The Grenfell effigy joke video is sick. So is a society that arrests people for it

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Back in June 2017, the British public watched in horror as a North Kensington Tower block went up in flames. 72 people died as a result of the accidental fire, the majority of which were ethnic minorities. This terrible tragedy has since been weaponised as a political football and understandably provokes a lot of emotional response from the general public.

As Guy Fawkes celebrations were in full swing in the UK, it was reported that a group of men had created and burned a card mock-up of the Grenfell Tower block. This was then filmed and posted on the internet.

As reported by Sky News:

In the clip, members of the group can be heard laughing and shouting “help me, help me”.

As the fire climbs up their effigy, one of the people question whether they should have put the tower on upside down, because the fire started on the 10th floor.

One person shouts “jump out the window” while another offers the original fire brigade advice before the scale of the tragedy was understood, saying “stay in your flats”.

Another voice can be heard saying “that’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent”.

In a move reminiscent of their policy on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Sky News announced it had “made the decision not to show the video” in its Tuesday morning report. The images of a badly crafted card building on fire whilst a bunch of morons provided disrespectful commentary was apparently too distressing for viewers. I can’t imagine the response being much different had they burned and filmed a real, occupied building. Talking of which, Sky News was perfectly comfortable with broadcasting extensive, multi-angle, around the clock footage of the actual tower burning, with actual humans inside, but it’s good to know they draw the line at cartoons and the incineration of arts and craft.

You can see the video in question below:

The Prime Minister, Theresa May described the footage as “utterly unacceptable” with the Home Secretary Sajid Javid adding that it is “disgusting, shameful behaviour”. I echo their sentiment. You have to ask what went wrong in someone’s life for them to think that this was a good idea. It’s from here however that the whole country totally loses its mind.

Shortly after the clip had generated sufficient outrage on social media, Scotland Yard announced it would be “investigating the matter” for “any offences that have been committed”, encouraging people to come forward with any information “about the gathering”.

And lo and behold, 5 men have now been arrested on “suspicion of a public order offence” after handing themselves in to a London police station on Monday night.

The information we have suggests the individuals responsible for this video burned their own property on their own property. So, if a crime has been committed, who are the victims? Given no one else was present, or forced to witness this event we are once again talking about criminalising the act of hurting someone’s feelings.

This was true in the conviction of Mark Meechan for making a stupid video about a Nazi pug. This was true of Chelsea Russel’s conviction for posting some Snoop Dogg lyrics on Instagram. And if this latest episode leads to a conviction it will be true of this case also.

It has been reported that 9 people a day are arrested in the UK for things they have posted online. South Yorkshire police have even encouraged the general public to report “non-crimes” of “offensive comments” online.

Yes this joke was sick, yes it deserves condemnation. Everyone has the right to find it disgusting and offensive. And they have the right to say so. However, arresting people for a joke, as terrible as it was, is much more offensive and reprehensible than any joke you could conceive of.

The fact that police resources have been diverted and public money will be squandered by treating this as a criminal offence is as embarrassing as it is sinister. But at a time where record numbers of stabbings occur on London streets (another teenager died this morning in fact), I suppose the police could benefit from a public relations win on a very important and emotive ‘London issue’.

So, we’re not really debating whether this act was disgusting or demonstrated a complete lack of empathy for the victims of Grenfell. It clearly did. What we are really talking about is whether these things should be a crime. And I say no.

The editor of Waitrose magazine was just recently fired for joking about “torturing” and “murdering” vegans. Many people condemned this decision, rightly mocking humourless vegans. However, I wonder how many of those individuals are now supporting the arrests for this Grenfell related joke. And that’s the crux of the issue. Offence is entirely subjective and it is therefore utter lunacy to attempt to criminalise it.

Also, If you grant that this act was “offensive” and therefore a ‘ hate crime’, I fail to see how you cannot consider the same thing to be true of burning effigies of a living Tory politician, as is all too common. But of course, the Tories are a valid target of such hate because they are not an ‘oppressed minority’. Which is also to say the law should apply differently to different people. I’m not sure how we can attempt to combat the issue of privilege by demanding the law privileges certain people over others.

May I offer the suggestion that no-one should get special treatment?

There have been some arrests and convictions for radical Muslims burning poppies over the years too. Now, whilst there may be some murky legal implications around starting literal fires in public, allow me to be clear lest you think of me as a hypocrite: I wear a poppy every single year, with pride, to honour our armed forces. I find it deeply ‘offensive’ that someone would burn this symbol. However, I don’t think poppies should be protected by the law either. In fact, as ‘offensive’ as I find it, I still think you should be able to burn your own poppies, on your own property and upload it to the internet to no legal consequences.

Principles are only truly tested when you defend them in the direction of incidents and people you do not like. A failure to do this is to defend privileges, and that’s a terrible way to approach matters of the law, as you may one day find out when you cross the constantly fluctuating line of what is considered “offensive”.

It’s yet to be seen whether these reprehensible antics will lead to a conviction, but in this current UK climate, would anyone be surprised?

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.

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