“The UK is not innocent” has been shouted loud and clear at Black Lives Matter protests in London and across the country over the last couple of weeks. We live in a nation of covert racism built into the fabric of our society, where far too many White people, especially politicians, are quick to respond to the murders of Black people by the police in the US as a problem that does not affect us; their silence speaks volumes. However, as Afua Hirsch said in an article for The Guardian on 3rd June: “the racism that killed George Floyd was built in Britain”. It also killed Mark Duggan, Sarah Reed, Stephen Lawrence, David Oluwale, Azelle Rodney, Derek Bennett and Belly Mujinga here at home, to name but a few.
We’ve all seen videos of peaceful protestors in the US being tear gassed, shot at, trampled and generally being treated with unprovoked violence by the police. The mere presence of Black people in the streets has historically been criminalized and violently policed, be it at protests, during cultural celebrations or just in everyday life. From justifying continued colonial control in Africa to lynch mobs in the American south, White people have long weaponized the concept of criminality against Black people in order to maintain the power structures that benefit them. In the 1970s, the age-old idea of street theft transformed into a specifically Black crime carrying a new name imported from the US: mugging.
The threat of mugging as a solely Black crime was built on earlier fears of Black masculinity founded in ‘Black Peril’, a concept used to justify extreme racial violence that was based in a constructed danger of sexual assault posed to White women by Black men. Just as the idea of Black Peril had cast young Black men as a threat to the whiteness and ‘morality’ of Britain over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the 70s and 80s mugging was used to frame Black inner-city youth as the principal threat to British security. Young Black people were viewed as a dangerous, deviant population that needed harsher controls by police and in the criminal justice system.
The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave British citizenship rights to all Commonwealth citizens, and gave rise to the Windrush generation of immigrants from the Caribbean. By the mid-60s immigrant communities were well-established in parts of urban Britain such as London, Birmingham and Bristol. Philip Donnellan’s 1964 film The Colony (available on BBC iPlayer) shows Black Britons going about their ordinary daily lives; at work, shopping, talking to friends as members of British society. A new culture was growing out of immigrant populations, especially in South London, through the foundation of the West Indian Gazette and the movement of Caribbean music into Britain, creating a syncretic culture that was unique to British communities. Away from politics and systems of power, multicultural Britain was trying to plant roots, but for many legislators being Black and British was a contradiction well into the 80s and beyond. As one of the narrators of The Colony says, these communities were still treated as foreigners in their own country after being promised a home: “we were taught to recite… ‘children of the empire, you’re brothers all’ …and we believed it, you know? In all sincerity. And then you walk in here and the human factor creeps in”.
The view of young Black people as both criminally dangerous and somehow anti-British proved lethal when it came to policing. These racist ideas were written into law and were used to police the presence of Black people in any circumstance. Police in the 70s and 80s could use both the anachronistic 1824 Vagrancy Act (that ruled that anyone could be arrested on suspicion of loitering with intent to commit a crime) and the 1971 Immigration Act (meaning anyone suspected of having entered the country illegally could be arrested) to target Black people, which they did without hesitation in many instances. According to a 1977 London survey, Black youth made up 44% of those arrested based on the Vagrancy Act (also called ‘sus’ laws), but were only 3% of the population; what’s more, those charged could be tried before a magistrate, not a jury, and the testimony of two police officers was all that was required for a conviction.
A cycle emerges whenever Black people protest against unfair police treatment. In the 1970s, bars and youth clubs in predominantly Black areas were frequent targets for police raids, often on the pretext of looking for a suspect; when those inside resisted the search, mass police reinforcements arrived and made arrests that were nothing to do with the original search, instead relating to incidents provoked by violent police tactics. Protests against these assaults on public spaces gave rise to more confrontations between police and Black youth, and more arrests.
In January 1981, a fire in New Cross killed thirteen young Black people. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people marched from Deptford to protest the way the investigation was being handled, and the lack of media attention the fire had received; they planned to march through Fleet Street, home to London’s media, and past the Courts of Justice in a symbolic protest against the institutions that had failed them. Police intervention at the Thames caused a violent confrontation. In April, a massive stop and search operation called ‘Swamp 81’ was launched; four days later, after 943 people had been stopped, major riots in Brixton began after a minor confrontation was met with riot police and indiscriminate violence.
Nobody cared about the loss of these Black youths at New Cross until the clashes between police and black communities took on a life of their own. Peaceful Black protests became criminal in the eyes of the police before they had even begun, and aggressive prevention tactics caused violence to erupt. These incidents call to mind the recent protests against police murders of Black people, in Minneapolis and across the world, which gained mass worldwide traction partly because the treatment of protestors by police departments and National Guard has exposed them as the racist institutions that they are, proving the need for protests in the first place.
At the 1976 Notting Hill carnival, 1600 police were brought in, compared to 60 the previous year, because local White residents found Black people celebrating their culture intimidating. The carnival had become a more political event in the 1970s where Black community groups and movements came together to celebrate and share experiences. For the 1977-9 carnivals, police were in full riot gear. The mere presence of Black people joyfully celebrating their culture in public is a threat to the racist system we live in, which the police have always aggressively defended. These protests are an opportunity to build something new in its place.
Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain (Kieran Connell)
There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Paul Gilroy)
Thinking Black: Britain 1964 -1985 (Rob Waters)
Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette (Bill Schwarz)
How the battle of Lewisham helped to halt the rise of Britain’s far right (Mark Townsend, The Observer) https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/13/battle-of-lewisham-national-front-1977-far-right-london-police
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge)
Defining British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain (Reiko Karatani)
Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation (A. Sivanandan)
Gender and Empire (Philippa Levine)