What kind of a place has the UK become, where people think it is acceptable to 'lynch' a disabled man to death? That's a question asked recently by many people in response to the death of Brendan Mason, a man with a numerous learning difficulties and very poor vision, lured to a park in Leicester, UK in July last year, lynched and beaten before being stripped and left for dead. The perpetrators have recently received life sentences for the murder.
If any good is to come out of this tragic and brutal affair, we need to be analysing these cases in depth in order to gain an understanding of the motivation behind the crimes, crimes still largely portrayed by our politicians and our media as primarily senseless, without any real underlying motivation behind them at all and committed simply by the evil and the deviant. But is that really the situation? Are people committing such acts almost robotically and without any real thought or logic put into the process? Can society just hold up its hands up in horror and deny that it has no influence at all in the matter. Certainly, we can consider the perpetrators to be warped or deviant to some extent, but that still doesn't explain why they did what they did and what actually triggered something as brutal and aggressive as this. Or indeed what the perpetrators may be actually gaining out of such acts, be it only some kind of psychological reward?
Without getting access to the relevant court files and transcripts, we are always going to be limited by the obvious lack of information we really need to develop a fully rounded picture of events, particularly regarding the characteristics of the perpetrators. However, we may still be able to pick out something extremely useful from the numerous press reports about the case. So, here we go, here is my breakdown of what we know, upsetting as it may undoubtedly be.
Joshua Hack, 21, and Keith Lowe, 22, 'easily led' Brendan Mason to a park, at night making him believe they wanted to spend time with him. When they arrived, they hung him from a tree, taking turns hitting him while the other held him for several hours, laughing and taunting him. They filmed themselves beating him, while telling him to 'Smile for the camera'. After the lynching and beating him unconscious, he was attacked again and then stripped naked before being thrown into a pond. Medics discovered that the victim had 99 separate injuries to his head and body, including brain damage, five broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and he died later that day.
Hack admitted murder pretty much immediately, however, Lowe denied it and went on trial. He was four days into his trial before he changed his plea, after police produced a video of what he did, which he had tried to delete from his phone - a video being made for a third party. Messages from the murderers' posted upon their Facebook page found that Hack had said to Lowe, 'Just do it dude.' In which Lowe replied, 'Shall we do it because he's f**k me off with the lies.' They were using their phones to communicate because Brendan didn't know what was about to happen to him. In court, the attack was argued to have been planned the night before because Hack and Lowe had misinterpreted the victim's behaviour towards a girl at a party, and the perpetrators were later heard describing the victim as a 'paedophile'. The court heard that the police had also recovered a 'trophy' picture of 'Lowe standing behind the naked and beaten victim, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor'.
A witness subsequently came forward alleging that the attack had indeed been discussed a few hours before it actually happened, and phone calls highlight a high degree of premeditation. The senior investigating Police Officer stated that: 'Brendan was known to the defendants and considered them as friends, and they lured him to the park with the full intention of hurting him.' The judge intimated that the victim's clothes were removed and he was put into water solely with the intention to frustrate any future investigation, by eliminating fingerprints. The pair were then later seen on CCTV visiting a branch of the McDonalds, shortly after the early morning attack.
The perpetrators were subsequently found to have boasted to a group of 16 year old schoolgirls how they hung the victim from a tree, stamped on his throat before stripping him naked and leaving him for dead. The girls said they were told that the victim was in pain, but that the perpetrators were just laughing and carried on hurting him. A male witness also claimed that they boasted of 'kicking somebodies head in' and were carrying a shoebox with some blood stained Adidas trainers in them. The witness claimed the perpetrators seemed 'quite pleased, jolly' over the act. He also said Lowe suggested that the person they assaulted had 'touched up one of their girlfriends'. Lowe was also argued to have also bleached his bloodstained trousers, washed his hooded top and hidden his blood-spattered shoes in a bid to cover his tracks.
A grisly and sadistic story indeed. But by simply saying what we see, we can perhaps obtain important glimpses of the key elements that we find in other cases of 'hate crime' perpetrated against disability, particularly those committed against those with an intellectual disability. Firstly, the two perpetrators were male and males tend to make up the majority of 'hate crime' offenders motivated by an identity characteristic of some type. The victim was 'befriended' by the perpetrators beforehand, as often is the case of abuse and violence committed towards learning disability. Something that Pam Thomas (2013) would perhaps refer to as 'Mate Crime'.
The victim was lured somewhere and detained against his will, then subjected to abuse, humiliation and violence, with the perpetrators sadistically enjoying themselves by humiliating the victim before escalating the violence further. My own research indicates that both 'incarceration' and 'entertainment' are often key acts within disability hate crime, in which the victim is constrained or restricted from moving in or out from a location, abused and humiliated at will (and arguably often for 'fun'). Actions of visible domination often featured in hate crime committed against intellectual disability.
Part of the attack was filmed, clearly to be posted on-line at some point for the entertainment of others and arguably as a 'trophy' of the event, in line with the trophy photographs we see taken by big-game hunters. Making an obvious if not totally conscious link between disabilities and any perceived animal-like behaviour or perceived social status of the victim. The premediated intent to cause harm is certainly undeniable and without any apparent remorse from the perpetrators. In many cases of disability hate crime committed against intellectual disability, the victim is also well known to the perpetrator(s), and therefore such cases are not simply the opportunistic acts that we may see perpetrated against race or religion, but pre-planned and sometimes repetitive acts.
Additionally, the main body of violence seems to have been instigated primarily over an false accusation levelled at the victim about 'lying' or about 'touching' up a girlfriend, accusations of wrong-doing or deviancy that we often also see in hate crime perpetrated against disability. Arguably and simply as an 'excuse' to legitimate any forthcoming violence or abuse that inevitability occurs. Katherine Quarmby was one of the first researchers to highlight that the act of 'scapegoating' disabled people as deviant and immoral, is a common factor in many cases of hate crime, particularly those that escalate into the horrific violence that may lead to the eventual death and elimination of the victim.
From my own research, many cases of disability hate crime do contain acts of scapegoating, where the intellectually disabled are often accused of being paedophiles and weirdos, or the physically disabled accused as being layabouts, scroungers and frauds. This key act of 'accusation' is therefore something that we see in many incidents of disability hate crime, and arguably often becomes the main excuse or trigger that some people seem to be actively looking for in order to act out any personal prejudice that may also becoming misinterpreted as 'socially legitimated'. Particularly at an underground sort of level between young males. Thereby, enacting out prejudice and discrimination perceived as being socially and psychologically acceptable, simply because we can argue that we have been 'slighted' in some shape or form and are therefore quite entitled to retaliate.
In analysing the motivation behind racial hate crime, McDevitt, Levin and Bennett (2002) identified four broad categories of offenders that we may also consider here:
Therefore, if our moral and rational boundaries are becoming so compromised and so confused by the toxic political, media and social propaganda or social messages centred around the assumed inferiority, dependency or moral deviancy of disabled people, then it would not be a surprise that for some people (particularly males) the disabled become primarily perceived within society as the 'outsider', the 'interloper' and the 'enemy within'. A situation completely geared up for the brutal actions that the perpetrators indeed may view as being defensive or retaliatory. Or at least argue that they are.
As we have saw above, the victim was accused as being a paedophile, something completely laughed out of court. However, it was an accusation that ultimately triggered the perpetrators to carry out the brutal violence that was perhaps a lot more to do with thrill-seeking and the sick pleasure of dominating, humiliating and hurting a fellow human being, than it ever was about any serious concerns over paedophilia.
However, what such accusations do, and we often see charges of paedophilia, being a weirdo or even being gay thrown at many males with learning difficulties, arguably being used simply as a 'stock' or 'standard' insult by males against other males perceived as potentially inferior. Not only a tactic aimed at humiliating the perceived weaker victim and keeping them in their social place, but one employed to orchestrate and justify violence in which the accused is expected to either fight back or run, but ultimately to be dominated anyway. And primarily for the entertainment and reaffirmation of the social status of the dominant individual or group. A one-sided dance of masculinity where a simple excuse is employed in order to instigate abuse and violence against a perceived weaker opponent or 'competitor' in the game of life.
Consequently, any social construction of disability as weakness, physical or intellectual inferiority and moral deviancy may give an element of social legitimacy to any deeply held prejudices that we may personally hold, and which arguably become almost logical to express within a British society that is becoming increasingly more authoritarian and intolerant of those deemed not adhering to its preferred norms. The problem is, that such an unfettered release of 'male' frustration, hostility or prejudice may unfortunately end up being taken to its most obvious and most sinister conclusion, by the elimination of the 'offending' individual. As indeed, we have witnessed above.
Clearly, Hack and Lowe committed an atrocity, something that was totally premediated and the perpetrators showed very little remorse for their actions afterwards, even bragging about what they did. That is rather unsettling in itself, not just because of the level of premediated brutality involved, but particularly over the 'lynching' of their victim.
It is intriguing that the act of 'lynching' was actually employed, a practice by which a mob take the law into its own hands in order to injure or kill a person accused of some wrongdoing. Not only does such a lynch mob serve as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, the victim's guilt is usually secondary to the passions experienced by the mob. Certainly, the perpetrators of this crime knew what they were doing and seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
However, historically, the lynch had traditionally been used in nineteenth-century America as a way of reasserting white dominance over inferior social groups, such as the Native Americans, Jews and immigrant newcomers. As we are also probably aware, many African-Americans also suffered greatly under the law of the lynch, events subsequently recorded in the song 'Strange Fruit', performed most famously by Billie Holiday in 1939. Therefore, symbolically, the lynch has not just been a way of enforcing the law of the mob, but for reasserting the traditional dominance of those groups that may be perceiving their traditional privileges of dominance being taken away, or at least under threat.
As Iris Marion Young (1990) proposes in her model of 'oppression', violence is probably the most obvious and most visible form of oppression. Therefore and most interestingly, by the use of 'the lynch' in the murder of Brendan Mason, the perpetrators may not only be displaying an animosity towards their victim over a perceived wrong-doing, but ultimately displaying (consciously or subconsciously) the socially acceptable oppression of disability itself. A re-enactment of the social oppression of disability that was just waiting for the simplest of excuses to occur in order to instigate and justify violence, at least to perpetrators themselves.
Paul Iganski (2001) indeed proposed that many incidents of 'hate crime' may certainly be 'triggered' by a banal event or a perceived 'sleight' on behalf of victim. While Barbara Perry (2001) would arguably also agree that such violence may indeed be simply the re-enactment or reassertion of the power inequalities that exist between traditionally oppressed groups and the traditionally dominant, something that we may detect daily within the wider society itself.
While I don't have any information about Joshua Hack apart from his age, Keith Lowe's defence team cited that Lowe had learning difficulties of his own, such as autism, dyslexia and an intellectual immaturity, citing these as mitigating factors in the crime. Those representing Lowe argued that while Lowe accepted there was going to be a confrontation with the deceased, he didn't really think it would reach the level that it actually turned into. Clearly, the evidence of premeditation seemed to contradict this legal argument of mitigation, although we know from other cases of disability hate crime, particularly against those with an intellectual ability that such events can indeed rapidly escalate.
However, why would a male with a prescribed disability or impairment himself, actually want to abuse and violently assault somebody else in a similar or arguably worse life situation. If Lowe wanted to paint himself in a socially good light and therefore on a par with his more able-bodied and immediate peer group, hence the bragging, the video recordings and the taking of trophy photos, he certainly proved his point. As well as symbolically distancing himself briefly from 'disabled people' full-stop, thereby maintaining a foothold (if indeed a rather precarious one) upon the hierarchical social ladder of the traditionally dominant able-bodied.
Certainly, the UK's National Autistic Society argue that between 35% and 75% of autistic children are bullied, something which Lowe himself may have arguably come up against as a child. Our prisons also contain a significant proportion of adult prisoners with learning difficulties such as autism or dyslexia, which Lowe himself now adds to their number. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that the prevalence of dyslexia within the prison population to be anything between 4% to 56%, and that out of a prison population of say 80,000, on any given day we would expect to see at least 5,000 of those with learning difficulties of some kind. Some intellectually 'disabled'. Lowe may be a highly damaged individual, but one arguably damaged not only by fate, but by society itself.
In talking about the murder of Brendan Mason, we perhaps need to move away from all this talk about the 'evilness' and 'deviancy' of the perpetrators, and for once try to understand the time-line of events and the narratives behind people like Lowe, before we can even get an inkling of the actual root cause of these insidious hate crimes. That possibly, the negative social representations of disability that we put out there via politics, via the media and via social media are actually creating a heady atmosphere in which bullying, harassment and violence committed towards disability is somehow socially encouraged and allowed to grow. That possibly, it is society itself that is mistakenly giving some people a (hazy) green light to commit such atrocities, particularly in a world where some people's life chances are seriously limited, and in which they therefore may be seeking some kind of recompense or compensation for their trouble.
In a society that actively promotes competition and clawing your way up the social ladder 'no-matter-what it takes', as some kind of social virtue. We may also be promoting via the back-door, a dog-eat-dog philosophy that has little qualms about using our fellow human beings for cruel entertainment purposes and as cheap, exploitative fodder - simply as a way to shore up our own flimsy social standing or psychological security. Whatever the real motivation underlying the lynching of Brendan Mason, which may indeed have also been the symbolic lynching of 'intellectual disability' itself. We really need to begin investigating these crimes much more honestly and much more fully than we are doing, not merely throwing our hands up in the air in horror, while at the same time simply locking up the perpetrators and throwing away the key. If we don't, then we can be sure that we will continue to fail the many other 'Brendan Mason's' that may exist out there within our brutal and often confused society.
Iganski, P. (2001) 'Hate Crimes Hurt More'. American Behavioural Scientist 45: p697-713.
National Autistic Society - www.autism.org.uk
Perry, B. (2001) In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. London: Routledge
Quarmby, K. Scapegoat (2011) why we are failing disabled people. London: Portobello Press.
The Prison Reform Trust - www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk
Thomas, P. (2013) Hate crime or mate crime: Disablist hostility, contempt and ridicule, in Roulstone & Mason-Bish, H. (Eds). Disability, Hate Crime and Violence pp135-146. London: Routledge
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. "Justice and the politics of difference". Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press