Have you ever been subjected to ‘stop and search’ by the British police? Here is a conversation which took place in a ‘police stop and search’ exercise.
How are you sir?
I’m fine, thanks and how are you?
We are good, where are you from sir?
I’m from Wood Green.
What are you doing here, sir?
I’m just visiting.
Any identification sir?
(Checking the identification)
Don’t lie sir, you are from Sri Lanka.
I’m not lying. Yes, I was born in Sri Lanka, but I live in Wood Green. I’m visiting Hammersmith.
How did you come to this country? By plane? Lorry? Ship? Train? By boat or swimming?
This is the conversation two police officers had with me in front of Hammersmith Broadway underground. I was waiting for a friend in front of the Broadway underground. Two white police officers approached me and checked my identity with the above conversation. After the conversation or the so-called search was completed, they gave me a receipt with all my biological details. Interestingly, there is reason for checking. It says “Gentleman was standing outside Broadway underground; welfare-check conducted”. Is it a reason for a police check? Is standing in front of a railway station a crime?
Section 60 of the 1994 Public Order Act was originally brought in to tackle people going to illegal raves. It gave police the power, if they feared violence or disorder, to stop and search suspects at a specific time and place. Stops carried out under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 have already been dropped after the European court of human rights struck them down.
On and off, I have been living in London for nearly 6 years, though that was the only time I was subjected to a police stop and search operation. I’m still angry over this incident. Look at the questions they asked. This is clearly racism. The police treated me in a humiliating and degrading way when I was searched. The police verbally insulted me. I wonder what it’d be like if it happened every day? This story is an example of the xenophobic attitude of elements of the British police towards immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It is racial profiling. It’s as fundamental as that. It is based on sight, suspicion and fear. It’s a systematic pattern. I have seen this in Sri Lanka against ethnic minorities.
A couple of months after I was harassed by the police, in March 2010, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released its report on the police stop and search operation with shocking data. It starts as: “if you are a black person, you are at least six times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police in England and Wales as a white person. If you are Asian, you are around twice as likely to be stopped and searched as a white person.”
The report found a rise in the percentage of ethnic minorities among those stopped under Section 60 between 2008 and 2011, from 51 to 64%. The EHRC said that through Section 60 alone, ethnic minorities underwent more than 100,000 excessive searches over the 2008-2011 period. Simon Woolley, a Commissioner at the EHRC, said; “Our research shows black youths are still being disproportionately targeted, and without a clear explanation as to why, many in the community will see this as racial profiling.”
In June 2010, in another report, the justice ministry’s publication Race and the Criminal Justice says; “the number of black and Asian people stopped and searched by the police has increased by more than 70% over the past five years”
Various explanations have been put forward as to why the police use the stop and search powers so disproportionately against certain groups. Even taken together, however, they provide no justification for the extent and persistence of the problem, the report said.
The Commission questioned one common explanation, that is; black people are generally more often involved in crime is not supported by robust evidence. In any case, stops and searches should be carried out on the basis of ‘reasonable suspicion’. It is unlawful for the police to base their suspicions on generalised beliefs about particular groups.
In its recommendation the EHRC says; “For those forces who have demonstrated the most significant and persistent disproportionalities and excesses, we intend to take more immediate action. Following publication, we will be contacting several forces who have demonstrated the most significant and persistent disproportionalities and excesses, with a view to taking enforcement action under the Race Equality Duty, if necessary.”
The EHRC report concludes: “The evidence points to racial discrimination being a significant reason why black and Asian people are more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. It implies that stop and search powers are being used in a discriminatory and unlawful way.” It finds little merit in arguments advanced to justify excessive use of stop- and search operations against ethnic minority Britons and questions how frequently some forces use the power.
Despite years of debate and several initiatives aimed at tackling the problem, these ratios have stayed stubbornly high. Why is that?
The role of the media is crucial to the further strengthening of an anti-racist society in UK, where cultural diversity is valued and respected. As a journalist I would like to examine briefly the role of the media and its contributions to establish the stereotype -Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum seekers/Blacks/Asians/non-whites are criminals.
The wars around the world have created a wave of refugees. Some have crossed the borders and live in terrible conditions in other countries, others are internally displaced persons who simply no longer have homes and no independent lives of their own. In many places, long-time residents who are themselves struggling to adjust to life under often harsh conditions have not welcomed their presence. Politicians often seek to bolster their popularity by promoting resentment against them among the local population (Media Diversity Institute 2002). Politicians’ remarks on asylum seekers and immigrants are both selective and power-serving. While the actual demographic and economic effects of immigration on the UK are rarely discussed, the causes of immigration – global inequality, conflict and human rights abuses – are ignored. Irrespective of party, leading politicians repeatedly highlight issues of exclusion – fears of ‘invasion’, alleged ‘threats’ and actual prejudices – ensuring a very negative image of immigrants. Concerns over crime, disease, terrorism, detention and surveillance are consistently pushed well to the fore. This lack of balance can be attributed to a number of factors, including the existence of a covert racist ideology and the political expediency of ‘the race card’ – factors that repeatedly compromise the welfare of refugees and immigrants. Honest consideration of asylum and immigration issues should involve a far more diverse range of topics, reflecting the complexity of contemporary national and global relations. These include issues of nationalism, sovereignty, racism, demography, human rights, arms sales, war, refugee health, economic policy and moral responsibility. But does this happen?
We all know the case of the Rochdale sex crime gang. , The gang was a group of men who preyed on under-age teenage girls in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, England. They were convicted of sex trafficking on 8 May 2012; other offences included rape, trafficking girls for sex and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child. 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation during the police investigation. The men were all British Pakistanis (except for one from Afghanistan, an asylum seeker) and the girls were white; this has led to national discussion of whether the crimes were racially motivated, or, conversely, whether the early failure to investigate them was linked to the authorities’ fear of being accused of racism (Wikipedia). Almost all mainstream media covered the story and debated on white victims – non-white criminals issue. Now even the Rochdale sex crime gang has a Wikipedia page!
Two months later in Derby, England on 13 July 2012, eight men were convicted of plying “vulnerable” teenage girls with alcohol, drugs and gifts before paying them for sex. Fifteen girls aged 13 to 15, many of them in care, were preyed on by the men. And though they were not working as a gang, their methods were similar to those of the Rochdale sex crime gang – often targeting children in care and luring them with, among other things, cuddly toys. In this case, of the eight predators, seven were white, not Asian. And the story made barely a ripple in the national media. Of the daily papers, only The Guardian and The Times reported it. There was no commentary anywhere on how these crimes throw a light on British culture, or how middle-aged white men have to confront the deep flaws in their religious and ethnic identity. ( Guardian July 23, 2012)Yet that’s exactly what was played out following the conviction in May of the “Asian sex gang” in Rochdale, which made the front page of every national newspaper. Though analysis of the case focused on how big a factor was race, religion and culture, the unreported story is of how politicians and the media have created a new racial scapegoat. In fact, if anyone wants to study how racism begins, and creeps into the consciousness of an entire nation, they need look no further.
One story is reported and the other is not. Is it the media’s job to take sides? Or to take on a tone of outrage and offence then encourage its readers, listeners and viewers to join in an orchestrated campaign of hate against non-white people? The media is one of the many agencies for policing organisational life, although with a much wider mandate and field than most other agencies. When such an agency works unprofessionally and establishes stereotypes such as ‘Asian criminals’, there’s a moral message for the nation to take on board: “It’s an evil world and we need strict rules”.
When the law requires reasonable suspicion of involvement in crime, black and Asian people are more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. So, the police are checking the ‘evils’!
*Uvindu Kurukulasuriya is a Sri Lankan journalist living in exile. He is also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an academic consultant to the Silent University. This essay, which was first published by the Tate, was based on a lecture given by him at Tate Modern in December 2012.