2 May 2012

“The problem with you is you’ll always be a n****r…”

Fahim Alam is a member of the StopWatch youth group. He has a Law Degree from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics. He is currently working on a film about the London riots.

​A familiar narrative has once again been thrust into the public theatre. The year began with the conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, an event that some would quite happily revere as a moment of burial for institutional racism. Inevitably, police brutality hasn’t been able to stay off the radar for too long. Race is creeping back on to the agenda at a time when the shooting of Mark Duggan is in danger of becoming clouded by other noise; and for those that denied even the possibility that institutional racism might have something to do with last year’s riots, questions about the police and its sister institutions are beginning to resurface.

For many, the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a self-proclaimed ‘watchman’ and his apparent impunity, is not at all surprising or unique. For some, it may even resonate with a history of white American slave patrols (arguably the precursor to the modern American system of policing), or lynchings, where black people were killed in the most brutal of ways on the flimsiest of evidence. Regardless of the historical commonality of organised white on black crime, the unusual levels of publicity the case was afforded provided a strong international backdrop for London’s own revelations of blatant and unapologetic racism in the form of a rant allegedly meted out by PC Alex Macfarlane in August last year.

Since attention has been drawn to Mauro Demetrio’s complaint of racial violence, twelve other allegations have come to the fore, and twenty seven police officers are now under investigation or facing prosecution over alleged racism. And again, for too many people, including those that have lost family members to police violence, there is nothing new or alarming about these incidents. The thread that binds these and many other cases together, is the force of an institutional impunity which is chillingly systemic and collaborative. The police and its associates have come to be implicated in corruption, a cover-up, and a surprisingly sophisticated ‘stitch up’ of one of its own officers, to name but a few suspicious incidents which have recently hit the headlines. It is clear that the problem extends far beyond ‘a few bad apples’, an argument which apologists are often at pains to advocate.

Anyone challenging this perspective would have to consider that a number of key institutions are now under forced public scrutiny for their role in supporting, ignoring or perpetuating racism as a matter of bureaucratic routine, and with practices that raise serious question about the integrity and impartiality of these organisations. To take a few recent examples: the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) falsely told the press that there had been an “exchange of fire” before Mark Duggan was shot dead by armed policemen; the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) took over 8 months to charge PC Macfarlane for a racially aggravated public order offence, though a charge of assault relating to an allegation of strangulation will not be pursued; and it has been revealed that Scotland Yard buried a report in 2004 warning of police racism.

It might come as shock for some that the police can “get away with murder” so to speak. But a deeper survey points to levels of immunity which expose at the very least, hypocrisy on an epic, if not criminal scale. Although 1,429 people have died in police custody or otherwise following contact with police in England and Wales since 1990, not a single police officer has ever been convicted for any of these deaths. More worryingly perhaps, more than 900 serving police and community support officers across England and Wales have convictions for offences including causing death by careless driving, domestic violence, forgery, and perverting the course of justice. Furthermore, recent figures reveal that of 749 cases referred to the IPCC and 293 police officers disciplined for racist behaviour, only five were dismissed and seven forced to resign (therefore keeping their pension entitlement and a clean employment record).

It is important to remember that the systematic abuse of power by police, supported by a callous lack of institutional accountability, is being exposed against a backdrop of thousands of people being rushed through the criminal justice system and into prisons across the country during and after last year’s riots. David Cameron established the ideological foundation for a factory style process of criminalisation by aping the words of his political Godmother, Margaret Thatcher, and claimed that the actions of those involved in the riots were “criminality, pure and simple”. This statement was not only about the individuals involved, but the institutions that are to ‘deal’ with them. ‘Criminals’ are to be apprehended by the police, judged by the courts, and punished by the prisons, implying that these structures are somehow ‘the good’ in the dichotomy of ‘good versus evil’. Just as Thatcher’s words were undone by the Scarman Report, Cameron’s statement holds much less meaning as questions regarding the nature of the police force and its affiliate organisations begin to surface; thereby forcing upon mainstream discourse the affirmation of many rioters that these riots were as much about targeting the police as anything else. This is exacerbated by an increasing number of allegations of racism connected to August’s riots – aside from the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a number of cases have surfaced from both before, during and after – the latest case to emerge is that of an officer of inspector rank arrested and suspended on suspicion of racist abuse, who is a detective inspector in charge of investigating riots in London’s Enfield.

Racism can only breed within institutional cultures that allow it to, and riots can only happen in societies that create the right conditions for them. In this society, police have a unique privilege which allows them to act, or not act, with impunity; and arguably, with a more general sense of immunity. However convenient it is to blame individuals for the failings of institutions, where accountability and equality are not the cultural norm, violence will inevitably seize the day, leaving as the only possible option, nothing short of radical reform.