As police racism unsettles Britain’s tolerant self-image, Black resistance to British policing details the activism which made movements like Black Lives Matter possible. Colonial legacies and newer forms of state power are used to understand racism beyond prejudice and the interpersonal: black resistance confronts a global system of racial classification, control, exploitation and violence. Adam Elliott-Cooper offers the first detailed account of grassroots anti-racist resistance to policing in Britain since the 2011 ‘riots’. British racism stretches back further than Windrush and beyond the shores of the British mainland. Imperial cultures and policies, as well as colonial war and policing, are used to highlight connections between these histories and contemporary racisms. But this is a book about resistance, considering black liberation movements in the twentieth century while utilising a decade of activist research covering spontaneous rebellion, campaigns and protest. Drawing connections between histories of resistance and different kinds of black struggle against policing is vital, it is argued, if we are to challenge the cutting edge of police and prison power which harnesses new and dangerous forms of surveillance, violence and criminalisation. The police and prison systems are seen as beyond reform, and the book argues that to imagine a world free from racism we must work towards a system free from the violence and exploitation which would make that possible.
While many books have been written about British racism, far fewer have been written about resistance to British racism. This book uses resistance to policing, one of the main focal points for black struggles across the world, to investigate anti-racism in twenty-first-century Britain. The book focuses on grassroots movements, challenging racist state violence, and analysing the politics, tactics and issues that different currents of resistance face.
This chapter argues that, historically, black resistance to British policing did not just take place on the British mainland but, vitally, in Britain’s colonies. Drawing on the work of John La Rose and the Race Today Collective, it argues that Britain’s twentieth-century black political movement was connected to global movements against colonialism and imperialism. This praxis necessitated a commitment to resisting capitalism across national borders and among Britain’s racialised divides. The chapter closes with an assessment of the urban rebellions in the 1980s, arguing that the state sought to liberalise, professionalise and co-opt the black political movement, with partial success.
Resistance, respectability and Black deaths in police custody
This chapter investigates the role of women in anti-racist campaigns against policing in twenty-first-century Britain. It argues that imperial discourses about gender norms and respectability have helped to shape how race and crime are constituted in the contemporary period. The chapter argues that the colonial roots of race and gender norms are fundamental to conceptualising one of the key findings of the field research which informs this chapter – that women lead almost every campaign against a black death in police custody in post-2011 England. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with activists, ethnographic observations at protests and scholar-activist participation in campaigns against black deaths in custody, this chapter demonstrates how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imperial discourses on respectability and nation do not simply contextualise racialised policing in the contemporary period, but expose the racialised and gendered norms that legitimise racist policing in modern Britain.
This historical framing provides an analysis for the racist criminalisation of black men in twenty-first-century Britain. The chapter highlights three key ways in which police racism becomes entrenched through Britain’s imperial discourses, rehearsed over several centuries. First, gender and masculinity are framed and regulated to reproduce imperial power and the racialisation of subject populations. Specifically, ideas about both gender and race are imposed on colonised people to better exploit, control and execute violence upon them. Secondly, racialisation is constantly changing: presenting itself as fixed, it is in fact in constant flux across time and space. Thirdly, building on the previous chapter, both radical anti-racism and black feminism are shown to be vital conceptual tools for analysing the perception that black men require a distinctively punitive control. The first section of this chapter looks at how imperial discourses framed colonised men. The second section uses black conservatives in Britain as a case study to look at how black masculinity is criminalised. It looks at how these campaigners for black respectability contrast the ‘success’ of their own families and careers with the ‘failures’ of criminalised men. The final section of the chapter focuses on one particular incident – in which a criminalised black man is confronted by the police – in order to illustrate how masculine violence can be considered legitimate if it is state-led, but criminalised if it is associated with the colonised, or black people or working classes.
This chapter focuses on black resistance to British policing in the aftermath of the 2011 ‘riots’. The historical section of this chapter offers an account of a very recent history – the media reports and police and political rhetoric which began in the twenty-first century, concerned with ‘gang crime’. This provides some context for an analysis of the 2011 civil unrest and of three community-led defence campaigns. The first of these, the Tottenham Defence Campaign, is one of the many local initiatives which sprang up to challenge the increase in arrests, raids and imprisonment following the 2011 revolts. The second campaign concerns Mauro Demetrio, a young black man violently assaulted by police in the aftermath of the 2011 unrest. Finally, the chapter turns to the inquiry into the police killing of Mark Duggan, and how his family-led campaign challenged racism from the media, politicians and the criminal justice system. These forms of black community defence echo similar campaigns in previous decades and, like those outlined in Chapters 1 and 2, also draw on histories of anti-colonial struggle.
Surveillance, collective punishment and the cutting edge of police power
This chapter explores the ways in which new powers are reproducing racism in British policing. There is further analysis of the development of the ‘all-out war on gangs and gang culture’ announced by David Cameron in 2011, which is discussed in Chapter 4. The chapter also details the ways in which new technologies, surveillance and injunctions are used to criminalise black communities and expand the use of prisons and other forms of punishment. The chapter begins by analysing counterinsurgency policing in the dying days of Empire, including the use of surveillance, mass incarceration, forced migration and coercive violence against ‘suspect communities’. Interestingly, this colonial policing also used the language of ‘gangs’ to depict the targets of state violence. This power of distortion, to portray groups of people as criminal, influences racist stereotypes in the postcolonial period. This racist ‘grammar’, argues Hortense Spillers, finds its way into our present, ‘from the semantic and iconic folds buried deep in the collective past’. Consequently, racial governance in both the colonies and modern Britain enables these forms of collective punishment to be planned, implemented and justified by state institutions, aided by popular racist cultures.
This chapter provides an analysis of Black Lives Matter, and its most radical vision: police abolition. It pushes the boundaries of how policing can be resisted, and what demands can be made for radical change. The chapter begins with the newer waves of protests and rebellion against police racism. Shutting down shopping centres, roads and transport hubs engenders fresh ways of thinking about protest. These radical forms of protest reflect radical demands made by Black Lives Matter activists, who argue that the police are beyond reform. Whereas the previous chapter outlined the recent growth of policing and prisons, this chapter details how activists are demanding the erosion of police and prison power, alongside the provision of alternative social policies and community-led solutions to reducing violence and harm. This requires a radical vision for a world in which police and prisons are abolished. The final section connects this emergent form of black organising against policing to more spontaneous rebellion against police violence. It argues against the distinction made between peaceful, legitimate protest and the revolts which respond to an instance of police brutality. It is through this wider understanding that we can see black resistance to policing beyond organised campaigns and protests, and into the everyday and the spontaneous, among people who are often not identified as political or activists.
As this book has demonstrated, black resistance to British policing stretches beyond the shores of the British mainland and long before the Windrush generation arrived in England. Crucially, resistance to policing continues to be a central focus of radical grassroots campaigns in Britain. The summer of 2020 saw some of the largest anti-racist protests in British history, with more radical currents offering a revolutionary vision for a world beyond police and prisons. This revolutionary black politics draws on the anti-colonial and Black Power movements of previous decades, while also offering fresh ideas and tactics for how contemporary campaigns can bring about the social transformations the world so desperately needs.