Under new legislation, British police now have the power to detect and arrest people who are likely to protest events, such as a coronation, with little or no evidence on which to base their judgments. It turns out that suspicion alone is evidence enough. Black Britons won’t be surprised. It’s familiar, reminiscent of the heavy manners — sus laws — that empowered bobbies on the beat to detain any suspected person deemed to be intent on an arrestable offence. The sus laws were repealed in 1981 but decades later the police mindset and approach to ‘suspects’ remained the same.
There was always a part of London, a row of streets between Fleet Street and the Thames embankment, where I was likely to be stopped by the police on my way home after a night shift at the BBC’s Bush House. Lately, once I’d finished my shift at 4am, I’d taken the extreme measure of driving north, away from the direction of my Wapping flat in east London, and then arcing back towards the flat via Shoreditch, thus circumnavigating the patrolling policemen. It added another ten minutes to the journey but it was worth it to avoid the aggravation. On the last night shift of the month though, I thought to chance my luck and take the most direct route home via the embankment. It was a bad decision.
In the nineteenth century, phrenologists believed that they could determine the likelihood of someone being a criminal based on how they looked: low foreheads and prognathous jaws were a particular give-away. The pseudoscience of phrenology may have been discounted in subsequent decades but a version of it still persisted in Britain in the 1980s when I entered into adulthood and followed me into middle-age with a simple calculus enshrined in law, which equated black people with criminality.
An old law had been updated to deal with the sons (and sometimes daughters) of West Indian and West African migrants who, in a reversal of the natural code of justice, would be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824 stipulated that ‘every suspected person’ found out and about and thought by one or more credible witness (namely police officers) to be intent on committing a crime were to be deemed to be ‘rogues and vagabonds’ and could be held in a house of correction for up to three months. One hundred and fifty years later, black youths were surely a good fit for ‘rogues and vagabonds’.
The pervasive police enforcement of what became known as the sus law was underscored by a 1980s comedy sketch on the BBC TV show ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’. In the sketch, Constable Savage is criticised for arresting the same man hundreds of times for offences, which included being in possession of ‘thick lips and curly hair’, and is subsequently transferred to the Met’s Special Patrol Group.
Legally-sanctioned stop and search was promoted as an effort to drive down crime; and there were plenty of black people of my father’s generation who, like Bageye, argued that some of the gold toothed ragamuffin youth – the bad bwoy sultans of bling with a penchant for mugging and burglary – had brought it on themselves, and that if the rest of the youth were now subject to ‘sufferation’ then so be it.
It appeared otherwise to me in the late 1990s when I was stopped regularly by the police. Rather, it was as though the police had designed the unremitting stop and search campaign to try to induce a state which psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ amongst the youth; a programme of psychological torture in which the victim learns that resistance is futile and that there is no escape from the harassment, so he gives up and falls into a depression. Black youths felt corralled in urban conurbations, like American Indians confined to their reservations. Babylon, as was said at the time, had the youth under heavy manners.
Growing up with Bageye in 1960s Luton, he warned us that we were being watched, instilling in us the notion that as the children of Jamaican migrants, we were under constant scrutiny by our English hosts. We understood that there was the expectation on the part of the English that as ‘coloured’ people we would conform to their stereotype of us. We were suspected of being work shy, simple but sly, feckless, uncivilised and criminal.
‘You’re being watched,’ said Bageye, ‘to see which way you turn.’
Such ardent watchfulness sometimes took a toll. A leading pathologist once told me that the reason for the sixfold increase in the incidence of schizophrenia amongst young black men was that ‘Black people were schooled in paranoia.’ Perhaps his words were true but the sus law had also schooled us in loathing the police, an attitude that has persisted ever since. And if we were paranoid, then we had good reason to be.
Our parents’ nervousness was mimicked by the West Indian porters and guards for British Rail who appeared more strict with us black youngsters. One day, as our mixed group (including one or two fare dodgers) steamed through the exit barriers at the train station, a West Indian hand reached out and pulled me to the side. I protested that I had a ticket but the guard was still determined to admonish me: ‘I know what you’re doing. You have ticket now. But what about the next time? You t’ink you like them?’
He gestured to my laughing friends who were triumphantly rushing away from the station having paid nothing for the train ride. ‘You’re not like them. You’re black! And if they catch you, they will slap your arse in jail.’
Bageye would not have disagreed with the guard’s assessment but the lesson he imparted was not always so clear, especially as my father was a man who, as my mother agonised, ‘love to tek chance’. The risk-taking most often occurred in his car. Firstly, he had no driving licence on account of the inconvenient fact that he had never taken a driving test. But, more than that, Bageye wasn’t using the car to ferry around his miserable offspring; rather the vehicle enabled him to moonlight from his job at Vauxhall Motors as a small-time marijuana dealer, dropping off sachets of ganja to his West Indian compadres.
My first encounter with the police was in the company of my father. It ought to have been a case of bang to rights but wasn’t; it never was, largely because of Bageye’s unusual approach to authority. There was enough ganja in the briefcase and other contraband (cheap booze liberated from the stores of a nearby US Air Force base) in the boot of the car for him to qualify for arrest and prosecution, but neither boot nor case was ever searched on account of Bageye’s immediate promotion of the policeman. Within seconds of being stopped, my father was addressing the police constable as Detective Inspector. The policeman seemed amused, maybe even flattered, that Bageye had over-promoted him in recognition of his authority and superiority. The policeman’s laughter was still reverberating in our ears as Bageye shifted the gear stick and we departed the scene.
My father’s attitude exemplified what Jamaicans call ‘Play fool fi ketch wise’ – a tradition of pretend subservience that, some argue, was first developed by enslaved Africans on the plantations – a strategy of self-preservation, of disabusing ‘the man’ that you constituted a threat; that you understood that you were a pitiful simpleton who ‘knew your place’.
As a child, I was, at times, embarrassed by my father and his generation’s dangerous flirtation with what I considered a kind of obsequiousness in the face of authority. I much preferred the uncompromising cool of Sidney Poitier, best exemplified by roles such as the police detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. When a racist southern policeman casually asks: ‘What’s your name, boy?’ Poitier’s character thunders back: ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs!’
Heading home from the night shift at the BBC, I turned onto the side street down to the embankment. I saw them before they caught sight of me and I flinched at their blue uniforms and my bad luck. They were a pair: a bearded older and a younger one straight out of the Met’s Hendon training school, I imagined, radiating the kind of keenness that was hard to stomach in the best of circumstances but especially so in the early hours.
I told myself not to be so foolish as to stop and reverse away from them, as my body seemed to dictate. It would only draw their attention and then they’d be sure to radio on ahead.
In the half-light, I couldn’t see much beyond what they were wearing. I grant that my negative, selective perception of the police would have been mirrored by their instinctive profile of me. It didn’t help, I suppose, that I was driving a vintage Ford Capri with a lime green body and a chocolate brown roof.
They waved me down. I pulled over and stepped out of the car. Six feet and rising. Suspect? Their faces seemed determined not to suggest surprise. But no amount of training can intervene in first impressions. You could glean the recalibration of their brows as they registered my black skin. Bingo! And yet, there was a tiny hesitation. Something didn’t seem right; threw them off their judgement. My wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, perhaps? And then there was the voice. My accent – more ‘speaking clock’ than black South London – didn’t quite fit.
Still, the game was on. There was no going back. I prepared myself for the faux, puerile respect and was not disappointed. Most of the time, the police would default to what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called ‘bad faith’, of acting the officious role they imagined was expected of them.
The younger policeman – I resist identifying him by his colour as it should be immaterial – was an unwelcome complication. He had to be pitied for surely he could not fail to recognise the depth of his self-loathing degradation and the role assigned to him, whether he welcomed it or not, as a mollifying, neutralising presence.
There used to be a handbook given out to recruits at the Met’s Hendon training centre on how to interpret black men: in their stance; the way they hold themselves; the sounds they make; the teeths that they skin; and the language they use. Despite its faults, the booklet at least acknowledged the possibility of misunderstandings, and the likelihood of a gulf between the police and the policed, between transmission and reception. But you can’t legislate for the ignorant arrogance of a policeman who believes his colour gives him an interpretative advantage when dealing with his kith and kin.
And yet, at some level, I felt sorry for him. He wore his police uniform as proudly as I’d worn my expensive school uniform on my first day at the kind of private school rarely attended by black kids in the 1970s. The old timer let the Hendon graduate take the lead, as if it was an opportunity for role playing. And actually, the Hendon man did seem to be auditioning for the part; determined not to show any semblance of a primitive black-on-black connection with the suspect.
‘To walk down the street as a black man is to be in a permanent state of rage,’ as James Baldwin said forty years ago. Hadn’t Hendon man ever felt that? Of course he had. After all, I was the familiar stranger to him that he was to me. Eventually, I settled on at least affecting a conciliatory tone.
‘Morning officer, is there a problem?’
His gaze seemed to be directed to a point to the right of my ear: ‘You do know there are cobwebs on your bumper?’
‘Cobwebs on my bumper?’ I repeated back the words slowly so that he might take in the full measure of my sarcasm.
‘Yes, cobwebs on your bumper.’
‘Cobwebs on my bumper?’
‘Yes, cobwebs on your bumper.’
Playing fool was a cunning, practised strategy of Bageye, I suppose, but one that still carried with it a whiff or taint of humiliation; I wasn’t convinced about its efficacy. As the 19th century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville trenchantly observed: ‘The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces.’
I tried again. ‘Detective Inspector, are you really stopping me because there are cobwebs on my bumper?’
The policeman bristled. ‘There’s no need to get snarky, is there, mate.’
‘Who are you calling mate?’
‘Who are you calling detective?’
‘OK constable, so you’re stopping me because there are cobwebs on my bumper?’
‘Yes, where’s this car been parked?’
By now, a police van had pulled up alongside us. The older policeman demanded my driving licence and walked over with it to the van. There was some exchange between him and the officers inside and when he returned he said pointedly: ‘Your car is registered in Luton. Did you lose your way?’
It would be a while before I could calm myself to answer. Failing to put to one side the instinct to channel Sidney Poitier, I barked at the policeman that cobwebs were not an indication of criminality and that it should not matter where the car was registered. Surely I was at liberty to drive where I bloody well chose to. I gave vent in a stupid and unguarded fashion to an expression of loathing for the police harboured over decades that lies uneasily in the pit of the stomach of every black person of my generation – and sadly too, I fear, of the generation after us.
Thirty years on from that first encounter with Bageye’s rapidly promoted policeman, at 4am on the embankment, I had yet to master the art of patrolling the border between pretence and reality, between playing a fool and becoming one.
Home Office figures released in October 2022 reveal that people who are classed as black British are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white compatriots. It’s not the kind of favoured status that encourages empathy for police who are allegedly ‘just doing their job’. Almost a half a million instances of stop and search have been carried out in England and Wales in the year ending March 2022; just one in eight lead to an arrest. The Home Office argues that the statistics show that the policy is working and is increasingly necessary with the rise in knife and acid attacks. But if black people are being stopped and searched disproportionately, then inevitably a disproportionate number will be arrested; figures which are then used to justify the excessive stop and search practices in the first place. Fundamentally, the statistics are open to the charge that what the thinker thinks, the prover proves.
Home Office statisticians might argue that the benefits of stop and search and the kind of racial profiling that was rolled out as part of the Terrorism Act 2000 have proven to reduce and prevent crime, but they cannot overlook the fact of the targeted groups’ antipathy towards the agents of law enforcement as a consequence; such stop and search practices are ultimately self-defeating.
Stop and search does not contribute to a state of well-being for a sizable section of the population. Instead, it fuels a sense of being the subject of a police state, and of being under enemy occupation.
The two policemen’s assertion that I was ‘registered’ in Luton and that I was trespassing beyond ‘the reservation’ had come up before. Arguably, I’d handled it better twenty years earlier when I’d paid closer attention to my father’s stance of holding onto your integrity whilst disabusing white people (especially uniformed ones) of the notion that you might constitute a threat — play fool fi ketch wise. But I could not go back, even had I wished, to my earlier mental attitude. Somewhere along the way I had lost the thread of the practice of play fool fi ketch wise. I couldn’t pull it off, as I had managed to when younger. But then that might have been a result of my actual innocence and lack of jadedness.
I wish I could have returned to one of my first encounters with policemen on my own, when my father’s counsel, ‘remember you’re not who they think you are’, was still fresh. I was nineteen and after visiting my girlfriend and her parents in her comfortable, detached house in the middle-class commuter village of Radlett, I ran down to the station to catch the train back home to Luton, only to realise that I’d missed the last train. I was too bashful to return to the girlfriend’s family to tell them what had happened, so I stuck it out on the platform, determined to keep as warm as I could, walking up and down until the first train was due to arrive six hours later. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, two police officers appeared; they walked slowly down the platform and approached me.
‘We’ve had a report,’ one of them said, ‘that there was a suspicious-looking person on the platform.’
I looked over both my shoulders and then back at the policemen.
‘Oh, I haven’t seen anyone,’ I said.