The new dawn of disability activism – where it started, where it’s going

2020 was grim, right? I hate to say this, but I’m looking forward to the year turning, and that 2021 brings us vaccination (everywhere) and fewer deaths and serious illnesses because of Covid-19.

One of the main communities affected particularly harshly by Covid, in terms of excess deaths, has been disabled people. This year marks the 25th anniversary since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, and there’s been a lot of assessment of how much has been won and lost. My publishers, Granta, re-issued a chapter of my book, Scapegoat, which looks at the rise of the movement and you can read it here, free of charge, at Granta Magazine. You can also buy the book on the same link.

I hope that this coming year we’ll see more disability activism, as journalists and activists assess progress so far.

I’m going to be doing more journalism this year, especially on disabled children and women.

Every Society Needs a Scapegoat

This is the transcript of the talk I did for the National Gallery’s Sin series – drawing on my journalism over the last three decades. I look at how certain groups, including disabled people, migrants and Gypsy, Roma and Travellers and scapegoated – and why.

Every Society Needs a Scapegoat

Thanks very much, Christina and Joost, for inviting me to talk. I’m looking forward to knowing more about the overall exhibition on Sin and hopefully seeing it after lockdown ends.

Turning to the picture, it’s is a very arresting painting and it’s intriguing to hear more about Holman Hunt’s thinking about it.

In particular, I was struck by the fact that not only is the scapegoat expelled from the flock, but that the goat is ritually tormented before being sacrificed – I’m also struck by the idea that the sacrifice atones for the sins of society, that it carries evil away and transfers it, as well as the fact that the scapegoat is sent into the wilderness.

These ideas resonate with the investigations I have done over around three decades into marginalised groups and how and why they are subjected to violence – you can see some of the books I’ve written here.

My work has taken me to sites such as post-genocide Rwanda, but I’m also aware that there are many examples of scapegoating closer to home. My work in the UK, investigating cases of disabled people being attacked, humiliated and even killed, as well as reporting for many years on Gypsy, Roma Traveller communities in the UK and abroad, as well as on honour violence here and in Yemen, convinces me that every society has its scapegoats, even if it considers itself civilized and tolerant. A scapegoated person or group, wherever and whoever it is, is effectively separated off from the flock, so to speak, using various mechanisms and the role of the spectator – wider society or in the case of the painting, the viewer – is key to how scapegoating functions.

I’m going to talk first about those mechanisms – the use of stigma, the internalisation of difference through shame, how spectacle is used to separate us from them and how we create and characterize scapegoats that are then subjected to often violent and unjustified control.

I’ll exemplify by talking about some of the stories I’ve covered as a journalist. I’ll concentrate on disability, women subject to honour violence and how they are castigated as sinners and expelled from their communities, Gypsies and Travellers, and the tragedy of Bijan Ebrahimi, a disabled Iranian refugee, whose case brings together a perfect storm of scapegoating. As a side note, I’d like to thank the families and individuals whose stories I tell for sharing them, and for the images as well. The other pictures are all my own.

I will also end with some thoughts about how we might resist the impulse to pick particular groups or people off – and how people subjected to being targeted in this way are resisting too.

So why do societies need scapegoats?

In Imogen Tyler’s book, Revolting Subjects, she draws on the processes through which some populations are characterised as revolting and argues that modern governments operates in particular by identifying groups to target creating such as asylum seekers, people living in poverty and Gypsies and Travellers. She calls them national abjects – “symbolic and material scapegoats’ – and says that government, wider society, the media and what she calls the street – our general discourse – then amplify this notion. Once people are configured thus they can be dehumanised and of course it’s a process that often lends itself to violence. Zygmunt Baumann argues similarly that globalisation in modern times intensifies the product of what is termed human waste, or garbage can populations.

I agree with this analysis, but I also think it’s worth going back in time and looked at why societies today still need scapegoats and why it is so easy to create them.

I believe that many of our attitudes were formed back in classical times, amplified by most world religions, adopted by most cultures and that because they are generally held and amplified they are sticky, and thus adhere even today in both representation and in reality.

I looked at the history of this in my book,Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people and also referred to in some of my other books, looking in particular at some of the powerful cultural archetypes that still engulf the lives of disabled people today.

One of the most powerful archetypes is the scapegoat.

When a crisis or disaster struck a Greek city, bringing down the ire of the Gods upon the mortals, the citizens would select an offering to appease their wrath. The scapegoat – or pharmakos, in Ancient Greek (excuse my pronunciation!), would sometimes be expelled forever from the city state, sometimes even sacrificed. All too often the offering, that cleansed and purified the nation, was a “useless” person[i] or an “outcast”.[ii] Some one “mistreated by nature”[iii] was often targeted too, it seems. All these words suggest that disabled people were all too often selected as a perfect candidate for scapegoating.

Disability has also been connected with evil – a prejudice that gains even more power in the Medieval Ages and beyond, in the time of the witch-hunts. You can see echoes of it even today, when disabled people are seen as hypersexual or when lazy depictions of disability, such as amputations or disfigurement, are still used to represent evil. In fact there’s just been pushback by disability campaigners for the way in which hand impairments have been used to signify witches – that visible difference is a stand-in for sin.

Looking at stigma in particular, this also has long historical roots. The Romans saw disability as a stigma, which would be passed on – and was thus both hated and feared. This continued throughout Mediaeval ages and the Reformation, and moving further, disabled people were set apart even in the Victorian times, with ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’ segregated, restrained. Eugenics – which has Greek roots, means noble in heredity and was first used by the British scientist, Francis Galton. Galton and other Fabians furthered the concept of negative eugenics, preventing recessive genes from reproduction by restricting the rights and opportunities of disabled people to breed. Not every one agreed. The writer James Joyce protested, as did the writer and journalist GK Chesterton, who said it was a ‘thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning’. But it did poison the spirit of the times, not just here but in the US. Of course it reached its logical conclusion in Nazi Germany.

The T4 Euthanasia programme started with propaganda, stressing the cost of disabled people with films showing disabled people as expensive, with strapline such as “Life is just a burden’, calling them ‘useless eaters’ and costing the length of asylum stays. Disabled children were the first to be targeted, inspired by Hitler’s interest in the Spartans, where sick and disabled children were exposed to the elements. He wrote in Mein Kampf that “the lame and the defective are a scourge on humanity.” It is estimated that at least 5000 children were murdered during the Holocaust. In fact gassing technology was piloted on the bodies of disabled children and the same personnel employed as later in the camps. But as I said, this wasn’t seen as completely out of the ordinary. At the same time, in the US, disabled people were sterilized – by 1941 estimates suggest that around 36,000 people had been sterilized. In Sweden, sterilization of disabled people was relatively routine until the ‘70s.

In Germany, the programme ramped up in 1939, with disabled adults killed from 1939 with grey buses taking disabled people away. They were known as the murder boxes. There was considerable resistance to the programme from local people and the Catholic Church and in fact it was cancelled officially in 1941. Around 200,00 disabled people were murdered.

We are currently marking the 75th anniversary of 24 landmark trials at Nuremberg. Most of the physicians who participated in the euthanasia campaign have never been successfully prosecuted – mainly because their crimes were perpetrated against German citizens. But was there another reason why they weren’t put on trial – that prevailing attitudes were so widespread that the prosecutors thought disabled people were actually burdensome?

For what happened to disabled people during the Holocaust, as well as Jews, Roma and other groups, was a ghastly reflection of views in the US and UK. We weren’t so very different, we just didn’t pursue our views to their logical conclusion. Lastly, one point about the role of the spectator. It has been claimed that to celebrate the 10,000 murder in one institution, Hadamar, the staff toasted the anniversary in the room where people were put to death and a murdered man’s body was adorned with flowers. The hospital bookkeeper then intoned a burlesque eulogy. The freakshow didn’t die out with the Victorians, it has continued to this day. I found similar spectacles with disabled people when I researched disability history – including the use of humiliation through social media, often with attacks being filmed and then shared through mobile phones. One that has stayed with me in particular was the case of a disabled woman, Christine Lakinski, described by one of her friends as funny and engaging. She collapsed in the street in Hartlepool in 2007. One group of neighbours came out and instead of phoning for an ambulance, they threw water over her, covered her in shaving foam and then one of them urinated on her as another filmed. As she lay dying. Just one of those who attacked her was convicted.

I first became aware of the concept of disability hate crime in 2007, when I covered the case of Kevin Davies, a young man with epilepsy who was imprisoned, burnt and starved in a garden shed in a small town in the Forest of Dean. His imprisonment started when he was singled out and blamed for damage to a car. His mother, Elizabeth, later told me that he was ‘always the fall guy, always the scapegoat’. By the time his body was examined in the mortuary, 10% was covered in burns and he had lost around three stones in weight.

When I first started to research disability hatred further, for a report called Getting Away with Murder, looking at hundreds of crimes and the deaths of a number of disabled men and women in particular, I was struck by how sticky these ancient concepts were – the freakshow, the idea of sin, of stigma – and of hyper sexualisation. I looked first of all and in most detail at the killings of five disabled men. The similarities were startling and my findings held true for the larger number of cases I’ve looked at since. Most were tortured, humiliated, forced to labour as slaves, attacked by friends and dehumanized.

I asked senior police officers who had investigated hate crimes how perpetrators had articulated and justified their attacks. Often they couldn’t do so or groped for reasons. The investigating officer for the death of Kevin Davies said of the motivation, “They have the opportunity, a sense of power, they get heady on it” – as much as he could find from the interviews. But one pernicious myth jumped out at me. Many of the disabled men who were killed were characterised as hyper sexualized and deviant – without any evidence that this was true. (As an aside, looking at disabled women, Australian research suggests that 90 per cent of women with an intellectual disability will have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime – 68 per cent before the age of 18. The British charity Women’s Aid reports that disabled women per se are twice as likely as non-disabled women to be assaulted or sexually abused.)

It was no surprise to me, though profoundly shocking, when the disabled Iranian refugee, Bijan Ebrahimi, was killed outside his flat in Bristol in July 2013.

He had been falsely accused of paedophila and subjected to overwhelming and awful violence. In one year alone that I investigated in Scapegoat, I found five such killings attributed to false sexual violence charges. It is a grim and familiar pattern – but years later, despite the police being aware that such allegations were highly dangerous, Bean’s pleas for help were ignored and he was beaten, and then burned to death. Here are pictures of Bijan in happier times, with his sisters, both in the Iran and in the UK.

As his sister, Manzizah, said, the family witnessed him being called a ‘foreigner’, ‘cockroach’, and being told to ‘go back to your own country’ on many occasions by some of the people in the area,’

Bijan wasn’t only targeted because of his disability, but because of his refugee status and ethnicity. In the cases of refugees and migrants, a harsh immigration regime creates a hostile environment for all refugees and migrants – whether they are Syrian children or survivors of torture from Iran. Words linked to asylum in media discourse include crime, dirty, scrounger, flood influx, tide, swamp, monsters, destruction, ruin – a rhetoric of disgust perhaps capped off by the one time Sun columnist, Katie Hopkins, discussing of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 and suggesting using gun boats for control.

“These migrants are like cockroaches.”

The first time I heard anyone being called a cockroach was when I was in Rwanda, in 1997, with the PANORAMA team investigating the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, when the minority Tutsi population was dehumanised with such words and then subjected to indiscriminate violence.

One of the people I met there was Valentina Iribagiza – her family was almost wiped out by the genocide, in the village Nyarubuye, in the south east of Rwanda. You can see her here, in front of the church where her family was killed. Valentina survived but her fingers were cut off on her right hand.She was 9 years old, and the men in pink that you can see in the other picture were men that we interviewed in prison who were accused of crimes during the genocide.

The invocation of this was also widely employed by the Nazi regime to dehumanise Jews. This othering, as Frantz Fanon explains, is a useful technique to separate off targeted groups – including colonial powers, slave-owners and now, here in the UK, some journalists.

To hear the word being repeated in the UK, and deployed against victims of violence such as Bijan, was surprising and awful. Bijan, as his sister Manzizah said, “was a kind man whose main interests at home were caring for his stray cat and for his flower baskets.” You can see him here with some of his pots, which were routinely vandalised.

As the family said, ‘When Bijan was brutally murdered…our lives changed forever. There are no words on this earth that can describe the emptiness we feel. Part of us died with him…Bijan’s young nephews have been deeply affected and have needed to seek counselling. On Sundays Bijan’s chair is empty.”

Sadly, migrants and refugees are not the only groups to be stereotyped and seen as useful whipping boys for an insider outsider view of the world. The notion of stigma, as the American sociologist, Ervin Goffman explains, is a way to understand how people and their attributes become stereotypes – as he said it is a way of looking at the “situation of the individual who is disqualitied from full social acceptance. I want to come on to look at three separate but intertwined communities in the UK, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Romaphobia, according to the academic Aidan McGarry, is one of the oldest and most persistent forms of discrimination across Europe (bearing many similarities to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia). Research by the World Bank found that Roma communities faced negative attitudes similar to those faced by paedophiles or drug takers in some states, particularly in the former Eastern bloc. But we as a society are not exempt and Gypsies and Travellers, many of whom have lived here for centuries, face endemic racism. In fact when I was writing No Place to Call Home the working title of the book was Outcasts and it unfortunately still rings true nearly a decade on from when Dale Farm was cleared. You can see some of the pictures I took before, during and after the eviction and the little boy on the first slide you saw was pictured at Dale Farm days after the eviction.

Again, it’s interesting to note the language used to dehumanize the communities and set them apart from wider society. Words and descriptions include sewage, parasites, dirty, lawless and many others, including racial epithets.  It’s always useful to have a group to hate. As Leanne Weber and Benjamin Bowling point out: “Visible minorities have been particularly vulnerable to exclusion beyond national borders at moments of collective identity building” – including the building of the Tudor state, when Irish Travellers and Gypsies were targeted under the Vagrancy and the Egypicians Acts. Vagabonds were targeted, dubbed enemies to the common weal and could be whipped, and burned. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen explains about what he calls ‘folk devils’ they transform through such rhetoric and action, sent as a plague on ordinary folk during a time of moral panic.

In the run up to the 2005 general election, Michael Howard, the then leader of the Conservative party, took out full page advertisements stating that there was one rule for Travellers and another for everyone else. He proposed a Gypsy law to make trespass criminal; pointing to a similar measure in the Irish Republic which he said had worked. It had. Irish Travellers came here instead, looking for a place to live, and some settled at Dale Farm.

Media rhetoric amplified those proposed measures. In particular, the Sun’s Stamp on the Camp campaign in the 2005 election – which was very similar to its 2003 Asylum Madness campaign. As Rachel Morris of the Traveller law Research Unit of Cardiff University’s Law School wrote, “as most members of the public don’t know any Gypsies or Travellers, their view of the communities is filtered through press reporting. In this way racist invective by the press infects society in a widespread way.”

The same pattern repeated itself in 2010, with the Conservatives seeking to criminalise trespass – and of course this is on the cards again now, so you can expect a similar ramping up next year.

By the time we reached the Dale Farm eviction in October 2011 – online comments in some newspapers were filled with hostility. One online comment I read called for Travellers to be gassed to death. Other comments included “a pox on these foul creatures’ and ‘acting like feral humans’. Similarly, in both France and Italy at around the same time, Roma populations were targeted and even expelled in large numbers. Attacks against Roma camps continue across Europe, with a number in France in particular.

But why are such groups targeted? The obvious answer in the UK – the justification if you like – has been that some British nomads have indeed settled on land for which they do not have planning permission and that the law should apply equally to all. That is undoubtedly true, and good relations are important. But we are talking about a small group of people who are unintentionally homeless and whose right to camp has been increasingly restricted – over centuries – as common land has been reduced. In addition, I think, just as with disability hate crime, that sticky stereotypes adhere to the communities that many in the settled population who do not know them, as Rachel Morris said, expect the worst and articulate it. The communities are useful. Crimes can be blamed on them – such as fly-tipping – and incursions into the green belt by the communities – resisted, although when developers do the same, resistance is often useless. They become a lightning rod for the discontents of a society jostling for space on a small island.

The impact of being seen in this kind of way, to be systematically dehumanized, is devastating. While of course you can’t attribute mental health issues to one cause, academic research conducted in 2007 found that members of Gypsy and Traveller communities are nearly three times more likely to be anxious than others, and just over twice as likely to be depressed, with women twice as likely as men to experience mental health problems. Further to this, researchers who conducted the All Ireland Traveller Health Study found suicide to be the cause of 11% of all deaths in the Irish Traveller community. Families Friends and Travellers, in an August 2020 report, say that other figures show that community members are six to seven times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and there’s more research expected soon that confirms that.

Racism has a pretty good go at destroying the humanity of those targeted. It’s really important to hear the voices of those affected, rather than put our metaphorical hands over our ears.

As James Baldwin wrote In No Name on the Street, “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!—and listens to their testimony.”

I am reminded of that whenever I read what Noah Burton told me, when I visited him and his family at another site threatened with eviction in the West Midlands called Meriden. He was Dubbed the “Bin Laden of Meriden’ by one newspaper, and as a Gypsy King and Fixer by others. The families were subjected to violent threats on social media and racist graffiti and their camp was called an invasion. They were promptly blamed for local fly tipping, although local police found it was nothing to do with them. One of the group was picked out in particular by some people opposed to the settlement, for both her disability and her ethnicity.

Burton told me that he had passed for a white British man until Meriden became a story. His work then fell off once he was known. “Before I took off the disguise I never realised how much hatred there is towards me…we are a pretty easy target.” Indeed when academics Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland looked at the concept of rural racism, they found that whilst views by the general population towards all minority groups were guarded, Gypsies and Travellers were regarded as fair game for what can only be described as vitriolic abuse. But, there were also villagers who wanted to get to know the group. One, Barbara Cookes, invited the young women in the group to help her with a charity open day. She was plagued for years after with silent nuisance calls and shunned by some people in the village.

This seems an apt moment at which to turn to honour violence, a form of scapegoating that affects both men and women, though mostly women, who step out of line. One of the key mechanisms is the separating off of those deemed sinners and therefore excluded – a horrible form of shunning. Where this talk has mostly been about how general society scapegoats minority groups, honour violence works inside communities, functioning by taking particular people and using what happens to them as a cautionary tale to others who might want to step out of line. Data on it is quite scarce, because, as Diana Nammi, the chief executive of the charity IKWRO told me, very few women come forward to “break the silence, as it’s considered a shameful act”.

But Diana Kader did, and we wrote a book about it – not as yet available in the UK.

In the summer of 2006 Diana Kader graduated from university in Manchester, with a degree in Human Sciences. She was the first in her family to gain a degree and her proud parents, neither of whom can read or write but who desperately wanted their five daughters and one son to have the education they never had growing up in rural Yemen, decided to take them back to their country of origin. Whilst they were holidaying in Yemen, a young man from a wealthy family asked for Diana’s hand in marriage. Diana didn’t know him, and turned him down, with the full support of her parents.

The suitor was persistent, and eventually Diana’s father had to be very forthright to ask him to desist. One day, when Diana was driving alone, along a desert highway, her spurned suitor ran her off the road in a petrol tanker and tried to murder her, in a botched ‘honour’ killing. Diana’s pelvis was shattered, her arm and leg broken and she sustained severe internal injuries. The suitor even phoned her father and told him what he had done before relenting and bringing her to a hospital. Eventually Diana’s family got her back to Manchester. She spent four months in intensive care and around two years in orthopedics and rehab.

When she got out of hospital, instead of being supported by community members, she was subjected by some to a campaign of violence. It had started earlier, when her parents insisted that she and her sisters get qualifications. In fact the family was targeted over an 11-year period. Since the accidence Diana has had her tyres slashed, her petrol tank contaminated, she has been attacked in the community, including attempts to run her over and her family suffered an arson attack. When I investigated, police admitted that there had been nearly 20 serious crimes recorded against Diana and her family. Only one was recorded as honour based violence. The man who ran Diana over in Yemen and nearly cost her her life has never been prosecuted, even though Diana returned to Yemen in 2010 to seek justice. Diana cannot stand for long, has to take medication and is often in pain. When she has asked former friends in the community why she and her family still face harassment, they explain that her decisions – to refuse marriage, to want to work, have cost her and her family their place in the community.” Diana Nammi, from IKWRO, explains how honour violence functions as a mechanism of control. “Diana’s resistance was seen as a threatening potential influence to other women and girls…. some community leaders will protect the traditions, norms and values of their culture, even if it ends up with the suffering of individuals and families. They want to ensure that other women won’t do the same as Diana did and to control the life of women within family and community.” As Diana Nammi says, community members may feel “under pressure not only to comply with the honour code, but to punish those who are seen to break it.” Women can pay the ultimate price and be killed. Often their killers go free, as communities close ranks.

But here’s the good part.

When Diana lay on the desert road in Yemen, with her attacker smiling down at her, she decided she would live and tell her tale, for the sake of her family, for the sake of other women in her community. Around four years after the attack Diana went back to university. She now works as a forensic scientist.

Valentina Iribigaza, who survived the Rwandan genocide, moved abroad, went to university and now has a family of her own.

The title every society needs a scapegoat contains within itself the idea of insiders and outsiders – social beings and outcasts. For us, in the general population, we have a decision to make. Going back to the painting, we can decide where we place ourselves – do we wield the knife, or do we step back, stop history repeating itself, refuse to either act or spectate?

It’s not all about us either. I’ve seen how disabled activists, and Gypsies and Travellers have become increasingly vocal about not only defending their rights but also resisting the stereotypes that perpetuate the narrative.

This year’s Traveller Pride event included a simple social media campaign this year, in which individuals from the communities talked about who they were and what they did. Breaking stereotypes, being proud, not content to pass to gain precarious acceptance. Refusing to be the scapegoat, the biggest rebuke of all.

Thank you.

[i] Equites, 1969, Ed D M Jones, 243, from Todd M Compton, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior, and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth And History, (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006)

[ii] Pharmakos and Katharma as Words of Abuse, translated by HJ Vince, text from gebhard#22

[iii] W J W Koster, ed, commentarium in Ranas et in Aves Argumentum Equitum which is fasc 111 of Lydia Massa Positano, D. Holwerda, WJW Joster, Jo.Tzetzae Commentarii in Aertisophenenm, part 1V of W.J W Joster, Scholia in Aristophanem (Groningen: JB Wolters, 1960), trans Todd M Compton, 733a