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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Performance Consultant Trainee

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Consultant trainee opportunit...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - (Full marketing mix) - Knutsford

£22000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Knu...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

The US is getting frayed at the edges

Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

Celebrating 100 years of Leica

A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world