behalf of, those who have been subjected to racist discrimination, harassment or violent attacks. It has been involved in 3,500 cases and currently has 120 ongoing cases, according to its chair, Maxie Hayles.
Birmingham City Council’s Equality and Diversity Division’s £60,000 funding commitment to BRAMU terminated at the end of March. It represented the conclusion of a three-year agreement, one instalment in a long-standing relationship between the council’s equality division and the community group.
The realisation that the council would not be renewing its financial commitment to BRAMU leaves the unit in a serious financial quandary. It has issued press releases warning that it may face closure without this much-needed funding, has written to local councillors and MPs and is planning to lobby the full council meeting scheduled for 7 April 2009.
But it is not only the decision not to renew a long-standing partnership between the council and BRAMU that raises concern. A clear message has been sent to the group: change your exclusive focus on race and broaden your remit to tackle all ‘hate crimes’, because you no longer tally with the changing funding priorities at City Hall.
Adapting to the new funding streams
According to Shaquille Dixon of Birmingham’s Equality and Diversity Division, BRAMU should now ‘be seeking to adapt their services to the Hate Crimes Agenda rather than just focus on race as this could limit their opportunities for funding from other sources – namely the Safer Birmingham Partnership who are now responsible for delivering [Birmingham City Council’s] Hate Crime Strategy’.
He added: ‘The agenda has since moved on and we’re in continued dialogue with BRAMU to help develop and adapt its business model to take account of the changing funding environment.’
The Safer Birmingham Partnership is a partnership of agencies, bringing together the likes of Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It is still not clear whether there is even funding available for community groups such as BRAMU within this partnership.
On the one hand, what is happening in Birmingham is a variant of ‘multi-agency’ policing, developed following the 1981 uprisings in inner-cities and the Scarman Inquiry. Then, the concept of ‘multi-agency’ policing was developed, ‘based on the nominally liberal notion that the problem of crime cannot be resolved by the police alone through law enforcement but requires closer cooperation between the police and other agencies’. Thus efforts were made ‘to recruit a variety of non-police agencies, such as community and tenants’ groups, housing departments and local churches, into collaborative schemes of multi-agency crime prevention and community policing’.
In Birmingham, the Safer Birmingham Partnership represents a new kind of ‘multi-agency’ approach, bringing together the police and other local authority bodies with the express task of tackling crimes including racial violence. The difference is that local community groups are not seen as partners, but at best as agents implementing a strategy decided in their absence.
Yet the irony of directing victims of racial abuse to approach the very institutions they believe are failing them is not lost on BRAMU’s Maxie Hayles: ‘Victims still do not report incidents and have to suffer in silence from incidents such as verbal abuse, property damage and assault. The fact that people do not trust the criminal justice system and would rather suffer the terror of racism than risk being helped shows that organisations like BRAMU are needed to support and advocate on behalf of the victim.’
R.I.P. institutional racism?
Ten years after the Macpherson report, which found the police to be institutionally racist, one of Sir William Macpherson’s advisors, Richard Stone, argued that ‘Black citizens and police employees have been failed… almost nothing has changed in ten years’.
Organisations like BRAMU were created by communities which felt that they were being failed by the statutory bodies which were meant to protect and support them. Decades on, most agree with Richard Stone: nothing has changed, yet the political climate has shifted, and shifted to the degree that Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, can claim that institutional racism is dead. It has also shifted to the extent that an organisation like BRAMU, as well as other community-based anti-racist groups and Race Equality Councils, can find themselves increasingly marginalised. Or, as Cilius Victor, a trustee on another community-established group the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), summarises it, ‘the whole discussion on race has taken a reactionary leap back twenty years in the post 9/11 world and the space for critical thought and engagement is now getting narrower and narrower and narrower’.
Lord Herman Ouseley, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality (the precursor of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), attests to the idea that as the space for critical engagement is reduced, so Race Equality Councils are being ‘squeezed’ by a government keen to cut costs and apply the ‘light-touch’ regulation now so infamous in the financial sector to the race relations sector.
Jenny Bourne, a long-time anti-racism campaigner, points out the dangers of the new approach: ‘Little by little the anti-racist perspective has been undermined. And it’s not just that local groups lost their funding and that the issue has got depoliticised. It is also that the terrain of racial violence has become “professionalised”. I use the term disparagingly. Of course it is good that government agencies are taking racial violence seriously – that is what part of the struggle was always about. But not if it is just a matter of getting organisations to meet targets. Not if it is just a matter of saying how many cases you have dealt with. Do we know what kind of service is being given to those who report racial attacks to new corporate-style bodies? I am certain they won’t be getting the customised, community-based support of yesteryear – when people actually went and stayed in homes with people under attack, walked their children to school, accompanied them to difficult meetings with the police or housing departments. Nor will individuals get the sense of empowerment they used to get by working with others who had faced similar things.’
As Cilius Victor argues, one of the most important pitfalls that groups like NMP and BRAMU must avoid falling into is becoming ‘little more than the same government department in a new guise, an outpost, a colony of the local authority department’. The danger for organisations is that in the fight for funding, one of their initial reasons for existence, to hold local government institutions to account, becomes lost as they become commandeered, moulded and end up supplying the very service that the state should be providing.
The ‘hate crime’ agenda takes hold
Yet Birmingham’s ‘strategic partnership’ approach, and the resultant squeezing out of BRAMU, is only one side of the story. For the Safer Birmingham Partnership’s ‘Hate Crime Strategy’, launched as BRAMU’s relationship with the council is being fundamentally redefined, is a recent development.
The idea of ‘hate crime’, or crimes motivated by intolerance towards certain groups in society, has to a large degree been imported into the UK from the US. There, it has been slowly emerging, seeded in the civil rights movement and flowering in the era of identity politics by social movement and community activists. Victim-support movements, gay activism, disability-rights campaigners, alongside anti-racist activists, have sought in some respects to change ‘the way we think about violence and its motivations’.
What is the problem with BRAMU being told by the City Council that it needs to include victims of other forms of ‘hate crime’ in its remit? After all, shouldn’t the desire to eliminate all forms of discrimination be applauded? There are two reasons why those of a progressive persuasion must tread cautiously when it comes to ‘hate crimes’.
Victims and their attackers
One major criticism of the ‘hate crime’ agenda comes from the way in which it focuses on individual acts, and in doing so directs attention away from societal racism and focuses it instead on the socially-deviant attacker and his/her victim.
So racist attacks are re-branded as ‘anti-social’ and ‘hate crimes’, devoid of any sense that they are symptomatic of a racist society, but rather the actions of a few bad apples. In this way, we are directed away from questioning why those who are subject to racist attacks are not being protected by the police and judiciary. Instead we focus on the deviant attacker, who is now defined as ‘anti-social’, and we direct their victims to contact Victim Support for their individual medico-psychological help.
This reduction of a social issue to an individual one matters, firstly because community monitoring groups were set up not just to deal with individual cases of racial violence. They were also, importantly, set up to take into account the larger political and economic forces which were sustaining such violence (be it through, for example, the media, the police or housing departments), and to try to change perspectives and policies. According to Jenny Bourne, ‘This is about the shearing of politics from these cases. And it is about not only no longer taking on these institutions, but also being forced to adapt to their agenda.’
It also matters because these communities, failed by the institutions meant to protect them, joined together to campaign against an at best indifferent and at worst discriminatory provision of services.
And it matters, because it was in the joining together of cases that an argument about the failure of the state could be mounted.
These comments are born out by the reality on the ground in Birmingham, where victims of racial violence and harassment are now being directed to contact Victim Support lines run by the police and the city council. On a national level, the proposed cutting of fifty posts from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s already understaffed and weakened helpline does little to instil confidence in its ability to support victims of discrimination. The news of resignations and financial irregularities, against a backdrop of disputed political directions and controversial leadership, also doesn’t bode well for the infant Commission’s unifying project.
Do we need specialist services?
There is a second reason to be cautious of the ‘hate crimes’ agenda. We should be wary of the imposition from above of an agenda which aims forcibly to re-model groups in the misguided belief that equality can only be achieved by providing a single service for all.
The experience of Southall Black Sisters (SBS) is instructive. A long-standing domestic violence support group for BME women in west London, its funding was abruptly cut in 2008 by Ealing Council. The council was using a government proposal, since dropped, which said that ‘community cohesion’ was not best served by ‘single identity groups’ which provided specialist services. So, the logic went, local government funding arrangements should be used to force organisations to broaden their remit to include all groups.
SBS took Ealing Council to court, and won. There are echoes of SBS’ experience in the currently evolving developments with regards to BRAMU’s funding dilemma in Birmingham. As Lord Justice Moses said, pointing out how Ealing’s approach to the funding of SBS was fundamentally flawed: ‘There is no dichotomy between the promotion of equality and cohesion and the provision of specialist services to an ethnic minority.'
In the act of demanding that BRAMU widen its remit and rebrands itself as a ‘hate crimes’ body, or be sidelined by a partnership formed between the police and the local authorities, BRAMU is neutered and race is sidelined. And in this process, the victims of racist harassment and violence are directed back to the very bodies they distrusted and felt were failing them through complacency and perhaps even collaboration.