Monday, 16 January 2012

Looking Brown In A Public Place

Sadly, this sketch from the early 1980s is entirely relevant.

Despite smug bourgeois claims that Britain is the home of individual liberty, the police are allowed to stop and search citizens without needing any suspicion at all. This is the kind of thing usually associated with Nazi Germany or other repressive regimes: an autocratic state taking to itself the power to interfere with people on the whim of a uniformed bully.

You can guess who gets stopped most often: male black teenagers. I've seen it a few times in The Dark Place: a 'random' stop, harsh words exchanged, nothing found, increased resentment amongst the population, while white passers-by have their prejudices reinforced. I once stepped in at the train station after watching a cop harass some kids whose offence seemed to be 'being black in possession of a skateboard'. It was a very scary experience - demanding a name and number from a red-faced, angry policewoman who had clearly never been questioned before. I'd do it again though. I was at Birmingham railway station last year when they police were asking people to step through a metal detector in a 'random' search for knives. I pointed out to the Asian lad next to me that despite the vicissitudes of 'random' selection, no white people appeared to have been chosen, and encouraged him to refuse, which he did. Easy for white, middle-class me to suggest, brave of him to follow it through.

According to the LSE, you are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched under the 'exceptional circumstances' legislation if you are black. Perhaps that's the 'exception' they mean. Are all these kids criminals? Not really - 0.5% lead to arrests for weapons possession, and I guess another tiny percentage are done for minor crimes. Apart from being nakedly racist, it's astonishingly inefficient.

This stuff makes my blood boil. The police are, or should be, public servants, but too often they act as an external force descending on an area or community as the representatives of power. I've had some very good experiences of policing too, but far too frequently, the individuals I've met have been on some kind of power trip, concerned more with the expression of their authority than with fact, justice or the wider ramifications of their behaviour. That's why the Lawrence murder dragged on so long: to the police, the two black teenagers attacked must have been 'up to no good'. No wonder young black people riot: their only experiences of policing are being stopped and searched in public for no apparent reason.

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