Haircut 101: the case of José and his subversive haircut

A personal anecdote. It’s 1984 and I’m walking in the city centre of Sheffield on a Saturday afternoon, having just been browsing in Virgin Records looking at stuff I couldn't afford to buy because I’m on the dole. When …. wham!

A man I’ve never seen before walks towards me and punches me right in face. Not only that, he shouts “What do you LOOK LIKE, you c@!t  … ?!”

Yes, welcome to the wonderful world of casual British street violence. Why did he do it? Well, not everyone needs a reason I guess, but he apparently didn’t like the look of my haircut. Being an impressionable 19-year-old at the time, I was sporting a “psychobilly-gothic” style. Short at the back and sides, with a long spiky quiff at the front. Part-King Kurt, part-Sex Gang Children!

OK, it’s not that uncommon to be attacked because of how you look in Britain – think of that horrible murderous assault on the young goth couple in a park near Preston a couple of years ago. But, naturally enough, it is the sort of thing that stays with you afterwards.

Which is why … I think I particularly registered the unpleasantness of what happened recently to a 16-year-old boy called José Emiliano Nandayapa Gomez in Mexico. Late one night a couple of weeks ago he was on his way home in the southern city of San Cristóbal de las Casas when he was stopped by the police. So far so normal, it was late at night and they were municipal police officers doing some kind of routine check. But then another five police officers turned up and forced José onto the back of a pickup truck.

This is when it all started. In an hour-long-ordeal, three officers took turns kicking and punching him, stamping on his back, head and legs. The police threw in the taunt:  "what a lovely subversive haircut you have, here's your revolution, get the weapons and the drugs out" (que bonito peinado subversivo tienes, ahi esta tu revolución, saca las armas y las drogas). They warned: “if you keep on the same path, you won't live to tell the tale". As a final coup de grâce, they kicked him in the face and José lost consciousness.

Not surprisingly, José and his family reported the attack at police headquarters. What next? The family say that the police commander refused to help and instead insulted them. Then, when an argument broke out, the police chief and another officer punched José’s grandfather and shoved his pregnant mother. Since then the family’s been harassed by the police and brushed off by the prosecutor’s office. This is all happening in a place where recently a 16-year-old graffiti artist was shot and killed, and the authorities are offering rewards to anyone who catches taggers. Meanwhile, the police have stepped up a generalised harassment of the city’s young people.

Like a lot of people, over the years my 101 unconventional haircuts have partly been about differentiating myself from my parents’ generation (“rebelling” as they say) and partly about personal vanity.

But, save for a bit of Steel Town argy-bargy, I don’t think I ever expected a serious kicking for my hairstyle. I certainly wouldn’t have expected a sustained attack from a police force that seems to be at war with young people. But then again, I don’t live in San Cristóbal de las Casas and my name’s not José. Please take action for José here.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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