Workers' Liberty #54


The police and "institutional racism"

By Violet Martin

The police system is racist. It is officially admitted. Years of stubborn struggle by the Lawrence family and their supporters have finally driven the Establishment to concede that the police are "institutionally racist". The Macpherson report on how the police dealt with the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, on 22 April 1993 in South London, concludes plainly that the investigation "was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers". An official government representative admitted to the Guardian that it was "outrageous" that the police responsible for the case have escaped disciplinary action.

The Metropolitan Police responded by promising to clean up its act, under the slogan "Protect and Respect". Yet the measures proposed in, or likely to result from, the Macpherson report, are more about salvaging "protection and respect" for the police than for Britain's black communities. The aim of the Establishment is to stop the police losing control and being overwhelmed, on the one hand by grassroots racism and on the other by militant anti-racism. A dose of "institutional anti-racism" is proposed - to moderate the racism of the police and to make the police more acceptable and credible in black communities. The Establishment wants to restrain freelance racism in order that the larger racism underpinned by immigration and asylum laws and mass unemployment in a rotten dog-eat-dog capitalist society can continue without uncontrollable disorder.

Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, put it like this: "Everything in this country has black people who have played a part in it. We helped to make the National Health Service what it is today... transport, you name it and we have played a part of it. We have more than earned our place to live and not to have our children killed in the way that Stephen was....

"My feelings about the future remain the same as they were when my son was murdered. Black youngsters will never be safe on the streets. The police on the ground are the same as they were when my son was killed... I think we have had enough of police policing themselves, because they have always given themselves a pat on the back..."

Duwayne Brooks, the friend who was with Stephen when he was killed, says: "I am frightened of the racists - but I am more frightened of the police. It feels like some are out of control and others cover up for them. I believe that if this inquiry fails to bring about change, people will not tolerate what is happening any more. They will take to the streets and they will take their message straight to the police".

Stephen Lawrence was murdered at a bus stop at about 10.30pm on 22 April 1993. Within a couple of days five local white youths - racists with a known record of crime and trouble at school - were named to the police by several informants as the murderers. The Daily Mail has since denounced the five as the killers on its front page, and challenged them to sue for libel. They have not sued. Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks was with him when he was killed, and available to identify the killers.

The police, however, according to the Macpherson report, "stereotyped [Duwayne] as a young black man exhibiting unpleasant hostility and agitation". They ignored what he said and went off to a nearby pub to ask if there had been a fight there.

The five were not arrested until much later, and the collection of evidence against them was bungled. The Crown Prosecution Service refused to take the case to court. The Lawrence family brought a private prosecution, but the cases fell in court for lack of evidence. The legal effect was the same as an acquittal: the five cannot be tried again for this murder. One of the senior police involved in the case had dubious links with the father of one of the five, a notorious criminal. Important police records from the case had disappeared by the time the inquiry came to ask for them.

The Macpherson report finds evidence of wider "institutional racism" in the police in such facts as that a black person is nearly eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, nearly five times more likely to be arrested, and nearly seven times more likely to die as a result of police actions.

The Macpherson recommendations, however, are much paler than its findings. The report says that the police should no longer be exempted from the general laws against race discrimination; that there should be a Metropolitan Police Authority with similar powers to police authorities elsewhere; and that a Freedom of Information Act should apply to policing.

Almost all the rest of the report's 70 recommendations are to do with setting up internal procedures, policies and training programmes in the police force designed to make them more "sensitive" to questions of racism. Three recommendations call for more anti-racist education in schools. Home Secretary Jack Straw (not Macpherson) has mooted the possibility of changing the law on "double jeopardy" (the rule that says you cannot be tried twice for the same offence, and which has protected the five killers from being brought back to court). This is a change which, however attractive in this case, would in general do more harm than good.

No police officer is held responsible. All the senior officers involved in the Lawrence case are safely retired; Metropolitan Police chief Paul Condon can continue to defy calls for him to resign. The Macpherson report specifically says that the stop-and-search law should not be changed. All the recommendations are in the old framework, denounced by Doreen Lawrence: the police will continue policing the police.

No new measures of democratic control or accountability are proposed, other than the adjustments to the exceptional position of the Metropolitan Police. In the early 1980s some Labour councils, in Sheffield and Merseyside for example, tried to use the Police Authorities (public bodies, partly and indirectly elected, which are supposed to supervise the police) to get some accountability. They failed. During the 1984-5 miners' strike, the South Yorkshire Police Authority tried to stop its Chief Constable spending council money on anti-picket forces, but was stopped by a High Court ruling. No change to this toothless structure is proposed by the Macpherson report. Local authority cuts will continue to cripple community police monitoring groups.

Both in the report, and in official comment, much has been made of the idea that "the whole of society" is responsible. This is true in general. Here, it is a cop-out, in more senses than one.

The report itself says that: "Too many of those who decry the police service allow themselves to go beyond fair criticism. We simply say that there must be full cooperation on all sides to combat racism". Paul Condon declared that "the blame that is being laid at their [the police's] door... is shared by all levels of society". Home Secretary Jack Straw said that "the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society... Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have a culture which tends to exclude or disadvantage non-white people. The police service in this respect is little different..."

If everyone is to blame, then no-one is to blame particularly. But in truth the police are not just a reflection of the average racism of society. Duwayne Brooks is still being stopped and searched regularly - not by "society in general", but by the police. The police are deliberately separated from the rest of society, sheltered from democratic accountability, given wide-ranging arbitrary powers and extensive protection against any kickback from abuse of those powers, and run in a hierarchical and authoritarian way, so that they will be a reliable force against picket-lines, demonstrations, and uprisings. They therefore reproduce all reactionary prejudices at double strength.

According to an opinion poll published on 9 February, only 20% of the public believe that the police "are not racist at all", and 31 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 believe that most police "tend to be racist or very racist". The Institute of Race Relations has compiled a list of 23 racist murders since 1991, many of which the police refused to define as racist despite clear evidence.

All the pious "codes of conduct" will be more than offset by Jack Straw's recent moves to increase police powers. Just as the cops currently use their "stop and search" powers more against black people, so also they will use their new powers in a racist way. These will allow the jailing of "psychopaths" even if they have committed no crime, and mandate a "three strikes and out" rule of jailing anyone with three convictions for burglary.

Likewise, the continued drive to structure education round tests and league tables, while resources are cut, will bring more and more exclusions - more and more young people trashed by the education system, a disproportionate number of them black - and make a mockery of government-decreed liberal sermons in school assemblies.

Racism in society at large is also more than a matter of personal prejudices. Racism can become harsher even while prejudice diminishes. By all accounts racial prejudice is very much weaker today than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. In those days, though, there was full employment. West Indian and Asian immigrants were welcomed to Britain and got secure jobs here. Unemployment for them was no higher than for white people.

In times of mass unemployment, the same racial prejudice which in other days might result in no more than stupid talk is sharpened into a bitter competition for the few jobs available. Unemployment in most black and Asian communities is now much higher than for white people. Black and Asian people have also suffered from the Tories' and New Labour's trashing of the public services in which many of them were employed.

The state underpins embittered racism through its immigration and asylum laws. Ever since the 1960s, Tory and Labour governments have defined immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the West Indies as "a problem", and constructed ever-stricter laws and regulations to exclude them. In recent years, the possibility of "economic" immigration from such countries having been largely closed off, the government has set about closing the doors also to asylum-seekers fleeing political persecution. Under new measures, announced the same week as the Macpherson report, asylum-seekers will lose all remaining rights to state benefits (receiving only ration-tickets to stop them starving), they will be dispersed to detention centres round the country, and immigration officers will gain further powers to exclude them without appeal.

Laws against race discrimination, and the whole "race relations industry", have been developed exactly in parallel with the racist immigration laws. Ever since the 1960s they have been two sides of one state strategy: to sustain the definition of black and Asian people as "a problem", but to minimise, contain - and institutionalise! - both the "problem" and popular reactions to it, both racist and anti-racist.

Because of the weight and power of the state, the strategy is not just a nullity. Laws against race discrimination do have some effect, sometimes. But the "anti-racist" side of the strategy always lags, both because of the contradictions in the strategy and because of inbuilt limitations of abstract, bureaucratic, "preaching-from-above" anti-racism. It is 34 years since the first Race Relations Act supposedly outlawed racism, and 18 years since the Scarman report on the Brixton riots officially found the police racist! The Macpherson report sticks to the same strategy. Only a united struggle to change society by black and white workers can deal with racism

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