British Cops Are Bastards, Too

Watch Injustice on Vimeo (it’s free) and support Migrant Media’s crowdfunding effort for a much-needed sequel to Injustice. Please donate to The Free Black University and Black Minds Matter. For further reading on fear-based/sexualised racist language, check out Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

This aims to disabuse American readers of the notion that the United Kingdom is not as racist. Perhaps this misconception is based on British film and television that depict more frequent and peaceful interracial relations than in the United States, where the average white person has zero Black friends. Non-white Brits know about this external sanitised image, and on the daily must deal with the UK’s nostalgia for a whitewashed history that erases the brutal colonial ideas and institutions which still thrive today. “The UK is not innocent” is a common refrain at Black Lives Matter protests, and “Least racist is still racist” is a popular sign.

The 2019 Police Federation of England Wales’ annual general meeting opened with John Apter, its National Chair, announcing the media had revealed the identities of “two of our colleagues in West Mercia.” The low-ceilinged hotel ballroom in Bristol, filled with hundreds of cops seated around circular tables labelled with their regional jurisdictions, erupted into a collective, dismayed groan. These “two colleagues” had been outed for tasering Dalian Atkinson to death in 2016. The Police Federation bemoaned the public learning the names of Atkinson’s uniformed murderers, Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith and Benjamin Monk, the former charged with assault and the latter with murder.

Attendees were a homogenous-looking group of porcine, middle-aged white men who after tea breaks left their used cups and plates on the table in front of the room where I, contracted as the notetaker through the service that usually dispatched me to market-research focus groups, sat for two days with my laptop, silently typing everything presenters said, pausing only when they turned to me in chummy asides, as if I were in on a joke, and told me “Don’t put this in the minutes, Christine,” for unofficial business, like a prominent Tory politician’s gratitude to the Police Federation for “taking care” of his brother’s embarrassing situation. There were few women, and the only non-white officers I noticed were clustered around the London table. 

Police tasered sixteen of the 1,745 civilians who have died under their watch since 1990. Apter, who not once said Atkinson’s name nor acknowledged the tragedy of the situation, reiterated that the Police Federation was not changing its stance on tasers. I wrote this down, unsure of what, exactly, was its stance on tasers. Ché Donald, the National Vice-Chair expressed his frustration at the College of Policing’s standards which barred officers with colour-vision deficiency from wielding them. Later, in a debate about membership dues and whether junior officers, whose £18,000 annual salaries broken down hourly would probably be less than what I was making as a notetaker, should receive a discount, (this is a quote directly from my minutes) “The National Vice-Chair said PFEW is working towards larger uplift in tasers being readily available on the frontline, but said top-class representation will be required when it goes wrong.” The Police Federation needs be able to afford fancy lawyers; thus, its lowest-paid members should pay the full rate.

But what did Donald mean, “when it goes wrong?” Not a single officer has served prison time for any of those 1,745 deaths. The 2001 documentary Injustice chronicles the maddening pursuit of justice of several families of victims killed by police. The bureaucratic obstacles and opacity, victim-smearing, and absence of empathy and accountability are uncannily similar to what any family in the same situation encounters in the United States. Although British police do not carry guns with the ubiquity their American counterparts do, they manage to murder members of the public by asphyxiation, tasering, and blunt force. Britain is 86% white and 3% Black, yet represent 66% and 8% of these casualties, respectively. Injustice runs grainy footage from the 1990s of white officers smirking at enraged local protesters in pre-gentrified Brixton and Kennington, and a prematurely widowed woman collapsing on the floor of the Stoke Newington police station, overwrought and distressed, her now-fatherless infant held by stone-faced relatives. 

This furious summer of 2020, the same smirks plaster the faces of island natives working in law enforcement, whose gene pool has seemingly bred out a distaste for all the spices their ancestors invaded 25% of the world for. At the first weekend of protests, they openly laughed at the protesters screaming George Floyd’s name and delighted in the heat of the situation. They stood inches away, unmasked, and threatened to arrest protesters on the ludicrous grounds of not observing Coronavirus-related social distancing measures. They asked with an insouciant cheeriness why the protesters were so upset, since Derek Chauvin, J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao murdered George Floyd in the United States, not Great Britain.

The non-white officers were not smiling, but still rough-housed, manhandled, and threatened the predominantly Black, Gen Z protesters with arrest for not moving out of the road as a chain of cops blocked Westminster Bridge and slowly encircled protesters, kettling them in the intersection below Big Ben. I recognised one of the two female cops who arrested me at Pride last year after I insisted they let me leave through the barricade preventing access to empty public streets, which they claimed were blocked for cleaning, although no such activity was taking place. I argued why I should be able to use a public right of way, then expounded upon the inappropriateness of police at Pride. Before they handcuffed me and marched me through the public street I was trying to leave through anyway, a woman who resembled a thumb in uniform proudly retorted to my lecture: “I’m a cop, I’m gay, and I don’t know what Stonewall is.” 

On the way to the jail in the West End, I leaned into the brattiness that had gotten me arrested, mocking the officers as they lost their balance in the van, “telling the story of Stonewall to myself” after they lost their composure and screeched they didn’t want to hear it, and shimmying at the revellers in the street who waved to me through the windows as they parted for the van. While I was getting booked in, the amused sergeant behind the desk asked if I had any comments. I said that I was grateful the officers arrested me and that they made London safer by taking me off the streets. One of the thin-skinned arresting officers, genuinely upset by the goading of a drunk woman, started saying “the next time I see you…” I interrupted her. “The next time you see me, I hope you’re not a cop.” 

In jail that night, despite my insolence, the cops were obnoxiously accommodating. They offered my lily-white self tea and a novel, both of which I declined, but requested their book of arresting protocols, as was within my rights, and despite having a bottle and a half of rosé in my system identified the procedures they had flouted. I defiantly perched on the toilet in my cell, as it was the only blind spot where I couldn’t be observed on CCTV. They moved me to a cell without a camera, and offered to turn off the lights so I could sleep, a hilarious proposition given the unrelenting sound of a distressed detainee pummelling the mats like a punching bag in a nearby cell. When I was released just before 6am, they offered me a jumper to walk home in because it was raining. 

This story would be funny if everyone received the same solicitous treatment while in custody for being drunk and disorderly. Colleagues of the bobbies who offered me reading material so I wouldn’t get bored in jail murdered a Black man suffering a mental health crisis in jail. In 1996, police let a friend to accompany Ibrahima Sey to an Ilford station after his wife called 999. His friend, however, was not permitted to stay with Sey once they arrived. This agitated and frightened Sey, so cops handcuffed him, forced him face-down onto the ground, restrained his legs, and sprayed him in the face with CS gas. He suffocated.

In the United States, three years before Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in broad daylight by white supremacists, a grown man who supposedly “protects and serves” was scared of Arbery, who had been sitting alone in his car at a park. The officer unsuccessfully tried to tase him. In a bizarre statement about the incident laced with both racism and repressed homoeroticism, the cop said Arbery “raised his voice and approached me…I observed veins popping from his chest which made me feel he was becoming enraged and may turn physically violent toward me.” British police employ the same fear-based racist language that imagines Black people as hyper-aggressive and deserving of subhuman treatment. 

Paul Wright and Andrew McCallum, the two cops who murdered Oluwashijibomi (Shiji) Lapite in 1994, described him as “the biggest, strongest, most violent black man” they had ever seen. Photographs of Lapite clearly indicate the Nigerian asylum seeker and father of two was of average stature. He died in the back of a police van from asphyxiation. Wright and McCallum crushed his voice box, and McCallum admitted he kicked Lapite as hard as he could, twice, in the head. The officers on trial for murdering Joy Gardner told the jury she was “the most violent woman” they had ever dealt with. 

Protest at Stoke Newington police station at the death of Shiji Lapite, 23rd December 1994. © Migrant Media

Early one morning in 1993, cops in Crouch End burst into the home of Gardner, a 40-year old Jamaican student, restrained her with a medieval-looking leather harness, and wrapped her head in adhesive tape to gag her. Her five year-old son watched his mother collapse unconscious as the Alien Deportation Squad began packing her belongings, in order to deport her for overstaying her visa. 

Gardner’s mother, Myrna Simpson, is a British citizen, but Gardner – born in a country ruthlessly exploited by the British empire – could not seek citizenship because of the 1981 British Nationality Act, which turned its back on the Windrush immigrants who thanklessly rebuilt the country after World War 2. Both the Tory and Labour Parties widely supported it. Two years after her daughter’s murder, and a month after all the cops involved were acquitted, Simpson stood in a public meeting in a municipal building and said:

“Sometimes I break down in court. I couldn’t take what I was listening to. I couldn’t believe that human beings could be so cruel to another human being. It makes you cringe to hear, as a mother, what they did to my daughter in our sitting room…What kind of people are these? They’re murderers. They’re evil.”

They were neither fired nor disciplined by the police force, and a report that the Metropolitan Police tried to stifle admitted that gagging was advised against by its own legal team yet still routinely used on deportees. As she spoke, Simpson unfurled the length of tape cops used on Gardner’s head. It took six people standing shoulder to shoulder to hold the thirteen feet.

Although Gardner’s visa was expired, she maintained contact with the police and kept them apprised of her whereabouts as she sought legal residency. Amnesty International was horrified at her murder, and in an investigative report said her lawyer received two letters, dated 26 and 27 July, warning of her deportation, but the Immigration Minister admitted they were deliberately sent in an untimely fashion:

The then-Immigration Minister, Charles Wardle, stated, in a 13 August 1993 letter to Labour MP Barbara Roche, that “in accordance with our normal practice, the response to the solicitors was sent to coincide with the removal, to ensure Mrs. Gardner was not alerted in advance”.

She was murdered on 28 July. 

Director Ken Fero took seven years to make Injustice. When it was released in 2001, the Police Federation of England and Wales deployed their “top-class representation” to threaten legal action against venues screening it, on the basis that it was libelous for victims’ families to identify murderous cops as such. Intimidated venues cancelled screenings minutes before they were scheduled to begin, or hastily moved to more informal sites.

Protests persist in London and the cops still demonstrate an imperious zeal for terrorising Black people. A week after I hectored a cop for not being able to control her horse, which careened out of the Horse Guard house on Whitehall in front of a friend and me, a line of mounted police officers cosplayed their cavalry wet dream and charged protesters in front of Downing Street. A few protesters started throwing water bottles, and a panicked horse bolted. Its rider collided with a traffic light. She was thrown to the ground, and the bewildered horse ran through the crowd. One of Rupert Murdoch’s rags inexplicably deemed the cop incompetent to handle an animal whose body weight and kicks can be fatal “heroic.”

At one protest, the cops kettled over a hundred young people about six hours on Whitehall under the pretense of identifying who broke two windows, but it was really just to fuck with them and coerce them into taking a photograph and giving their information. Nobody from the media was around. I had been closer to Trafalgar Square when they started kettling, but sat with two women and a legal observer denied access until the last two protesters, two terrified young women who each weighed about 100 pounds, were each manhandled out by two cops, close to 3am.

Concurrent to the protests are swirls of news stories resurrecting the statistics and cases detailed here. After watching police officers in major cities plow through protesters with their vehicles, I watched a cop nudge his car into a protester blocking a road beside Trafalgar Square. Social media is flooded with videos of British police harassing Black people, claiming they can smell cannabis in a car they stopped for no other reason than the race of its driver, surrounding a young man for riding a scooter on the pavement, or stopping a group of young men because their dog-walking was suspicious. The police’s own statistics exhibit they exert their stop-and-search powers with unapologetic, unbridled racism. In July, Sky News reported that hundreds of active-duty police officers have criminal convictions for offences like assault, burglary, and animal cruelty. 

The American and British justice systems fail, by design, the victims of police murders. Individuals alone cannot end institutional white supremacy, but can at least wield their white power against police by observing any kind of law enforcement encounter, particularly when the civilian involved is not white, disabled, or homeless. Never assume the police are conducting themselves legally or appropriately. Stay in the vicinity, have a phone at the ready to record what happens, and intervene in violent, unjust situations.

On 10 July, Apter, the Police Federation’s (I’m not linking to its website) National Chairman “condemned the spate of anti-police news reports at a particularly sensitive period,” complaining that discussions about police brutality, misconduct, and murder “risked eroding public confidence” and damaged their morale and recruitment. “In the current climate where it is fair game to attack policing I would not be surprised if officers conduct less stop and searches out of fear of being publicly berated. They are damned whatever they do. Policing in the UK may not be perfect, but it is not as bad as is currently being portrayed.”

Of the thirteen deaths at the hands of police this year, over half occurred while the victim was in custody.

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