Complaint is simply a refusal to go along with something. It is a ‘misfit genre’. That when you raise a concern the response confirms that you are not of them. Those of us who challenge power often become sites of negation, the cause of the problem.
Julia Downes, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University
Cross-posted from Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC)
This has been a difficult piece to write. Making complaints about abuses of power within institutions as a survivor and resident feminist killjoy who writes about gendered violence in social justice movements is risky. So… I complained about the screening of the film Injustice that is being organised by Students in Secure Environments at The Open University on Thursday 24 May 2018. I am advocating for the screening to be cancelled or, alternatively, for another film to be used as a platform for important discussions about experiences of imprisonment. In this piece, I want to outline my case and explore what the experience of making a feminist complaint (drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed on diversity and complaint as feminist work within Higher Education) can tell us about how power works within and across institutions to silence survivors and protect abusers. How an inability to respond to survivors of gendered violence exposes a tension between prison abolitionist and feminist anti-violence praxis within criminology. Survivors remain at the centre of my work. So, I have written this blog, to use a term from one of Sara Ahmed’s interviewees, as an ‘unexpected little gift’ for us. I am here. I believe you. If the screening does go ahead then this blog post can leave a trace of resistance to it. To create a document of feminist memory as a counter-institutional project, that this happened here. It is an invitation to build collective alliances across academic, practitioner and activist spaces to deal with the complexities of gendered violence within and across our everyday spaces and interactions.
What is the deal with the Injustice film?
The film Injustice was created by ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ who from his experience of being convicted (he received a suspended sentence) decided to make a documentary film to investigate the world of prisons, crime and the judicial system. The film features interviews with ex-prisoners, activists, prison staff and criminologists, including Dr. David Scott and Prof. Joe Sim. It has been screened across the UK in many cities and Universities including Oxford, Liverpool John Moore, Leicester, Sheffield Hallam, Middlesex, Chester, Central Lancashire, and Birmingham. Reviews have been positive and the film has been praised for its engaging depiction of the ways in which prison does not work. However, important omissions have been highlighted such as the absence of victims, prisoners of colour and women’s experiences of imprisonment.
I occupy an anti-carceral queer feminist place within critical criminology/zemiology here in the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative at The Open University. I am an activist-scholar who critically questions the utility of the criminal legal system to end gendered violence. I oppose the expansion of the prison industrial complex and am interested in social justice responses developed and used by communities to challenge gendered violence often without recourse to the criminal legal system. So, given my prison abolitionist perspective, you may wonder why I would oppose a film that is critical about prisons, crime and justice and highlights the harmful impacts of imprisonment? Why would I challenge Students in Secure Environments when making education accessible to people placed in prison and discussions about prison led by those most affected is something I am passionate about? However, when the real identity of the film maker became publicly known, the motivations behind the film as a tool for the film-maker to continue to avoid accountability for his violence and abuse, further harm a domestic abuse survivor and abuse his power within institutional spaces were revealed.
Punishment, as a served sentence, does not necessarily constitute accountability and ‘crime’ is not always a useful categorisation for the harms of gendered violence and abuse. There is much about the criminal legal system that fails survivors and abusers. For abusers, the criminal legal system can discourage them from being honest about their actions, magnify anger and fail to offer them appropriate support to understand the harm they have caused and to help them change. The criminal legal system also reduces gendered violence to bad individuals and isolated incidents, which therefore ignores the societal structures and cultures that foster violence against women (including cisgender, transgender and non-binary women). I believe as prison abolitionists, academics, feminists and activists that we share a responsibility to nurture care and accountability within our communities, without resorting to punitive responses (such as police and prisons). In the case of this film-maker there is a need to promote opportunities for him to be accountable for the harms he has caused (and still causes) to his ex-partner. We are being called forth to, as a community, recognise and consider the survivor in this.
On 17 May 2018, it was made public that the identity of the film-maker ‘Unsound Robin’ was in fact Lee Salter, an ex-media Lecturer from the University of Sussex who was convicted for assault against his ex-partner who was his postgraduate student. It was only after the story was reported in the press in August 2016 that Salter resigned from his post. The failures of the University of Sussex to adequately respond to domestic abuse perpetrated by a staff member to a student was investigated independently by Nicole Westmarland. The survivor was made aware of the Injustice film when an attempt to organise a film screening was made at the University of Sussex. His survivor used Twitter to call on Universities to check on who they invite into their institutions, to consider the safety of students, and detailed the impact of Salter’s continued abuse on her.
This statement received a mixed response from the criminology community: a few offered solidarity with the survivor whilst more stood in solidarity with Salter and condemned his outing. However, there was a distinct silence in the UK criminology community. In this uncertainty, upcoming screenings in a number of Universities were cancelled. For Salter, these cancellations became evidence of censorship and victimisation due to his status as a ‘convict’. Discussion about the film screening has also been divided in my discipline. Students in Secure Environments have been firm in making the case for the film screening to continue. They pointed out to me that ‘the film director has independently decided that he is no longer attending any film screenings’ and the ‘the event does not provide a platform or a voice for Lee Salter and the film is not about his own offence’. They confirmed their commitment ‘to working with people with convictions’ and assured me that the panel discussion may be an ‘opportunity to air some of the issues’. A decision was eventually made by The Open University to go ahead with the screening despite concerns being raised by the survivor, students and academics. This situation raises important questions about who holds the power of recognition; how carceral experiences work against accountability; and what we can do as a community to promote healing and accountability?
Manipulation of the prison abolitionist community
The survivor questions Salter’s motivation for making a film about the criminal legal system. On Twitter, she wrote that ‘it’s really hurtful to see my abuser use the cover of prison reform […] to present himself as a victim of injustice and cast doubt on other people who have survived abuse’. In my experience, prison abolitionist communities hold a valuable ethical and moral position in which they do not ask people with convictions about their offences. However, this trust can, in some cases leave this community open to manipulation. It is evident from Salter’s ‘Why I Remained Anonymous’ blog post that his decision to remain anonymous and use the pseudonym ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ went unchallenged. He reports on how much support he got from this community: ‘The general gist of people working in the area is “you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to”, and then reassurances that I’m still a human being and deserve a life.’ This must have been very validating for Salter. In contrast, in an earlier blog ‘Why I am Withdrawing My Appeal’ he initially considered the criminal legal system to be fair: ‘I entered the process thinking courts were places where there are procedural requirements that enable the consideration of all relevant evidence, and that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty’. This quickly changes as he positions himself as a ‘gagged’ victim of the criminal legal system and smear campaign. He concludes that ‘I have no expectation of receiving what I’d consider to be a fair trial’. It is Salter’s anger at being convicted for assault that motivates his interest in the criminal legal system. He states: ‘Indeed I have been researching courts and the law ever since my case ended and frankly I have no faith in any trial’. His insistence that ‘the film has nothing to do with me or my case’, falls redundant in his admission of the anger and disbelief he holds towards victims and their supporters: ‘I remain angry at the effect that experience of victim groups had on my own sense of reality. I recall vividly drifting past newspaper stands, reading the headlines of the latest heinous crime and thinking “fuck you, don’t believe you”. I still resent them for that’. There is abusive logic at work here in why and how the film was created. We cannot take the film-maker out of the film or rule out that the film does not further target and harm the survivor.
Denial and avoidance of accountability
There is also little evidence that Salter understands the impact he has had on the survivor and is able to hold himself accountable. His own account of the court process demonstrates his denial of his violence towards women including domestic violence, sexual harassment and coercive control. He makes a series of denials that there is ‘no evidence of any violent or abusive behaviour in the past’, ‘I have seen no evidence that the relationship was abusive on my part’ and ‘there was no sexual harassment’. He insists that he is ‘not a violent or abusive person’. These statements contradict claims made in the Why I Remained Anonymous post, written after he has been outed, in which Salter claims: ‘I never failed to apologise – indeed the main evidence included profusely apologising for what I’d done’. He speaks about the work he has done with a counsellor, probation, social worker and an ex-inmate who has talked to him about restorative justice. In this, Salter describes himself as someone who has been ‘severely punished’ and is now the victim of a ‘vengeance-based CJS and society’. Disturbingly he considers how he has ‘discussed perhaps approaching the victim to see if there’s anything in it that might help her’. To help her. She needs help. There is nothing wrong with him. He has not done anything wrong.
The safety of students
The recent NUS report Power in the Academy, which was advised by the 1752 group, demonstrates that Higher Education is not a safe space for women. Most perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct are cisgender male academics, who wield power over students’ academic success, wellbeing and career. Sexual misconduct negatively impacts on student learning and progression (e.g. students were found to skip lectures, change supervisors, suspend studies and change institutions). These powerful men tend to be well networked, rich in social capital, they are the important men who are well protected by institutions. We as academics, even if we think of ourselves as radical or critical, are deeply complicit in continuities of power inequalities that operate within our institutions. Abuses of power show us why and how ‘critical’ spaces come to be occupied by predominantly white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle class, and educated minds. Other bodies are pushed out and violence becomes an effective means to protect and affirm the network. Who belongs. Who fits. Who leaves. The damage is held and carried by those who have been violated leaving no blemish or trace on the institution.
I know of at least one Open University student complaint that has been made against the Injustice film screening, who stated: ‘I do not at all feel comfortable attending a university that is welcoming someone who abused their student’. There may be many more. As a large distance learning institution academics are not well connected with our students and we can often feel very disconnected from discussions happening in other parts of the institution. It took me a while to find out who was even organising the film screening. As the screening is not being organised by my home discipline of Criminology and Social Policy and Salter is no longer going to be there in person it could be easy for me to ignore it. However, allowing the screening to proceed unchallenged leaves me complicit in allowing Salter to continue to have his work accessed and validated in academic spaces. Doing nothing therefore contributes to the institutional silencing of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. Allowing silence to spread outwards throughout Higher Education spaces across the country.
The Power of Recognition
As feminists, we know that criminal legal responses fail many survivors of gendered violence. Successful convictions are rare and even if successful can be experienced as an anti-climax, fail to meet survivors needs for healing and recovery, and does not stop abuse. The ‘myth of the vengeful victim’ (Herman 2005, p. 575) is still alive in our societies and this can obscure the compassion that many victims and survivors have for intimate partners and/or ex-partners who have abused them. Many victims and survivors just want their partners and/or ex-partners to get the help they need and stop being abusive. Asking the question ‘what does justice mean to survivors’ shows us that the needs of survivors frequently surpass the narrow goals of the criminal legal system. Research has shown that many survivors want recognition for the harm they have or are experiencing. In our chapter ‘Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence’ we described recognition as:
the shared perception of something as existing or true: they have been harmed and victimised. Recognition also entails an expectation or entitlement to consideration; it is a form of acknowledgement conveying support. Recognition, therefore, is more than simply ‘being believed’. Recognition encompasses the significance of the experience being acknowledged
(McGlynn, Downes & Westmarland 2017, p. 182)
But who has the power to recognise survivors? It is not the sole power of the criminal legal system. The power of recognition is threaded through every interaction a survivor has around them. With friends and family, on social media, in workplaces and yes, in Higher Education institutions and other spaces of learning. Judith Herman taught us that an abuser demands nothing from the wider community. To look away, ignore it, just watch the film and stop complaining. This can be much easier to hear, as Herman described ‘it is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing’ (Herman 1992, p. 7). Public recognition in community is crucial for survivors. The question is what counts as community? Who has the power? Where is our power to grant recognition for survivors and hold abusers accountable?
Reflections on Complaint
In closing then, I wanted to add a few thoughts about making a feminist complaint. My own embodied experience of this as a junior colleague, a feminist, a survivor and a white middle class queer cisgender woman. I went to see Sara Ahmed talk recently about complaint. She defined complaint simply as a refusal to go along with something. It is a ‘misfit genre’. That when you raise a concern the response confirms that you are not of them. She spoke about how those of us who challenge power often become sites of negation, the cause of the problem. In the act of making a complaint power is made visible by the way it pushes back at you. Power asks you sit on the discussion panel. It tells you that you are at risk of setting a dangerous precedent. Reduces recognition to a collection for a domestic abuse charity at the screening. In how I hear that our union has been told that experts in criminology have given the screening the green light. The experience of the feminist killjoy is shattering. I couldn’t get out of bed. My mental health disintegrated. I stayed away from my workplace. I spent a lot of emotional labour and time writing this piece. I feel compelled to speak out because no one else does. But my words keep hitting a brick wall. I feel shattered but I will continue to occupy the space I have and keep saying: “No. Survivors. Matter.”
You can contact me on Twitter @juliahdownes or via my staff page