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The UK Is Not Innocent – A Reader on Police Violence and Racism in the UK

By SJ Cooper-Knock

Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the UK in recent weeks. These protests stand in solidarity with struggles in the US but they are also a cry for change here in the UK, where racism shapes all spheres of life, including the criminal justice system.

All too often, police violence and racism in the UK has been understated or ignored by those who do not encounter it. In the wake of BLM protests, a series of insightful media articles have been written that speak to these critical issues. Below, we highlight a few of these blogs and news articles, focusing predominantly on policing, violence, and anti-black racism in Britain.*

These pieces remind us that in order to understand the unjust policing of lockdown, we need to understand the system as a whole.

The UK Is Not Innocent

As Seun Matiluko argues, it is crucial that we see police violence and racism in the US as part of a global scourge of racism, in which the UK has played a formative role. ‘Yes, America and Britain have different histories’, she argues, ‘but their violent histories are interconnected’. In both countries, racism continues to flourish. That means, as George Mpanga stated on Newsnight, there are ‘disturbing parallels between the Black British experience and the African American experience’.

Those parallels are sometimes all too apparent. Marcia Rigg, for example, speaks about the similarities between the lethal violence faced by George Floyd and that faced by her brother, Sean Rigg, who died in Brixton police station in 2008. As Kojo Koram writes, ‘I can’t breathe’ were also the last words of Jimmy Mubenga on a plane in Heathrow in 2010, who was unlawfully killed by three immigration officers. Sean Rigg and Jimmy Mubenga are just two of the many black people who have died in police custody in the UK, including Sheku Bayoh, Kingsley Burrell, Rashan Charles, Joy Gardner, Olaseni Lewis, Mzee Mohammed, and Sarah Reed. The list of deaths in police custody continues, as does the impunity of police officials involved. Police officers last served time for a death in police custody, Koram reminds us, following David Oluwale’s death in 1969. Even then, charges of manslaughter were downgraded to charges of assault.

Nazir Afzal, a former Chief Prosecutor in the UK, emphasises the disproportionate deaths of black people in police custody and explores the drivers of police impunity. The failure of police officers to testify against their colleagues reminds us that racist violence is an institutional issue. The failure of courts to convict, even when clear evidence exists, reminds us that racism is not limited to the police. Moreover, as Afzal highlights, deaths in custody are a ‘small percentage’ of deaths from police contact. Apparent suicides and police shootings, for example, are an important part of the story. Here too, racial disparities are obvious.

In his piece on police brutality, Wail Qasim highlights that BAME people are in fact ‘twice as likely to be shot dead by an officer.’ Understanding the impact of militarisation on police violence is critical. Focusing on weapons alone, however, can be misleading. ‘It took no weapons or militarised equipment to end Floyd’s life’, Qasim explains, ‘simply an indifference to his humanity. That indifference, so often founded on racism, is a deadly weapon not exclusive to nationhood and is shared by police forces across the UK.’

More than a ‘few bad apples’: Historic roots and persistent practices

Racism in the police is a systemic issue with long historical roots. When we talk about this history, it is critical that we speak about colonial policing, as well as the different models of policing experienced across the UK.

British colonial policing was deeply shaped by the imperial policing model forged by the Royal Irish Constabulary in the 19th century, a model that was also exported to the United States. Discussions of UK policing often ignore Britain’s historic and contemporary ‘reign of terror’ in Northern Ireland, argue Maev McDaid and Brian Christopher. Without acknowledging this injustice, they contend, we limit our capacity for solidarity and change within the UK, and beyond.

Priyamvada Gopal highlights the violence of colonial policing and the impact it had, in turn, on policing in the UK. She writes, ‘When met with resistance, as British colonialism inevitably was, there was violent policing and punitive action as well as massacres, extra-judicial executions, hard labour, and internment camps. Indeed, it was in the crucible of empire and resistance to it that some of Britain’s harshest policing, surveillance, and disciplining techniques were finessed.’

Rejecting the notion of policing by consent, James Trafford flags the key positions in post-colonial Britain held by those who had honed their techniques undertaking policing-as-counterinsurgency and brought these racist, repressive tactics back home.  Such experiences, for example, would fundamentally shape Kenneth Newman’s leadership of the Met police in the 1980s, associated with militarisation, intrusive surveillance, and the creation of Territorial Support Groups, all of which were often mobilised against the city’s racial minorities.

Such policing tactics have never gone unopposed. In gal-dem, Leah Cowan provides a rich overview of anti-racist organising in the UK from the coalescing of movements and activists in the 1970s and 1980s through to the emergence of Black Lives Matter. Much of this work has highlighted the problem of police violence and placed it within a bigger structural picture. The protests and uprisings of the last fifty years have been instrumental in pushing police reform but the road to change is long and those reforms have often been incremental and ineffective. Building solidarities and avoiding burn-out will be vital for the Black Lives Matter movement, Cowan argues, as they journey forward.

The nature of the road ahead is currently uncertain. Speaking to Sky News in the wake Boris Johnson’s call for an inquiry into racial inequalities, David Lammy fears that commissions will be used as a substitute for change. There is no need for an inquiry to prove that racism is an issue, Lammy argues. Over twenty years ago, the Macpherson Report concluded that the failures in the Stephen Lawrence investigation were evidence of an ‘institutionally racist’ police force. Three years ago, Lammy’s own review demonstrated that racial disparities within the criminal justice system had, by some measures, increased. Young black people are now nine times more likely to be in youth custody than their white counterparts. This is not a youth-specific issue. As Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Ella Wilks-Harper show, for example, black women are more than twice as likely to go to prison for drug offences as white women.

Unsurprisingly, when Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, declared that the force was no longer ‘institutionally racist’, Stephen Lawrence’s father stated ‘I totally disagree’.  Black people in Britain are still treated like ‘second-class citizens’, argues Neville Lawrence in an interview with Vikram Dodd. Problematic police practices like stop and search continue, where racial disparities are at their highest in 20 years. Lawrence’s concerns are shared by two senior black officers in the Met, Patricia Gallan and Victor Olisa who confirm the impact of institutional racism on the treatment of police officers from racial minorities as well as policing practices.

Racism within the police is driven and shaped by racism in society at large. How we label crime and criminals, for example, fundamentally shapes who or what gets policed, and how. Akala, for example, deconstructs the framing of ‘knife crime’ as ‘black-on-black’ crime in London. This framing rests on the racist idea that black people are inherently violent. Discussions of knife crime ignore that only a small proportion of black people are actually involved in violent crime as well as the underlying social, economic and political drivers of this crime because the idea that black people are violent means that there is no need for explanations beyond race. Conversely, he argues, ‘when white people are violent it needs explaining’ and these explanations are not racial.

Institutional racism also means that police practices can be racist without directly mentioning race at all. Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper explores some of these policing practices, which are often dressed up in the language of community policing but rest on ‘racist assumptions and language’. Uncovering the covert as well as overt racism in policing is crucial, he writes, because ‘middle-class, liberal British racism is expertly subtle. Yet it plays a powerful role in criminalising black communities.’ Dissecting a recent Guardian article on community policing, he shows how the concept of ‘gangs’ and practices such as stop and search coalesce to sustain and support racist policing. These processes are particularly pernicious and ‘powerful’, he argues, precisely ‘because race is never mentioned’.

Elliott-Cooper’s article builds on a broader critique of policing gangs in areas like Greater Manchester or London. Here, racist assumptions and associations mean that a high proportion of those identified as being in a gang are in racial minorities, in stark contrast to databases in the same areas that chart young people’s actual involvement in violent crime. That discrepancy, researchers argue, highlights that gang databases are only effective in justifying ‘racist over-policing’.  They are not effective in ‘arresting levels of serious violence’.

Future Paths

Calls to ‘Defund the Police’, have gained traction in the US. Koshka Duff and Tom Kemp explore what this might mean in the UK. They suggest a reduced role for the police. On the one hand, curtailing militarised, repressive forms of policing. On the other, limiting the need for police to respond to fundamentally social problems. The latter can be achieved by de-criminalising issues like sleeping on the streets as well as increasing funding for first responders with a welfare remit and skills in crisis intervention. Re-imagining the role of the police is part of a broader project of re-imagining the form and function of our criminal justice system.

These calls sit alongside calls to tackle racism in the police at all levels, some of which come from within the police. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, for example, acknowledges that BLM protestors ‘have a point’, emphasising the need to ‘listen…  and focus on what we in the UK can do better’.

Doing better, however, is no easy task. Diversification of the police and disciplinary measures for explicit racism, for example, are crucial but insufficient. Tackling institutional racism requires more. Anti-racism requires a willingness to change everything from the rules and regulations to the associations and assumptions that uphold the racist status quo. Until this is done, there is a need to curtail powers (such as stop and search) which provide space for discriminatory policing.

Ultimately, this level of change in the police is not possible without a similar shift in society as a whole. The recent protests are a reminder that racism in the UK has been as resilient as it has been relentless. Like many in his generation, Benjamin Zephaniah holds both a hope for the future and the memory of hopes dashed. ‘There is a part of me that thinks something has to change this time’, he reflects, ‘But I thought that when Stephen Lawrence died. I thought that with Windrush. I have thought that so many times. Something awful happens and what the system does is it gets an inquiry going, it writes a report, releases its findings and then the public just forgets about it. Or the anger dissipates…’.

‘History is cyclical’, Leah Cowan concludes, ‘We must prepare ourselves for the moment – it might be next week or next month – when white people begin to lose interest, again, in anti-racism. We will continue to fight because we have been fighting, and there is no other way… We do not have the desire to opt out of blackness, or the privilege to switch off the news and take a break from oppression.’

Cowan’s words stand as testament to the fact that progress in the UK has been painful to attain and difficult to defend. The solidarities needed to pursue anti-racism are too often partial or lacking. Sometimes, solidarity has faltered at the intersection of different oppressions (such as racism and transphobia) or in the face of specific forms of racism (such as anti-black racism). At other times, it has been superficial or altogether absent. White people in the UK, for example, have rarely demonstrated the substantive and sustained solidarity necessary for fundamental change: outbreaks of outrage and guilt are no substitute for the long-term personal and systemic work needed to dismantle white supremacy. As Simukai Chigudu reminds us, ‘When the righteous fury and indignation over the present moment begins to simmer down, the messy work of challenging racism in all its structural, institutional and interpersonal guises must continue.’

*This is not to dismiss the importance of other forms of racism, but to take the specificity of anti-black racism seriously. To explore the issues faced by other racial minorities in the UK, take a look at this report and this book.

SJ Cooper-Knock is Lecturer in International Development at the University of Edinburgh.

(Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash)


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