Like everyone else, I spent last week repeat watching Beyoncé’s “Formation” – both the music video and her apparently ‘controversial’ Superbowl performance. I read the raft of online pieces which broke the video down into gif soundbites and explained its layers of symbolism, cultural references and attempted to divine its political intentions.
“Formation” is a cinematic video and, to a British viewer, its location in the Deep South of New Orleans and stylised foregrounding of African American black identity is at a cultural remove. So, too, is a lot of its political context. America, we learn, is in a new civil rights struggle. Filtered via transatlantic news coverage, the flaming cars of Ferguson and ranks of armed police in response to rioting can feel almost unreal to us Brits. American racial politics can seem extreme, polarised and violent. Our police, here in Britain, do not routinely carry guns. We – and by this, I particularly mean white British people – can be sure we have none of these issues. For us, “Formation”, much like the twists and turns of the US presidential election, is pure spectacle – a fascinating commentary on divisive politics in another world. #BlackLivesMatter seems a fair enough sentiment in that context – no wonder African Americans are angry!
In between all the Beyoncé tweets and article shares on social media, however, I also saw a Facebook event organising a vigil in London last Monday, following the funeral of Sarah Reed. Reed was a young black woman who, four years ago, was assaulted so brutally by an arresting officer, he was convicted and suspended. Having been the victim of state violence once, Reed became was arrested in hospital while receiving mental health treatment and taken to Holloway Prison. In January, she was found dead in her cell – her family were told she had “strangled herself” while lying down on her own bed. To many, this seems improbable. Reed’s story is a tragic and alarming one – that a black woman with mental health issues seems to have been failed by the police once only to be failed fatally by the prison service has rightly provoked anger and a drive to organise by Black Minority & Ethnic (BME) activists in Britain.
An investigation by the Institute of Race Relations last year found that 509 BME people had died in state custody in the past 24 years, and no officer has been convicted in any of these cases. Reed now joins these horrifying statistics. Many individual stories among these numbers are shocking – such as that of Joy Gardner, who police restrained with leather straps and gagged with adhesive tape wrapped around her head, asphyxiating her in 1993; or Olaseni Lewis, suffocated on a hospital floor by 11 police officers while a patient in mental health services in 2010. Both families continue to seek justice for the deaths.
“Two years ago, two police officers were convicted after chasing Faruk Ali, a severely autistic Bengali man – who had the mental age of a 3 year old – and racially abusing him for sport”
British police are racist. That’s not a mindlessly provocative statement, by the way – the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said it of his own force last year. He was pretty much forced to, given the lack of reasonable explanation for why young black men in London are 3.2 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. Outside of London and big cities – in England’s regions – the stop-and-search rates for black people get worse. In Dorset, a black person is 17 times more likely to be stopped and searched – presumably the BME population in many rural areas is so low those few people of colour who do live in these areas are especially visible, a lightning rod for the racist attention of police. The UK Supreme Court has said that the controversial use of stop-and-search powers on black men “benefits” them, given their exposure to gang violence. The Supreme Court justices – all white, like most of the judiciary – were accused of trading in racist stereotypes.
‘Institutional’ racism can sound a bit weak, a bit of a cop-out. It implies systemic oversights or just a lack of proper response to rectify racism that already exists in society. It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that police officers can be personally racist too. Last October, former PC officer Trevor Barrett was fired after it was proved he texted another officer about black people fucking off “back to the jungle” during the 2011 London riots – themselves sparked in part by the police killing of Mark Duggan, a black man. Two years ago, two police officers were convicted after chasing Faruk Ali, a severely autistic Bengali man – who had the mental age of a three-year-old – and racially abusing him for sport.
There are many more cases like these where officers have been caught and, no doubt, many others that haven’t come to light. When I wrote about LGBT hate crime last year, no LGBT person of colour I interviewed or spoke to said they would report a homophobic hate crime to police, given that they perceived the threat of racialised police violence against them was as bad if not worse than the threat of homophobic violence.
White British people are sold a myth – the police protect us and solve crime like Midsomer Murders detectives and the much romanticised ‘bobby on the beat’. In fact, police solve just 29 per cent of crime. There are less guns and flames in the UK than in America, and we have no cultural behemoth like Beyoncé to shine light on police racism (I don’t see Ellie Goulding sinking dramatically into the Thames on the back of a cop car, somehow). Nevertheless, as we share the gifs or retweet #BlackLivesMatter, we should remember racism is alive and well on our own doorstep, killing fellow Britons in hidden cells and hospital wards. True anti-racism cannot be passive in the face of this. We can’t hide from the truth, just because the truth dispels our comfortable certainties about powerful institutions. It’s vital that we open our eyes and lend our ears to the voices of BME people calling for justice and for change.
Follow Shon Faye on Twitter here @shonfaye