While circumstances surrounding the 2011 riots are not as black and white as they may appear, the attitudes within the criminal justice system seem unfortunately more so
The 2011 riots were a defining moment in modern British history. A recent study undertaken by the Guardian with the London School of Economics showed that despite claims of ‘feral’ gangs, the cause most often cited by rioters was a pervasive sense of injustice: poverty (86%), unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%), all disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities. It also highlighted a profound dissatisfaction with policing, including a “deep-seated and sometimes visceral antipathy towards police,” with widespread experiences of police harassment and brutality.
For Fahim Alam, an Oxford and LSE graduate, that sense of injustice has deep resonance. At the height of the riots, Fahim was arrested on his way home and falsely accused of “violent disorder.” He spent six weeks in jail before being acquitted in under half an hour. Reflecting on the scarring experiences, he states: “It [prison] takes away a part of your soul.” His lawyer, Imran Khan, of the Steven Lawrence inquiry, is currently lodging a formal complaint against the Police and Crown Prosecution Services (CPS), and considering civil proceedings for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
Fahim’s experience of the criminal justice system reveals systematic failures and endemic racism which are all the more worrying considering recent allegations of racism within the Metropolitan Police.
Prior to his arrest, Fahim had been heralded as a poster boy of inner city success. Born to immigrant Bangladeshi parents in Hackney, his youth was marred by racist violence. An academically gifted child, Fahim studied law at Oxford, where he suffered from a culture shock. He describes the palpable disdain he felt from some of his predominantly white peers and the realisation that with his privileged education came a responsibility to serve the disenfranchised: “Over the holidays, I would drive from the spires of Oxford to grey, urban tower blocks – I could physically see the transition on that journey and it was powerful to me, reminded me of where I was coming from, why I was doing this and what I eventually wanted to achieve.” He later pursued a post-graduate degree at the LSE in race and post-colonial studies, before beginning work at the London Civic Forum, strengthening citizen rights.
On August 8th, he was to discover just how fragile those rights truly are.
Aware that riots had occurred in North London but oblivious that they had spread, Fahim left his office in Bethnal Green and headed towards his grandmother’s house in Hackney. His route took him through Mare Street, an epicentre of the riots, where he came across a gathered crowd as a garage was being looted. The police closed in and violence ensued.
Following this clash, as people dispersed, a few bystanders were left, mostly residents. The police focussed their attention on the young Asian male dressed in black jeans and a black cardigan, with a checked scarf around his neck: “In the eyes of the police, I looked like a rioter.”
Suddenly, several officers charged towards him. Despite pleading his innocence, he was bundled into the back of a van, held in custody for 48 hours before being taken to court where he was denied bail on grounds that his “story” of visiting his grandmother seemed implausible. It was then that the realisation that he might be going to jail hit him: “Up to that point, I thought they’d realise there was a mistake – I was in shock.” He was to spend the next six weeks in some of Britain’s most notorious prisons.
Fahim compares his arrival in prison to “being trapped in a dungeon.” As a law graduate, he began to live the theory: “What I had learnt was playing out in real life – everything I know to be violent about the police as an institution, about the criminal justice system, the courts and containing people, knowing about that violence and brutality and then feeling it was, in a sense, enlightening. At the same time, it concretised the feeling of injustice I already had towards these systems.”
His description of arriving “at her majesty’s pleasure” is telling: “Above the entrance to the prison, there was an emblem, a symbol of empire – that symbolism for me summed up what was going on – the fact I was being summoned to prison by her Majesty, so called, really spelt out to me the power relationship: I am effectively a colonial subject, as my parents were, as their parents were – I am diaspora, a brown male and I have limited power.”
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.
Image from: http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2011/08/17/msc-in-grievance-studies-at-lse/
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