About an hour after we started talking, the door burst open and a gang of five white police officers entered the room, looking very agitated. They immediately demanded to know what the three men were doing in the building. I was astonished at the calm replies that they gave, revealing none of the humiliation they must have been feeling. They knew through bitter experience that protesting would put them in an even more vulnerable position. I spoke up, saying that the men were my acquaintances. The officers suddenly relaxed. Smiles and apologies all round. Some terrified soul in the building had summoned the police after encountering the men in the lift. "With you here speaking up for them, madam, there is no problem," one tactful officer said as he left.
It was a horrible moment. I felt implicated in what was clearly a deeply upsetting situation that had arisen from a set of racist assumptions: the fearful office worker who believed that black men entering this prestigious building could only be criminals; the police officers who shared those presumptions; and finally their belief that, as an Asian, I was, by definition, on the side of law and order.
Perhaps I should say, "as an Asian woman", because a report published yesterday showed that although Asians were less likely than black or white people to have criminal records, they were now more likely to be searched than would be expected on the basis of victim descriptions. They were also more likely to be searched for drugs than either white or black youngsters. The report, by Dr Marian Fitzgerald, who used to be in the Home Office research unit, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Police and shows that many Met officers search and question young Asians, especially if they are in groups, and that the behaviour of the police is often aggressive and alienating. In other words, young Asian men are now beginning to endure the same experiences that black men such as Patrick Augustus have grown used to over many decades.
There is no doubt that young Asians such as my son and his friends are beginning to view the police with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. Ravi, a young college student, put it as bluntly as this: "We are seen as meek and mild. They can kick us around and satisfy their racism. The police are scared shitless about upsetting blacks now, since they were put through the shame of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. So where do those itchy boots go? Up our backsides."
I do not think Ravi - in his hot youth - is completely right. But there is something in what he feels is happening. Responding to the findings of the report, the Home Office minister Charles Clarke says: "The morale and the self-confidence of the Metropolitan Police at all levels took a very serious knock indeed from the conclusions of the Lawrence inquiry." But was their morale shattered by shame or by a sense of misplaced outrage that society dared to judge them?
Having listened for several months to some Metropolitan Police Federation spokesmen, I think that rather too many police officers have responded to the Lawrence report not with guilt and determination to do better, but with deep and dark resentment. And it is just possible that this bitterness may be causing some of them to target new groups. If that is the case, they are being very short-sighted indeed.
I have never been one to argue that racism alone is responsible for the disproportionate stop-and-search figures or the high numbers of black and now Asian men in our prisons. Demographic changes and socio-economic realities within some Asian communities are creating exactly the right conditions for increased criminal activity. There are many more young people within some Asian groups. In 1991, 19 per cent of whites were under the age of 15, compared with 22 per cent of black Caribbeans, 29 per cent of Indians, 43 per cent of Pakistanis and 47 per cent of Bangladeshis. Many of them are increasing their use of alcohol and drugs, and because there is such massive unemployment in areas such as Bradford, drug-related crime is becoming one of the few ways available of gaining respect and money.
You find the same developments in the Bangladeshi community. When I worked in Tower Hamlets, I saw an extraordinary number of young Bangladeshi men from respectable families hooked on various drugs and unable to lead any kind of useful life. They are the children our education system has completely failed. Many of these young people live in overcrowded housing and are therefore driven to congregate in the streets and public spaces, making themselves visible and open to various temptations.
That almost exactly replicates what has been happening in sections of the black British community. At the same time, as Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers points out, the traditional Asian family, too, is gradually breaking down in some areas as Western values seem hard to resist.
If all that is true, why am I objecting to the police concentrating on young Asian men? Because they should have learnt by now that a heavy-handed, indeed biased approach - which is what they have used with young black men - has made their own jobs almost impossible and has destroyed any trust between them and that community. Now they are going down the same road with young Asians.
The police need to use greater intelligence and better communication skills and to understand what it is costing them and society when they carry out their duties blinded by ignorance, prejudice and sometimes rank racism. They need to think, too, about how much of what they are able to do depends on people's perceptions, collective memories and co-operation. They have a big enough task trying to reconstruct some kind of working relationship with the black community. But it appears that their failure to come to terms with the origins of that mess is foolishly leading them to collide with another community, which until recently did regard them with some respect.
Do they really think that is an improvement on their past performance so criticised by Sir William Macpherson?Reuse content