Month: February 2015

“You cannot trust the British Police” (Or, should we try?)

In Ava DuVerney’s fantastic Martin Luther King biopic, Selma, we follow the great man from shortly after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize for the work of the Civil Rights Movement, through the 1965 demonstrations for equal voting rights, which focused largely around the town of Selma, Alabama. The film reaches key climactic moments which focus around the crossing of a bridge, where King (played here in an incredible turn by David Oyelowo) plans to begin a march to the state capital to demand equal voting rights for African American citizens. Repeatedly, on this bridge and elsewhere in Selma, the demonstrators face off with the local police force – a sneering, sweating, hulking brute force of almost cartoonish racism; but, it’s not hard to imagine that in the deep south at this time, the police force was occupied by such meatheaded individuals. Perhaps some artistic license is used to make them appear as vile as they do in the film, but the clashes between Police and Protesters are verified fact – and their race-based roots impossible to ignore. Ultimately, King and his fellow Civil Rights Protesters were successful in garnering nationwide support for their cause, leading to one of King’s most famous speeches on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall. In the film, King signs off by suggesting that he believes equality for African Americans is approaching.

Leaving the cinema, I was sadly struck by the shocking similarity between the footage within the film and that seen on television in the last year concerning inter-group relations between US Police Forces, and African American Citizens. It’s pretty damning that barring the costumes, the riot scenes on the bridge in Selma could have quite easily been transposed to a 2014 news report from Ferguson or New York, and very little difference would be obvious. This is not to say that all police officers are racist bigots – such a two-dimensional view is obviously counter-productive; rather, very little has changed in the ensuing half-century with regards to power relationships between Black communities and predominantly White police departments – not just in America, but around the world.

A while back I touched on the benefits of inter-group contact in both physical and para-social manners – how we ought to be harbouring cross-group friendships in classrooms from an early age in order to form meaningful, equal relationships between groups that may have historically shared a power imbalance. Could something similar offer benefits between minority communities and majority-member police forces in the US/UK? Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Black people report less positive experiences with the Police, and as a result, less voluntary contact with the Police force than those of other ethnic groups (see Clancy et al., 2001 for more on that issue). Given the benefits of contact, it should really be in the interests of the Police to attempt to engender a more balanced power dynamic with minority groups – to meet on the terms of Black communities, without uniforms or police cars or any of the symbolic tokens of power, and to attempt to reach a common goal – that is, positive inter-group relations. Some interesting work by Eller et al. (2007) directly examined how inter-group contact between participants of different races would act to mediate Public-Police relations. Predictably, Black participants were shown to have lower quality contact with Police, perceived higher police racism and were less willing to cooperate if they witnessed a crime. Importantly, and in line with the Contact Hypothesis, Black participants had higher-quantity, but lower-quality contact. The quality of contact also mediated perceived police racism, and cooperation – so, individuals from minority groups who experience greater quality contact (not quantity) perceive less police racism and are more willing to cooperate.

The crucial take away message here is that young, Black people in particular face incredible levels of scrutiny from Police officers – ongoing stop-and-search initiatives largely target this group. Unfortunately, this high level of contact does not in any way meet the basic rules of Allport’s Contact Hypothesis. Can much be done to tackle this issue? Fortunately, evidence suggests that this is a picture that can be improved; by taking these high levels of contact and encouraging the police to take the reigns to improve the quality of these interactions, we could perhaps take positive steps towards the society that MLK dreamt of on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall some 50 years ago. Ultimately, the real challenge here will be in terms of asking the Police forces who perpetrated violence in Ferguson, or New York, or London, against minority groups, to recognise the power they hold in such scenarios, and to take the first steps to reach out to communities where they will almost certainly face considerable barriers to entry. These barriers are, however, worth overcoming – a world where stop-and-search practices are less discriminatory, where minority group members feel safe enough to speak with a police officer; this should truly be the goal of any individual who has taken an oath to “serve and protect”.

Luke McGuire

19th February 2015


Cyberbully (Channel 4, 15th January)

In their one-off special “Cyberbully”, Channel Four have tapped in to an issue that is prevalent, widespread and troubling – statistics from the i-SAFE foundation suggest that over half the adolescent population have been victims of cyberbullying at least once, and around the same number again have acted as the bullies. This is important to recognise – it is not a minority of individuals acting as the bully, as might have been the case with the traditional school bully trope, rather, online disinhibition has led to widespread and accepted standards for how adolescents treat each other online. Given the pervasive nature of cyberbullying, it is remarkable that it has received so little attention within pop culture (barring some pretty atrocious looking films). Cue Maisie Williams (of appearing as the perpetual bad-ass Arya Stark in HBO’s Game Of Thrones) then, to take on the gauntlet of capturing the experience of both the bully and the bullied in this taut 65 minute tumble through the online world.

Spoilers (perhaps) to follow; in this drama, Williams appears as Casey, an apparently typical teenager – planning a trip to Barcelona for the summer holidays, bemoaning boys and the fact that her mum just got a snapchat account. Unfortunately for Casey, an apparently normal night is ruined when her ex-boyfriend’s twitter account posts compromising information about her use of anti-depressants. In her state of shock, Casey accepts an offer from a classmate to hack her ex’s twitter and post a retaliatory tweet. Within the first 10 minutes then, the writers have done well to showcase the fact that cyberbullying is not isolated to one or two individuals – given the opportunity, many of us may find it hard to resist turning the tables on the aggressor, and becoming the bully ourselves. Given the disassociation between our virtual and real life selves, and the fact that the consequences of our actions are much harder to gauge in the online world, this is perhaps unsurprising. The plot takes another turn when the classmate Casey thinks she has been talking to, is revealed to be an anonymous cyber-vigilante, out to defend victims of cyberbullying. What follows is a classic cat and mouse exchange, (although rather than taking place in a face-to-face environment, it is here uploaded to instagram and run through a series of filters), where Williams is in fact the only on-screen character for the better part of an hour.

I won’t get too much further in to the plot, as there are a couple of twists and turns that act to challenge the nature of who the bully is in the scenarios that unfold, but I will briefly talk on what this show did well, both dramatically and psychologically. With regards to the former, the isolation of the plot to one character, in one room, with the details of Casey’s relationships both on- and off-line emerging in realtime was a risky move; it demands a pretty nuanced performance from its lead. Thankfully, for the most part, Williams rises to this challenge with impressive skill. There are a few moments of less subtle dialogue, but I’m not sure whether that’s the fault of the scriptwriter, or whether that is in fact how adolescents now talk online – given the ever-changing, fluid nature of online life, the latter is perfectly likely. I might also have liked to see a little more focus on the repercussions of Casey’s own bullying – but I recognise that having a negative resolution to a one-off drama may not have pleased the executives at Channel Four who were handing out the money for this project. In terms of the Psychology behind the work, there’s plenty here to be lauded. In particular, I thought the focus on the “everyone is doing it” normative aspect of cyberbullying was an important one. Casey’s shout of – “Of course it’s not OK, it’s fucking nasty, but it’s normal, it happens” acts to perfectly summarise why cyberbullying is such a dangerous and widespread activity. When negative, exclusionary behaviours become normalised, there appears much less incentive to challenge those perpetrating the behaviour, or even to act as a positive bystander for your friends. One might hope that shows such as Cyberbully provide a positive reminder to adolescents and adults alike that such behaviours are not acceptable; their repercussions and consequences are widespread beyond the immediate victim, and those involved should be treated in the same way one might tackle a playground bully.

Luke McGuire

February 2nd, 2015