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Another way to make structural racism opaque: systems of concealment

By Samar Khan, member of StopWatch's research and policy group

Nothing about racism has changed, thinking that it has could lead to it getting worse. True, Bristol sank their haunting statue of Edward Colston and Minneapolis’ government committed to squash their police department. But these are, at best, spatio-temporally localised disturbances. The ripples we see in public consciousness will be lost once again, unless we learn how to remember. 

‘Structural racism’ is hard to see and easy to forget; a concept that is easy to treat as immaterial owing to the fact that it is much more present in the lives of the oppressed. 

As well as human beings’ natural disposition to form in-groups and out-groups, structural racism makes use of the mechanism of human forgetfulness. We have inherited systems of concealment from Empire that have proven time and time again to be effective in extinguishing revolutionary energy of the kind that has bubbled in previous weeks. The social threads of forgetfulness, remembrance and concealment are tightly woven into structural racism and can be made visible.

Remembering has taken centre stage in previous weeks with honouring George Floyd via the symbolism of taking a knee. Social media campaigns have been excellent at interrupting the sessions of pseudo-stimulating scrolling we permit ourselves in uncolourful lockdown days. A good proportion of users quickly realised that their history education let them down and did what they could to let others know of how they too are subject of an insitutional ignorance. 

Concealment is already at play – the slogan ‘black lives matter’ has been too easily subverted, its essence is obscured by distracting debates on ‘why not all lives matter?’ The reality of BAME experience is further wiped away by sentiments such as “I truly believe that we are a much, much less racist society than we were” – the first public words from Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s following the first wave of demonstrations. He has since appointed Munira Mirza, his aide since his London mayoral days, to chair yet another race commission. Mirza perennially appears in newspaper columns to deny the existence of structural racism; she reckons thinking in terms of ‘diversity’, engenders ‘tribal thinking’ and that "the more we seek to measure racism, the more it seems to grow". This is a line she has stuck by for decades – don’t hold your breath for the commission’s results.

The deployment of these concealment tactics mean it is too early to view this surge in white solidarity as a sign of a common commitment to anti-racism. Forgetfulness will become apparent when lockdown is cancelled and the drudgery and distractions of common life inevitably render the present uprising as just a moment of possibility, not necessarily a new future.  Ancient systems of concealment will be deployed so that we are made to forget.

We forgot Rashan Charles. At 20 years old, he died in the early hours of 22 July 2017, beneath a police officer and supposed ‘member of the public’, on the floor of a Hackney convenience store. In the morning, the Met police told the BBC that Rashan had been “taken ill” after “trying to swallow an object” (later confirmed to be a mixture of paracetamol and caffeine wrapped in plastic). They also mentioned that an officer “intervened and sought to prevent the man from harming himself.” Unfortunately, their claims were immediately contested by mobile phone recordings of CCTV footage, uploaded to twitter on the evening of the 22nd and tagged, #JusticeForRash

Rashan is seen walking to the back of the store and placing something into his mouth. The police officer, granted anonymity by the coroner and known only as ‘BX47’, runs up from behind Rashan to shove him to the front of the store whilst grabbing his chest. Despite no resistance from Rashan, BX47 suddenly hooks an elbow around Rashan’s neck and chokethrows him to the ground, heavily landing on top of him.

What comes next is chilling. ‘Witness 1’, a tall man in plain clothes who police say is just a ‘member of the public’, unhesitatingly jumps on top of Rashan’s body even though it’s clear to bystanders, and BX47, that Rashan had a blocked airway. After desperately flailing on the ground, we see a sudden jerk. Rashan is completely still when Witness 1 expertly positions a limp hand to be handcuffed by BX47. 

Bemusingly, after finally showing concern for Rashan’s state and getting off his back, BX47 allows the ‘member of the public’ to attempt CPR, even though all police officers are trained in first aid. 

By that point it has been 8 minutes, it is too late.

Image from OpenDemocracy

Like George Floyd, there was an expression of an inability to breathe, regardless of which the asphyxiation persisted. In both cases there were surprised bystanders that heard choking and saw distress lasting eight minutes, but felt like they couldn’t disturb the officer’s performance of power. Protests beginning in the local community became riots where roadblocks faced off police on horseback. Politicians vocalised a faint support for justice but condemned the violence of protestors. However, the public outcry in the wake of Rashan’s killing was confined to Dalston high street on one evening. The international uprising following George Floyd’s has lasted over a month.

In 2015, Gary Younge wrote: “The precise alchemy that makes one particular death politically totemic while others go unmourned beyond their families and communities is not quite clear. Video helps, but is not essential.” Understanding why some things are forgotten faster than others will always be a complex matter. Though there are, at present, experiences that many of us share.

In a time where our appetite for disease and death have been steadily building, it is perhaps no wonder that shocking news like Floyd’s death made its way onto everyone’s screens to encourage many, especially young people, to wilfully submit some time to making sense of it. We think: what is this other plague that kills by starving lungs of life giving air? This other plague that does not select by age or frailty, but melanin in skin? We think: with all the political activity witnessed in the last week, this matter of racist, aggressive policing could be thrashed out thoroughly as COVID-19 is. 

Human beings’ fickle memory is demonstrated time and time again. Admitting to yourself that thinking now will not assure required action in the future is a sincerity we all must embody.  

In the UK our already economically disadvantaged BAME communities have long suffered our collective inability to address the persistence of structural racism in a police force that admits to harbouring it. It is certainly not just forgetfulness that has left our society stuck with racism. 

Part of concealment is denying knowledge and distracting from the truth. There are conversations that we have never been able to have. There are topics we don’t even have the language to comprehend. Not to mention histories we were never taught.

Concepts like police abolition which are so unfamiliar to us they are instantly uncomfortable. I implore you to search for videos of stop and search by metropolitan police in London, the extreme rate at which young black boys are nonchalantly suspected, stopped and searched  has led to extreme fear and hatred for the law by these persecuted youth. Yet the first response, and, sadly, the most compelling response for an ignorant electorate is more ‘law and order’ – any  conversation about police wrongdoing is swiftly swept away.

We wouldn’t have forgotten Rashan Charles if it weren’t for these systems of concealment.

Rod Charles, a retired Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police and Rashan’s great uncle accused the IPCC of misleading by ‘omission’, pointing out that the initial statement of the police was a clear attempt to deflect attention from BX47’s brutality. The police’s instinctive reaction was to cuddle BX47 and point the finger at Rashan for “trying to swallow an object,” it was him! “Without explicitly saying so, it suggests Rashan is a drug dealer. According to this framing, the police officer is the rescuer who “intervenes” to prevent Rashan harming himself, but sadly fails.” 

Rashan is already paralysed by a chokehold when BX47 turns on his body worn camera just in time to be recorded saying “spit it out” and then “breathe, breathe, breathe.” Soon after, Witness 1 is recorded saying: “He’s just putting it on,” to which BX47 replies, “No he’s not.” When the officer lands heavily on top of Rashan’s body, with an arm wrapped around his neck, the claim of preventing self-harm became a farce.  

Besides the all too obvious tactics of framing Rashan as a potentially dangerous criminal, the Met’s response was resolute and deployed an arsenal of concealment tactics. The two ‘expert witnesses’ that were called to scrutinise BX47’s actions were employees of the Met. The barrister hired to represent BX47 is described by his chambers as “the go-to counsel for prosecuting or defending police officers in serious misconduct cases” and represented the three match commanders at the Hillsborough Inquest. After the officers were granted anonymity on the basis that “angry tweets attacking the police” posed a “direct threat to officers’ lives”, the press and public were separated by a large black curtain and could only listen to court proceedings. 

Imran Khan, the family’s barrister said: “The tragic and untimely death of Rashan could have been an opportunity for learning lessons so that abhorrent practices could be fundamentally changed. That opportunity now appears to have been lost with the risk that such an event might happen again.”

But we can fight forgetfulness. We can act by remembering; declining to forget. Reminding ourselves that hierarchies based on skin colour are an ancient and repugnant weapon. Remembering that we must continue to learn and resist the concealment of our vicious imperial history and its inheritance of racism and classism. Remembering that there are many amongst us that simply cannot trust the police, that they have always been failed by an institution meant to protect us. Remember, when you see police conducting a stop and search, to stand by and simply watch – be present so that if unnecessary violence is deployed you can remind the officer that they do not matter any more than this person. 

Or if your memory can’t be trusted, paying organisations that remember for you.

Thanks to the work of Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyqkanmi for their steadfast investigation into Rashan Charles's case at Shine A Light.

By Samar Khan

StopWatch research and policy group

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