By Anam Rahman
Growing up as a member of a working class ethnic minority, I was always interested in understanding why there is such hatred for policemen and women in my community. Why the police are seen as the enemy, why it feels like it’s ‘us’ against ‘them’, why it seems like war. I was perplexed as to how one could form such an opinion in spite of all the good work I saw the police do. Recently, however, I’ve had the pleasure of being stopped and searched twice and pulled over once in the last 4 days. Now I understand that the resentment stems from a feeling of gross injustice. Injustice which arose from a set of uncontrollable circumstances, which working class minorities are born into, and have no influence over. Now I see it’s the people versus the establishment. It’s the individual versus the system, and the system setting out to breed crime within poor communities and to punish the poor.
Where to start… Let’s begin with the boring fact, which everyone knows, that you are a little bit more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re an ethnic minority than if you’re white. I use ‘little bit’ loosely. The European Human Rights Commission found at the peak of stop and search that the British police were 28 times more likely to use section 60 to search a black person than a white person. Yes you read correctly, Two-Eight, 28. I can say this is disgraceful racial profiling, but that doesn’t go far enough. My grasp of English can’t articulate my anger at this strong enough, so I’ll leave it to you to form an opinion. This is the first basic layer of injustice that everyone can understand, that one’s skin colour determines the amount of times he/she is harassed by police. For anyone who thinks this is even a tiny bit acceptable, to assume ethnic minorities commit a higher percentage of crime and that therefore they should be searched more often – you are a mug. Anyone who has had the pleasure of being harassed by police regularly will tell you that there is a huge level of disproportionality involved.
The second layer of injustice is a little bit more complicated and not to do with ones skin colour but ones monetary wealth. British policing more importantly penalises individuals for being born poor. It’s a bold statement but I will show you where my logic comes from. Stop and searches do not take place in wealthy neighbourhoods; they take place in social housing estates. To maximise the effectiveness of S&S powers (even though they are not effective: less than 3% lead to an arrest) they should take place where crime rates are high. This is where the injustice and anger stems from.
There are two key issues which fuel hatred for the police and accentuate this sense of injustice. Firstly, individuals have no control over the monetary wealth they are born into; if they are born into working class families they will usually live in council estates (especially considering house and rent prices have rocketed in recent decades), and through the nature of policing, will be harassed significantly more often. If they have nothing to hide then there is no issue, I hear you say. But these individuals are surrounded by drugs, crime and poverty while simultaneously expected to stand on a moral high ground, expected to live as minorities in their communities and be good citizens. Not as easy as I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.
The original purpose of social housing was to create a diverse society, where both the doctor and the street cleaner would live as neighbours; a society where the sense of community trumped individualism. Where, should you have the misfortune of being born poor, this would perhaps not determine your life since you’d be surrounded by better role models. As the founder of social housing Aneurin Bevan said, ‘it is entirely undesirable that in modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live’. This now hopeful vision of society would however be destroyed by the Satan in disguise named Thatcher. Social housing was brought to its knees through her right to buy scheme and consequent housing shortages. With limited resources, only the poorest and most vulnerable were allocated housing, turning social housing into social dumping grounds.
They are our equivalent to ghettos in the US. Pockets of society, all over the country, characterised by lower life expectancy, high crime rates, social mobility falling through the floor, mass drug dealing and addiction, unstable family structures, poverty, high unemployment and welfare dependency.
What angers me more than anything is that this level of social segregation was an orchestrated act of government policy, that both Thatcher and Blair played their part in implementing. Great conquerors master the art of divide and rule, and this was Thatcher’s great vision; this is her legacy. Deprived pockets of society, where the poorest are swept aside from the rest, left to fend for themselves.
The second issue to note is to do with social mobility and our society. Ask yourself realistically, what are the chances of an individual growing up in a council estate, surrounded by drugs, crime, living in poverty, usually from a dysfunctional family escaping poverty through the opportunities society offers. Yes, I bet you can name someone from a bad background who became hugely successful. The simple reality is that they are a tiny, tiny minority of people. And for society to expect all individuals to possess that ability (which boils down to luck in my opinion), to be able to make their way in life through the opportunities society offers, is wrong. Firstly, because it’s a very agency-based approach to the issue, and secondly, because the UK has some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the western world.
What if I told you there was a better chance of Thatcher becoming PM at the time she was born than after her time in office? That’s because inequality and social mobility negatively correlate.
To rephrase, in comparison to countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Japan, it is almost impossible to escape poverty in Britain. (And I’m not just making this stuff up, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ‘Spirit Level’). Add together an insufficient welfare state, a consumerist driven world, a declining economy and an elitist society with the lowest levels of social mobility and what do you get? You get poor people committing crimes because there are not a lot of other options for them to turn to.
The gross sense of injustice that ethnic and white working class individuals feel stems from this: an institutionalised system which breeds crime within the poorest communities, and policing which simultaneously punishes them for it. Stop and searches do nothing but perpetuate this hatred and feeling of injustice toward the police. We live in a right wing country with individualism at the centre of most public policy, from policing, to housing, to the judicial system. This has to change.