A school photo of Hae Min Lee alongside the news of her ex-boyfriend’s conviction.
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Serial reveals how much more we care about justice for a man than the life of a woman

As the podcast tries to investigate whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee, a discrepancy emerges – it’s so much easier to spot the cultural misogyny when it is applied to race rather than gender.

Serial is the story of who killed Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore High School student murdered in 1999. Except, Hae Min Lee is dead and so unable to speak, and her family declined to participate in Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast, so instead Serial is the story of Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend, and the man convicted of her murder. In every episode, the first human voice we hear after the recap is Syed himself, saying his own name. Whether by default or design, he’s the star. The question Serial asks most insistently is not “Who killed Lee?” but “Did Syed do it?” The answer to that, with one episode still to come, is a big fat maybe, with more than enough reasonable doubt to make Sayed’s conviction look shaky.

At the very least, he had a phenomenal amount of bad luck, and part of his bad luck was race. After playing a clip of Syed’s attorney cross-examining the state’s star witness (an acquaintance of Syed’s only known as Jay in the podcast), Koenig wonders how this played to the mostly black jury: a well-spoken black boy being harangued by an angry white lady probably didn’t do much to get the courtroom on Syed’s side, suggests the reporter. And then there’s Syed himself. 1999 is, obviously, pre-2001. A Muslim teenager in America then didn’t have the burden of suspicion then that came after 9/11, when his race and his faith would have marked him as an enemy of the state to many. But he was still marked – not as a terrorist, but as a dangerous alien with “dark” (the prosecution’s word) passions.

During jury selection, one male member of the pool approaches the bench to say he doesn’t think he can be impartial because “a friend of mine’s a Muslim, and I’ve seen him mistreat his family, his wife and everything.” Among the police documents, there’s a specialist consultant’s report into the cultural backdrop of the case, which explicitly suggests “honour” as a motive. And at pre-trial, the prosecutor sketched a picture of Syed as the archetypal honour killer as she requested that bail be denied, citing “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.”

The prosecutor’s claim was later retracted in full, although Koenig notes that even in the correction, one striking error stood: Syed is not Pakistani, he’s American with Pakistani heritage. If he has any connections to the terrible patterns of femicide and male authority in his parents’ homeland, they’re very hard to make out in his own biography. He’s a high-achieving student. A football player. A track athlete. Prom prince. He smokes weed and has sex with girls. He’s the pattern of a normal US teenager in every regard.  Throughout the state’s case, Syed’s guiltiness and foreignness go hand in hand: when one is emphasised, the other gets exaggerated too. His defence responds in kind and stresses Syed’s Americanness as often as possible – but if it’s a fallacy to suggest that “Pakistani” equals “guilty”, it makes no more sense to say that “American” equals “innocent”.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four American women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in six have suffered rape or attempted rape, and one in 12 have been stalked. In American homicides, 90.3 per cent of offenders and 77.4 per cent of victims are men. The gap between those two figures is America’s femicide problem: violence is overwhelmingly male, and women are disproportionately likely to be victims. Serial constantly emphasises that everything in Syed and Lee’s relationship appeared to be normal by teenage standards, and it’s true that none of their friends saw any cause for alarm at the time. It’s also true that normal doesn’t necessarily mean benign when sexual violence and control is embedded in the cultural texture.

None of the things that Serial reveals about Syed and Lee’s relationship means that he killed her. What’s striking is that the controlling, possessive tendency you can track through the various accounts isn’t actually all that striking: Syed’s behaviour sounds sometimes chauvinistic and unpleasant, but always within the bounds of how you might expect a male American teenager to behave. So, he originally asked her out because he had a competition with his best friend to get the prettiest date for prom – at the very earliest point of their relationship, she’s more a trophy to him than a person. He showed up uninvited when she was out with her friends or at their houses, and there are mentions in her diary of him getting angry with her for not answering messages quickly enough.

Religion comes into it after all, as well – not as a motive for the murder (which is the prosecution’s contention), but as something Syed might have used to exert emotional control over Lee. Certainly there’s a mismatch between his version of himself as a not-particularly-observant Muslim, and her distraught diary entries recording him calling her a “devil” for drawing him from his faith. “I may have said it as a joke,” Syed concedes to Koenig in a phone interview. Some punchline, if it left Lee feeling responsible for his soul. He doesn’t seem to have accepted the breakup easily either, though he was dating other girls. A letter from Lee to Syed sounds tetchy and exasperated: “I’m really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is. You know people break up all the time. You’re life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.”

If these things are evidence of anything, at worst they’re evidence of Syed being a crappy, controlling boyfriend. They don’t mean he was abusive to Lee, and even if he was abusive to her, that doesn’t mean he was her murderer: there are many steps between that need to be filled with physical evidence and witness statements, which may not even be possible to obtain 15 years after the fact. But the complexion we put on the available facts is strongly influenced by how much we think about skin colour. When it comes to identifying cultural misogyny, it’s so much easier to spot when it comes infused with melanin. The kind of sexism that means we talk more about justice for a man than the life of a woman? Well that, after all, is just normal.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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