In August of 2007, I remember waking up to go on holiday with my family. Before we left, I remember watching the news. One of the local reports was of a couple who'd been attacked in Lancashire, and it brought up a picture of a young, smiling girl who'd been one of the two victims of the assault. Something else caught my attention though; she had black dreadlocks, numberous facial piercings, and was wearing black clothing. She didnt look too different from the appearance I adopted for myself, or from the friends I had and the bands I listened to. At that point, the injuries were reported as 'not life threatening'; however, thirteen days later the woman in the photo from the news report - Sophie Lancaster - lost her battle for life. She and the boyfriend she'd been trying to protect has been attacked not for anything they'd said or done, but simply for the clothing they wore and the prejudices/intolerances the gang that attacked them attached to their appearance. I'd faced such ignorances myself; ranging from the laughable 'do you worship Satan?' to having stones thrown at me from across the road (which missed), and the usual shouts of "GOTH".
The next I heard of Sophie Lancaster was on MSN, when a friend sent me a link to a petition they'd recently signed, which was to widen the UK Hate Crime Legislation to include something as basic as the way people choose to dress. Sadly, this attempt failed but the campaign continues. After this, I began to research the charity which had been set up in Sophie's memory by her family and friends. I followed their Myspace page, and read up on news articles. Whilst reading, the sickening details of what had happened that night became apparent; Sophie and Rob had left a friends' house, and had gone to a garage to buy cigarettes. Here, they met someone they'd spoken to earlier in the night, and they introduced Sophie and Rob to their friends. These friends began to take photographs with the pair and chatted to them, taking an interest in their alternative appearance. However, it was in the local skate park that they all moved onto that not everybody was as open and welcoming of the couple. Here, Rob was punched before being kicked to the ground where his head was jumped on and stamped on. This attack left Rob with horrific head injuries, and he was in a coma for around a week. Sophie, cradling his head in her lap and trying to stop the attack, was then subjected to the same horrific level of violence. She too slipped into a coma but, sadly, she never regained consciousness.
In terms of her appearance, someone like Sophie is a person I can relate to. Around my own age, living not too far from where I live, and choosing to style herself as an individual but remaining open to other people's lifestyles. It was heartbreaking to know something as basic as personal appearance could be interpreted in such a hateful way. One consoling point, though, was the founding of The Sophie Lancaster Foundation; this charity set up in her name aims not only to act as a lasting legacy to Sophie, but also to draw attention to the violence that ended her life and the education that is needed in order to break down such mindless prejudices and legislate against them so that other people dont have to be victimised in the same way. In support of the charity, I wear a S.O.P.H.I.E. wristband (Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred [and] Intolerance Everywhere) and have recently bought a S.O.P.H.I.E. vest top with all proceeds going directly to the charity. I think supporting them and making donations is crucial as they organise more and more events both nationally and internationally from attending Hate Crime Conferences, to teaming up with various organisations to create the SOPHIE educational game which was recently launched in schools.
Last year, I listened to a poetry podcast which had been written by Simon Armitage documenting Sophie's life from her childhood up until her time in hospital and her tragic death. The poems were read by a young woman, reminiscent of Sophie, with the recollections of Sophie's mother Sylvia every now and again as the poem developed. Listening to the poetry of her early years gave you a sense of Sophie as one thing; human. A vibrant, intelligent and creative young woman who was surrounded by many people and had her future ahead of her, her death came only one month before she was due to begin a degree in English. Relating to Sophie on this level, that of just an ordinary woman developing her own personality, made hearing the details of her attack, her mother Sylvia first entering the hospital to find someone she couldnt recognise due to the swelling and bruising on her daughter's face, and the agonising thirteen days faced by all that knew Sophie as she gradually deteriorated brought me close to tears, if not shedding the odd one as I listened. It made me angry that a group of teenagers could be so hateful, and have acted in such an unprovoked manner. I decided that I wanted to do something to raise awareness of what had happened and the work the charity was doing tirelessly to make sure Sophie is remembered and that lessons can be learnt from what happened in August of 2007. But what could I do, I thought, to help out? I bought a wristband, and found that people asked me what it stood for.. some had never heard of the case, despite it being reporting in national as well as local headlines, others said "I remember that happening" but they didnt know that there was a charity in her memory. I began feeling that just wearing my wristband wasnt enough, I wanted to let more people know about the case and the work of the charity other than answering the odd enquiry about what my wristband stood for. So, after seeing that people nationwide were contacting the charity via Facebook to let them know of fundraisers they were organising, I decided to give it a go myself. With the help of some friends at university, I'm going to be running six events which use the letters of the Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred [and] Intolerance (S.O.P.H.I.E.) campaign as themes. So, for the 'P' of SOPHIE, I want to run a poetry event and get as many people reading their own work within the theme of 'the individual as possible, or even short stories, or poems by published writers that they particularly like and see as fitting. I'd also like to use the 'Dark Angel' clip created by the charity in partnership with make-up brand Illamasqua and the Propaganda Agency to show people the realities of their actions, and the reality of what senseless violence can and will inflict on not only the victims of hate crime, but also their families who are left picking up the pieces.
This is a charity which is definitely close to my heart, although I have never faced physical violence, I have experienced it at a verbal level and believe it is due to ignorance and intolerance. Any work which can be done to challenge these views is worthwhile, and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation works tirelessly to break down such prejudices and intolerances, so they'll always have my support.