I was sitting at my dining table first thing in the morning. I took a deep breath and pressed play. It felt like something I was morally bound to watch. It was one of the longest eight minutes and forty-six seconds of my life. It was the video of Mr George Floyd’s murder.
The George Floyd video had been circulating for a couple of days before I had the courage to press play. It had been written about and discussed in the national and international press, as being yet another example of police brutality in America. I knew what was coming, but that didn’t make it any less painful to watch.
Following the publication of the now infamous video, came a series of protests across several American states, galvanised by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that began in 2013. Young Americans took their frustration and anger to the streets to make it clear that they were tired of seeing black men and women die at the hands of police. The movement began to take hold, and the UK joined in with the protests. Demonstrating solidarity with the sentiment that the lives of black people matter.
The joining of forces with our allies across the pond has posed the question as to whether the UK has the same fight on our hands. Some have suggested that where of course black lives do matter, we do not have the same challenges as our American counterparts. That we are not institutionally racist. That we are a far more tolerant society. I make it plain from the outset I fundamentally disagree.
We do not have to go far back in our collective modern history to see systemic racism bubbling just beneath the surface. Our criminal justice and public inquiry systems, have historically come up against the question of institutional bias on several occasions in recent times.
In my lifetime alone, the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985 saw pockets of my hometown go up in flames over the mistreatment and stigmatisation of the black community, by an unregulated and unaccountable Metropolitan Police Force. Margaret Thatcher publicly announced that Britain was “swamped by people of a different culture”, which saw the inception of “Operation Swamp” by the Metropolitan police. “Operation Swamp”, saw black men disproportionately stopped and searched and arrested for spurious and often unlawful reasons. In both 1981 and 1985, the community of Brixton (for very different reasons) felt that they had endured enough and took matters into their own hands.
The result of this action contributed to the birth of the all-important piece of legislation: Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, which came into force on 1st January 1986. The legislation sought to properly regulate police across the UK, as many members of the British public had lost faith in the criminal justice system and the way that it was policed.
1993 saw the death of a black British teenager, Stephen Lawrence. He was murdered in an unprovoked attack motivated by racial hatred. A police investigation followed which was not only inadequate but found to be institutionally racist by virtue of a the Macpherson led public inquiry in 1998. The Lawrence family were only finally vindicated with overdue criminal convictions of their son’s murderers, in 2012.
The Lammy review in 2017 ordered by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, was commissioned to look into the treatment of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in the criminal justice system (CJS) which concluded the following devastating findings:
- Despite making up only 14 % of the population, people from BAME backgrounds made up 25% of prisoners. In youth custody the figure was 40%.
- Black people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as those from a white background.
- Black men were more than three times as likely to be arrested as white men.
The review also relayed statistical analysis of research conducted by the Ministry of Justice in 2016, in relation to sentencing disparities between white offenders and BAME offenders.
The research demonstrated that in 2015, in factually similar criminal cases the odds of being sentenced to a custodial term were higher for offenders from BAME backgrounds in comparison to white offenders. In drugs cases the findings were even more startling.
For those convicted of drug offences, the odds of receiving a prison sentence was 240% higher for BAME offenders than white offenders.
In 2012, the Metropolitan Police launched a controversial database called “The Matrix”. The Matrix purported to provide a set of reliable intelligence-based data, that determined whether an individual was a gang member or not, with the added benefit that it could be accessed by police across all London boroughs.
Police required two pieces of “intelligence” to place any individual on the database. Such intelligence could be as benign as an individual being stopped and searched with another individual already on the Matrix, or based upon who they were related to.
Fast forward to 2018, and Amnesty International’s report published in May 2018: “Trapped in the Matrix”. The report examined the devastating effects of being placed on the database. The report concluded that the database was yet another example of institutional racism.
Of the 3,806 individuals on the Matrix, 87% were from BAME backgrounds. The Matrix was found to not only being used as an “intelligence tool” for monitoring those perceived to be gang nominals, but also erroneously used for local authority housing claims for the individuals concerned; for immigration appeals; employment organisations (by virtue of the Matrix data being shared with jobcentre plus); and education institutions. The report also found that once placed on the Matrix, it was nigh on impossible to remove yourself from the database. In short, once you were on the Matrix it could significantly impede your life and varying aspects of it – indefinitely.
The Grenfell Towers fire in 2017 that led to the death of seventy-two residents, resulted in a public inquiry that is raising uncomfortable truths about corporate attitudes towards those who are working class or from BAME backgrounds. Cheap and combustible cladding adorned the outer edges of the towers as a way of cutting cost, which then acted as a type of monstrous kindling during the fire. The use of the cladding has raised questions about whether such corner cutting would have been mirrored in wealthier white communities.
The Windrush scandal in 2018, further demonstrates a moment in modern history where the normal checks and balances of a government system failed a Caribbean born community. In at least eighty-three cases individuals who arrived in the UK before 1973, were wrongly detained; denied legal rights and unlawfully deported from the UK by the Home Office. There has since been a public apology from former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and an offer of financial redress for the harm caused. It is unclear how many of the eighty-three cases have since been given their rightful citizenship status.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a further example of prejudice towards BAME communities, who come into contact with the CJS.
The UK followed the global lead in response to the threat of Covid-19 by “locking down” the UK to ensure the spread of the virus could be curtailed. Legislation was rushed through parliament to ensure our government had the requisite legal powers to restrict such basic human rights as freedom of movement. The Coronavirus Act 2020 made temporary modifications to the Criminal Justice Act 2003; the Criminal Appeal Act 1968; and the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
The Public Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, gave powers to not only restrict the freedom of movement of individuals, but also provided powers of sanctions to those found to not be observing the new Act and Regulations.
On close examination of what the statistics tell us about which members of society are receiving sanctions for breaching the new regulations (by way of fixed penalty notices), the statistics paint a familiar picture. According to Freedom of Information data, BAME people living outside of London are 4.4 times more likely than white people to receive a £60 fine for breaking lockdown in the first full week that new police powers were in place.
Black people in particular were 8.7 times more likely to be fined. In North Yorkshire – the region where Marie Dinou was fined £660 for failing to provide her identity and justify the journey she was making – BAME people were 7.8 times more likely to have received a fixed penalty notice. Black people in particular were 8.7 times more likely to be fined.
In London the data tells us that black people make up 12% of the population but have received a quarter of the fines issued in London during lockdown.
Is it just the fact that members of BAME communities are more likely to be breaching the new lockdown regulations? Or is it the case (as the Lammy review illustrates) that those from BAME communities are disproportionately more likely to be stopped by police in the first instance, than their white counterparts.
It has also recently been unveiled in a government-ordered enquiry that death rates from Covid-19 in England have been higher among people of Black and Asian origin than any other ethnic group. This finding transposed into further reporting that the connection between disproportionate BAME deaths was a matter of eugenics. That those from BAME backgrounds were somehow genetically pre-disposed to a higher mortality rate than those who identify as white. A claim that has since been discredited.
This rhetoric transported me back to my primary school playground in Brixton when a girl tried to persuade me and my best friend that black people can’t swim as well as white people because their bones are heavier. My friend Rochelle and I were more than a little perplexed by this assertion and decided to test the theory by weighing our arms on my scales at home during a play date; confusing our eight-year-old brains even further.
Racism doesn’t always head towards us from the horizon with a flag held high so we can all see when it is coming. It can be in a subtler and more nuanced form. As I hope the statistics and analysis in this article have demonstrated, it can be just under the surface where we find examples of institutional racism and attitudes towards certain groups in our society.
We may not have identical problems as other western societies in relation to BAME community members, but there are recognisable systemic prejudices in the UK that chime with our American cousins.
In conclusion I disagree with the proposition that the racial inequalities of America are not replicated on British soil. To deny it, is to further ignore it and become part of the problem as opposed to the solution. History has its eyes on all of us. Which side will you be on?
Clea Topolski is an experienced criminal defence practitioner. The views expressed in this article are her own. Research in this article was contributed by Alice Aubrey-Fletcher (pupil barrister)