Fahim Alam: Riots and the Invisible Hand of Race

Prison was a “profoundly dehumanising” experience. Going from an outgoing and confident young man, he became nervous and withdrawn. The receipt of his prisoner number was a pivotal moment: “I felt really degraded – the epitome of objectification is assigning numbers – it’s done to animals and to objects – when it is done to humans, it has a resonance of slavery, of genocide.”

Throughout his time in prison, he experienced insecurity and violence. He was prone to daily nightmares and degrading procedures he describes as legalised sexual assault: “To me, strip search is a form of rape, it is a matter of routine in police custody for many fellow members of our communities – poor people, diasporic people, people with brown skin, men – there are certain people targeted in this way.”  Throughout his ordeal, Fahim recounts incidents of racial and cultural slurs.  Wormwood Scrubs prison was divided along ethnic lines and white guards favoured white prisoners: “In jail, the way you’re spoken to, what you get or don’t get, is very much determined on racial lines.”

The racism he describes is not unsubstantiated.  A leaked report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that prejudice among police officers is a reason why ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted by stop and search. Furthermore, a lack of confidence, fear of racism and violence, suggest a far deeper break down in community trust in the police. Research into the riots suggest police brutality was a widespread central grievance: “It wasn’t too shocking to me that I was going through these experiences,” Fahim notes sardonically, “statistically, when I was born, I am more likely than you, a white female, to end up in a prison, to be stopped and searched, to suffer violence from a police officer.”

He’s not alone in feeling so. British Asian actor Riz Ahmed recently stated on twitter: “I have had zero positive interactions with the police. Age 15 – racist comment for ‘loitering.’ Age 23 – assaulted and threatened at airport. Age 21 – head smashed against a brick wall during an arrest where I was not resisting. Age 29 – told racist hate mail won’t be investigated.”  Just this month, Mauro Demetrio, 21, a black man from east London recorded a police officer telling him, “The problem with you is you will always be a nigger.” Hours later, a policeman was captured on tape allegedly assaulting a black teenager. The IPCC is currently investigating three new cases of alleged racist comments by Met police officers in the London borough of Newham. According to a recent IPCC report, youth and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have the least confidence both in the police and the police complaints system: “I didn’t have utmost faith in the criminal justice system prior to my direct experiences and my experiences just confirmed that to me,” Fahim states.

Since his release, Fahim has been working on a documentary to highlight the injustices he witnessed and to raise awareness of the humanity of those whom he feels society has written off: “when I was in prison I thought, they’ve discovered so many ways of containing people, systems of suppression, technologies of violence, psychologies of oppression – but not ways to free people or to give them love, to make them happy.” Though the experience has changed him irrevocably, Fahim is philosophical: “I was privileged to bear witness to that form of oppression – it allows one to develop a rigour against injustice and a deeper sense of solidarity with oppressed people.”

Fahim Alam was turned overnight into a public pariah. The same picture which had previously been used in the media to illustrate the quiet confidence of an Oxford graduate from tough beginnings was reprinted to tell a different story, the air of gravity re-interpreted as a sign of revolt. The experience has strengthened his resolve to combat inequality: “I remember people I’ve seen, caged, boxed, with no hope, who’ve been rejected by society…but society needs to do more recycling than disposing of its people.”

Despite talk of Britain being a post-racial society, Fahim’s story fits into broader patterns of institutionalised racism and systematic inequality, which betray such claims. His struggle suggests we have a long way to go before we can grasp our ideal of equality and fairness, but it is not one that we should ever give up.

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