ANALYSIS: Are we heading for another summer of discontent, writes Kim Evans.
Judging by a report recently published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the police’s use of stop and search, it wouldn’t surprise me. It seems that the same attitudes that caused the Brixton Riots of 1981, despite everything done to guard against it, still prevail. The police in some areas of the country, according to the report, are abusing their powers to stop and search, and in doing so continuing to alienate whole sections of the community for yet more generations to come.
In 1981 I was proud to wear a uniform that marked me out as public property. It gave anyone who was so inclined, the right to stop and talk to me. And talk to me they did. I worked in North London, in Dalston and Stoke Newington, a happy, vibrant multi-cultural albeit poor working class area. I loved the colourful first generation Jamaicans, and their cheeky grandchildren. I loved walking along Ridley Road market, having fruit shoved in my pockets, and trying but failing to keep still whilst chatting to the Rastafarian running the reggae music stall. I was fascinated by the strict uniform of the orthodox Jews at Stamford Hill who would come out to bring us trays of orange juice and biscuits if anything big happened requiring more than a couple of coppers to attend to deal with the incident.
If that sounds romantic, it’s how it was (in my experience at any rate). I don’t ever recall coming into conflict over a search: if articles were found, the person was arrested and, if they weren’t, the manner in which I or my colleague dealt with that person made it far less likely that they would be left nursing a grievance.
From public property to public enemy
However, a couple of weeks later, in South London, that same uniform marked me out as a public enemy – a target for rocks, petrol bombs and utter hatred. I would have to stand and defend myself as best I could against people with whom I had absolutely no argument whatsoever. In fact, if they’d stopped to speak to me they would have found that I agreed with their cause, if not their methods for highlighting it.
The spark for those riots was ‘Operation Swamp’ and the so-called ‘sus’ law, the resulting Scarman Report concluded they were ‘essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police’. In five days in Brixton nearly a thousand people had been stopped and searched by specially drafted in plainclothes police, under a section of the Vagrancy Act 1824.
This legislation enabled police to stop and search anyone acting ‘suspiciously’ and with intent to commit an arrestable offence. It was later repealed. Lord Scarman, in his enquiry into the riots, found evidence of the ‘disproportionate use of stop and search against black people’.
Fast forward 31 years, and despite the recommendations of Scarman, and later Macpherson, the EHRC concludes that nationally, black people were 37 times more likely to be stopped and searched (under section 60) than white people in 2010-11, with ethnic minorities undergoing more than 100,000 excessive searches between 2008-11.
What are we to make of those findings? What is it that is still going so badly wrong? Lord Scarman, in his report may have been kind to the Metropolitan Police, when he concluded that ‘institutional racism’ did not exist, whilst Macpherson found that the police were ‘institutionally racist’. Whilst that surely, in this day and age cannot be so, the statistics seem to tell another story.
I am however encouraged by the green shoots of change from the likes of a Metropolitan Police twitter account (@MPSWandsworth), which seems determined to make policing in the London Borough of Wandsworth more open and accountable. The forces mentioned as failing so badly in this report would do well to take note, and follow their example. With the temperature already raised as a result of the pressures of policing the Olympics, they should ignore the warnings at their peril. Neither the communities nor the police can afford another summer of disorder.