From Pride to Cable Street: British Policing in Four Acts
As a dissenting voice against racist policing in my community before and following the Murder of George Floyd, the Murder of Sarah Everard followed by the Wayne Couzens Trial reminded me how the police have long threatened other historically excluded groups — in addition to Black people showing a history of policing that isn’t exclusive to racialised peoples (nor widely talked about).
CW. Police brutality; violence against women; racism; misogyny; ableism; homophobia; transphobia; hatred; misogynoir.
Following the Murder of George Floyd, I, as part of of fifty Black and Mixed-Race Britons were interviewed as part of The UK Guardian’s early responses to the Black Lives Matter protests happening across the world, including Britain and of course the United States. Whilst those new to these issues of racial inequality and racial hostility may have thought this was just about George Floyd, we know that racist policing is only the tip of the iceberg of issues that impact people of African descent in the Global Northwest.
In this entry, I will discuss that in our responses to racist policing in Britain, our public discourse on police violence could transcend racism, further looking at how historically, the police have targetted others too. This is not new info, but showing how violent policing has a precedent across numerous — including working-class people, women, and LGBT+ … as well as Global Majority [GM] people, there is grounds for solidarity in the context of police critique further to things like ‘Defund the Police’. Empathy should be enough to stand with different social justice causes, but police violence historically is another reason why not only GM people are implicated in these discussions.
“The deportation of Jamaican siblings is a threat to everyone’s security & liberty on this land … part of a psychological warfare against black people. But ... it always starts with black bodies, what history shows is that it has never stopped with us. […] Your baseline is how the most devalued bodies are treated. Raising that baseline increases everyone’s level of safety ... This is why I argue … whiteness is also born of sadomasochism” (Guilaine Kinouani).
Police v (Cis) White Women
Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, London Metropolitan Police Service went to task at the vigil of Sarah Everard. A woman that was kidnapped and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving officer in the London Met. Looking at footage and photos from the scene, the whiteness of the white woman-majority did not protect them. For the first time in a while, cis white women around me began to see that what often happens to Black men and women could also happen to them … very much linked to Kinouani’s take on raising the baseline for human treatment “increases everyone’s level of safety, peace and security.” Yet, in 1910, the Suffragettes felt the hatred of then Home Secretary Winston Churchill on that infamous Black Friday, where 300 women tried to gain entry into Parliament to assert their right to vote.
Following the uprising, typically the state then tried to cover up the evidence and the eventual “riot.” However, media footage and pictures of British rebellions before the Second World War have rarely been seen by the public but “… individual memories of civil disorder [in those days were] surprisingly widespread” however, when rioting did happen, “governments often denied they had, and censored the newsreel pictures” (Forbidden Britain). Historically speaking, these uprisings or rebellions grew out of a response to state-sanctioned violence, oft mass unemployment / poverty. Yet, historian Fern Riddell tells us “For many of the women present, the government’s use of extreme force on what had been a peaceful protest was the final straw. Women suddenly entered the public and political worlds in a way they had never done before.”
In the context of the early women’s suffrage movements, this was mainly against (cis) white women, however, Black women today continue to be victims of police — from Joy Gardner to Kamyimsola Olatunjye and more.
Women as victims of police violence has a precedent in this country going back to the early 1900s, and Sarah Everard’s vigil reminds me how common the police institution shown their disdain for them.
Police v Working-Class
To understand policing in the US, we must know that the institution grew out of American enslavement. However, Britain’s history of the London Metropolitan Police Service in particular, has quite a different story. Founded in 1829 by Sir Robert Peele MP, twice prime minister under the Conservative Party — the London Metropolitan Police in its infancy was created uncoindentally, with the rise of working-class resistance to state violence in the 19th century. What some would call rioting, I would call uprising or rebellion. For as long as there have been police officers in Britain, they have been at logger heads with working-class communities — from skuffles in the late Georgian period all the way up to clashes in the 1980s with the miners.
“Because the English Bourgeois finds himself reproduced in his law, as he does in his God, the policeman’s truncheon […] has for him a wonderfully soothing power. But for the workingman quite otherwise” (Engels, 1884: 157).
Police v. Gay People
During 1970, the UK Gay Liberation Front was founded at LSE [London School of Economics]. At the time, it included gay men and lesbians. That November, over one hundred members held a rally against police harrassment on Highbury Fields becoming the first organised gay rights demonstration on English soil (Historic England). Whilst histories of police brutality against gay and also trans communities are more commonly known in a United States context, the stories of particularly gay colleagues talking about the 1970s cannot be stricken from the record. In Northants, I know there was homophobia in the police and that working culture was institutionalised, while my trans friends do not have a kind thing to say about them at all.
As Moya Lothian-McLean tweeted in relation to the Couzens Trial:
“Couzens using the vague Covid regulations — which also were deployed to unlawfully target minority groups — to kidnap Sarah, and then the police turning up to her vigil and arresting protesters under those same regulations… do you see? Power like that is violence. Give certain groups power in a patriarchal world that encourages the dominance as social order & it will always, always be the marginalised who suffer, whether that’s women, racialised men, people who reject all gender binaries. Anyone who colours outside lines set by the state” (Moya Lothian-McLean).
While LGBT+ experiences of the police in general are by no means a homogenous whole, there is a very good reason why so many of my LGBT+ colleagues are against a police presence at Pride. In addition, police presence and violence at the Section 28 protests is a raw memory of my parents’ generation (and the LGBT+ elders). When we also consider intersectionality, Global Majority people that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, ase, aro, trans and / or numerous other positions that sit under the ‘+’ in LGBT+, we can think about how police violence impacts them when they are racialised outside of whiteness and “anyone who colours outside lines set by the state.” Meaning people that fit into intersectional identities forces us to think about police violence against those who fit into multiple groups.
Whilst LGBT+ experiences now do centre the gaze of cis white gay men, Stonewall was lead by Black trans women, while here in the UK there is a need for Black Pride to show the diversity that exists. As “we cannot speak about privilege as a binary … we all have privileged (and oppressed) identities. Speaking about privilege requires self-examination as it is complex, multi-faceted and (in)visible to many …” (Rhiad Ghemmour).
NB: Gay men were convicted up until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and police were policing in such a way it bordered on entrapment, cottaging etc etc, where police linked homosexuality with crimes such as public indecency (for example). Due to this, on paper, gay men still remain a large group of sex offenders on UK police records.
Police v Anti-Fascists
As someone that was only born in the East End (not lived there for any considerable length of time), I do not consider myself a Londoner by any definition. But the the history of the East End cannot be discussed without also mentioning the anti-fascist resistance of the mid-1930s. Here, I am particularly thinking about what became known as The Battle of Cable Street (1936) where the “battle” in that title came from the clash between anti-fascist Jews and the police. Today, we have seen a resurgence of the far right in discourses to the Tories, Donald Trump, Tommy Robinson, and a mainstream media that backs these views. Further to how the UK Government deployed police to curb Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020. Just as what occured in the 1930s, the state backed racism.
Sure, today’s fascists are not parading as Black Shirts, but they do not need to be so brazen when this ideology is the dominant media narrative. At Cable Street, police brutality was rife where they were on the side of Oswald Mosely while Jewish anti-fascists recieved the end of a police officer’s fist or truncheon. Early in the 1900s, places like St. Georges Street in the East End were largely non-Jewish areas, but were shrouded in anti-Semetic racism with strong hostility to new arrivals. Jewish immigrants, particlarly the older generations may have had traumatic memories of the pogroms in Eastern Europe. People that had fled violence as refugees only to then experience it again in Britain.
Concurrently, there was also communal solidarity. In 1936, aristocrat Sir Oswald Mosley was threatening to march his British Union of Fascist [BUF] through Jewish areas of London’s East End. Police were ‘clearing’ the streets full of protesters by whatever means necessary, so they could march. The Police are and always will be colonial / government footsoldiers, often in opposition to the ‘bodies’ they see as subservient “whether that’s women, racialised men, people who reject all gender binaries. Anyone who colours outside lines set by the state” (Moya Lothian-McLean).
Whilst I am racialised as Black by the global society, I am also neurodivergent putting me at greater risk of police violence (on multiple fronts). Pertinently as an autistic Black male. As we have seen from other discourses, Black people are disproportionately impacted, but we are not alone in this. Our communities are being pulled apart by police violence, so there is room for solidarity here. As I have only talked about four groups in this post, there is also room for discussion on— Police v Students; Protesters (i.e Blaire Peach); Trans People; Disabled People; Children, and many others!
In terms of Black communities though, we have scarcely analysed police brutality in a pre-1948 pre-Windrush context. If we did, we would see how the Black Edwardians lived under threat of the British state’s ‘white terror’ (hooks, 1992), showing a direct link between 1919 and the present Windrush crisis. I hope this post has been useful. Thanks for reading.
“The arrival of women and racialised minorities in spaces from which they have been historically or conceptually excluded is an illuminating and intriguing paradox … sheds light on how spaces have been formed through what has been constructed out … intriguing because it is a moment of change. It disturbs the status quo …” — Nirmal Puwar
1919 Race Riots, BBC, with Gaika
‘Black Lives Matter: A Question of Violence’, DDN, with Gary Younge
‘Forbidden Britain’, Episode 2 Riots.
‘LGBT in Britain: Trans Report’, Stonewall.
‘Meet The Wrong Type of Jew, The Media Doesn’t Want You To Know Exists’, DDN, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi.
Kill The Bill Protest — Northampton, Marly Talks (2021).
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