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

Millions of Britons are repelled by the bullying they have seen

Share
Related Topics

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.

y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Design Manager

£40000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

£15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Mechanical Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice