How we stamped out prejudice in our forces - by Colin Powell

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The Independent Online
GENERAL Colin Powell, the distinguished Gulf War military chief, told leaders of the British Armed Forces yesterday that they must be "vicious" in eradicating racism within their ranks.

The black former United States Chief of Defense Staff told a conference in London that winning the "war on racism" would depend on good leadership. "Our experience is that this is leaders' business," he said. "It is not policies or programmes which will get you to your goal, it will be the commanders and leaders who take this on as a central mission."

Speaking to 100 delegates, including George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, he referred to initiatives used in America, including training sessions, zero tolerance campaigns and monitoring of the performances of senior officers in matters of race.

"In America, any overt expression of racism was absolutely crushed," he said.

General Powell's message was delivered on the day that the Household Cavalry stepped up its campaign to recruit more people from ethnic minorities by taking troops on to the streets of south London.

At midday, eight gleaming black horses with polished hoofs were unloaded from a box outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and mounted by soldiers in full uniform.

Unlike their usual style on duty in Whitehall, the soldiers were encouraged to speak to passers-by. The whole point of the exercise, after all, was to convince members of ethnic minorities that they would be welcome in the Armed Forces.

"The idea is to show people that we are the same as anyone else: we're just doing a job and we're not totally detached from what's going on," said Captain Rick Manning. "We've come down here to show people we're a caring, sharing Army."

Few people bothered to stop and admire the horses, as the Household Cavalry had hoped. "The Household Guards, what they doing round here?" said one man, pausing on the steps of the public library. On learning the purpose of the parade, he shrugged: "All the black people will be able to do if they join is clear up the horse shit."

Semai Francis, a writer in his early forties, propped himself up against the wall. "The Horse Guards trying to recruit down here is a waste of time.

"This is all very mamby-pamby, airy fairy to the average person who hasn't got a job. It conjures up colonial days to me: the British empire, fascism, right-wingism. It's not progress. It's more retro-Britain."

Six-year-old Oliver James tried on a soldier's helmet. His father, Neville, 41, was reluctant to pay any attention to troops, but had been persuaded by his son. "Would you like to ride horses or drive tanks?" asked Mr James, entering into the spirit of the occasion. But deep down, he felt uneasy. "I would not encourage any of my kids to join the Army until the infrastructure had changed," he said.

Trooper Crowther, 19, was encouraged by their reception. "I'd say it's quite a breakthrough, really," he said. "It's something that's been a long time coming. They've been planning it, but they weren't sure about the public reaction."

However, it was going to take more than one parade in Brixton to convince Mr James. "There's a cynical side to me which says, `Do they really mean this or is it just a publicity stunt?' "