Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1875

Police racism: has nothing changed?

This article is over 20 years, 7 months old
Why have the police always been racist and why are they so resistant to change, asks Kevin Ovenden
Issue 1875

PC ROB PULLING: ‘A Paki born in Britain is still a fucking Paki’
PC ADRIAN HARRISON: ‘I class them as one thing, and that’s it – Pakis’
PC ROB PULLING: ‘Stephen Lawrence fucking deserved it’
: ‘BAT I used to call it – Black Added Tax’

It could have been the secret footage of the scum who murdered Stephen Lawrence ten years ago. But the racist shown last week wearing a Ku Klux Klan style mask and threatening to kill black people was a policeman. The police racism exposed in the BBC’s The Secret Policeman documentary was truly sickening.

And there were plenty of police chiefs on cue the following day to tell us so, in suitably shocked tones. They included the chief police officer of Greater Manchester, who two months previously had had the journalist who made the film arrested and charged.

If the chiefs of Britain’s 43 police forces, who met at Scotland Yard last week, were honest, they couldn’t have been surprised by the documentary. For the vicious racism it captured is not new in the police. Nor is systematic discrimination at the hands of the police news to black people. What was news, and at least as disgusting as the programme’s revelations, was the response of Labour home secretary David Blunkett.

If he had had his way the programme would never have been made and the racist police officers would still be in place.

Politicians and papers responded to the documentary with nauseating hypocrisy. Those that routinely call for more police powers and denounce anti-racist measures as ‘political correctness gone mad’ fell over themselves to echo the genuine outrage of millions of ordinary people.

They then tried to persuade us, as Tony Blair did this week, that the problem is ‘a few rotten apples’ in the police who are an unfortunate reflection of racism in society.

But the racism is worse and the rot runs far deeper than that. There is nothing peculiar about the Bruche National Police College featured in The Secret Policeman.

The programme caught seven extreme racists out of 18 recruits it examined. They joined up AFTER the police had supposedly cleaned up their act following the Macpherson report five years ago into their handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

No one on the course had reported them to the college. If this unexceptional, post-Macpherson intake at the college is anything to go by there are many thousands of police nationally who think it is fine to use terms such as ‘nigger’ and ‘Paki’, and who admire white supremacists.

A black police officer in London told Socialist Worker, ‘The revelations did not surprise me. I’ve worked in other jobs and never come across such deep-seated racism. But people are very reluctant to report racism. You get ostracised.’

Those charged with racism can expect solid support in the ranks. Three years ago in Fulham, west London, PC Steve Hutt was one of the very few disciplined for racism. He told a 14 year old, who was never charged, to ‘sit down you black bastard’.

A petition in his support went round many police stations. Over 16,000 officers signed it, one in eight of the national total. A Home Office tribunal reinstated him. It said he ‘should not be used as a scapegoat to demonstrate the desire to root out racism in the police’.

Jack Straw, the home secretary then, said the comment ‘sit down you black bastard’ was ‘not an indication of racism’. The Daily Telegraph, which was ‘shocked’ by last week’s revelations, said in December 2000:

‘Jack Straw deserves high praise for reinstating Steve Hutt. At last the home secretary has shown common sense in his handling of an accusation of racism against the police.’

It went on to call for Straw to ‘apply the same sense to the idiocies of the Macpherson report’, which had made proposals to deal with institutionalised racism in the police.

The Macpherson proposals were very mild. But over the last three years the government has caved in to pressure from police chiefs and the right wing media to drop even them. The result has been a green light to racism. Nine months ago home secretary David Blunkett abandoned the whole idea of institutionalised racism in the police.

The problem, said Blunkett, was simply a handful of individual officers. Then in August the Police Complaints Authority watered down the disciplinary measures for racism which the Macpherson report called for. A spokesperson said, ‘Yes, we are stepping back from the Lawrence report regarding disciplinary action.’

Life remains intolerable for the (very few) blacks and Asians in the police. The Black Police Association last month went as far as to call on ethnic minorities not to apply to join the Metropolitan Police.

That came after the Met refused to abandon its persecution of Superintendent Ali Dizaei – which has cost £7 million. One of the police chiefs responsible for what black officers call a witch-hunt is deputy commissioner Ian Blair, who is supposed to oversee equal opportunities in the Met.

Dizaei’s is only one case among many. Sergeant Gurpal Virdi had to fight to clear his name after the police falsely accused him of sending hate mail to himself when he suffered racial harassment.

Socialist Worker has learnt there are many cases of racial discrimination in the police awaiting employment tribunal. If that’s the way the police treat their own, is it any wonder that what gets dished out to blacks and Asians on the street is far worse?

The Association of Chief Police Officers rushed out a ‘seven-point action programme’ in the wake of the BBC film. It’s all been heard before. The history of the police is a history imbued with racism.

In the 1920s police in Cardiff declared war on black seamen. The then chief constable said, ‘The coloured seamen are not imbued with our moral code, and have not assimilated our conventions. They come into contact with the female sex of the white race, and their progeny are half caste, with the vicious hereditary taint of their parents. The Somalis are truculent and vicious.’ In 1952 Cardiff police framed a Somali sailor, Hussein Mattan, for murder. He was hanged. His wife did not receive an apology until 1998.

In 1963 the British West Indian Association reported that Brixton police were going on what they called ‘nigger hunts’. A notorious officer at West End Central station, Detective Sergeant Challenor, was found to be framing black people in the 1960s.

He would punch them during questioning, singing, ‘Bongo, bongo. Go back to the jungle.’ In Liverpool young officers were given military jeeps to patrol the mixed area of Toxteth as part of a ‘Task Force’.

In 1977 some 14,000 people were stopped and searched in Lewisham, south London, alone. Over 200 Special Patrol Group police, with pick-axe handles and Alsatian dogs, raided 60 black homes in the area. Police called it Operation PNH-Police Nigger Hunt. In September 1985 police raided Cherry Groce’s home in Brixton, looking for her son. They shot her in the back, leaving her paralysed. The incident provoked a riot. And it is only when people have fought back against police racism that anyone in power has been forced to acknowledge it.

Uprisings in inner cities in 1981 forced the Tory government to hold an inquiry headed by Lord Justice Scarman. He declared there was no institutional racism in the police, merely a few ‘rotten apples’.

He suggested ‘racism awareness training’. The limits of that soon became apparent at the ‘multicultural unit’ of Hendon police college. Black lecturer John Fernandes designed a course to combat racism. The police stopped it.

Fernandes gave examples of recruits’ essays to the press. They included comments such as: ‘Blacks in Britain are a pest… sponging off the state… They are by nature unintelligent.’ ‘They must fall into line under white British dictators.’ ‘Can a shotgun blast a black man at 12 yards?’ ‘Do black people burn better with oil or petrol?’

Many said that in future lessons they would like to know more about the National Front. Only trade union action stopped Fernandes being sacked by his college in Kilburn. Today we hear the same recipe of ‘awareness programmes’ and ‘diversity training’.

But as Paul Wilson of the Black Police Association put it after a flurry of initiatives following Macpherson: ‘From a survey of black police associations, it appears we have a plethora of working groups, advisory groups, and taskforces, but little evidence of tackling the source of institutional racism – the police culture.’

The ‘canteen culture’ plays a big role – police often spend three hours out of an eight-hour shift in the canteen. One policewoman told a 1983 study that she had never used racist terms until she joined the police. Police officers also tend to socialise with other police officers. Many don’t know black people.

The police breed racism in their ranks because of the role they play in society. It is no surprise that the force attracts racists when it is implementing racist immigration and asylum laws and measures that disproportionately bear down on black people.

The police were formed in the 19th century not to solve crime, but to suppress workers and the urban poor who threatened the interests of the middle and upper classes. The police remain, above all, a force for social control.

The way they are deployed encourages them to see certain ‘types’: deferring to rich people and treating working class people with suspicion. The racist operation of the police reinforces the racist views of individuals, which are combined with the bullying mentality needed to order other people about.

To end that would mean changing the very nature of the police force. It would have to cease being a force defending an unjust society. It is true there is racism in other workplaces and institutions. But in those, black and white people find themselves drawn together to defend their interests. So, for example, black, white and Asian postal workers in Wolverhampton struck against racism recently.

Now they devise new ways to target black and Asian people

Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. The total number of searches and the level of discrimination against blacks is back up to where it was when Macpherson cited stop and search as evidence of institutionalised racism in 1999.

Less than 10 percent of those stopped are doing anything illegal – and most of them are simply carrying a small amount of cannabis. The police have increasingly turned to public order and terrorism legislation to make more stop and searches, now around four million a year.

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was supposedly brought in to deal with football hooliganism. It allows a senior officer to authorise blanket stop and search in an area for 24 hours. It is being used against black people like the notorious ‘sus’ laws in the 1970s and 1980s.

Under it, black people are 27 times more likely than whites to be stopped. Ben Bowling of King’s College, London, says, ‘Where police have the broadest discretion is where you find the greatest discrimination.’

Michael Eboda was stopped while driving his Jaguar in Clapton, east London, in February of this year. He is editorial director of the group that publishes Eastern Eye and New Nation. One of 30 police surrounding his car said, ‘There’s a lot of gun crime. You fit the profile.’

Police superintendent Bob Parker authorised the Section 60 saying, ‘It was part of an operation which is targeting armed crime in the black community. A number of these criminals have a liking for expensive vehicles.’

So if you are black and driving a nice car you fit a ‘profile’ of a criminal. White men with briefcases in the City of London fit the ‘profile’ of the corporate fraudster, but no police chief orders officers to routinely stop them.

A ‘ring of steel’ was erected around the City of London during the IRA’s 1990s bombing campaign. There are no Asians in the IRA. Yet most of the people stopped while driving through the City were Asian. I and another Asian journalist on Socialist Worker experienced it first hand, along with the usual arrogant smirks.

Manchester police covered BNP’s Oldham riot

Two of the forces featured in the documentary are North Wales and Greater Manchester Police. North Wales chief constable David Griffin claims there have been strenuous efforts to eliminate racism.

Not one racist has been sacked from his force for at least five years. North Wales police did, however, put a huge effort into providing an exclusion zone to protect one of the Nazi British National Party’s festivals. Greater Manchester Police also say they have been ‘tackling racism’ with a plan called ‘Operation Catalyst’.

Chief constable David Wilmot said in 1999, ‘I will do everything in my power to limit and eradicate racism and discrimination within Greater Manchester Police.’ The Q division of Manchester police covers Oldham. Weeks before the 2001 general election, chief superintendent Eric Hewitt of Oldham told the press: ‘There is evidence that Asians are trying to create exclusive areas for themselves. Anyone seems to be a target if they are white.’ The Nazis used Hewitt’s comments in their propaganda.

The National Front held a rally in Oldham in the run-up to the election. Police sergeant David Cooper of the Racial Incident Unit in Oldham said that the Nazis appeared ‘well organised, disciplined and coordinated. There was nothing particularly racially inflammatory about what they said.’

When Asian people and white anti-racists defended themselves against Nazi violence the police turned their fire on the victims. Asian men in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford were jailed for up to five years. A white racist who sparked the disturbances in Oldham was given a nine-month sentence a few weeks ago.

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