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Issue 44, September 1999

top     Racism and the police

THE RACIST murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was met with widespread revulsion and anger, particularly amongst back youth. Six years later that anger has still not died down as a catalogue of police 'blunders' allowed the prime suspects to slip through the net.

Stephen's death and the subsequent inquiry, instigated by New Labour home secretary, Jack Straw, focused attention on policing in Britain, particularly London's Metropolitan police, and the race discrimination operated by the state. Eight months after the inquiry report, November's Queen's speech included a proposed bill to extend the Race Relations Act to the police, to allow them to deal with the 'bad apples' undermining public confidence in the force.

But will anything change as a result of the recommendations in the inquiry report? Is New Labour really bringing in a new era that will fundamentally deal with racism, an issue that could bring about potentially explosive clashes in British society?

The Lawrence inquiry, chaired by Lord McPherson, was itself illuminating. Despite the landmark announcement to begin the inquiry that this was a racially motivated murder, at least five investigating officers refused to recognise this at the time. Duwayne Brooks, Stephen's companion on the tragic night, was treated as a suspect. Rather than assess the information presented by him, the police did not carry out the proper searches.

Their unbelievable incompetence in many instances bordered on the criminal. The police failure to assess correctly whether or not Stephen was dead or to administer first aid when they arrived must surely haunt the Lawrence family. When a second detective superintendent was handed the case, the inquiry found that 'he was confused as to his powers of arrest'. Yet how many black youth have ever found the police to be 'confused' by their powers when confronting them?


The Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, appointed just before Stephen was killed, had pledged to be 'intolerant of racially motivated attacks... But we must be equally intolerant', he added, 'of our own colleagues who fail to reach the required standards. The argument that there is some excuse for poor behaviour because the culture of the service can only be expected to mirror that of wider society and its behaviour, since that is from where we draw our personnel, is simply specious'. So why did McPherson find the murder investigation team, and the senior officers who reviewed that investigation, culpable only of 'institutional racism'?

The inquiry looked at whether the police investigating the murder acted in a racist manner. The report deals with various definitions of racism - whether it is possible for organisations to be racist, consciously or unconsciously, and what constitutes racism. But McPherson was not the first to grapple with racism and law and order. Lord Scarman investigated the 1981 Brixton riots on the premise that Britain is not 'a society which knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminates against black people', even stating that 'the direction and the policies of the Metropolitan police are not racist'. Instead, he argued, it was individual officers who 'lacked imagination and flexibility' who conducted 'ill-considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions... in their dealings on the streets with young black people'.

Nearly twenty years on nothing has changed, despite the recommendations then that 'every possible step be taken... to root out racially prejudiced attitudes'. Black youth are still three times more likely to be stopped and searched by police. The number of black deaths in police custody has risen to 12% of the national total, when blacks make up only 5.6% of the population.


In truth the Scarman recommendations, even if implemented, would not have made a dent in the racism within the police force or wider society. But they were never put into operation. Racism awareness training was only brought in by some forces and even then only for new recruits! Ethnic monitoring advisory committees to scrutinise police actions - an attempt to draw a layer of blacks into open collaboration with the police - exist in only a handful of places.

McPherson believes the flawed investigation into Stephen's murder was a result of 'institutional racism'. In reality he is saying no one individual can be found who acted in a racist manner. He believes there was 'unwitting racism' - thus allowing all the officers, up to and including the commissioner, to maintain their positions.

Despite this, the inquiry report was accepted as a fundamental step forward by all the mainstream black leaders, who are now waiting for its recommendations to be delivered to enable them to justify their lack of fight to defend the interests of the black community. They hail as a major success, for example, the new rights 'given' to blacks under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act with the new category of racially aggravated offences. But already these laws have been turned into a farce when the first prosecution brought was against Andrew Wilson, a black man, who was fined 50 for calling the police 'white trash'. Who would bet against the first 'prosecution after acquittal' case (to allow a new prosecution even after an acquittal in a first trial), should this proposal become law, being against a black person!


Another key recommendation is the increased recruitment of black police officers. But how will this happen? Just 2% of police officers nationally are black compared to 5.6% of the population as a whole. But in areas with higher than average black populations the disparity becomes greater: Leicestershire, 4.5% police to 10.45% population; West Yorkshire, 2.6% to 7.5%; West Midlands, 4.1% to 13.8%; Bedfordshire, 3.4% to 9.3%; and London, 3.3% to 19.2%!

The staggering disparity in the Metropolitan police is due, no doubt, to the isolation, harassment and victimisation felt by blacks who join. This has led on at least one occasion to violence within the force when a black female officer defended herself from a white male officer with a pool cue. But more often than not it leads to the submission of black officers to the 'canteen culture', as conceded by inspector Paul Wilson of the Met PS Black Police Association: 'I say 'we' because there is no difference between black and white in the force essentially. We are all consumed by this occupational culture... which is all-powerful in shaping our views and perceptions of a particular community'. The police force is a very hierarchical organisation. Who could challenge the status quo (and how)? With no trade union organisation it is not possible to achieve even the limited breakthrough that has taken place in organisations such as the fire service or the NHS.

Even the Crown Prosecution Service and magistrates are reacting against the high number of blacks brought before them and are now dropping or acquitting a disproportionate number of cases involving blacks. The Director for Public Prosecutions said, in answer to a charge of favouritism, 'it is more likely that we are exercising our independent role to downgrade charges which have been inappropriately brought by the police'.


The Home Office is keen to see a strata of blacks act as a go-between between the black community and the police through 'more representative' police authorities. But they will not achieve greater accountability. With an eye to future confrontations in society, the Home Office will not allow the elected representatives of the new Metropolitan police authority (or a potential left-wing mayor) to select the commissioner and deputy commissioner, whose appointment will remain with the government. The Metropolitan police authority will not even have the powers to set its own budget!

The final McPherson recommendation is for changes to be made to the national curriculum for schools to include valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism. But without a proper understanding of how racism developed and why it still exists, there will be a tendency to merely label whites (particularly white workers) as racist, with the potential effect of opening up further conflicts in times of recession and cutbacks.

Racism has not developed because whites do not like blacks and vice versa. It was developed, by British imperialism in particular, as a tool to sow divisions into the opposition to its rule around the world and at home. It was an ideology developed to justify the slave trade and used as a tactic to secure power in the face of superior numerical opposition. It has been used more recently to attempt to sow division in the workers' movement united in opposition to attacks from the ruling class.


Centuries of such propaganda has left an indelible stain on society. Even high-brow black New Labour politicians such as Trevor Phillips fail to accurately portray the fight against racism. In his recent Untold Story series on the slave trade he concentrated on the parliamentary fight of the Abolitionists. He minimised the role of the black struggle against slavery, the Black Jacobins in Haiti, the Brigand Wars in St Lucia and other Caribbean islands, and the critical role played by blacks in the American civil war. He completely left out the solidarity of white workers in Britain. How will changes to the national curriculum made on this basis help defeat racism?

In society in general the police force has taken a battering over the last 20 years. As the underlying weaknesses of British capitalism have ensured social convulsions and conflicts, so the role of the police in defending the interests of the rich and their state have become clearer to ever greater numbers. This included their role in industrial battles, particularly in the 1984-85 miners' strike and the Wapping newspaper dispute, and during social upheavals such as the Brixton riots and the anti-poll tax campaign, where the police were found 'guilty', even by state-led inquiries, of provocation, harassment and 'unnecessary' violence. To cap it all, basic investigative police work has been shown to be a sham in the cases of gross miscarriages of justice, such as Winston Silcott, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

Who now believes the myth of the 'Great British bobby on the beat' or that 'our police are the best in the world'? Instead, ever greater numbers see them as a group incapable of acting in the interests of ordinary people - and often involved in corruption and injustice. Yet mainstream black leaders, even the likes of Lee Jasper (a black Labour Party activist barred from the candidates list for the London assembly), are still committed to tinkering with the structure of the police to improve race relations.


There is still time to build a real movement, however, to eradicate racism from our society. Recent events at the Ford motor company give a hint of what can be done. The Ford management, masters at the use of racism in production, were caught by surprise by the unofficial action against racism in the Dagenham PTA plant. The workers' union, the TGWU, had been prepared to take a number of cases against the company for race discrimination, but through the long process of industrial tribunals. Decisive unofficial action, however, brought the company president flying in from Detroit to quickly damp down the harassment and victimisation inflicted on workers in the plant. As a by-product of this action, the company moved to present their offer in this pay round as an inflation-busting rise, to head-off the possibility of that action becoming generalised.

Other opportunities will present themselves in many of the struggles ahead. But a clear understanding of how racism is used in our society will be essential to building a united workers' movement that will end the divisions sown by big business and those who dance to their tune.

Hugo Pierre

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