Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The harassment of a generation

"Power never takes a back step - only in the face of more power"
Malcolm X

April 2011 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first Brixton rising. In the wake of similar risings that spread across the UK that year, the draconian 'sus' laws were scrapped.

Just as then, today, amidst the calls for rubber bullets and troops to be deployed on the streets to quell the disturbances that started with the riots in Tottenham, the usual media culprits are happy to categorise those who have taken to the streets as 'thieves', 'thugs' and simple 'looters'. Yet an important truth has been conveniently relegated to the background: that if you are black, you are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you are white.(1)

Harassment on an epic scale

The impact of stop and search on a large swathe of British society cannot be understated. The statistics are staggering and provide a compelling insight into one of the prominent causes of the riots in London. Between the period 2007 to 2008 in England and Wales, there were more than 170,000 stop and searches carried out on black people.(2)  This was an increase on the figures for 2004-05 which show around 118,000 stop and searches carried out against the black population out of a total in England and Wales that year of 840,000.(3) We might wish to dwell here for a few seconds and consider the total figure for stop and searches in one year alone. In the year 2008-09 there were around one million stop and searches conducted under PACE* and around 256,000 under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

A policy designed to cut crime?

Given the sheer numbers of people stopped by the police one might make what appears to be a logical  jump to the assumption that stop and search is an effective policy in the fight against crime. The statistics show the opposite. It's estimated that stop and search has '... reduced the number of disruptable crimes by 0.2 per cent'.(4) This represents both a huge investment in man-hours and financial resources across England And Wales. It also represents a policy almost designed to alienate wide sections of society on a grand scale and spark the sort of scenes played out on our plasma screens.

Yet the policy continues despite the evidence that shows it has no real utility in cutting crime. The question is why? The Equality and Human Rights Commission is clear with regard to the force that drives a policy that disproportionately targets the the black community - it is simple racial discrimination.(5) There is an eerie historical continuity at play.

The two cases below prove illuminating and expose the beating heart that infuses this policy.

Barry Coy, a professional black ice hockey player, was stopped by the police on more than one hundred separate occasions after purchasing an expensive high performance car yet never charged with any offence. Or the case of special needs assistant 37 year old Anne Roberts who was stopped and searched by the police in London whilst on a bus. On arrival, the police stated that she was holding onto her bag in a suspicious way, wrestled her to the floor and arrested her. She was informed that she was being arrested on suspicion of fraud, later accused by the police at Tottenham police station of being a class A dealer in drugs. All charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence but she still received a caution for obstruction of the police. (6) 

Barry's case hails from 1982, Anne's case from 2010.

Echoes of the past

Two Acts provide police with extensive powers to stop and search: Section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and the 1984  Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Together, both provide the legislative framework for the implementation of the institutional harassment of hundreds of thousands of black, Asian and white young people. The former was introduced to extend to the police powers to stop illegal raves in the 1990s against much widespread opposition.

The 'sus' laws

Yet there is an historical precedent in the use of an existing legislative framework to harass specific sections of British society. Throughout the 1970s the police made use of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to implement the policy that became known more widely as the 'sus' laws. The 'sus' laws were hated, particularly among the African-Caribbean communities. These laws gave police powers to stop and arrest anyone whom they suspected might commit a crime. In Lewisham London 1977, the Special Patrol Group an elite squad armed with pick axe handles and alsatian dogs, targeted sixty homes in the area in 'Operation PNH' or 'Operation Police Nigger Hunt' as it was known by the police. The Metropolitan Police statistics at the time showed that if you were black you were 15 times more likely to be stopped than a white person.(7) The 'sus' laws combined with the wholesale stopping and searches and the mass arrest of the African-Caribbean community as part of Opeation Swamp 81' in Brixton in 1981 are widely seen as the catalyst for those riots. (8)

Today, this harassment continues apace:

The Metropolitan and City forces in London together generate the large majority of excess stops and searches of black people: over 100,000 compared with around 150,000 in England and Wales... Outside London, large excesses are also seen in the West Midlands, Thames Valley, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Hampshire... While London generates the majority of excess stops and searches, in other areas the powers are used much more disproportionately against black and Asian people. Dorset has persistently stopped and searched black people disproportionately. Leicestershire and Hampshire also have high black/white disproportionality ratios. Some of the highest Asian/white disproportionality ratios over the last five years are seen in the West Midlands, Thames Valley, West Mercia and South Yorkshire. (9)

The above provides a partial explanation as to why these explosions of discontent are erupting across England.

A system heaping opprobrium on the oppressed

In 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research published statistics that showed that around fifty per cent of young black males were unemployed. (10)  Today in 2011, black men are five times more likely to be unemployed than their white male counterparts. Youth unemployment, high across all groups, impacts more heavily on the young from working class areas.

Lacking any real prospect of secure decently-paid employment in the foreseeable future, these young people also lack the economic cushion enjoyed by their middle class counterparts in the shape of cash-flush parents. Factor in the siren call of the product marketers and advertisers whose 'must-have' message is both difficult to avoid and resist as it's pumped out through our TV screens at ten minute intervals and displayed in a grand style via a multitude of prime location bill boards. In this paradigm, the only way to validation is through ownership of the next generation iPhone. Unable to acquire these luxury items through legitimate means, is it any wonder that this Generation X might decide to use others?

Quoted in the Guardian, criminologist and youth culture expert John Pitts hints at the deeper problems:

"Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future... unlike most people, some of those looting had no stake in conformity. Those things that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose."

The Cure - more of the same

Since the coming to power of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, we've witnessed savage cuts to social provision and the welfare system on a scale unknown since the war. This has sharpened the growing anger. Global capitalism in crisis is in the process of wasting a generation of young people cheered on by politicians who want us to swallow more of their savage cuts. The bankers responsible for the crisis all the while continue to fill their own mouths with gold. And the police? True to their historical rationale and form, view this crisis as a further opportunity to exercise a power unique to them and one that affords to them apparent immunity from scrutiny or prosecution.

Thirty years of neo-liberalism has created the tinder. The execution of Mark Duggan by police last Thursday  was the spark that lit this conflagration. But its been a conflagration a long and very predictable time in the coming.

Notes and References

* PACE - 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act

(1) Stop and Think, A Critical Review of the use of Stop and Search Powers in England and Wales, sourced at http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/raceinbritain/ehrc_stop_and_search_report.pdf
(2) The Guardian 2nd June 2010 sourced at http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/jun/02/police-stop-search-black-asian?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487
(3)Bowling B and Phillips C, Disproportionate and Discriminatory: Reviewing the Evidence on Police Stop and Search, 2007  The Authors. Journal Compilation, 2007 The Modern Law Review Limited.(2007) pp 942-943
(4) Stop and Think, A Critical Review of the use of Stop and Search Powers in England and Wales, pg 6, sourced at http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/raceinbritain/ehrc_stop_and_search_report.pdf
(5) As above, pg 6
(6)The Guardian 8th July 2011 sourced at http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jul/08/racist-stop-search-powers-challenge
(7) Stop and Think, A Critical Review of the use of Stop and Search Powers in England and Wales, pg 69
(8)P Morgan, Socialist Review,1999, sourced at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr228/morgan.htm
(9)Race, Crime and Arrests, Home Office Research Studies no 58, London, 1979. Pg 33
(10) Sourced at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8468308.stm and http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2010/1/20/recession-leaves-half-of-uk-s-young-black-peo

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1 comment:

  1. Nice picture. It's a gay thing then, underneath all the posturing and verbosity ?