Placard at protest against police violence. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Placard at protest against police violence. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Institutional racism is not just a concept that applies to the US but a very real fact for people of colour in the UK, argues Shabbir Lakha

Two incidents of black people being dragged out of their cars and detained by police that have gone viral in recent days are clear examples of the institutional racism in the police force.

Ryan Colaço was stopped by police on 23 May on the grounds that they could smell cannabis in his car. On 29 May, having just done an interview for Channel 4 about his experiences of police racism, he was again stopped by police. They claimed they saw him hide something in his waistband, and when he asked to be assured he won’t be handcuffed if he cooperates and leaves his vehicle, the police officers smashed his window and violently dragged him out and pinned him to the floor.

He was handcuffed, drug-tested, strip searched and then detained at the police station for 12 hours even though nothing was found on his person or in his car. When he was released he had to walk a mile to get his impounded car and while he was walking he was approached and questioned by police officers.

Bianca Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos were pulled out of their car by police officers with their three-month-old baby inside. In the video, the police officer pulling Williams out of the car says she is being detained on the grounds for a search for weapons. Later police claimed that the car was driving ‘suspiciously’ including being on the wrong side of the road – on a single lane road. The Metropolitan Police’s Directorate of Professional Standards has said, after reviewing the footage, that there was no misconduct on the part of the officers involved.

These are far from being isolated events. A month ago, a black ambulance driver was handcuffed and searched outside his own house in Deptford and a week later two black men were handcuffed and searched outside a Tesco in Enfield (the white person in their group was not handcuffed). In the same week, two police officers are alleged to have taken selfies with the dead bodies of two black women murdered in North West London and the family say they were the ones who found the bodies because the police were slow to respond to the report of missing black women from a council estate. 

Analysis of Home Office data in 2019 showed that black people were 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. This ratio is likely to have increased since Sajid Javid as Home Secretary removed the need for “reasonable suspicion” to carry out Section 60 searches if officers “anticipate serious violence” a year ago.

During the coronavirus lockdown, black and ethnic minority people have been 54% more likely to receive fines for violating social distancing rules than white people. While big VE Day street parties were perfectly acceptable and Dominic Cummings apparently didn’t commit any crime on his trip to Durham or his 60 mile eye test to and from Barnard Castle, the Met police have been forcefully shutting down ‘unlicensed music events’ in Brixton and Harlesden.

One example of how these are not individual incidents but part and parcel of the everyday approach and tactics of the police is the infamous Gangs Matrix which was set up in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots. An Amnesty International investigation into the Matrix found that 78% of people listed as ‘gang nominals’ are black, that it takes as little as sharing a grime video on social media to be flagged onto the Matrix, and that there were instances of police officers creating fake social media profiles to monitor people without a warrant.

The 1999 Macpherson report labelled the police as institutionally racist, and while most of its recommendations were adopted, it’s clear that not much has actually changed. The report was the product of the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and it was recently revealed that not only did the police fail to properly investigate the murder, they had undercover police monitor the family’s campaign for justice.

The current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, was in command of the operation that led to the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes and was a lead officer on Operation Trident which was set up to tackle gun crime specifically among black people and was implicated in the killing of Mark Duggan.

But institutional racism also goes further than that to policymaking and political decisions. As the videos mentioned above all show, the police use the Misuse of Drugs Act and Offensive Weapons Act together with their powers to stop and search without probable cause to racially profile people. The widespread use of these laws and powers in the same manner shows that these aren’t cases of individual discretion but of an institutional approach and at the political direction of the Home Office and the government. There are many examples of this from the hostile environment to the Boris Johnson and Priti Patel essentially instructing police to treat Black Lives Matter protesters as ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’.

One example that crystallises this relationship is counterterrorism. The Metropolitan police were given rolling authorisation to use Section 44 of the Terrorism Act which allowed them to stop and search without reasonable suspicion and in the Home Office’s guidance they stated that it is lawful to take into account a person’s ethnicity because “‘for example, some international terrorist groups are associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Muslims’.”

As a result, Asians were over 6 times more likely and black people 8 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched under these powers, and in the first five years of the Prevent agenda, 90% of referrals were Muslim.

This insidious systemic racism that is manifested so overtly and grotesquely in the policing in this country is exactly why Black Lives Matter is such an important movement here as well as in the US. It’s why Bianca Williams must be supported in any legal action she takes and why those arrested at Black Lives Matter protests including one man arrested for his involvement in pulling down Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol have to be defended.

In the US, Black Lives Matter protesters are demanding the defunding of the police, and though not in the same way, there is a growing conversation around it in the UK. The central understanding of the demand is that racism in policing isn’t an individual but an institutional issue and it can’t be reformed. To call it ‘nonsense’ as Knight-of-the-realm, former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer did recently shows his lack of understanding of the institutional nature of police racism, and ‘unconscious bias training’ isn’t going to fix that.

As the Black Lives Matter protests that have happened all over the country have shown, there is widespread outrage at police racism. We must continue to demand justice for every victim of racist policing and build a movement that’s aimed at tackling systemic racism.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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