Saturday night, Sunday mourning
Rob Lyons reports from Nottingham on the public grieving that followed the tragic shooting of a teenage girl.
The murder of a teenager in ‘Britain’s gun crime capital’ seems to have brought the city together in mourning, unified in outrage. Fourteen-year-old Danielle Beccan was walking home from Nottingham’s Goose Fair in the early hours of Saturday 9 October when a car pulled up and opened fire on the group of people she was with. Danielle was hit in the stomach and died later in hospital (1).
She was an innocent victim apparently caught up in a feud between local gangs; her death was tragic and shocking, because it was so rare. But it was followed by what has become a familiar chain of events. On Friday 22 October, a crowd gathered in Nottingham’s Market Square to hear council leaders condemn the killing and to observe a minute’s silence - an event organised by the council under the banner ‘Nottingham Stands Together’.
Schools across Nottinghamshire were encouraged to allow their pupils to ditch their uniforms for the day and wear pink and blue instead, Danielle’s favourite colours. Buses and trams stopped for a minute to mark the silence. ‘Making A Stand’, declared the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post, reporting that the city had come to a standstill in ‘a gesture of defiance following the shooting’ (2).
Yet what exactly is Nottingham taking a stand against? The city may have relatively high levels of gun crime, but firearm killings are still very rare. Since February 2002, 11 people have been killed - nine adults and two teenagers - in a city of nearly 300,000 people (3). Nottingham has no groups engaged in campaigns of organised violence against its citizens, no gun lobby proclaiming the virtues of carrying firearms. Nottingham’s proud, defiant stand seems to be against the cold-blooded shooting of a 14-year-old girl walking home on a Saturday night. And who exactly is ‘in favour’ of that?
The public reaction to Danielle’s death was driven by a desire on the part of many people to share in the grieving process. As we have seen in recent years - from the reactions to Dunblane and the death of Princess Diana to the public mourning in Liverpool following the kidnapping and execution of Ken Bigley in Iraq - conspicuous mourning has become a fact of life in modern Britain.
This mourning sickness was the subject of a now infamous editorial in the Spectator on the response to Bigley’s death, for which editor Boris Johnson later apologised during a ‘penitential pilgrimage’ to Liverpool. The magazine was lambasted for its inaccurate portrayal of Liverpool and for getting the numbers wrong on how many Liverpool FC fans died in the Hillsborough tragedy. Yet there was a valid point in its criticism of ‘the mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood’ (4).
Where the Spectator got it wrong was in its attribution of this mawkishness to some kind of character flaw on the part of Liverpudlians - in fact, such sentiments are becoming prevalent across the Western world. And rather than originating in some kind of common herd instinct, today’s mourning sickness comes from the top, from leaders desperately seeking points of contact with the people. Public displays of sadness and loss provide a rare opportunity to have one of those much sought after Shared National Experiences (3).
Consider Nottingham’s response to Danielle’s death. Much of the driving force came from the local council. It is perhaps understandable that civic leaders would want to put a different spin on events that led to Nottingham being described in newspaper headlines as ‘Britain’s gun crime capital’ and ‘Murder City’. Every minor town now likes to present itself as a social and cultural gem, with a positive self-image - as neatly illustrated by the recent adverts for Clarks shoes that proclaimed that ‘Nottingham is my New York’.
Another motivation seems to have been a desire to make a connection with a population that has grown increasingly cynical of officialdom, both nationally and locally. Danielle’s innocence was used to guilt-trip people into going along with the commemorative events - even though some felt uncomfortable with them. The tacit suggestion was that refusing to take part would be tantamount to dancing on Danielle’s grave. Critical debate was suspended.
Some parents and teachers in Nottingham have privately said that they are concerned about these events, feeling that such commemorations were inappropriate for young children - particularly those in primary schools, who couldn’t possibly understand what their pink-and-blue attire was all about. But they felt unable publicly to express such doubts, for fear of being labelled uncaring. Few wanted to be quoted on the record about it.
In this kind of climate, political decisions that should be the subject of public debate, such as extra powers for the police, can be railroaded through because dissent is not allowed. Furthermore, the families of victims can be used to present arguments as moral certainties in a way that politicians never could - and making gun crime a major issue implies that we need the authorities to protect us.
For example, home secretary David Blunkett argued in the Nottingham Evening Post that: ‘[W]e have invested £145,000 in the St Ann’s and Radford districts on projects working with young people to reduce their involvement with guns and gun crime. Mothers Against Guns in the city have also been given £10,000 to make sure their crucial message is promoted.’ (4) This is state sponsorship of campaigns to achieve political goals by the back door.
Today’s post-tragedy commemorations, in attempting to create a sense of community, actually tend to undermine it. If the only thing a city can unite around is being against guns and the murder of teenagers, it highlights how little else there is to bind it together.
The contrast between spontaneous demonstrations of sadness at a death and stage-managed events was made clear by the reaction to the death of Brian Clough, the colourful and successful former manager of two local football teams, Nottingham Forest and Derby County. At the first Forest game after his death, fans wore versions of Clough’s trademark green sweatshirt, a tribute organised by fans themselves with a light-hearted touch. In addition, 14,000 people turned up in pouring rain for a memorial at Derby County’s Pride Park ground, an event moved from the city’s cathedral due to overwhelming interest (5). Although Nottingham local council did its best to jump on the bandwagon, there was widespread popular interest in marking Clough’s death.
Meanwhile, the idea that ‘Nottingham stopped’ on Friday was a bit of a myth. A minute’s silence was observed in Market Square, but elsewhere business carried on largely as usual. The buses and trams stopped, because the council still has a substantial say in how they are run. They also provided free transport for children from Danielle’s school to attend the Market Square tribute.
It would be far better if families and friends were allowed to grieve for their loved ones without becoming part of a circus designed to promote the role of the authorities in our lives, and to provide some secondhand catharsis for others.
Defend the Right to Be Offensive, by Mick Hume
Tears of a crowd, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Police hunt girl’s ‘evil killers’, BBC News, 10 October 2004
(2) Nottingham Evening Post, 22 October 2004
(3) When guns break out of the ghetto, Sunday Telegraph, 17 October 2004
(4) Spectator, 16 October 2004
(5) See Tears of a crowd, by Brendan O’Neill
(6) Blunkett on Nottingham, This is Nottingham, 23 October 2004
(7) He gave us the time of our lives, This is Nottingham, 22 October 2004