Lessons from Ferguson and #Blacklivesmatter
We’ve all seen reports from Ferguson, protests, and the killing on camera of a black man in New York. The Police, far from being the servants of the people, are increasingly seen as being in the business of suppressing dissent and meting out violence.
Militarisation of police has led to a big increase serious injuries and deaths, both of ‘civilians’ and suspects. An ACLU report earlier this year found that seven civilians had been killed and a further 46 injured by SWAT and similar teams since 2010. According to the report, “Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using paramilitary squads to search people’s homes for drugs.”
Nor are other government institutions working. In Ferguson, a majority black town, only 3 of 53 Police officers were black. The City is led by a white mayor, and four out of the five councillors are white. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily mean there is institutional racism – however, the testimony of former cops is damning, as Reddit Hudson, former cop and NAACP employee said: “I could not, in good conscience, participate in a system that was so intentionally unfair and racist.”
Behind this all is still glaring inequalities in the criminal justice system. Black and minority ethnic people are over-represented in criminal justice, still more likely to be the subject of stop and search, more likely to receive a custodial sentence, more likely to re-offend, more likely to be on death row. Criminal justice is failing black communities in the US, catastrophically.
What’s the picture in the UK?
Work by INQUEST shows a disproportionate number of black and minority ethic people die in or after being in police custody following the use of force. Since 1990, there have been 147 deaths of black and minority ethnic people. Ten were ruled ‘unlawful’ by a jury or public inquiry – none of these has led to a successful prosecution.
The UK’s Policing is also at risk of being ‘militarised.’ During the 2011 riots, there were widespread calls for the army to be deployed. The response from researchers and academics was to draw on the evidence from Northern Ireland, which shows that soldiers are not interchangeable with the Police, as well as such a move being a complete departure from the principle of ‘policing by consent.’ The House of Commons Library states somewhat vaguely:
“The Armed Forces have not been deployed in support of the police for situations of civil unrest on the UK mainland in recent times.”
London Mayor (and possible future Conservative Party leader) Boris Johnson has called for water cannon to be used during future riots. As many have observed, this would be the first use of water cannon on the British mainland, with them only being used in Northern Ireland before. Johnson is currently lobbying Home Secretary Theresa May (also tipped as a future leader) to approve use of water cannon.
Fears of excessive force are not confined to major incidents like the riots. Physical force against people has come under the spotlight due to high-profile cases such as Ian Tomlinson, and the use of tasers continues to be extremely concerning – at present the IPCC is investigating the death of a suspected burglar who was tasered by police in the West Midlands.
Like the US, the UK has an unrepresentative police workforce, despite being rooted in a concept of ‘policing by consent’, which should mean better representation. The Black Police Association found that only 10% of the Metropolitan Police force was black or from an ethnic minority, compared to 40% of London’s population.
If we are to avoid the problems we’ve seen in the US, the UK needs to confront the inequalities across criminal justice – from the Police on the street, to disproportionate sentencing and use of force. Most of all, we need to tackle those larger inequalities in our society. That’s the way to make sure Black lives, and all lives, matter.