DAY 86: Sun 7 June

Police stories and Edward Colston gets his comeuppance.

One of life’s great mysteries remains unsolved. How come you can wake up at 4:10am, turn over in bed and suddenly its 7:15am. In all my born days I have never been able to work that out.

I have also found it difficult to understand why people would say we have no problems about racism in this country. I am a white man of Irish extraction and for much of my life have lived in multi-cultural area, including the East End of London where, back in the day, the police ere more likely to arrest a Bangladssi complaining about National Fronter attacking his house than arresting the racists. And they would have no problem with addressing black men as ‘Sunshine’ or referring to them as ‘Sambos’.

I doubt they would do that today, but just because overt racism is now frowned upon does not mean that attitudes have gone away. The Metropolitan Police boss Cressida Dick has instructed her officers not to ‘take the knee’ at the anti-racism demos, but did she instruct her officers not to clap for the NHS? Both are symbolic gestures which mean a lot. What is the difference?

I used to cover racists attacks when working on local papers back at the start fo my journalistic career. I once asked my editor on the East London Advertiser why we had no black reporters. His shocking reply: “Because you don’t know whose side they are on.” And when I asked the Advertising Manager on the way back from the printers why he didn’t have black staff in an area where, then as now, there are so many BAME businesses, his response was to grit his teeth, say nothing and put his foott down so hard that the loose newspapers the back seat flew into to the ai, He wss forced to slow down, bur did not speak for the rest of the journey and was clearly keen to get me out of the car as soon as possible. It took the threat of a newsroom walk-out to stop the paper accepting adverts for the National Front. That was in the 1970s. 

A decade later my last encounter with the police happened days before I left   London for Bristol came on St Patrick’s Day. Three of us, all Irish, were working late, a local journalist, a national journalist and a local teacher. We agreed to go for a drink just before closing time. We met in what is now called the Cable Street Inn, beside the Battle of Cable Street mural, and had time for little more than a pint. As we left we saw two police officers standing over a black guy in his car. We watched and listened as the man explained that his documents were at home. The police ordered him follow their car. His home happened to be on the ground floor of a council block of flats further along Cable Street. As we approached it on foot we could see there was a party going on. We all knew that this could be a flash point if not handled properly so we stopped to watch.

One of the coppers challenged us quite aggressively. “What are you looking at?” he demanded. I replied “We are watching British justice in action,“ Admittedly I could have been more diplomatic but we all knew how police operated locally and we knew that in front of witnesses they might be more circumspect than usual. The young man came out with his driver’s license, the police left, and we continued on our journey home.

\We were still on Cable Street between Dock Street and John Fisher Street when a police wagon came towards us driving at speed the wrong way down a one way street and mounted the pavement in front of us. Out leapt a posse of policemen who bundled us into the back of the van then drove us around the corner to the infamous Leman Street Nick. We were dumped in the charge room in front of a rather bemused sergeant, while his men peered through the various doors to watch justice being done.

The officer in charge was clearly put out by the discovery that he had two journalists before him, and a respected local teacher. It was alleged that we had been drunk and disorderly though it was also clear that we were far from drunk and no effort had been made to breathalyse us. He was even more embarrassed when I asked for a copy of the Code of Practice which under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) is supposed to be available to anyone detained. It was not in his desk, where it should have been. We were escorted to separate cells with all our belongings while he looked for it and for a way out of his dilemma. A station full of underlings desperate to get their now back on a bunch of clever dicks. He eventually brought me a copy of the Code, and told me his officers were proposing to visit our respective homes to check our identities. it was now after midnight, and the wife of one of my companions had just had a baby. He did not want her disturbed at this hour, especially by one of the coppers out for our blood. So, to save the sergeant’s face and to quell the evident anger of our assailants, we had to agree to a caution. Much to the constable’s glee they had secured some Paddy scalps, which served us right for being uppity.

That was 30 years ago, but only this weekend, as I reported yesterday, my godchild forwarded video footage of a young black man being handcuffed apparently without caution or explanation while those questioning the police were pushed away without explanation. It is an experience common to many Black young men, and most people of colour have to put up with casual and overt racism almost every day of their lives. It does not help when you feel you cannot trust the police to protect you or even listen sympathetically to your complaints. When will the police understand that acknowledging people’s anxieties and explaining, however abruptly, helps to maintain the concept policing by consent. They are not supposed to be apart from the community but a part of the community

I come from a ‘police family’ myself (my grandfather, my father, my brother my niece) so I am well aware of that  those ‘in the office of constable’ take an oath of service: ‘with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people; and that I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property; and that while I continue to hold the said office I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties thereof faithfully according to law.’  I wonder how many of them remind themselves of that each day when they go on duty, or reflect upon how well they have kept to it when they knock off?

It was interesting to hear the police reaction to demonstrators in Bristol today pulling down the statue of Edward Colston in the city centre then rolling it down to the harbourside and turfing it into the dock. Supt. Andy Bennett explained that the Black Lives Matter demonstration had been “a very difficult policing situation” and they had adopted a “low key approach”. Unfortunately, he said, they had not got to the statue in time and the protesters “had guy ropes and the right equipment so we thought it was better to let them get on with it”.  He appreciated that the “historical figure had caused the Black community quite lot of angst over the last few years”, And while he was “disappointed” about damage being done to the statute but he understood that “it was symbolic.” The police had made “a tactical decision not to intervene’ because to have done so “would have caused more disorder,” he explained,

This puts a whole new spin on the notion of policing by consent. While the great and good of the city (and Priti Patel) may be outraged by this “vandalism”. Avon and Somerset Constabulary may consider they have scored a public relations victory with not only the Black community who have long regarded the statute of a slave merchant in the city centre as an insult, but also the younger generation who have led the numerous peaceful anti-racist demonstrations over the last week.

There has been constant prevarication for several years about the wording of an extra plaque beneath Colston’s statue recalling how the great philanthropist made his money. My friend the historian Madge Dresser was tasked with composing the words but the power elites in the city, notably the Merchant Venturers of which Colston was a prominent member, objected to the inclusion of anything too explicit about his slave trading. Now the prolonged debate can be put to rest since no-one would dare ti reinstate the statue, and hopefully his name will disappear from the refurbished Colston Hall when the city’s main concert hall opens again. Even the architect George Ferguson, the previous mayor of Bristol now regrets that he did not move the statue to the museum when he had the chance.

I was not able to go to the Black Lives Matter gathering on College Green, but my son took his young son along, keeping their distance from others, and reported that it was an impressive event, especially when many thousands of people ‘took the knee’ for nine minutes in absolute silence.

Back in Fishponds a friend and I took picture of we elders ‘taking the knee’ on the door step. and uploaded our images onto Twitter. The response was phenomenal: some 159 likes, loads of retweet and positive messages. Some nasty racists shared their disapproval, but generally speaking it made us feel we could indeed contribute to the rally against racism after all.

The street get together was a pleasant break this afternoon, and the sun eventually broke through the ominous clouds that spat at us briefly. Somehow I roped myself in to making a cake for next Sunday’s teatime social distanced gathering.

I was visited by one the local foxes this afternoon while making preparations for completion of the new chicken coop. It emerged from the bushes and high-tailed it across the lawn when it saw me. But my house guest was conspicuous by his absence again. Life is especially hard for him at the moment as there are difficulties on the domestic front back home. If I can get him to engage in the project it might help to take his mind off things that he can do little about. Let us hope for some  good weather on the morrow and may be we can move the chickens to their new hime at last.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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