Left’s aim misdirected
Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Condon last week apologised to the Lawrence family. Speaking at the London enquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent police investigation, he added his voice to that of his number three, Ian Johnston, who had uttered similar words last June.
Condon said: “I deeply regret that we have not brought Stephen’s racist murderers to justice.” He also apologised for having previously accepted the police review of the investigation, which denied any failure or wrongdoing. But Condon was continuously barracked from the public gallery as he repeatedly denied that the problem was one of police “institutionalised racism”, or that there was a “culture of racism” within the Met.
The Guardian reported his evidence in this way:
“He was prepared to go so far. There was racism, both unconscious and deliberate, in the force; there was discrimination and stereotyping of black people; officers on the street did overreach their discretionary powers of stop and search and arrest. He even reluctantly accepted that such practices were widespread. But he would not acknowledge institutionalised racism” (October 2).
The Guardian disapproved of his attitude, as it made clear with its front page headline, “When sorry is not enough”. Its editorial of the same day commented:
“The great failing of the Scarman enquiry into the Brixton riots 17 years ago was its failure to recognise the institutional dimension. It is crucial the Lawrence enquiry does not fall into the same trap.”
That appears highly unlikely. Having already dubbed the police internal review a “whitewash”, the government-appointed team now looks set to go along the “institutionalisd racism” road. Enquiry members pressed Condon over and over again to “just say yes” - ie, to admit the “institutional dimension” and that police racism played a part in the failure to jail Stephen’s killers. The chairman, Sir William Macpherson, was happy to allow constant interruptions and heckling from the public gallery. It was as though the establishment was deliberately encouraging the venting of frustration in its effort to win over the alienated black community.
The term ‘institutionalised racism’ has finally passed into the liberal broadstream. For most of the revolutionary left, of course, it has long been used to describe the state and all of its bodies. It is a matter of faith for these comrades that racism and capitalism go hand in hand. Each bourgeois state must, to a greater or lesser degree, rely on racism in order to divide the working class. The state - or so we are told - cannot achieve the same end through different, opposing, means.
For example, before Condon’s appearance at the enquiry The Socialist was already writing: “The refusal of the police to acknowledge institututional racism at work in the Lawrence case ... shows there is little will within the police to change things” (September 25). This is essentially the same line as that of The Guardian. Which is strange, since you would have thought that the bourgeois mass media would want to use every opportunity to press home the racist message in their own right. Surely the media cannot be exempt from institutionalisation? If most bourgeois elements declare in favour of anti-racism and a sizeable section is joining in the condemnatory chorus, either they are erecting a most elaborate smokescreen or there is something seriously wrong with the left’s analysis.
Of course the liberal bourgeoisie is using the term in a slightly different way from the left. It does not for a moment accept that racism is part and parcel of capitalism. In fact Guardian leader writers would be appalled at accusations that they were racist - as would the entire liberal establishment. In fact, despite the brouhaha, the difference between them and Condon is one of nuance. They share the increasingly consolidated consensus around the desirability of cohering acceptance of a common chauvinist identity of Britishness among all sections of the population - black and white. The official ideology of the state is anti-racism. It is a means to divide workers sectionally yet unite them as rival supplicants before the bourgeois state. Racism, like anti-semitism and anti-cathilicism, no longer serves the interests of the state.
The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, reacted to Condon’s refusal to acquiesce in the growing accommodation of the establishment and the left on the question by publishing an article by Winston Silcott, the black community activist framed by the police for the killing of a police officer in Broadwater Farm during the riots a decade ago. His conviction was overturned in 1991, but he was then kept in jail for another murder. Interestingly, The Observer ran his article, phoned through to a campaigner from prison, under the heading, “Another victim responds to Sir Paul Condon’s apology” (my emphasis, October 4).
Like The Socialist and The Guardian Silcott is also convinced that racism within the police is institutionalised. If that was not the case, he says, “racist murders would be cleared up and investigated like any other killing. There would be fewer black deaths in custody.” But for Condon of course the failings in the Lawrence case do not constitute evidence of racism:
“If you examined every murder investigation, successful or unsuccessful, you would find a catalogue of errors, where things could and should have been done better,” he told The Observer (October 4).
It is undoubtedly true that senior police officers will always tend to cover up unsavoury behaviour and practices - it reflects badly on their own authority. There is certainly a culture of closing ranks behind colleagues, and it is likely that there is a higher proportion of racists within the police than within the population at large. Such people might well be attracted to the force in the hope of being able to act out their unpleasant and vicious prejudices.
But to say that racism within the police is “widespread”, as Condon admits, is not the same thing as saying it is “institutionalised”. Institutionalisation - if words have any meaning - implies that it is deliberately cultivated from the top. In other words, racial discrimination would perhaps be inculcated on training courses for new recruits. Or senior police officers would instruct the lower ranks to pick on blacks or beat up Asians purely on the basis of their race - or at least encourage racist freelancers to do their own thing. Apartheid South Africa was a good example of institutionalised racism.
The Metropolitan Police, however, is rather different. Condon bemoans the fact that his ‘race awareness’ courses have had such little effect and commits himself to rooting out the racists.
It is important to disprove the claims of the left not because we believe the police are gentle, fair and impartial. Far from it. They are employed in a quite partial and often vicious way against the working class, anti-imperialists and - yes - black community activists.
Winston Silcott hit on a truth in his Observer article. He said: “Once you stand up for your rights the police feel threatened. They hate to be challenged by black people. On Broadwater Farm, where everybody was looking after their community, the police felt threatened, so they called people agitators to get rid of them. People are not supposed to be persecuted for standing up for their communities, as I did. That was my real crime.”
The truth is that the state, through its police, will take action to crush any section or group that causes it to feel threatened. That is why the left’s focussing in on racism as the main question is completely misdirected. While communists say, ‘Not a penny, not a person to the state’s police!’, The Socialist calls for “policies to make the police accountable” (September 25). It adds: “We campaign for the banning of CS gas and long-handled batons.” Presumably short-handled batons are OK.
The police can never be reformed into a body capable of acting in the interests of our class. No number of race awareness courses, of measures to make them “accountable”, will change their nature. They exist, in the last analysis, to defend the capitalist state.
We need our own bodies to protect our communities and defend our interests. That is why, in opposition to the bourgeois forces of order, we call for “the armed people”. We are clear in our aim of “the working class developing its own militia” (CPGB Draft programme 1995).
We make these calls not in some abstract schema for the indeterminate future, but as part of our immediate demands. The extent to which we are able to make them a reality will obviously depend on the level of class struggle. At present it is extremely low. But we do not wait for the tempo to rise before we put forward what is necessary. If workers are ever to liberate themselves, the preparation - both theoretical and physical - must start now.