THE ART OF POLICE RACISM: A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE
Where to begin...? A few weeks ago, we saw one of the most egregious crimes against humanity, and unfortunately not for the first time. Police brutality and institutional racism; none of it is new. But May 25th 2020 saw the most heinous act committed, and yet another black life lost at the hands of white police officers in America.
As ever, there is much to be speculated about, but the facts (and mobile phone footage) speak for themselves. George Perry Floyd, Jr was an African-American man who was killed by police in Minneapolis during an arrest for allegedly using counterfeit bank notes to buy cigarettes. Mr Floyd had recently lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, having moved to Minneapolis in 2014. During the arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Mr Floyd's neck and back for over eight minutes, despite Floyd's repeated cries that he could not breathe. Even after he passed out, Mr Chauvin maintained his position with his knee firmly on Mr Floyd's neck, much to the disgust and consternation of eyewitnesses. Mr Chauvin's colleague, Tou Thao, repeatedly antagonised and threatened the growing crowd. All of this was captured by mobile phone and the video posted to social media. The events surrounding Mr Floyd's tragic death, and the conduct of the police officers involved, has reignited the long-standing Black Lives Matter protest on a global scale that we have never seen before.
Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown, Jr. Alton Sterling. Botham Jean. Atatiana Jefferson. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. And the countless other people of colour killed by white police officers in the US. Casting our minds back further, we think of the violent March 1991 beating of Mr Rodney King in California, again at the hands of white police officers, leading to the Los Angeles riots. Nobody can even begin to accurately estimate the total number of cases like these. Thanks to modern technology, we now have the ability to expose the perpetrators. But the reality is that there are far, far more cases than we will ever know.
So deep-seated are the longstanding racial inequalities and social issues, particularly in the US, that people are understandably frustrated and outraged. Starting back in the days of slavery through to the well-documented fight for civil rights during the 1960s, the last 2 weeks have seen protests, riots and even more killings as the fight for equality continues. But this time we're seeing these activities the world over.
Here in the UK, it would be surprising if recent events haven't made any person of colour stop and re-evaluate their experiences. For a long time, we saw it mainly as a problem in America. And yes, to some extent this is true. But could the crucial difference be simply that police in the UK are typically unarmed? Is it really less of a problem over here? Is the same misconception of racial superiority which drives these horrific acts of violence against our people also present here? Simply put- have we as black people in the UK also suffered racial injustice at the hands of the law and in other scenarios? A relatively recent UK example of police brutality is the 2011 killing of Mark Duggan, which sparked many nationwide riots and looting. Thankfully, the loss of black lives in UK police custody are much fewer in number than US cases- but that doesn't mean we don't experience prejudice in other ways.
What we do know is that we have all have a story to tell. Reflecting on our own personal experiences, there are certainly situations we have faced where we can't help but wonder how things would have been different had the races been reversed. From workplace disputes to interactions with the police, even the mundane aspects of life such as grocery shopping- how much of a part do unconscious bias and racial stereotypes play?
One evening a few years ago, I was driving home from work- a journey of less than 10 minutes. It was winter, so although it was not late, it was dark and the streets relatively quiet. As I set off, I noticed a police car behind me. I thought nothing of it for the first few minutes. In my cute blue BMW convertible, I took my usual relatively convoluted backstreet route- crafted and perfected over time to avoid traffic. The police car trailed silently behind me, at a short distance and for just long enough for me to wonder whether I was being followed. I reached home and parked up. Sure enough, the police car also stopped and parked behind me. Now there was no doubt; I had definitely been followed. By now, my heart was thumping in my chest. My palms were sweaty and my mind racing. What had I done? What did they want? What was about to happen? Note that my first thought was what had I done... that immediate assumption that I must be in the wrong speaks volumes. I got out of the car. So did the police officer. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was coming home from work. He asked me where I worked. He then mumbled something about having run my registration through the system and finding it 'strange' that a car registered in North London (I'd recently moved) would be 'all the way here' in West London. At that point, it became obvious to me that this officer had absolutely nothing on me and was now desperately grasping for a justification for trailing me. And yet- I was still shaking! All manner of things were running through my mind- there was no one else around; would he try to pin something on me? Suggest I'd been driving erratically should I lodge a complaint? Accuse me of behaving aggressively? As it turned out he had nothing more to say and swiftly got back into his car and left. While he probably had forgotten all about the incident within 5 minutes, I was still shaking about an hour later. I'm still thinking about it today, 8 years later. Though I'll never know for sure the reason behind the police officer's decision to follow and question me, I strongly suspect this was a classic case of DWB (Driving While Black) and the consequences which come with it.
In my case, I'm lucky. I thank God that nothing more happened- it was scary enough. But what about others? Current events certainly beg the question and incite a discussion. And while the discussion is being had, that can only be a good thing. Many non-blacks / ethnic minorities are questioning their own subconscious biases, assumptions, stereotypes and generalisations. Public apologies are being issued. TV shows and movies with inappropriate content are being pulled from all major viewing platforms. Small steps in the right direction are being taken. It's going to take a long time to dismantle something that dates back so far and has been ingrained for so many generations. Our resounding hope and prayer is that the progress we are making now will benefit the next generation and continue to do so until we truly are all equal.
Watch our pledge in response to systemic racism here.
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