Race Matters

Why we should support a national boycott on non-essential interactions with the police

Over the last few weeks a number of Black activists have raised heightened concerns over the persistence of racist policing in contemporary Britain. This has been driven by the seemingly self-contradictory ‘lawful’ verdict of Mark Duggan’s murder. Duggan was shot dead by a police officer who had claimed that Duggan yielded a gun. The contradictions of the case were best summarised by Duggan’s mother: "The jury found that he had no gun in his hand and yet he was gunned down. For us that's an unlawful killing". This occurs alongside the emergence of research findings suggesting that incidences of racist policing are perhaps considerably more prolific than widely reported.

Tensions have culminated with Black Activists Rise against Cuts leader Lee Jasper calling for “urgent action” and suggesting that “[t]here needs to be a national boycott of all non-essential contact with police and all black recruitment into the force”.

In an increasingly authoritarian – Tory-led era - any dissenting voices are quickly marginalised and branded as immoral, feral and uncivilized. This brief disruption of blind-faith – created by activist groups such as BARAC and Just West Yorkshire - presents us with an interregnum; an opportunity for activists to defy the oppressive rhetoric that acts to maintain the increasingly inequitable status-quo. We must recognise that immorality in our current epoch is often hidden by the mask of state governance.

The Black community – and all those who claim to strive for a more egalitarian state - must seize control of a situation that for far too long has seemed the preserve of the White governing elite. Indeed, under a regime that persistently presents the Black community as powerless we must agitate for social change. Whilst such agitation may be shunned as ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ we should remember the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass; “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

Tensions between the Black community and the police are by no means a new phenomenon. We see recognition of this police discrimination and brutality in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Anti-sus dub poem penned in Brixton 1979. Two years later, Brixton would be the epicentre of a series of riots. Indeed, the race riots of 1981 and 1985, and 1995, spreading over a number of major British cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds , Bristol and Liverpool) were widely attributed to disproportionate and racist policing.

Two key reports raised fundamental concerns over tensions between the Black community and the police. The first, The Scarman Report emerged out of an inquiry in to the Brixton riots of 1981 and acted to perpetuate the stigmatisation of the Black community. Whilst Scarman reluctantly conceded that ‘[r]acial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers on the streets’ he quickly moved to ‘totally and unequivocally reject the attack made on the integrity and impartiality of the senior direction of the force’ and suggested that tensions were caused by the Black communities perceptions of racism - fuelled by ‘gossip and rumour’ – rather than an institutionally racist police force. The Scarman report, picked up upon by Margaret Thatcher, has somewhat ironically been pinpointed by cultural theorist Paul Gilroy as a key point in the stigmatisation of the West Indian family and the criminalisation of Black Youth.

The second key report, The Macpherson Report, came after the 1993 racist murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence and contrary to the Scarman report, branded the police force institutionally racist. Macpherson found that racism was an endemic disease in society and that the police force was one area this wider disease manifested: ‘If racism is to be eradicated there must be specific and co-ordinated action both within the agencies themselves and by society at large’. A number of recommendations were put in place by the Macpherson report. Whilst no changes were made to stop and search powers the report recommended that stops should be recorded and that the data be published.

Fast-forward to 2011, we again find that there are riots in a number of major cities and a Guardian and London School of Economics study highlights an institutionally racist police as one of the main causal factors. In 2014 we see that this racism continues to permeate all areas of the criminal justice system. We see that Black males are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be put on trial, more likely to be remanded in custody, more likely to suffer police brutality, more likely to die in custody, more likely to be tried in crown court and more likely to be given harsher sentences. Without a boycott forcing the police force to acknowledge and address its endemic and institutional racism these trends seem irreversible.

Right-wing racists and the ill-informed argue that this may be intelligence-led or result-driven policing but this is simply not the case. We have a plethora of evidence that now disputes such claims. 2013 research from Release and The London School of Economics highlight this contradiction when they find that despite the White population being more likely to use drugs than their Black counterparts, the Black community are still 6.3 times more likely to be stopped and searched. If we want to use ‘intelligence-led’ policing then perhaps policies should be adopted to bare these statistics in mind. Or would that disrupt the white status-quo? Moreover, with only 7% of stop and searches resulting in arrest the effectiveness of this police power is, at best, questionable.

Whilst critics of the boycott may argue that such action can only exasperate tensions, we must hold that all other means of negotiation have been exhausted. Our community is underrepresented in all areas of governance and thus we must take action wherever, whenever and however possible. Indeed, whilst a boycott on black applications to the police may seem counterproductive we must reassert that these are applications to a ‘service’ in which racism is a disease. Black police officers have been subject to overt racism, as well as the more endemic forms that persistently stunt career progressions and leave our community further underrepresented in senior roles. We see then that a slow trickle of Black officers in to the force, has not been, and will not be the answer. As a spokesman for The Metropolitan Black Police Association said in 2008, Black recruits enter "hostile atmosphere where racism is allowed to spread and those who challenge it are either suspended told to shut up or subtly held back in relation to career development".

We must concede that agitation within the current paradigm of White governance is insufficient to bring about change and thus the words of Harold Douglas, interviewed after the ’85 Brixton riots have as much resonance today as they did then:

"Last night happened because the only time a black man [or woman] is seen and listened to is when he comes out on the street”.

The provisions set out under the Scarman and Macpherson reports are insufficient in tackling this endemic racism. Whilst the ten year report on the effectiveness of the Macpherson report might tell us that progress is being made, the speed of this progress is wholly unacceptable. As Malcolm X once said; “[y]ou don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress ... No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to every one of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me”. We must continue this fight.

The stagnation of change has been further highlighted by the mother of Stephen Lawrence, Baroness Doreen Lawrence who says “[t]he lives of young black people in London haven’t changed a great deal; they are still more likely to be marginalised from society, to be stopped and searched, to be excluded from education, to earn less or to be unemployed than their white counterparts. We still have a long way to go in the fight for genuine equality in this great city”. We see here a great limitation in a recommendation of the Macpherson report; despite the publication of stop and search data providing evidence of racist policing continually no provisions are put in place to curb this racist practice.

Further as activist and scholar Adam Elliot-Cooper recognises, these statistics do not tell us the full story. He says, “I have worked with young people who have been told if they want a receipt for a stop and search they have to come down to the station to collect it which, as you could imagine, is an offer they often decline”. The persistent recognition of unlawful stops and disproportionate unrecorded stops - alongside ever increasing awareness of the insidious and diverse ways that institutional racism operationalises - tell us that the current system is failing far more than official statistics suggest. More importantly, it will continue to do so unless radical changes are brought into place. Activist Kojo Kyerewaa recognises the longstanding presence of these tensions, "just like the sus laws of the 1970s and 80s, this power is still being used to justify racist stereotypes".

After decades of varying levels of agitation and political rhetoric, it appears inconceivable that sufficient change will be forthcoming without a sustained and unrelenting demand. Amidst the backdrop of slow and unacceptable change, we cannot settle for the slow moving rhetoric put forward by politicians like Theresa May, indeed the recent delays in action exemplify this point.

The perpetual disadvantage our community faces - in varying areas from education to health care - must not be viewed as isolated incidents. Rather, as the Macpherson report highlighted, and as Doreen Lawrence discussed this week, the numerous disadvantages are inextricably linked. Further, they should not be viewed as merely additive but as accumulative. A number of activists and scholars, as well as members of governance have highlighted the links between educational disadvantage, socioeconomic status and criminal activity. This boycott offers an opportunity to rupture this continual disadvantage and strive towards genuine equality.

Michael Keith in his work - Race, Riots and Policing: Lore and Disorder in a Multi-Racist Society discusses the Hackney ‘break links’ boycott of 1983. Keith suggests a lack of communication stunted the impact of the campaign and stopped the boycott spreading to other parts of London. In this age of ever new and diverse technologies, we should take this opportunity to mobilise further and wider.

The African, Caribbean and Asian communities, and those who stand in solidarity with them, must build upon the work of relentless agitators before us and support the current action put forth by BARAC. The Police continue to be the biggest gang and to perpetuate racist ideology by operating outside of morality and legality. We cannot continue to let this happen whilst our Black brothers and sisters are victimized by a corrupt and racist system.

Remi is a PhD researcher and the Editor of GJSS. He is on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Moonrhino
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