Middle-class, liberal British racism is expertly subtle. Yet it plays a powerful role in criminalising black communities. A recent article by Mark Townsend for The Guardian called Out on the 'microbeats' where police hope to reclaim London's streets from gangs is a key example.
It's worth pointing out that the police definition of gangs is both arbitrary and racist in its outcomes – it is used to target black youths (see Amnesty report Trapped in the Matrix). The press have repeated the mantra enough for black youth and ‘gangs’ to become synonymous by now.
The title sets the tone: the young people harassed by stop and search (mainly uncovering, if anything, small amounts of cannabis) are called gangs. The implication is gangs have claimed the streets (no evidence is provided/needed), thus the streets must be ‘reclaimed’ by the police.
The cover image is of young black people, one of which is possibly swearing at a van of police officers. They are clearly unhappy, but the caption says ‘locals talk’ to police. This image is the only indication that the community may be critical of police 'reclaiming' streets.
The first sentence describes police ‘microbeats’ on ‘small sections of London synonymous with drugs and violence’. Such beats generally only recover small amounts of cannabis, but the reader is left to use their imagination with ‘gang’ and images of black youths as a helpful prompt.
The reader is told that a ‘gang’ has ‘resurfaced’. Whether it is a ‘gang’ or not, or just a group of friends gathering, doesn't matter. The police have decided these group of young black people are a gang. No need to question this assumption.
The ‘gang’ are ‘marking old territory’. Again, no evidence – but no need, racist common sense helps the reader fill in that gap. Anyway, the reader is told they're ‘known faces’ which helps confirm our suspicions more on ‘gangs’ & racism.
We are then told that the police's new ‘violence suppression units’ (VSUs) confirmed the end of austerity. No mention of the 100 youth centres closed, the reduction in council housing, social services cuts, the scrapping of EMA or almost non-existent youth mental health provision.
The reader is reminded of the current moral panics: county lines, drug runners, and violence are some recent examples. We then return to the scene: ‘an officer from the unit left his car and began remonstrating with the group. Gang members began backing away’. Definitely a gang.
After describing the intimidating groups of what we can only presume are young black people, but are described as criminals, the reader is offered another moral panic: ‘heroin and crack users shoplift to afford their next hit’.
Not to worry, a police unit is chatting to teenagers seen ‘floating around the area’ in a suspicious manner. Anyone who has been stopped and searched by police has heard this before. I imagine the author, and his imagined audience, aren't among them.
An officer recalls a knife found during a stop and search. Weapons are rarely found during searches, and despite increased searches having little effect on violent crime (eg see Home Office assessment of Operation BLUNT 2), the reader is told ‘it’s about trying to stop something before it happens’.
The new police units are uncritically described as returning ‘the old-school principles of pounding the pavement’. Anyone familiar with police brutality will find this a painfully ironic turn of phrase. Assume that would be lost on the intended audience.
Next up, ‘habitual knife carriers’. Police ‘pursue them, disrupt them, get them on anything’. Why they can't ‘get’ them for carrying a knife, if that was what they're doing habitually, is not explained. What ‘get them on anything’ means is not explained, or questioned. No matter.
A moment in which we are almost offered a critical view on stop and search, a power which is both ineffective in its use and racist in its outcomes, is dodged by replacing it with a phrase which the average reader will feel more comfortable with: ‘it can be controversial’.
A brief mention of police work with schools, youth groups and social services leaves out the extent to which these organisations are both vital in improving community safety and have suffered worse cuts than the police. The implication is only more police improves public safety.
These articles are powerful in linking race and criminality. They are powerful, because race is never mentioned. Images of black youth, terms like ‘gang member’ and places such as London Road, West Croydon, ‘synonymous with drugs and violence’, do the racial work.
This liberal, seemingly descriptive journalism is necessary for justifying the brutal police racism which harasses, criminalises and kills. It does the same racial work as nationalist rhetoric from politicians, tabloid headlines and bigoted twitter trolls.