Counsellors call them grief triggers. A birthday. A brand of orange juice. A broken shoelace. An aftershave. Or, on this particular day for Mary Oyediran, a subtle act of vandalism by the tall wooden gate to the back garden.
It was a summer’s day in 2014. She was checking that the gate was closed when she came across it.
In the past, she would have gone inside the house and called her husband at the car-testing centre where he worked. He’d have said something like “Darling, let it go,” and told her to clean it up and bin it. And she’d have done that.
That day, though, she didn’t have him to call. And so it hit her, the same way it had hit her before, outside SuperValu, when a car just like his had driven up and she had thought it was her husband come to fetch her because she’d over-shopped, but somebody else had stepped out.
Fola was really gone.
At the top of the driveway, Oyediran’s next-door neighbour was unloading the shopping from her car.
This neighbour, who didn’t want to be named here “for personal reasons”, had been one of the first to settle in the quiet neighbourhood in Palmerstown, back when the estate was new, in 1996. She’d seen it grow into a community, the kind of place where if a car alarm goes off, people still bother to go out and check.
Two days after Oyediran’s husband had died, she had come around with a catering-sized lasagna. People don’t cook for themselves when they’re stressed, she’d thought. Oyediran hadn’t even realised she was hungry.
Unpacking her shopping from her car on the day that Oyediran found it, the neighbour saw Oyediran and called out to her.
“How are you today, Mary?” she asked.
Between July and December 2014, there were 182 racist incidents in Ireland that were reported to i-Report.ie, the online reporting system run by European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR Ireland).
The most common expressions of racism reported for that quarter were face-to-face encounters, as well as harassment of people at their homes.
The latter is “becoming increasingly a pattern,” says Shane O’Curry, director of the ENAR Ireland. “And it fits in with what we’re hearing on the ground that there’s a wide perception of resource competition fuelled by racist myths.”
He says that after the recent Clondalkin case, for example – when two men sprayed “Blacks Out” across the front window of a woman’s home – one local representative was approached by a local resident in need of housing who believed that the woman had done it to herself, and was getting preferential treatment because of it.
Rather than seeing the housing crisis as due to lack of house building, it’s framed as the fault of others: Travellers get it, LGBT people get it, Roma get it, Muslims get it, he said. “People are angry at the wrong people.”
Indicators of Bias
At first, Oyediran’s neighbour was unsure what to think that day when she asked Oyediran how she was doing, and Oyediran explained that she thought her house was being targeted with dog faeces.
“To be honest with you, I kinda didn’t know what way to take it at first,” she said. “The main thing is to try to get it solved and to help out as much as we could. It wasn’t happening anywhere else. And it wasn’t happening in anybody else’s driveway, only Mary’s.”
It isn’t always easy to tell whether something is racially motivated, but there are things called “bias indicators” that people can be trained to look out for, says O’Curry.
Is it only happening to a particular ethnic group? Has a family been verbally or racially abused beforehand by people in their neighbourhood? Those are bias indicators: red flags that should trigger more attention.
In the UK, police are trained to pick up on these and record racist incidents regardless of whether or not they qualify as crimes; this helps them monitor what’s going on and stay aware of potential flashpoints.
In Ireland, that doesn’t happen. As an October 2014 Garda Siochana Inspectorate report points out, in Ireland, unless it’s a crime of incitement, it is not recorded as a racist incident.
Many Gardai are often kind and well-meaning, but ill-equipped to help, says O’Curry.
“We’ve had a number of cases like that, where, on the one hand, Gardai are saying ‘We have nothing to show that it’s racially motivated.’ And the people it’s happening to are saying, ‘Look it’s only happening to the black families on our street,’” he says.
There’s a common, but not universal, evolution to racist harassment, says O’Curry. It starts with minor harassment and verbal abuse, and then it escalates.
“It’s as if the perpetrators are testing the water and then it escalates and it gets worse and worse,” he said. “What they’re consciously or unconsciously doing is seeing what the victim’s response is going to be, the community response is going to be, and what the state response is going to be.”
The challenge is to clamp down on it early.
Targeted Again and Again and Again
Mary Oyediran met her husband in Nigeria at university. She was 17 years old. He was 19 years old. After graduation, they married. When he died, they’d been together for about thirty years.
It was a traditional relationship. Each looked after their own sphere, says Oyediran. “We were very divided in what we did.” In his corner, the finances and the day job. In hers, home-schooling the kids and sorting out how to fill the family’s leisure time.
It was hard to tear open that first electricity bill after he died and to call them up and say what had happened, and how she was going to pay from then on. She used to leave the bills for him.
He also used to help her stay calm when something upset her. He always had.
When an elderly neighbour in London kept leaving dog faeces in their garden, and put glue in the keyhole, and told her husband that all the black people in London should be drowned, Fola’s response was gentle. “Leave him, he’s getting old,” she remembers him saying.
In the Dublin suburb of Santry, when it happened again, and two neighbours would come in to the garden, leave dog faeces, break the plants, and drunkenly call out suggestive comments below their window at night, he would say that it was time to forgive them again.
“We tried not to make a big deal of it for a while,” Oyediran says. As she tells it, when they did ask those two neighbours to stop coming in to the garden, to respect their privacy, the men would be amiable, friendly even.
“It’s very intrusive but the person is still nice. It’s very calculated, malicious, designed to crack you,” she said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t want you around here, get out.’”
In April 2013, they moved in to their new home in Palmerstown. Less than six weeks later, she found dog faeces in the front garden. “The first time, I just thought, this is a bit weird,” she said.
She called her husband at work and he said just clean it up. They were new in the neighbourhood. So, she did. And in the months that followed, she carried on cleaning it up, without a word to the neighbours.
It would appear in different spots, dotted around, and she felt like the more she shovelled and binned, the more appeared. “Coming from Santry we’d experienced similar things. We knew it was going to be somebody near, somebody outside, somebody with dogs.”
When her husband died in May 2014, it stopped for a while, and then it started again, that day by the gate and it brought up her grief, and she wondered why somebody would choose to do this now, when they knew that she was in pain.
On the Offensive
Oyediran takes photographs. Some are of family occasions, but others are just of objects that catch her attention. Pictures of little shoes lying by the road. Flowers. Packs of discount Shredded Wheat in Tesco.
So that day, after she told her neighbour what had been happening, rather than clean up the faeces immediately, she went inside and grabbed her camera. She took a photo of the faeces on the path by the gate. She shovelled up some more, and put it in a plastic bag on top of the wheelie bin and took another. She found more on the grass, and captured that too.
“I think I took them because I was angry,” she said later. After she’d taken the photos, she caught the bus and headed in to town. If she delayed, she thought, she wouldn’t do anything.
Kevin Griffin was used to seeing Oyediran in SpireVision, the photo shop that he manages on Upper O’Connell Street. The shop’s main trade is the restoration of old images, often from the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes they’d get flyer designs for businesses, or invitations for kids’ parties. Oyediran had come by before to get family photos developed, Griffin said.
This time, though, her needs were a bit different: a flyer with photos of dog faeces, something that would help her neighbours understand what was going on.
Nobody can remember exactly whose idea it was to put together a flyer. Or rather, Oyediran credits the idea to Griffin. But Griffin says it was her idea. Either way, it didn’t take him long to arrange the images and print up the postcard-sized handout on SpireVision’s big machine.
When she got back to Palmerstown, Oyediran set out alone around her street, emboldened by the support she’d had so far during the day, armed with her handouts. The first door Oyediran tapped on belonged to the neighbour she had spoken to earlier.
It was an encouraging first knock. There, her neighbour’s husband said he’d be keep an eye out when he headed out to work each morning at 5am.
Then came the next house, where a husband and wife said they too would look out for her. A couple of people didn’t want to take the flyer. Others were supportive. Some of the doors she knocked on, she felt like she was going to cry. When she’d finished, she went home and waited.
To this day, Oyediran doesn’t know who was behind what she is confident was racially motivated vandalism. But she does know that after she went around to ask for help, it stopped. “Either they’ve got a conscience themselves, or somebody told somebody else off,” she said.
“If I could tell everybody and say, just go one day about your neighbourhood and that will be fine,” she said. “Community works. That’s what I’m promoting.”
That’s what Oyediran promoted recently, when she helped the woman from Clondalkin print off another round of flyers and go out to her community, which rallied and came together to wash away the racist graffiti.
But while the community responses to Mary Oyediran’s experience and the experience of the woman in Clondalkin earlier this month were heartening, they also highlight how out of step legislation and Garda resources are with what is happening on the ground, says ENAR Ireland’s O’Curry.
Communities rally, but state authorities don’t. More than 70 percent of iReport.ie respondents will not report hate incidents to the authorities.
If the authorities took strong measures, it would make clear that there is no tacit approval, O’Curry said. Such measures might include bringing in anti-hate-crime legislation, allocating more resources to Community Safety Forums, and setting up clear protocols for local authorities to follow to protect those who have been subject to hate crimes and incidents.
Racist incidents might just look like anti-social behaviour on the surface. “But actually, it’s so much worse,” he says. “Because the damage to the individual, the psychological damage is much deeper, and the damage to the social fabric of the community is much deeper.”