By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
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Britain’s not innocent—a history of racist cops

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Issue 2708
On a demonstration to support the Newham 7 in 1985 (Pic: John Sturrock)

David Oluwale drowned in the River Aire in Leeds in 1969. His killing was the first black death by cops in Britain—and shows that police racism, violence and cover-up are a very British problem. Police had written “Wog” on the nationality section of one of his charge sheets. 

Two police officers from Leeds City Police had hounded David, a Nigerian migrant, for two years. Sergeant Kenneth Kitching and Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker forced David to bow in front of them, kicked his arms away, and smashed his head against the pavement. During one beating, they pissed on him.

On 17 April 1969, the cops beat David with truncheons and ran him out of town towards the river where his body was found. Eighteen months after David’s death, rumours about it reported by a police cadet triggered an investigation. It showed how other officers knew of and colluded in Kitching and Ellerker’s ­campaign of terror.

The investigation led to criminal convictions. But during the trial the judge referred to David as a “dirty, filthy, violent vagrant”. Through his direction, charges of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm against Kitching and Ellerker were dropped. They were given 27 months and three months for the lesser offence of aggravated bodily harm. And, despite the whitewash, they are the only criminal convictions of cops in a police-related death since records began in 1970. 

The police would go on to murder 75 black and Asian people in the 1970s and 1980s. And between 1990 and 2019, 183 black and minority ethnic people have died in police custody or after otherwise coming into contract with the cops.

One of them was Christopher Alder, who died in custody at Queen’s Gardens Police Station in Hull in April 1998. His sister, Janet Alder, says that everything about the Minneapolis police’s murder of George Floyd last month has similarities to her brother’s case. “It’s the inhumanity of it,” she told Socialist Worker, “the racism of it, the casual and instant defence of the state, the lack of acceptance of accountability. “Everything that’s going on at the moment has brought to the surface things that have been going on for years—in the US, Europe and Britain.” 

Janet added, “Having dealt with what I’ve dealt with for 22 years, things have not changed. We were trying to tell people about black deaths then. We were trying to say there’s no accountability, that they give you false promises to hoodwink the public into thinking that the system will hold police to account.” 

In the small hours of 1 April 1998, Christopher was the victim of an assault outside the Waterfront Club in Hull. He was taken to the local hospital with a head injury. The cops came to question him, arrested him, and bundled him into a police van, then took him to the ­custody suite where he died. 

Why we won’t get an anti-racist police force
Why we won’t get an anti-racist police force
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An inquest returned a verdict of “unlawful killing” in 2000.  Janet described how “in my brother’s case he was dragged into the custody suite with trousers and boxer shorts at his ankles. They all stood about ­talking about charging him with the most severe charges,” she said. “They were later heard making monkey and ­chimpanzee noises over him. Why was the system not shocked and horrified about it—as that is clear racism?” 

During the inquest, the state put Christopher’s family under surveillance. Janet and her legal representative were followed from the court, and authorities tried to listen to her conversations. Janet said, “While you are feeling all the uncertainty and pain, you have people spying on you who not happy with what you’re saying.”

Christopher’s family suffered ­unimaginable cruelty at the hands of the legal system. Some 11 years after Christopher’s funeral, his family were told that they had been given the wrong body and had instead buried 77 year old Grace Kamara.

Janet described how after deaths, families are made to jump through hoops. “At beginning, because you have no reason not to, you believe that justice will come automatically,” she said. “But I don’t believe police are there for ordinary people—they are there to support the system.” 

Janet and the family continue to fight for justice for Christopher. His case doesn’t stand alone. Leon Briggs died in 2013 after police in Luton restrained him on the street. An inquest a year ago into Anthony Grainger’s death in 2012 found the police were to blame—yet no-one is facing trial. 

And the cops were cleared of ­misconduct 2019 over the arrest and detention of Sean Rigg, who died in ­custody in 2008. Dalian Atkinson ­collapsed outside his father’s house in 2016 after being shot by a police taser.  A neighbour reported that cops kept shooting when he was on the ground. These are just a handful of cases, there are many, many, more. 

Darren Cumberbatch, Edson Da Costa, Kingsley Burrell and Mark Duggan are all black men who died after coming into contact with police. 

Deaths in custody aren’t the only instance of police racism in Britain. In the 1970s and 1980s cops used Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824—known as the “sus law”—to systematically harass black people. 

Why did Edson Da Costa die after the cops stopped him?
Why did Edson Da Costa die after the cops stopped him?
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This gave them the power to stop and search and arrest any person they said was “loitering with intent to commit a criminal offence”. Some 44 percent of people stopped and searched under the “sus law” in London in the 1970s were African‑Caribbean. They made up only 6  percent of the population in the capital. 

In May 1977, heavily-armed cops launched raids on the homes of 60 young black people in Lewisham in south east London. It was the Met’s operation “PNH”—“Police Nigger Hunt”. 

Twenty one people were charged with conspiracy to steal. The raids were part of a campaign against street crime as politicians, the police and the press sought to label black people as “muggers”. 

Other flashpoints in the 1970s and 80s show how the police criminalised black and Asian people—and sparked resistance. The case of the Newham 7 is a good example. Their persecution came after a series of racist attacks in Upton Park and Forest Gate in Newham, east London. 

“Everything that’s going on at the moment has brought to the surface things that have been going on for years—in the US, Europe and Britain.”

Janet Alder 

They included a brutal attack on 7 April 1984 by a racist gang on a disabled 16 year old Asian who was bludgeoned with a hammer. On the same day, as Asian people gathered outside a pub to take on the racists, the cops arrived and arrested an Asian man.

In the following few weeks, cops arrested another six Asian men and charged them with conspiracy to cause criminal damage and affray.  On 3 November that year, another group of racists murdered Eustace Pryce outside the Greengate pub on the Barking Road in Newham. When the cops got to the pub, they arrested his brother Gerald. 

On a 2,000-strong demonstration in support of the Newham 7 and Eustace Pryce, police snatch squads charged into the crowd. Cops injured dozens and arrested 34 people on the day. 

When the trial of the Newham 7 at the Old Bailey began on 13 May 1985, police collusion and conspiracy were exposed. It was discovered that two officers had looked through defence files and that cops had made notes together.

Despite such battles, police racism and violence continue.  Boris Johnson announced plans in 2019 to give more freedom for cops to use stop and search powers, despite the government’s own figures showing they’re used in a racist way.  

The police use these laws as a ­mechanism to harass black and poor people. Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched in England and Wales in 2017-18. And this goes up to 40 times more likely when cops use stop and search powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

Stop and search - racist, then and now
Stop and search – racist, then and now
  Read More

The legislation gives senior police officers powers to allow searches ­without any grounds for suspicion if they think that serious violence will occur. 

The racist nature the police flows from the role they play in society—and this means it’s impossible to have anti‑racist police force. The cops aren’t there to protect ­ordinary people. In Britain, the Metropolitan Police was set up in the 1820s just as there was a rising working class movement. 

From the beginning, their role was to keep in check working class people and their collective organisations. As the working class grew throughout the 19th century—and so too did ­movements for democracy and workers’ rights—police forces expanded across Britain.

The state needed a regular force to keep order. And in cities soon the police found that instead of just protecting rich areas, they would go to terrorise poorer ones.

The police are there to protect wealth and power of the rich. And the racist and bigoted ideas within the police force come from the people they serve—the people at the top of society. 

The system uses racism and other forms of oppression to stoke division. When those at the top criminalise black and working class people, it allows the police to behave in atrocious ways.  To stop the police racism and ­violence, we need to uproot the racist, violent ­capitalist society that relies on them. 

Oluwashiji Lapite, 16 December 1994

A post mortem found that the bones in Oluwashiji’s voice box had been broken. The Nigerian asylum seeker had died of asphyxiation.  Cops stopped Oluwashiji for “acting suspiciously” in Stoke Newington in Hackney, east London. While no drugs were found on his person, he was arrested on unspecified drugs charges. 

After a struggle, Oluwashiji was injured, collapsed and died after he was put in a police van. His body had up to 36 separate injuries. At the inquest, two cops admitted kicking his head and biting him—and claimed self-defence. Despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, the cops faced no prosecution or disciplinary process. 

Brian Douglas, 8 May 1995

Cops hit Brian Douglas over the head with a 22-inch baton after he was arrested for bad driving. The blow meant he had a fractured skull and lasting brain damage.  

Instead of hospital, Brian was taken to Kennington police station in south London. Only after his face was paralysed and he began slurring, did cops take him to hospital—where he died. 

The state decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the cops and the police watchdog said they would not face disciplinary charges.  Judges said two cops’ evidence was “by no means wholly satisfactory”, but ruled there was “no sound basis in law for ordering a fresh inquest”. 

Jean Charles De Menezes, 27 July 2005

Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was gunned down on his way to work in south London. His block of flats had been under surveillance in the wake of the 7/7 bombings.

Cops followed him onto a tube train, then one officer held Jean Charles down as others shot into his head, shoulder and neck. He died instantly. 

Senior officers briefed journalists that there was a connection between Jean Charles and the bombing. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to charge officers.  The Metropolitan Police was fined £175,000 after a health and safety ruling said the force had  “endangered the public”. 

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