Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who exactly are the police serving?

Millions of Britons are repelled by the bullying they have seen

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An approaching anniversary should give you the shivers. On 23 April – St George's Day – in 1979 the Metropolitan Police Force used violence and intimidation to contain anti-fascist protesters in Ealing and Southall, West London. The much feared SPG (Special Patrol Group) apparently used metal filled coshes and other weaponry.

Blair Peach, a 33-year-old special needs teacher from New Zealand, died as a result of alleged police brutality. No one was charged or convicted. And today we are confronted with the deplorable conduct of individual Met officers at another demonstration. A blameless working man, Ian Tomlinson, is dead and many activists are traumatised from being apparently abused and beaten by professionals whose job is to protect legitimate demonstrators and others who happen to be passing by.

I was at that highly charged march in Southall in 1979 to protest against the National Front, which was meeting in Ealing Town Hall to discuss how they would repatriate "niggers and Pakis" and "bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet". It was well known that racists were active in the borough, my borough, and in 1976 had killed a young Asian man, Gurdeep Singh Chagger.

We the residents were both afraid and enraged, but as witnesses attested, the demo was peaceful until the state sent in helicopters, and armed, masked and shielded men who charged at us. Clarence Baker, a black Briton thus attacked after being racially abused, ended up in intensive care. They tried to corral us – "kettling", before the word was invented. I saw officers kicking women and savaging teenagers near me so I ran into a side street and begged for refuge in a house belonging to a Sikh family.

Mr Singh, who worked on the buses, hid us in the back rooms and lined up his little children at the window to wave at the police as they went from house to house looking for "troublemakers". They sheltered dozens of us until nightfall – fed us too. One woman in a sari had a large gash across her forehead after being pushed face down by a policemen who then pressed on her head with his boot. She was delirious and bleeding profusely.

When writing about that frightful day in my new memoir, I remember feeling that old panic again and the nightmares I had of cells and diabolical interrogators. This sort of thing happened in Uganda, my old homeland. I had never expected to see British police turning into enemies of the people.

Police got even more aggressive in Thatcher's Britain when various "enemies within" were proscribed and punished – black Britons, strikers in Wapping (where, incidentally, the first police force was set up in 1798) and miners, among others. What started as punitive policing for "coloureds" was all too soon extended to cover other bothersome citizens. Deaths in police custody – some in the back of vans during demonstrations – occurred not infrequently.

We didn't then have the modern technology that enables ordinary folk to witness and record irrefutable evidence of malpractice. It was their word versus ours and we had no chance – especially as the right-wing press was always on the side of lawless law enforcers. Pathologist Freddy Patel initially claimed that Tomlinson died of pre-existing health problems. A second doctor disagreed and said there was evidence of internal bleeding.

Thus far we have not had an effective and assertive body to monitor police conduct. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has been weak and malleable – though stung by recent criticism, the chair, Nick Hardwick, is now stirring. The officer who allegedly attacked Tomlinson may be charged with manslaughter and other miscreants should be held to account. These are but fragile hopes, no more.

It's my belief that lies and misleading briefings are still used to cover the truth. Fear too is injected into the national psyche to justify official brutality. Once it was the threat of civil disorder; now it is terrorism; the SPG has been replaced with the Territorial Support Group, and undemocratic measures to check Muslim extremists are used on any group objecting to state policies.

Before 9/11, police forces were shaping up, winning over minds and hearts. But now we are going back to the grim old days and illiberal politics. On Saturday night on BBC TV I argued with the amiable Brian Coleman, Tory member of the London Assembly, who was still defending police tactics at the G20 demo, suggesting in effect that if people take to the streets they must expect discomfort.

Boris Johnson has failed to offer robust censuring of the Met. When the Tories are back – as seems highly likely – we will hear no more of civil liberties, not even from Damian Green, that poor victim of invasive policing. It will be business as usual.

In 1987, a report on unlawful policing by the Institute of Race Relations pointed out that "the measure of a society's freedom is, in the final analysis, the measure of the accountability of its police force to the public it serves. The more the seat of such accountability is shifted from the public to the government, the more also is the public removed from government. And where that shift to authoritarianism first manifests itself is in the distinction the police makes between its publics, as to whom it shall serve by consent and whom control by force." Thus are certain members of the public "de-citizenised", as the IRR put it.

But for that strategy to work, the majority must agree to it. That agreement after the past three weeks is no longer forthcoming. Millions of Britons are repelled by the bullying they have seen and the violation of rights of those the state is "de-citizenising". However, there still is no guarantee that the victims of police violence will be justly served. We do not learn from bad history and are condemned to repeat it. And so the ghosts of Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and scores of others will not rest easy.


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