Socialist Worker

Stop and search - racist, then and now

The plans to give the police more powers to stop and question "terror suspects" has disturbing echoes of the notorious "sus" laws of the early 1980s, writes Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2054

Police arrest a black man during the Brixton Riots of 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Police arrest a black man during the Brixton Riots of 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

‘We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first. I happen to believe this is misguided and wrong. I believe this is a dangerous misjudgement.” So said Tony Blair in a parting shot at civil liberties before stepping down.

The British police already have the power to stop and search people. But they have no right to ask for their identity and movements. Blair and home secretary John Reid want to give the police the power to seize any documents and search people without reason.

The new power would give police an automatic right to stop and question anyone in Britain. It would be an extension of the Section 44 power currently in force as part of Labour’s “anti-terror” legislation. This is currently in force across the whole of London.

These proposals would mean a return to the hated “sus” laws (from “suspected”) that made it “illegal for a suspected person or reputed thief to frequent or loiter in a public place with intent to commit an arrestable offence”.

The law came from the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which was passed to stop destitute soldiers coming back from the Napoleonic wars begging on the streets.

The police could stop and search, and arrest, anyone on the basis of a suspicion that they might commit a crime.

People could be convicted on the testimony of the arresting officer. Most people stopped were never charged with any offence – the law was used as a form of physical and verbal harassment.


The “sus” laws became a systematic method of racist harassment of black people by the police during the 1970s. African-Caribbean people were just 6 percent of London’s population. They accounted for 44 percent of those arrested under the “sus” law in the late 1970s.

In 1977, some 14,000 people were stopped and searched in Lewisham, south London, alone. Over 200 Special Patrol Group police – an elite unit – armed with pick-axe handles and Alsatian dogs, raided 60 black homes in the area. The police called it, “Operation PNH – Police Nigger Hunt”.

What changed the situation was resistance. On 10-11 April 1981 Brixton, in south London, rebelled. Police struggled to crush the uprising against racist brutality and poverty. Over 7,000 police officers did eventually regain control.

The police had launched a massive operation in Brixton four days before the riot. They poured in 100 extra plainclothes officers as part of “Operation Swamp 81”.

At the same time they were refusing to seriously investigate a fire in New Cross Road, a few miles away, which had killed 13 young black people three months before. In four days the police stopped 943 people in Brixton and arrested 118, over half of them black.

Then on Friday evening, 10 April, the police bundled Michael Bailey, a 19 year old black man who was bleeding from a stab wound, into a police car. No ambulance was called. A crowd gathered. The police car did not move.

So people freed him and the police attacked them. Running battles continued for hours. Plainclothes and uniformed police stepped up the repression the following day. They arrested a 28 year old black man who was waving at a friend in Atlantic Road.

“Black and white people went over to try and help, but in the end six policemen threw him in a van,” said an eyewitness. “By now everyone was angry.” Police steamed into the crowds of Saturday shoppers.

The Brixton riot was not an isolated incident. Twelve months earlier 2,000 people – two thirds black, one third white – had rioted in St Pauls, Bristol, after a police raid on a club. There were several minor clashes with the police in other areas within weeks.

They included a demonstration of skinheads in Sheffield, who ended up charging through the streets shouting, “Brixton, Brixton!” Then on

3 July police racism triggered riots in Southall, west London, and in Toxteth, Liverpool.

They spread over the next seven days to Moss Side in Manchester, Leicester, Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton, Leeds, Bolton and scores of other places. Toxteth and Moss Side were on the scale of Brixton three months earlier. Liverpool’s black population was concentrated in Toxteth.


The 1981 riots drew the mass of white youth to identify with black people who were at the sharp end of police violence. A rioter called Jono told Socialist Worker after the Toxteth riot, “We hate the police. It’s easy as that, isn’t it? They come in and push us around. This isn’t black against white. How could it be? Look, we’re together.”

It is only when people have fought back against police racism that anyone in power has been forced to acknowledge it. The uprisings forced the Tory government to hold an inquiry headed by Lord Justice Scarman.

He declared that there was no institutional racism in the police, merely a few “rotten apples”. But the “sus” laws were abolished and replaced with powers under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace).

Pace said officers needed “reasonable suspicion” that an offence had been committed. The law is still used to harass people with stop and search, but less than the “sus” laws Blair wants to bring back.

The 1999 Macpherson Report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence did recognise the “institutional racism”. The effect of Macpherson was a brief decline in the use of stop and search.

The “war on terror” has increased the number of stop and searches to over that of the pre-Macpherson level.

Draconian laws are brought in to give confidence to the police and to take confidence away from ordinary people.

In the 1970s, the racist drive from the top was against African-Caribbeans. Now another key focus of state racism is Islamophobia.

While African-Carribbeans still suffer intense harassment from the police, the harassment of Muslims has increased dramatically.

However, the solution is the same – resistance from ordinary people, black and white, can help to defend our liberties.

Legislation has been used to increase attacks on black and Muslim people

Labour deputy leader candidate Peter Hain has warned that Britain must take care that its anti-terror legislation does not alienate whole communities.

He said, “We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t create the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, which was an international abuse of human rights, and acted as a recruiting sergeant for dissidents and alienated Muslims and many other people across the world.”

However, he seems less bothered that the draconian law proposed by Tony Blair already exists in Northern Ireland, where he is secretary of state.

In February, even the Metropolitan Police Authority found that the police’s use of special anti-terror stop and search powers were doing “untold harm” to communities in London, particularly Muslims.

But the harassment of thousands of people goes far wider than that.

In 2004-5 there were 839,977 stop and searches recorded by the police under Section 1 of Pace. Overall African-Caribbean people are six times more likely to be searched than white people and Asians twice as likely.

Asian are 30 percent more likely than whites or African-Caribbeans to be searched under the terror legislation.

Overall there has been a gradual decline in the number of white people stopped and searched since 1997-8. For African-Caribbean and Asian people, the numbers of stop and searches are broadly similar to levels recorded ten years ago.

The police have recorded a 37 percent increase in what they call “suspicious reconnaissance” of potential targets in the first four months of 2007. As Socialist Worker reported last week, this means people being arrested for taking photographs of public buildings and tourist sites.

The police are also using their anti-terror stop and search powers for day to day duties.

The powers have quietly been introduced into Scotland Yard’s “safer neighbourhoods” programme, which allegedly targets anti-social behaviour, criminal damage and graffiti.

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Tue 5 Jun 2007, 19:11 BST
Issue No. 2054
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