Police Photo: Flickr/Cody

Racism is an indispensable tool in the police’s mission to protect a deliberately exploitative system, argues Lucy Nichols

Two graphic videos have emerged on the internet recently. Though they occur over 4,000 miles apart, both videos display horrendous violent incidents towards young, black men. They expose the violent racism of law enforcement in Britain and the US.

On the 23rd of February, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by two white men whilst out jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Though the murder took place in February, these two men – a father and son aged 64 and 34 – were not arrested until the 5th of May, after graphic footage of them shooting the unarmed 25-year-old was leaked and sparked international outrage.

The response of the local justice system immediately after the murder was a farce; when the police went to Arbery’s home on the 23rd of February, they informed his mother that her son had been shot and killed trying to burgle a house. Jackie Johnson was the district attorney for Glynn County at the time and a former colleague of the elder of the two murderers. She refused to allow the police officers who originally responded to the murder to make any arrests in the immediate aftermath of the crime. 

Johnson was later replaced by George Barnhill, who also refused to make any arrests, instead arguing that the two murderers acted in self-defence – despite leaving their home in pursuit of the victim before shooting him. Barnhill chose to blame the victim’s mental health record and prior arrests for his ‘aggressive nature’ towards his murderers.

The father and son who killed Ahmaud Arbery have now been arrested, but there is no telling whether they will be brought to justice; the killers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice all walk free today. Whilst many white Americans protest the lockdown on the basis that they want to be able to get a haircut, black Americans are again defending their right to life.

On Friday, footage emerged of two police officers tasering a black man at a petrol station in Manchester. The video is punctured with the screams of the man’s young son as he watches police taser and wrestle his father to the ground. Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara was arrested on Wednesday night after originally being stopped by police for speeding; he was later charged with speeding, resisting arrest, drink- driving and ‘unnecessary travel’. Like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, this incident was filmed and posted online. This has understandably sparked outrage from the general public, celebrities and politicians alike. 

It is widely assumed that racism is more prevalent in America than in Britain, and that racism is particularly embedded in American police departments. There are countless examples of horrific violence against black men and women that seem to prove this. These murders are often caught on camera, and often the killer gets away with it, usually by citing ‘self-defence’ against someone they viewed as dangerous, or unpredictable, or armed. 

This is how the murderers of 12-year-old Tamir Rice escaped punishment after they shot and killed a child while he was playing in a park. It is not luck or coincidence when the white murderer of a black person walks free; it is the product of the USA’s entrenched racism that pervades every state institution, from individual police officers to the entire justice system.

But this is far from being the first time British police have used gratuitous violence to detain a person who isn’t dangerous. A recent example is the tragic death of Jason Lennon, who died after being detained by police outside the Excel Centre in East London. A total of 500 people of colour have died in police custody since 1990, making up a third of such deaths. 

The development of modern racism 

It is crucial that we recognise that, as in the US, racism in Britain is systemic and deeply rooted in our state’s institutions – especially the police. The education system, housing, the media and the justice system in Britain too all display signs of institutional racism. Look at the tiny number of ethnic minority students at top universities, journalists in the national media or the disproportionate number of people of colour in prison.  

Modern state institutions on both sides of the Atlantic have been shaped by racist attitudes from the start. As the black Marxist historian CLR James argued, modern racism was born out of the Transatlantic Slave trade, which was

‘so shocking… that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that Africans were an inferior race.’ 

The brutal history of slavery had a particularly deep and toxic impact on the US. Though the British establishment was one of the key organisers of the slave trade, in the US slavery formed the basis of much production in the US (particularly the South) until the US Civil War in the 1860s. 

Even after slavery was abolished in the US, black Americans were persecuted by all levels of American society. Although Republican governments intended to give former slaves more agency post 1865, this period of ‘reconstruction’ failed. Many Southern African Americans were forced into sharecropping, where black tenants would rent small plots of land and in return give a proportion of their crops to the landowners – often their former slave masters. 

Many more freed slaves moved North only to be subjected to discriminatory laws and practices there. This was followed by a decades-long struggle for civil rights, during which African Americans fighting for equality were consistently attacked by both the state and general public; this spanned from the mob lynchings that were common in the South, to the assassination of Fred Hampton by Chicago police.

No black in the Union Jack 

After the abolition of slavery in the UK, the British establishment used racist ideas to justify colonial pursuits and imperialist wars abroad. This ensured that racist ideas continued to circulate in the corridors of power. But racism was also deliberately instrumentalised domestically. 

An ideology of white nationalism and patriotism became particularly important towards the end of the nineteenth century, as working class discontent became a growing threat to the establishment. As colonialism unravelled after the second world war, the racist instincts rife in ruling class institutions were directed more and more against the growing number of people from the former colonies who came to Britain to find work. 

The police force is one of the state’s last lines of defence and has to be ready to impose order physically. It tends as a result to concentrate the more backward elements of official ideology in its ranks. The police force remained almost entirely white later than any other British institution. Openly racist ideas flourish in its ranks more openly than elsewhere in official society. 

In the last few decades there have been a series of scandals about racism emanating from the very top of the police force. These include a series of revelations about racist language and ideas propagated by training officers at the Metropolitan Police’s main training centre at Hendon. Perhaps the most serious was the exposure of attempts to undermine any serious investigation in to the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in South London in 1993. The official enquiry found five years later that the police were indeed ‘institutionally racist’. More recent revelations include the fact that undercover police were used to spy on Stephen Lawrence’s family as they sought justice.  

Racism retooled

Both the War on Terror and austerity have led to new forms of racist police behaviour in response to what the establishment sees as the growing threat of public disorder. The widespread demonization of Muslim people in the US and Britain has led to an increase in the level of police harassment of Muslims and Asian people generally. 

After the 2011 riots in Britain, the Metropolitan Police imported the ‘total policing’ model pioneered by William Bratton, a former New York Police Commissioner, following the policy of zero tolerance and ‘escalating force’. This strategy and others adopted elsewhere are based on ‘preemptive policing’, in which police target groups according to whether they are ‘likely’ to commit a crime or engage in disorder. 

All this helps to explain why Greater Manchester Police found it necessary to use a taser on a man in front of his crying child, or why the police in Glynn County were so reluctant to bring Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers to account (they claimed to be acting in self-defence when they committed the heinous crime). Racism is encouraged and embraced by various state institutions as a means to sustain a more and more threadbare status quo. This has serious, often violent, consequences for people of colour in the US and the UK. A person in modern America can lose his life for as little as going for a jog, a person in Britain can be tasered in front of his child for as little as speeding.

This is something that we must fight; it is crucial that we root out racism whenever and wherever we see it, and demonstrate total solidarity with those who are subjected to it. In the words of Angela Davis:

‘in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.’ 

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