Stuart Hall opened a 1981 pamphlet, Black & Blue, Racism and the Police, put out by the Communist Party following an October, 1981 conference, which he also opened, in wake of the riots that swept the country that year.
Policing the Police
There is something of a temptation to assume that if only one could bring to a halt the formal and informal prectices of racism in the police, in some way the causes of racism itself would thereby be dealt with. But, in my view, if the police were to undertake a real pledge to abandon and abolish every taint of racism in their practice, the problem of British racism would still be the same.
Nevertheless there is a specific and dramatic problem of how to oppose police racism. That is the sharp end of racism. It is where blacks and others encounter a drift and thrust towards making the whole of society more policed.
I want to say a few words about what seems to me the general context within which that has arisen. First, there is a very general pressure to expand the place and role of policing. In industrial relations, in the surveillance and information keeping on black and radical groups, in the excercise of immigration laws, in a whole number of ways there has been a push in society over the last 15 years towards the enforcement of stricter police practices.
Second, the black communities have become the targets of intensified policing. They have become stigmatised as areas of endemic crime and political unrest, of an alienated and increasingly foreign sector of the population, which needs a substantial blanket police presence.
This stems from the political polarisation of the past 15 years and the ‘criminalisation’ of the black community.
There has been a large scale national thrust to draw policing, the law and the courts directly into the control of political and industrial problems. This has increased the ability of the police to bear directly on local communities, and to be formally more racist.
The issue of law and order generally, and specifically in relation to the way black people have to struggle for existence, has been made one of the most contentious and explosive questions today.
In my view, the left is unprepared in dealing with the political context of ‘law and order’. Traditionally law and order is either seen as an issue which relates to civil liberties (which are seperated out from hard politics) or as an issue which ‘people of good will’ who are not themselves involved in criminal activities, can take out of politics.
One of the first tasks therefore has to be a shift of attitude within the left organisations – not black organisations, because they already know. The issue of law and order has to be politicised. Unless that happens, the left will turn a blind eye when the state draws on authoritarian and police backed solutions to political and industrial questions.
How has the thrust towards a more policed society affected the black communities? Here, I think, we can speak without exaggeration of the increasing criminalisation of the black community in several senses. First, as a consequence of black people’s place in economic and social structures, increasing numbers of young blacks are driven to petty crime as a mode of survival.
If You’re Black….
The second, and much more widespread way in which the black population has been criminalised, is that it has been stereotyped as criminal by nature. Thus in the press, in public discussion, and especially in policy making behind the scenes, it is assumed as a matter of commonsense, that black communities require more and tougher policing than other sectors of the community.
As a consequence, the police forces themselves have increasingly operated with that stereotype, especially in their relations with young black people that walk along the public highway. Black clubs have also been subject to persistent harrassment over long periods of time.
It took a demolition job to discover that behind the Bristol incident in April 1980 lay long and persistent harassment by the police of one of the few places left where blacks felt free to go. Police entry into the last bastion of Bristol’s black community sparked off the so called Bristol riots.
The immigration issue is used to supply the police with the discretion to go into houses and ask questions. There are places in Britain where adult blacks, especially Asians, will now carry a passport in order to provide ready identification on the street.
It is sometimes said that since britain is very largely racist you have to expect the police force to be racist too. I suppose it follows that since very large numbers of people in Britain commit crimes, you should expect a very substantial proportion of the police force to commit crimes too.
If you were able to produce evidence to senior policemen of the extent of crime within the police force, they would feel obliged to do something about it. But when you say that it is an offence that a policeman in a car driving along a street, coming alongside a black lad, feels able to abuse him verbally, the police do not feel, apparently, any pressure to do anything about it.
I believe it would be possible, if not for the black communities, then for the police’s own disciplinary procedures, to make it unacceptable for verbal racist abuse to persist. But anybody who knows how the police behave on the streets knows that it is customary for blacks to be discussed in the most abusive terms.
When they take blacks into the station, do they even begin to respect the rights of suspects? Is physical intimidation avoided? In practice, there is a suspension of the so called Judges’ Rules.
You will know of countless stories of young people taken in whose parents do not know where they are for 24 or 48 hours; people taken in who do not know what it is they may be charged with; of people who are told they may be charged with one thing, and are eventually charged with something else, partly because, having been physically or verbally abused, they respond. If they weren’t guilty when they came, they’re guilty by the time they leave. If you hassle a community it will react, and then you can charge it with reacting.
It is in these everyday ways that the old style, liberal defences against abouse of state power over individuals have been progressively eroded. The police feel they are able to get away with it behind close doors because, in general, there is now a very strong official view that society has been allowed to go lax, and that Britain has to recover morally as well as economically. Indeed, these two aspects are very closely linked together. One main instrument of moral discipline is the police.
The Thatcher government has given this enourmous thrust, although it’s something which was deeply enshrined in the policies of the Labour government. But it is also a thrust which has come from the police themselves. There is a very long history in this country of popular suspicion about the police. It took nearly a hundred years to set up on organised, paid police force. Yet now the assumption is: ‘Well, of course, crime is a matter which belongs in the police domain. They have to fight it’.
One of the most dangerous things we have seen in the last 10 years is the ending of the requirement that the police, though they apply the law, don’t get into the business of shaping it. Increasingly the police are the best organised and the most effective campaigning lobby for the expansion of police powers.
They have become the required spokespeople you listen to on the TV or radio on questions of police power. Law and order is not debated any longer unless you call on Jim Jardine of the police federation.
On every issue where the question of democratic control over the nature of policing is concerned, the line has been redrawn continuously in favour of the police. The police themselves have set the agenda. The Royal Commission on Criminal Procedures report yielded in significant ways to the pressure for an expansion of police powers. In one or two instances, it extended the protection of suspects, but the ground ceded to the law and order lobby is much more extensive than the safeguards recommended. That is not to say that we may not find ourselves using what safeguards exist. That is a fact of life.
I want finally to say something about what we begin to do about this situation. It is unlikely that we will have immediate successes. As a consequence of a persistant and long standing campaign, formally, the Sus law is to go. Although most of what the police were able to do under the Sus law they will now be able to do legally once again through the criminal attempts law, we are not so overwhelmed by success as to be able to ignore the victory.
Policing and Politics
We’ve had other important victories, not of the formal kind, but still most significant. For example, the Anti-Nazi League. We were within an ace of the National Front and its allies making really deep penetration into and gaining support among white youth. Although we may not have stemmed the tide for ever, the intervention of the Anti-Nazi League, generating public support for an anti-racist stand in the streets, was of crucial importance.
It is unlikely that any one strategy will suffice.
First it is a question of what formal and legal guarantees we can get -even though they are minimal – for populations and individuals exposed to the endemic racism of the police.
Second, one ought to seize every opportunity to take the question of policing out of its non political framework: this has to go on not only in the communities, but also crucially, in organisations of the left, and especially in the labour movements.
The question of policing is a matter of politics, and it is vitally urgent that the labour movement takes back these politics of law and order, the state and police into its heart. One has to shift the pubic attitude which accepts the credibility of the police against the credibility of blacks and black organisations.
Third, if any area of society needs democratic accountability, it is the police. For example, to whom is a Chief Constable responsible? What exact local authority powers are over their forces is very murky territory indeed. These questions are increasingly important, and it is our business to make them an issue.
The problems of police and black communities no longer concerns black communities alone. We want to say to the labour movement: if you allow the police the kind of latitude which you have permitted in the black areas, they will come into your own parish too, using the same tactics of surveillance, intimidation and control. The black community has simply been at the forefront of what a policed society means.
There is a widening gap between what is formally supposed to go on and what in practice happens on the streets. It is in that gap the liberties and rights of black people have been constantly eroded. So, even if we win more effective safeguards in the law, unless we can make them effective in the street, we might as well not try to win them, and that means the community must understand the question of policing.
Local organisations of whatever kind need to be capable of mobilising support and of checking police powers. Unless you can effectively get into the police station and bring to blacks and others who are exposed to intimidation, the kind of legal and social support which they require, there is no point in having a better or worse code of police practice. A code of practice is only effective when people enforce it.