Historians' Watch

Black Lives Matter in Britain: The Future and the Past

In the United Kingdom, major corporations, university heads and leading politicians have endorsed the aims of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.  They have acknowledged the racism experienced by people of colour and its pernicious social effects.  Given that it was the death of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police, which inspired this moment of political activism, it is scarcely surprising that a great deal of the condemnation has centred on institutionally racist policing.  Another target of the movement, which has also received not unanimous but widespread support, is the bringing down of statues commemorating figures who profited from the exploitation of Black people. There is a further feature of this historic moment which is also worth noting: that is the apparent amnesia amongst both the establishment and much of the media regarding more recent historical events, when large numbers of young people took to the streets to protest both the loss of Black lives and their own victimisation through discriminatory policing.

James Eades, ‘Black Lives Matter London Protest, 6th June 2020’. Reproduced with permission and available at Unsplash.com.

In both 1985 and 2011 the country experienced widespread social unrest whose proximate and dominant cause was a shared experience of institutionally racist policing.  At the time, these ‘riots’ were roundly condemned.  There were no sympathetic words, no statements of support from the heads of private or public bodies, in fact no official acknowledgement that discriminatory policing and hence wider institutional racism might lie at the heart of the unrest. Questions then arise as to why this time the response has been so different.  And whether, by acknowledging the need for change now and not then, it has allowed many to erase their complicity, whether by doing something or doing nothing, in the long history of racism and institutionally racist policing in the United Kingdom.

Both the unrest in 1985 and in 2011 began with the deaths of Black residents of the Broadwater Farm council estate in Haringey, North London, which had a substantial Black population.  In 1985, Cynthia Jarret died of a heart attack, when police officers searched her home for evidence of her son Floyd Jarret’s alleged criminal activity. In 2011, Mark Duggan, another resident of the estate, was shot by police officers involved in Operation Trident, a London-wide initiative against Black gun crime.  In both cases, what began as a peaceful protest by residents Broadwater Farm at the local police station became violent.  In 1985, the police Instant Response Unit was called in and blockaded the Farm.  In 2011, it was the Police Support Unit (specialising in riot control) who confronted young demonstrators.  In the 1985 disorder, a police officer, P.C. Kevin Blakelock was murdered.  On both these occasions, the unrest spread beyond Haringey to other areas of London and to cities across England.  But again, in both cases, much of the anger of the protesters was expressed not in violence against people but in the destruction of property.

There can be no doubt that young Black males on the Farm had experienced discriminatory policing in the years preceding these episodes of disorder.  According to the Met’s own figures, in July 2011, a not atypical month, 1237 people were stopped and searched in Haringey.  Of these, 625 were White and 853 were Black, although the latter make up only a minority of Haringey’s population.  An overwhelming majority of those who were stopped and searched were within the age group of 10–24.  While 28% of arrests were for drugs, and 24% for offensive weapons, a significant 41% were for ‘other offences’, where the perceptions, and hence prejudices, of the arresting officer could influence the determination of whether an offence had been committed.  In the period before the 1985, young Black males constituted a disproportionate number of those subject to stop and search in Haringey.  According to the Greater London Police Support Committee in 1985, “It is a part of their everyday life”.

The predominant public response to each of these episodes of disorder was different but nonetheless depended upon the othering of those who participated.  In 1985, many blamed the riots on the deviant and anti-social values of a distinct subset of the population.  Some of this comment was overtly racist: many simply implied that Black young people in particular did not share British values.  According to the Chairman of the Police Federation, John Newman, ‘there are particular sections of the community who do not want to be policed. Their aim is to create areas of London and elsewhere free of legal restraint and completely outside the laws of the land.’  The Daily Express described the disorder as a ‘race riot’, reporting a police officer as having said, ‘This is not England.’  While The Times reported the riots as happening in ‘no go areas’, more specifically ‘Black ghettoes’.

The response to the 2011 riots was radically different but equally dismissive of the idea that institutionally racist policing might have been the main cause of disorder. Thus, despite the conviction of many that the riots in August 2011 were evidence of a ‘broken Britain’ peopled by an underclass of feral youth, there was still one area of widely shared satisfaction. There was general agreement both in much of the media and among many mainstream politicians that these riots were not about race.  According to David Cameron, they may have been the product of ‘a slow-motion moral collapse,’ but he noted, ‘let’s be clear: these riots were not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were White, Black and Asian.’  Similarly, Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham, asserted: ‘Those who seek to racialise this problem are seeking to take our communities back to a place where they are not… This isn’t the 1980s, and those who are trying to paint it as such are making a grave mistake.’  Indeed, the views of those who sought to inject the issue of race into explanations for the riots, for example by blaming it on a Black youth culture or conversely on racist policing, were largely dismissed.

Raymond Yau, ‘Rioters and police in Croydon’, 8 August 2011, 21:09:38, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

We have seen that there is a long history of resistance to institutionally racist policing, which is exemplified by the unrest in Broadwater Farm and beyond in 1985 and 2011.  Both gave rise to some changes to policing.  For example, a number of community outreach programmes were introduced on the Farm after 1985.  While, after 2011, changes were made to policing by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, including the wearing of body cameras by police officers.  However, also after 2011, other reforms were less enlightened.  Harsher sentences were introduced for those carrying knives, a policy which undoubtedly disproportionately affects young, Black males who are still most likely to be stopped and searched.

Nonetheless, the question remains of why the response to the present public action has been so different. One answer might be that the action itself had been different. It has been largely peaceful and entailed no widespread destruction of property. But that itself might be explained by the fact that the police tactics during the BLM demonstrations differed from earlier periods of unrest. Why is this?  We might posit that unlike previous protests, the trigger was the police killing of a Black man in another country.  The earlier unrest took place in what the police deemed ‘no go areas’, inhabited by an underprivileged, disproportionately Black population, and perceived by police and much of the public as a zone of criminal activity.  The Farm, itself, was subjected to immediate and invasive policing designed to quell the unrest.

The present demonstrations are happening in public spaces, where the actions of the police are highly visible. Indeed, it is striking that when protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of Colston, the police stood by.  And an attempt by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to describe these events as carried out by a ‘mob’ and as ‘an act of public disorder’, did little to disturb the existing favourable narrative.  Much has also been made of the number of White young people who are participating in these demonstrations, but that was also true in both 1985 and 2011.  It is possible, but by no means proven, that large numbers of these White demonstrators are from privileged economic backgrounds unlike those who joined the unrest in 1985 and 2011.  Certainly, the White youth who joined the unrest in 2011 came from predominantly disadvantaged areas and so could be, and were dismissed, like the Black participants, as belonging to the same underclass.

If the police response to the present demonstrations has differed so radically, what are we to make of the different public response?  We are now facing a national emergency which is presented, and indeed experienced, as a moment of national unity.  There is the fact that among the health and care workers who are described as ‘heroes’, a disproportionate number of those who died have been BAME.  There is widespread publicity of injustices meted out to the Windrush generation.  Finally, as noted earlier, the fact that George Floyd’s death happened in another country at the hands of another police force, has allowed favourable comparisons to be made with the British police.  It is possible, once the COVID crisis is over, that this moment of inclusiveness will continue and there will be genuine measures taken to banish institutional racism not just in the police but in all areas of society.  But the signs that this may be so are not at all promising.

It was reported, but largely unremarked by many who voiced their support for the BLM movement, that in London, Black people are 50% more likely to be arrested than White people for breaching COVID rules. According to a statement put out by the Met, the explanation: ‘includes interactions between the areas subject to significant proactive policing activity targeting crime hot-spots and both the variation in the age-profile and geographical distribution of ethnic groups in London.’   Before the present crisis, Black people in London were at least 5 times more likely to be stopped and searched.  It is difficult not to think that while so many can congratulate themselves on their supportive response to BLM demonstrations, the seeds of a new, quite different response to discriminatory policing, reminiscent of the past not the future, are still being sown.  Indeed, the recent violent confrontation between the police and young people in Brixton would suggest that time might not be long in coming.


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