'Official anti-racism' cracks again

The accusations of Tarique Ghaffur against the Metropolitan Police have given the lie to the state's 'liberal' PR, argues James Turley

On September 9, Metropolitan Police commissioner Ian Blair formally suspended an assistant commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, from his duties.

Less than a fortnight earlier, Ghaffur had staged a highly visible and incendiary press conference, in which he accused the “highest levels” of the London police of consistent racial discrimination, with particular fire directed at Blair himself.

Ghaffur did not believe that the Met as such was racist, the Guardian noting he “loved” it - but that the upper echelons of it were, and claimed he was “harassed by Blair and another senior officer; repeatedly excluded from crucial meetings and discussions; criticised by a fellow senior officer about his language skills in a way which amounted to racial discrimination; and victimised by the commissioner in a face-to-face meeting over his decision to bring a discrimination claim”.1 He called the press conference in order to explain and publicise his employment tribunal case.

Among the “crucial discussions” from which Ghaffur claims to have been excluded are two of particular interest - the furore over the 42-day detention law, which Scotland Yard supported apparently without consulting him as the senior Muslim officer; and the corruption trial of Ali Dizaei, now chief superintendent and a protégé of Ghaffur’s.

The latter investigation is, from the perspective of the internal affairs of the police, a particularly low point in the long-running saga of ‘institutional racism’ opened by the Macpherson inquiry into the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Dizaei was cleared in 2003 of all charges; the investigation had lasted four years, cost £7 million and severely alienated black officers. Significantly, it was led by none other than Ian Blair, then deputy commissioner. The climb-down was humiliating, as was - no doubt - the public spectacle of then commissioner John Stevens stating his “admiration” of Dizaei before a press conference.2

Ghaffur is a contradictory character - a robust and ruthless careerist (as anyone that far up the Scotland Yard greasy pole must be), he is nevertheless unafraid to make clear his political positions, even if they conflict with his day-job. He openly opposed the 42-day detention law as early as 2006, causing considerable embarrassment to the police hierarchy; and then, of course, there was that press conference two weeks ago.

It is difficult to tell exactly which of these two sides of his personality underpins his recent assault on Blair and deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson. His relationship with Blair seems to have turned south in 2005, when the deputy’s job went to Stephenson, and many of his complaints focus on office politics and violation of the chain of command rather than the overt racial oppression faced by ethnic-minority officers further down the ranks - let alone that meted out by the Met to the general public.

Still, taking on Blair is undoubtedly a high-risk manoeuvre. He will not make many friends in the white hierarchy by doing so in such a public manner.

Police racism

Regardless of the outcome of his employment tribunal, his claims must be scrutinised by communists, who - after all - are most in need of a detailed understanding of the repressive state apparatuses.

It is clear that, on the most banal level, Ghaffur’s case is far more wide-ranging than he would like. His attempt to focus fire on the very top levels of the hierarchy rather than the Met as such is, on the empirical level, obviously disingenuous - that racism is systematically present throughout the force is amply demonstrated from mundane daily stop-searches up to the grotesque public execution of the ‘Asian-looking’ Jean Charles de Menezes.

More importantly from his point of view is that it is obviously incommensurable with his complaint at being sidelined in the debate over 42 days. This complaint is quite unlike any of the others he makes, because it goes beyond the internal politics of the Met hierarchy and instead poses the relationship between the police and society at large. Although he frames it as a personal grievance, the substance of the matter is political - it begs the question, why was it so important that the Met support the 42-day legislation, that the tactic (whether racially or politically motivated) of cutting a troublesome AC out of negotiations became worth the risk of public exposure?

The primary function of the police force is well known - repression. It forms, together with the military and the judicial-penal system, the ‘armed bodies of men’ on whose physical strength a ruling class bases the state.

Repression, however, is not the state’s only function. Whether or not one accepts any version of Louis Althusser’s controversial theory of ideological apparatuses, it is clear that the state plays a number of roles in maintaining and reproducing ideology - through the school system, official church, etc.

Furthermore, it is an unimaginative Marxist who doubts Althusser’s contention that the repressive sections of the state themselves take on limited ideological functions.3 This is clear enough from the ‘support our boys’ phenomenon, for example, that draws into chauvinism even many of those who oppose particular military conflicts.

We can identify three main ways the repressive apparatus can intervene in ideology. The first is internal - that is, the creation of an ideological ‘atmosphere’ in the institution itself, in order to cohere it around its tasks.

The second is an overt intervention into public life on the level of ideology. When general Richard Dannatt complains that the British people do not ‘appreciate’ the armed forces,4 he is fulfilling this kind of open ideological function. Overwhelmingly, whether emanating from the police or army, the purpose of this is to inculcate obedience towards the state, in some symbolic synecdoche or another.

The third is something we might call ‘repression fetishism’, following Marx’s identification of commodity fetishism. By this I mean the ideological effects spontaneously generated by the repressive activity of the apparatus. The best known example of this is so-called ‘shock and awe’, the use in war of spectacular bombing raids to inculcate fear and prompt surrender. In military affairs, of course, it goes back beyond that to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the devastation of Dresden, and to Winston Churchill’s advocacy of chemical attacks on “uncivilised tribes” to “spread a lively terror”.

In reality, this kind of ideological effect is crucial to police repression. The stop-searches and persistent, niggling but obvious ethnic profiling (along with minor but well publicised acts of political repression, particularly on demonstrations) are not a failure to live up to bourgeois ideals of equality before the law, but precisely add a sheen of arbitrariness that is important for ‘decent’ people to, as is proper, fear the state.

The three functions are not rigidly demarcated, of course - a public promise by Blair of sweeping, zero-tolerance policing would in reality have effects on all of these levels. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive list either.

Certainly, the Ghaffur affair raises questions at all three levels. His presence at the top of Scotland Yard is both a crucial internally cohesive fact, which goes some way to maintaining the loyalty of black officers throughout the hierarchy, and an external-overt sign that the Met is ‘changing’, and fighting the ‘institutional racism’ (an atypically apt phrase for the bourgeois establishment) for which it has become infamous. As long as racism remains a key factor in ‘spreading lively terror’, however, promoting the outspoken Ghaffur represents a trade-off - a shift in the direction of carrot rather than stick, and one which, given the nature and function of the police, cannot last.

A comparison can be made between him and other minority figureheads promoted as part of ‘multiculturalism’, and the tendency for such ‘community leaders’ to be bought off and/or internalised by the state. However, the comparison is limited. Civilian leaders are granted a kind of relative autonomy from the state as an incentive for compliance. Banks begin to offer Sharia-compatible mortgages; the archbishop of Canterbury suggests going further in this direction and allowing voluntary submission to private Sharia courts in order to settle other kinds of dispute.

A consequence of this is that community leaders of this type retain their capacity to be vocal and extreme in their public statements. Sir Iqbal Sacranie was allowed to go completely off-message on the BBC on homosexuality, for example.

Ghaffur’s ‘controversial’ public statements are not remarkably fiery, as we have seen; rather, they are remarkable in that he makes them at all. Even his opposition to 42 days was conducted on the grounds that it was “unnecessary”, rather than repressive or racist.

In this light, the political stakes are clear for communists. We do not belittle the racist abuse and discrimination that Ghaffur no doubt has experienced at the hands of the Met machine (let alone in his days as one of only two non-white officers out of the 6,000 in the Greater Manchester force). Nevertheless, our battle is with the capitalist state machine, not particular bureaucrats and racists.

If we desire his victory in the employment tribunal, it is not to do justice by him so much as to (slightly) undermine the work of the police (the fulminations from Stephenson about ‘shutting up and getting on with our jobs’ are, in this sense, well advised).

Communists must demonstrate that this is just one more consequence of the thoroughly reactionary nature of the police as such. Our answer is not more ‘reforms’ of the Macpherson inquiry type, but the replacement of the standing police force with the people’s militia; not to look for ‘dissident’ bureaucrats to offer mild criticisms of reactionary laws (eg, 42 days’ detention) but extreme, radical democracy to sweep the bureaucrats away altogether.

The Met, evidently, is still racist. It is time we did away with it.


1. The Guardian August 29.
2. The Guardian October 31.
3. L Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ in On ideology London 2008, p23.
4. The Independent November 10 2006.

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