There was always a part of London, a row of streets heading east between Fleet Street and the Thames, 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, I’d taken the extreme measure at 4 a.m. of driving north away from my Wapping flat and then arcing back towards it via Shoreditch, 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, in February a dozen years ago, 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 giveaway. The pseudoscience of phrenology may have been discounted in subsequent decades but a version of it persisted in Britain in the 1980s and beyond 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 immigrants who, in a reversal of the natural code of justice, would be presumed guilty of crimes until proven innocent. Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 stipulated that ‘every suspected person’ found out and about and thought by two witnesses (namely police officers) to be intent on a crime were to be deemed ‘rogues and vagabonds’ and could be held in a place of correction for up to three months. One hundred and fifty years later, black youths were a good fit, surely, for ‘rogues and vagabonds’.
A 1980s comedy sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News underscored the pervasive police enforcement of what became known as the ‘Sus’ law, (sus being short for suspected person) when Constable Savage, criticised for arresting the same man hundreds of times for offences which included being in possession of ‘thick lips and curly hair’, is 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 argued that some of the gold-teethed ragamuffin youth, the bad-bwoi 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, even now more than a decade on from the first iteration of Sus. Rather it was as though the police had designed the unremitting stop and search campaign to try and induce among the youth a state that psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’, a programme of incremental psychological torture in which the victim learns that resistance is futile and there is no escape from the harassment, and so gives up and falls into a depression. Black youths felt corralled in urban conurbations, like Native Americans confined to reservations. Babylon, as was said at the time, had the youth under heavy manners.
In the nineteenth century, phrenologists believed that they could determine the likelihood of someone being a criminal based on how they looked
Growing up in 1960s Luton our father, Bageye, warned us that we were being watched; instilling in us the notion that as the children of Jamaican immigrants we were under constant observation by our English hosts. The scrutiny was both physical and metaphorical.
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. Decades later, when making a BBC documentary about schizophrenia, I asked a leading psychiatrist about the reason for the sixfold increase in incidences of schizophrenia amongst young black men, which first started to be noticed in the 1970s. The psychiatrist had a theory. ‘Back then black people,’ he answered, ‘were schooled in paranoia.’ Perhaps, but the Sus law also schooled us in loathing for 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 barriers at the exit to the train station, a West Indian hand reached out and pulled me to the side. I protested my innocence and showed 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, my mother agonised, ‘love to tek chance’. The risk-taking most often occurred in his car. Firstly, he had no driving license due to 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 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 overdid it 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 ‘playing fool to catch 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’ of the idea that you posed a threat; showing 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 in 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!’.
My father’s attitude exemplified what Jamaicans call ‘playing fool to catch wise’ – a tradition of pretend subservience
At 4 a.m. on the Embankment, thirty years on from that first encounter with Bageye’s rapidly promoted policeman, I had yet to master the art of patrolling the border between pretence and reality, between playing a fool and becoming one.
Heading home from the night shift, I turned on to 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. There was a pair: a bearded elder 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 at most times but especially so in the early hours.
I told myself not to be so foolish as to stop and reverse, 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 be 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 chocolate brown roof.
They waved me down. I pulled over and stepped out of the car. Six feet and rising. Suspect? Their faces were determined not to suggest surprise. But no amount of training can intervene in first impressions. You could glean the recalibration on 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 times the police would default to what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called the act of ‘bad faith’, of acting the officious part 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 for 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 black 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. The old-timer let the Hendon graduate take the lead, as if it were an opportunity for role playing. And actually the Hendon man did seem to be auditioning for the part; determined not to show any vague connection, the semblance of a primitive black-on-black connection with the suspect.
‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ James Baldwin said that fifty-six years ago [of America]. 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. Despite my father’s manifest instructions to me that in life he was, as it were, prepared to be black so that I didn’t have to be, I wasn’t so convinced. As the nineteenth-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 elder policeman demanded my driving license 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 in In the Heat of the Night, I barked at the policeman that cobwebs were not an indication of criminality and that it should not matter where the car was registered; that I was surely 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.
Home Office figures released in October 2017 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 third of a million instances have been carried out in England and Wales this year; less than one in five leads to an arrest. The police argue that the statistics show that the policy is working and increasingly necessary with the rise of 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 preponderance of stop and search in the first place. Fundamentally, the statistics are open to the charge that what the seeker seeks the prover proves.
Police and Home Office statisticians might argue that the benefits of stop and search and the kind of racial profiling rolled out with the Terrorism Act 2000 are proven in the reduction and prevention of crime; but they cannot overlook the fact of the targeted groups’ antipathy towards the agents of law enforcement as an unexpected consequence. Such stop and search practices – ultimately self-defeating – are known to sow a seed of resentment that might be tempered with time but is never extinguished.
Such stop and search practices are known to sow a seed of resentment that might be tempered with time but is never extinguished
Even if you accept the prophylactic credits of police officers’ early instinctive intervention, is the deficit of the necessarily brutalising interaction with black youth worth paying? Stop and search does not contribute to a state of well-being for a sizeable section of the population. Instead it fuels a sense of dwelling in an interim state, of alienation, of being the subject of a police state, and of being under enemy occupation.
The question of my identification with Luton and 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 signalling that you were not who they thought you were, of holding onto your integrity whilst disabusing white people (especially uniformed ones) of the notion that you might constitute a threat.
But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I was smarter then but dumber than that now. 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 playing fool to catch wise. I couldn’t pull it off, as I had managed effectively when younger. But then that might have resulted from 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 their comfortable detached house in the middle-class commuter village of Radlett, I ran down to the station to catch the train back 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 the platform until the first trains restarted perhaps six hours later. At about three in the morning, two police walked 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.
Want more great Boundless essays in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here.