Brendan O'Neill reports from south-east London, where post-Lawrence policing is in danger of making everybody a racist
In the early hours of Tuesday 8 June, police officers from the Community Safety Unit in Greenwich, south-east London, raided the home of an alleged racist. She was arrested for allegedly subjecting an elderly woman to racist abuse, by shouting at her and smashing her windows, and was questioned for hours at Greenwich police station. She is currently awaiting trial for what the police describe as 'racially motivated crimes'. The accused is an 11-year old black girl.
This was one of a number of arrests made during the Metropolitan Police's clampdown on race and hate crimes in London over the summer. In other dawn raids a white couple were held in connection with a racial assault 'involving a stick', and a 50-year old Asian man was arrested for allegedly demanding money with menaces 'in a racial manner' from a black victim. Others, white, black and Asian, have been arrested by Community Safety Units, for racially motivated crimes ranging from harassment to criminal damage.
Greenwich has been used as a testing ground for the police offensive against hate crime, because of its reputation as Britain's 'race hate capital'. In April the police launched the Greenwich Accord, which promised to 'build communities that are intolerant of racist values'. But can such a heavy-handed approach to tackling hate crime really deliver a 'more tolerant' society?
Since last year's inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and the publication of the Macpherson report in February this year, the police have been keen to prove their anti-racist credentials. The Racial and Violent Crime Taskforce was launched in August 1998 to 'reassure the public that we will investigate...racially motivated crime to the best of our ability'. One of its first actions was to set up Community Safety Units (CSUs), responsible for gathering intelligence on hate crimes - including racially motivated offences, domestic violence, homophobic crimes, and 'a spattering of elder abuse' - and arresting the perpetrators. In January this year, the police announced that the CSUs would adopt 'a proactive rather than reactive approach to tackling race and hate crime' (The Job, 25 February 1999).
The aim of this 'proactive' work, according to Detective Inspector Darren Curtis, head of the Community Safety Unit in Greenwich, is to terrorise those suspected of committing hate crimes. 'We are saying to people, look, we are being proactive, we are going out and making eight or nine arrests in a single "raid day", and we're going to do it again. So if you're out there committing hate crimes, be afraid, because we are going to come knocking on your door.' DI Curtis compares the anti-hate raids in Greenwich to the heavy-handed anti-burglary Bumblebee operation of 1993, arguing that they are a 'necessary measure' to deal with the 'wealth of racial allegations that we hear every day'.
At first glance, the crime figures seem to suggest that racially motivated crimes are an increasing problem that might need what DI Curtis calls 'special attention'. In June it was reported that nearly 8000 people had been victims of violent racial crimes in London last year, a huge increase on the 1149 race crime victims of 1997. According to the Commission for Racial Equality, nationally 373 000 people claim to have been victims of racially motivated incidents last year. Yet on closer inspection, these figures seem to say less about an increase in racism than about the redefinition of racist crime and the corresponding shift in police practice.
The Macpherson report defined a racial incident as 'any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person' - a definition now endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The Metropolitan Police argue that 'we should not underestimate the impact even seemingly insignificant incidents can have on victims. Only victims will know how they feel, how it affects them and how their lifestyle may change because of it' (Greenwich Accord). So anything can be defined as a racially motivated crime, if somebody feels it should be.
What's more, the police are positively encouraged to find such racist crimes, to the point where there is almost a quota. The internal police bulletin, The Job, reported that 'internal awareness of correct reporting procedures has been promoted by briefings and internal publicity', boasting that 'as a result of this, reported racial incidents have increased by 68 percent' (25 February). Other initiatives include issuing officers with a card reminding them of the definition of a racist offence and how to report it correctly, and setting up an anti-racist 'intelligence cell', leading to a 180 percent increase in reported racist incidents in some parts of London. Some argue that this reflects the real extent of racist crime, and that the police are only just discovering it. But it is the open-ended definition of racism which has led to more racist crimes being 'discovered'.
Two things appear to be happening here. Incidents which once would have been seen just as a nuisance are now being dealt with as criminal offences. And incidents which would have been addressed as ordinary criminal offences are increasingly being defined as racially motivated. As the police's Protect and Respect diversity strategy spelled out, one of the main aims of anti-racist policing is 'to increase the number of crimes "flagged" as racial by Met officers'.
According to the police, their clampdown on hate crime is a struggle against the scourge of racism sweeping Britain. But with the police definition of racism now so broad, and their 'proactive' search for racially motivated crimes so keen, could they have largely invented this 'widespread problem of racism'? 'The white racists may be the most vile', says DI Curtis, 'but anyone can hate; anyone is capable of despising their neighbour. It is an endemic thing'. When anybody is capable of committing a racial crime, to the point that it is 'endemic', when a racial crime can be anything judged as such by anybody, and when the police are always on the lookout for a racial motive, it is not surprising that there has been a surge in reported racist incidents. And because all this is presented as a worthy fight against racism, it is rarely challenged.
But the consequence is that the responsibility for racism is shifted from the powerful - such as the police and the government - to some of the least powerful people in society. So the Greenwich police, once notorious for their racist attitudes, could get away with arresting an 11-year old black girl in an early morning raid and sending out press releases parading her as a racist hate criminal. The view that racism is everywhere has led to a situation where the police can present themselves as anti-racists and pin the blame for racism on everybody from white robbers to black children.
This has had a palpable impact on the ground. If every encounter between communities is viewed with suspicion, as potentially racist, community relations can only suffer - as I found when I visited Greenwich in July.
South-east London has never been the most harmonious place, known to many as the area where Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists in 1993. But anti-racist policing has made matters worse. 'The police are only interested in helping black people', said Daniel, a white 18-year old student. 'If something racist has been done, the police look into it straight away; but if it's not racist they just leave it for ages.' Daniel clearly has his own prejudices - but his comments reflect the fact that the police now prioritise ('fast-track') the investigation of racially motivated crimes over other crimes. This might help to explain why an increasing number of white people who have been robbed report it as 'racially motivated' - they know that the crime will be investigated sooner rather than later.
'It's about time the police did something to catch those racists', said Marcia, a black mother-of-two. 'They are on our side for a change.' Yet the police are on nobody's side - they have successfully criminalised both black and white people in Greenwich as 'endemic' racists.
The police's newfound obsession with racially motivated crime is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. After broadening the definition of racism and boosting the statistics, their next step was to launch a clampdown on the apparently worsening problem. This led to a spate of dawn raids, where people were arrested for crimes ranging from the petty to physical assault. The only thing that these crimes had in common was that the police defined them as 'racially motivated'.
The police in London have spearheaded the clampdown on race and hate crime, but other police forces are following suit. The Merseyside Police recently followed a statement about 'racist crimes [being] some of the most distressing crimes faced by our communities' with the announcement that 'all persons charged, reported or cautioned with a racially motivated offence will be required to provide a DNA sample for analysis'. Those suspected of committing a racial offence will join those accused of murder and rape as the only ones having to provide DNA. Will this be the case for young black girls as well as for Combat 18 members?
The police offensive against hate crime has all the hallmarks of a PR campaign to improve a tarnished image. But this PR campaign has some very real consequences. A society is now being created where we see racism everywhere, and expect the worst motives of everybody - except the police force. Welcome to 'tolerant' Britain.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999