Speech of harmit athwal, who is working in the Institute of Race Relations in London as scientist and also activist. She has spoken on a podium for KOP on 08/19/2005
I would like to begin by thanking Biplap and Reach Out for inviting me to Berlin to speak about police racism in Britain.
I work as a researcher at a charity called the Institute of Race Relations, where we examine the effects of racism on Black people in the UK and Europe. My specific areas of research are anti-terror policing, black deaths in custody and racial violence. I have also been involved in family campaigns surrounding black deaths in custody and have campaigned against the detention of asylum seekers.
Deaths in police custody
A few weeks ago a young Brazilian man was shot dead by police officers as he ran for an underground train. This was no ordinary police shooting; because of the bombings in London on the 7th of July police were on full alert. In the hours after the shooting, the head of the Metropolitan police told us that this man was ‘directly linked’ to the London bombings. [The police told us,] that he was wearing a big padded jacket and had been acting suspiciously and, when he was challenged, he had jumped over the barriers at the station and run from the police.
However, within a day or two it became clear that the man who was shot, eight times – seven in the head and once in his shoulder, was an innocent man, killed by mistake. His name was Jean Charles de Menezes, he was a Brazilian electrician living and working in London.
But now, just this week, details of the shooting have been leaked to the press. We are now being told when Jean Charles de Menezes left for work police were unable to positively identify him as a suspect so they followed him. He was followed some distance from his flat, to a bus stop and then onto a bus to the underground station. Jean walked into the station, picked up a free newspaper, used his ticket and proceeded down the escalators. He only started running when he heard a train, by which time police offices had been told not to let Jean board the train.
It appears that Jean Charles de Menezes only crime was to have brown skin and the misfortune to live in a block of flats that were under surveillance by police and security services. There have also been calls for the Commissioner of the Met police to resign and for the officers involved to be charged with murder.
Obviously this is an extreme example of what the police can do. Nevertheless, in Britain at least three Black men have been shot dead by the police since 2001.However these sorts of killings are rare because the police are not routinely armed. But, what is less rare are deaths in police custody. This is when people die while they are the safekeeping of the police, usually while they are under arrest. Our research shows that since 2001 at least ten Black people have died in police custody.
And these deaths usually follow patterns:
- Deaths where people have been neglected by the police
- Deaths as a result of control and restraint, where someone is pacified either through the use of force or equipment such as batons and CS spray
- Deaths where illnesses are involved – for example people have died after police have refused to believed they were ill
- And self-inflicted deaths of vulnerable people – where people have taken their own lives in police cells – usually because their vulnerability is not recognised
After a death in custody, the police usually close ranks and support one another. It is notoriously difficult to get an unlawful killing verdict at an inquest. In the cases that it has happened the police usually go to court to get it overturned, And in only one case, that of a Black tramp killed in 1969, did police ever get convicted in a criminal court.
Racial violence and the police
Another area where the police can also be the perpetrators of racism is through their indifference. When they fail to react to racial violence attacks that are reported to them. Again there is a pattern:
- Attacks are not taken seriously – they maybe put down to neighbourhood disputes or boisterous children
- Very often the victims themselves are treated as suspects
- Very often the victims are given the wrong information and do not know how the legal system operates
- In serous crimes, through delays in obtaining forensic evidence, failing to take families seriously or respect their requests.
- After mistakes are made, and inquiries are held – very often findings are withheld or not acted upon
Anti terrorism laws and the police
The police can be perpetrators of racism in other ways. Recently, in the UK we have seen evidence of the targeting of people through anti-terrorism laws. Even before the bombings, hundreds of Muslims had been arrested under anti-terrorism laws before being released without charge. A large number of the convictions secured in court under the 2000 and 2001 Terrorism Acts have been of non-Muslims, white people involved in terrorist groups involved in Northern Ireland.
Again, even before the London bombings, young Asian men were being stopped and searched on a daily basis. Analysis by Statewatch and the IRR, last year, found that the threat of terrorism was being used as pretext to discriminate in stops and searches – particularly against British Asians. Figures released just this week show that people of Asian appearance are five times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by British Transport Police in London. In the five weeks following 7 July, Asians accounted for 35% of people stopped, up from 16% in June.
Organising against police racism
But it hasn’t all been one-way. Communities have organised against police racism since the 1960s. Marches were held to protest at police harassment of black meeting places. There were pickets of police stations where people had been harassed, because individuals have been brutalised by the police, or because the police failed to protect communities or where deaths occurred. These sorts of actions galvanised communities together and drew publicity to causes.
Issues such as these led to police monitoring groups being set up, who monitored what the police were doing on a daily basis. Police inaction against racism and racist attacks led to defence committees being established. For example, in Newham in east London, a group of young Asian men who defended themselves against racists found themselves up before the courts, this led to Newham Monitoring project being formed, they are still going today. In the 70s, attacks by the far right on Asians led to Asians organising themselves for self-defence which led to the birth of the Asian Youth Movements. There is an established tradition of communities coming together, to turning cases into issues and issues into a movement.
And part of that struggle has been to make the police accountable and to have impartial investigation of complaints. An organisation called the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or the IPCC as it is known, investigates all complaints against the police. It is also conducts investigations into deaths in custody and the circumstances surrounding it. The IPCC is a relatively new organisation, which claims to be independent as its name suggests, however, it is a partial victory as most investigations are still carried out by police officers – even if they are retired.
Another key event that has impacted upon police racism was the death of Blair Peach a teacher in April 1979. He died after being hit on the head by a police baton, during disturbances after a demonstration in Southall to protect the area against fascists.
[His death led people to ask ‘who are the police answerable to?“ and ‘why can they behave as if they are above the law?’] Blair’s death put the issue of police accountability on the political agenda in Britain as no other event had done. It made people begin to think about why the police could behave as if they were above the law. [Blair’s widow put up to use the inquest to find out how he had died, she insisted that the inquest into his death be held before a jury at a location large enough to seat interested members of the public.] As a result a new organisation called Inquest emerged. Inquest, is still going today and supports and advises the families of those who have died in custody.
Inquest has in turn, indirectly led to the formation of another group. The United Families and Friends Campaign, is a support organisation made up of the families and friends of those who have died in custody. Families are able offer advice to others in the same position. It was out of the struggles of families fight for justice that a group called Migrant Media made a film on Black deaths in police custody. The film, Injustice, was made over a number of years and followed the fight for justice by the families of Joy Gardner, who died during an attempted deportation and Brain Douglas, a young Black man who died after being hit over the head with a baton. The police tried to stop the film even being showed, they threatened to take legal action – but this has not stopped the film being shown all over the world and winning awards.
In recent years, one of the most significant things to happen to the police in term of racism was the Macpherson Report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993. Stephen Lawrence was stabbed by gang as he walked to a bus stop with a friend. The police failed to conduct a proper investigation and charges were dropped because the Crown Prosecution Service – the organisation that prosecutes people – said there was insufficient evidence. With the help of lawyers, in April 1996, the Lawrence family launched a private prosecution that collapsed. Then in July 1997, the government announced a public inquiry into the death and the police’s actions.
The inquiry into the murder was the biggest official investigation into racism in Britain since the 1980s. It reported in February 1999 and catalogued the investigative errors, failures of management and ‘unwitting racism’ of the police investigation into Stephen’s murder. The inquiry also made numerous recommendations about the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes. And for the first time the police were accused in an official report of institutional racism.
[Paul Condon, the then Chief of the Metropolitan Police, publicly apologised to the Lawrence family for the incompetence of the investigation. But he refused to accept that the police force was institutionally racist preferring to see the problem in terms of a ‚few rotten apples‘.]
The Macpherson report made 70 recommendations that were intended to subject the police to greater public control, enshrine rights for victims of crime and extend the number of offences classified as racist.
The 70 recommendations included:
- Training of family and witness liaison officers
- The definition of a ‘racist incident’ was changed to ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.
- Powers to discipline police officers for at least five years after their retirement.
- Steps to ensure independent investigations into serious complaints against the police.
[The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent investigation and inquiry received widespread media coverage, the family were at the forefront for the fight for justice. The family were supported by lawyers and a national campaign that emerged over the years. Together they fought for the answers as to who murdered their son.]
Police brutality and police racism
I have not really spoken about police brutality, where for example police officers use more force than is necessary or are racist themselves, obviously this still goes on – but I would say that nowadays police officers are more likely to be disciplined or sacked for racism. This would not have happened in the past.
The Macpherson report led to all police officers being aware of racism in all its forms. And for the victims of police racism in Britain there are a number of voluntary organisations that emerged from the struggles of the Black communities that are still able to offer advice and support. New groups have emerged too, where the victims of racism play a central role in their fight for justice.
It is also because of the Macpherson report, that the police are more willing to investigate crimes as being racially motivated. However, once they reach court, quite often, the racial element of the crime is not acknowledged in the trial or in the sentencing.
But it is the changes that we have seen in years after September 11, when the war on terror began, that present the biggest challenge to campaigners. Since September 11, there has been a creeping criminalisation of entire communities – innocent people are now suspected. This policing appears to be, based on simple stereotypes of what the ‚profile‘ of a terrorist looks like – anyone of Asian or Muslim appearance – whatever that is. This sort of profiling does have tragic consequences – we have seen that.
Even despite this climate of fear that is being created about terrorism, there are still groups working for those being criminalized and to campaign against anti-terror laws and policing. A few years ago, even before new anti-terror laws were passed by parliament a group called Campaign Against Criminalising Communities was established, over the last few years it has campaigned against anti-terror laws and supported those directly affected by the laws.
The problem is racism does not stand still. Though we have had successes and in some areas even changed institutions, and this has been because of protracted family campaigns. But even now new forms of institutionalised police racism are emerging in the new national security-conscious world.
Paul Coker, (32) August 2005
Paul died alone in a police cell in Plumstead police station in south-east London. He was restrained by officers and arrested for causing a breach of the peace; he died within two hours of his arrival at the station. The official post-mortem proved ‘inconclusive’, the family have commissioned another. Paul won compensation from a case against the Met a few a years ago and had also complained about being assaulted by a prison guards while in prison. Police were called to a disturbance at his flat and they left carrying Paul, holding him by his arms and legs, he was not moving.
More recently, we have seen groups emerge such as Stop Political Terror. Stop Political Terror was set up by a man called Babar Ahmad, he was first arrested under anti-terror laws in December 2003. He was held for six days of questioning before being released. After his arrest he alleged that he was punched and kicked as a police officers asked ‘Where is your God now?’ A medical report following his arrest documented 50 separate injuries. Babar Ahmed is now in prison awaiting, America wants to extradite him – he is accused of being involved in terrorism. But the website that he started continues to grow and it has developed into a pressure group opposing anti terror laws.