Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Policing and Disorder

It is interesting to see how events move on faster than one can predict. In early November I drafted a blog in which I wrote:

'In the coming years the way demonstrations are policed, and the individual actions of police officers, which notoriously spark conflict will only stoke a wider tinder box. Policing cuts will lead to increased stress for officers and inappropriate behaviour by them, and that is likely to provide some of the sparks. Tinder boxes may well also build up in the officially recognised socially deprived areas, as these are likely to take the brunt of the ConDem cuts in benefits and increased lack of jobs.'

Having got caught up with doing other things I put the draft on one side. It now seems timely to post this up-date, in the light of ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde's statement that it is crucial that police do not appear to be "an arm of the state" who are being used to allow the government to "impose cuts".

The reason I had drfted the blog was that on Monday 25 October I was a member of a panel discussing the Uprisings of the 1980s organised by the British Library. I was on the panel because in 1981 I worked for Solon Housing Association which had properties in Brixton, and between 1984 and 1989 I worked for the Community/Police Consultative Group for Lambeth (CPCGL) in the area, during which time there were further street clashes with the police.

In 1981 Brixton was a tinder box because of the way the police treated young blacks in their bid to combat street crime. They resorted to saturation policing, operationally called Swamp 81, and the indiscriminate use of arrest on suspicion 'sus' and stop and search. The tinder box included a anger about the lack of police response to the Deptford Fire, racist marches, and the acquittals of alleged rioters in St Paul's, Bristol. The spark was provided by a misunderstanding about the police assisting a young black man who had been stabbed.

The tinder box also included the history of conflict between the Council and squatters in which the former had used the police as its para-military force. e.g. in St Agnes Place in 1977. Squatting had arisen because of the Council's large scale redevelopment programme leaving hundreds of houses empty. Solon had campaigned against this policy. It had also supported squatters to become short-life licensees and then co-operatives. Many squatters joined in the fighting against the police.

Afterwards Solon's workers decided to support the Brixton Defence Committee and boycott giving evidence to the Government set up enquiry led by Lord Scarman.

Brixton of course was just one area where the tinder box exploded. The reason why some areas which may also have been tinder boxes did not explode is probably due to the absence of a spark.

The Uprisings of the 1980s should not be seen as something alien to the British experience. They must be seen within the context of historic social unrest, going back as least as far as the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

The situation led Thatcher's Government to reform policing through the Police & Criminal Evidence Bill. Leading for the Government Douglas Hurd was open to listening. He took on board many of the ideas of the CPGGL which I had started working for in January 1984. An impasse was reached in the Commons between the Government and the Opposition over how to put safeguards in on the use of stop and search powers. After consulting the Group Labour's Alf Dubs proposed a Code of Practice. Hurd honoured his pledge to provide for one during the House of Lords stage of the Bill. Hurd was supported by sympathetic Home Office civil servants. A different Minister and set of civil servants may have led to very different and more negative outcomes.

The Consultative Group and the linked Panel of Lay Visitors to Police Stations were never going to be panaceas to the problems of policing. They became important components in seeking to influence the process and make the police more accountable.

The street fighting backlash following the shooting of Mrs Cherry Groce in 1985 during an early morning operation to try and arrest her son alleged by an out of London police force to be at her home, showed how fragile the situation was. The street fighting began later in the day outside Brixton Police Station, when some people at the back hurled petrol bombs over the heads of the demonstrators, in response to which the police rushed out in riot gear.

The senior officer in charge of the Borough that weekend failed to alert the Group that Mrs Groce had been shot. The Group therefore had no chance to try and ensure that protest remained peaceful. The officer consistently was to demonstrate his opposition to the Group and the Panel despite their being official Met Police policy to support them.

Ten years ago about 70% of the BME population lived in the then designated socially deprived areas. In 1995 commemorating the role of his fellow members in the Second World War, Rene Webb, the then President of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Ex-Servicewomen's Association said: 'A society that cannot look after its own poor, cannot be expected to look after its black poor.'

Since the early 1980s there have been dramatic changes in the composition of poor communities, in ethnicities, and the growth of individualism. Perhaps the Thatcher agenda of 'there is no such thing as society' and the breaking of community solidarity will mean that the location and nature of future explosions will be unpredictably different from those like 1980s Brixton.

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