British police – racist as ever and with more power

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Ten years ago, in February 1999, the report of the inquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was published. The report, by Sir William Macpherson, criticised the police handling of the case as ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers’. Speaking to the BBC Politics Show in February 2009, Labour Justice Minister Jack Straw was of the opinion that, despite some remaining pockets of racism, on the whole the Metropolitan Police is no longer ‘institutionally racist’. The experiences of black people today tell a different story. NICKI JAMESON reports.

Stop-and-search – licence to harass
When the Macpherson Report was published in 1999, black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Ten years on the figure is the same. When asked about this, Straw responded that: ‘It is for individual police forces, individual commanders, and above all individual police constables and sergeants, who have difficult decisions to make, to be able to stop people who they think there is a reason for stopping regardless of their ethnicity.’

There are three different laws currently permitting stop-and-search, with the vast majority of stops (about one million per year) taking place under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (revised in 2003). These have to be carried out with ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’. No such grounds are needed, however, for the 45,000 annual stop-and-searches carried out under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJPOA) 1994 or the 37,000 under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. In addition, there are approximately two million occasions per year when the police use their power to stop members of the public to ask them to ‘account’ for themselves.

State repression – overt and insidious
These police powers to stop and question or search anyone whose individual appearance or behaviour they do not like are accompanied by other powers, which have been built up over the recent period to detain or disperse groups of people. These seemingly unchallengeable sanctions are being used with alarming frequency, with political demonstrators regularly corralled under Section 60 of the CJPOA, even though this is intended to deal with incidents with the potential for ‘serious violence’, and the dispersal powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 used virtually daily against groups of young people congregating with no criminal intent whatsoever.

In December 2008, the European Court ruled that Britain’s policy of retaining the DNA of people who have been arrested and released without charge or acquitted was unlawful. The government is resisting taking any action to remove the records. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has estimated that the DNA of over 30% of all black males in Britain is held on the national DNA database, with black men approximately four times more likely to have their DNA profile stored than white men. The BBC estimates that the figure is almost 40%, as opposed to 13% for Asians and 9% for white men. These figures are not reflected in conviction rates and once again underline that in a society increasingly mapped and monitored, those most targeted are black men.

The state is building up a massive repressive apparatus. This takes many forms, from the massive prison and immigration detention centre building programme currently underway (see page 13 and below) and the sanctioning of torture of ‘suspected terrorists’ (see page 6), to the far more insidious and gradual creation of a society in which police powers to stop, question, detain, film, disperse and phone-tap are not questioned. It is a pipe-dream to imagine that this type of policing, in which the civilian population is treated as a hostile enemy, will ever do anything other than reflect the class antagonism and racism of those who have ordered it.

Racism within police force
Britain’s wealth and privilege derive from imperialist plunder. Racism in Britain is a reflection of this. Consequently, simply increasing the number of black people employed by the police, Prison Service, immigration authorities and so on, cannot end racism. Nonetheless, severe and visible under-representation of ethnic minorities within the coercive services is a clear indicator that these bodies are so identified with racism and internally riven by it that either black people do not want to join them, or are being prevented from doing so, or both. A report published by the EHRC to coincide with the anniversary of the Macpherson Report details that in England and Wales today only 3.9% of the 140,500 police officers are from ethnic minorities, compared to 2% in 1999. The government’s ‘target’ is 7%. Ethnic minority recruits to the police are far more likely to resign than white recruits, especially within the first six months.

In contrast to the low percentage of full ‘sworn’ police officers, 12% of the 13,400 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) are from ethnic minorities. In March 2009 an employment tribunal brought by PCSO Asad Saeed heard detailed, corroborated accounts of racism at Belgravia police station, where senior staff turned a blind eye to racist language and bullying, and black and white PCSOs were made to travel in separate vans.

Ten years on from the Lawrence Inquiry
So, aside from a less dismissive attitude by the police to the reporting of crimes which have a racist motive, there has been no ‘progress’ since the Macpherson Inquiry. The British police are as racist as ever. And, while there has been a massive state offensive against Asian communities under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’ since 2001, the group most targeted for police harassment remains young black men.

As we wrote at the time of the publication of the report: ‘The problem is that the Lawrence Inquiry, however well-meaning, cannot tackle police racism because it cannot identify the root cause – the British state. The British state is an imperialist state, maintaining its control over oppressed nations by political, economic and military means...The British police force is the frontline of the state’s armoury of repression. It cannot be anything but racist.’ (FRFI 148 April/May 1999).

FRFI 208 April / May 2009

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