11 June 2020
Bobbies Off The Beat
By Lynda Goetz
The origins of the word ‘Bobbies’* will be well-known to those who know their history. However, these days it would appear that knowledge of history is not perhaps as widespread as it should be. The differences between the history of this country and the history of America are being confused. The differences between policing in this country and policing in America also seem to be being muddled. The differences between the past and the present are likewise being blurred. As L P Hartley said in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.
What was acceptable in centuries past is no longer tolerable in current times (at least in Western democracies). We no longer hang prisoners; wives are not the property of their husbands; children are not sent into factories or up chimneys; we do not keep slaves. The list is long. It is inevitable that behaviours which we consider normal now will be viewed with wonder/ abhorrence/ shock in centuries to come. Morals tend to be of their time and place. In spite of our desire for them to be universal, they rarely are.
Racism is unacceptable in the modern world. Most of us do our best to avoid it in all its forms. The recent treatment and subsequent death of the serial criminal George Floyd has reverberated around the world, setting off a number of demonstrations and riots in countries far from the US state of Minneapolis where the events shown on a phone video were recorded. Derek Chauvin, the now ex-police officer charged with the murder of Floyd, displayed unbelievable arrogance and complete indifference as he was shouted at by members of the public concerned for the welfare of the man he was arresting. It has since transpired that this was an officer with a history of brutality who racked up 18 complaints against him in 19 years as a police officer. The man he was arresting, who has now achieved the status of a martyr, was, however, as Candace Owens says in her video, no Malcolm X. He was a career criminal who had been in and out of prison since 1998. His worst offence had been the violent armed attack with other black thugs on a pregnant black woman in her home, for which he received 5 years in jail. At the time of his arrest by Chauvin he was high on fentanyl and had a bag of some other substance which he was seen to drop.
This rather undesirable specimen of humanity has now been elevated to the status of a martyr for the cause of anti-racism. His thuggish-looking mug adorns the front of T-shirts protesting the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, all lives matter. We are all agreed that policemen should not murder those they are arresting, black or white, here, in the U.S., Europe, Australia or anywhere else. But, our police are not the same as the American police. We, as indeed many other nations, have forms of oversight which work throughout the country. Had a UK policeman had 18 complaints against him, he would long since have been an ex-policeman. Apparently in the States that is not how it works. ‘Bad’ cops simply move state. This, it would seem, is one of the real problems in this issue.
So we come to the riots in the UK. Leaving aside the issues of shoulder to shoulder demonstrations at a time of social distancing and national lockdown restrictions, when policemen are breaking up families having tea in their front gardens, these appear to be predicated on the idea that race history in this country is the same as that in America and that our ‘Bobbies’ are the same as American police officers.
We have never in this country run a system of apartheid. Racial segregation in America lasted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – easily within the lifetime memory of anyone over 65. Although the British had been the world’s largest slave dealers, by the end of the eighteenth century they were the biggest proponents of the abolition of the slave trade world-wide. The name of William Wilberforce is well-known, although he was, in reality, one of many disgusted by a trade in human beings. By 1807 the Slave Trade Act in this country had outlawed the trade, but not slavery itself. It took until 1833 for the Slavery Abolition Act to be passed (and even then ‘the territories within the jurisdiction of the East India Company’, Ceylon and Sainte Helena were exempted) making it illegal to own or purchase slaves within the British Empire. Across the Atlantic, the Southern American States continued as slave states long after their 1808 Slave Trade Act abolished the trade and slavery was not made illegal in the U.S until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in December 1865, after the Civil War.
The history of slavery and segregation is a massive subject on which many tomes have been written. Clearly different countries have different experiences and the history of the U.S is not at all the same as the history of the UK. The UK is guilty historically of what some academics and activists would call ‘white supremacy’ and we cannot claim to be without racism, but our police force is not militarised and fragmented in the same way as that of the US. The percentage of the population in the States which is black is around 13%. In this country, according to the last census in 2011, it was around 3%. (It will undoubtedly be higher when it is measured at the next census due in 2021). Statues of historic figures like Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes were not erected to honour them in their capacity as slave traders or owners, but as philanthropists and statesmen. Their money, whether ill-gotten or not, has funded buildings and scholarships. Perhaps these statues should be in museums not in streets (certainly not at the bottom of harbours) but that should be discussed and agreed (or not) rationally and after reasoned debate. Mobs taking matters into their own hands is not a good method for democratic decision-making.
The toppling of statues is, as art critic Alistair Sooke points out in his article, a well-known way of showing the passing of an era and has any number of historic precedents. Pulling down the statue of a recently deposed dictator (Stalin, Saddam Hussein or Ceausescu for example) by a newly liberated people is hardly the same as an ignorant mob in a democratic country vandalising a historic monument, which is what happened in Bristol on Sunday. Should the Colosseum be demolished because of what it represents? This is in effect the logical conclusion to the thinking of those who feel that vandalising historic monuments is a good way of drawing attention to their views. It is not what is needed. As the educational consultant and writer Dr Tony Sewell, chair and MD of the charity Generating Genius, says ‘navel-gazing identity politics won’t help black youth’.
Where were our police forces during all this? Well, certainly not with their knees on the necks of the rioting vandals (almost more of whom appeared to be white than black). Superintendent Andy Bennet of Avon and Somerset police explained that arresting protestors on the spot would have caused more disorder and disruption during the protest. He went on to tell the BBC, “We know that it (the Colston statue) has been an historical figure that has caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years”. Understanding the local community has always been an important part of the English Bobby’s role since Peel’s day, but it is not their job to be so involved with the community that they fail to police it, surely? In this incident and in similar protests which went on in London’s Hyde Park, our policemen stood back and allowed mob-rule, in the name of anti-racism. Somewhere between the American way and the British way, there must be, to use Tony Blair’s expression, a ‘Third Way’ for modern democracy to steer a path towards a fairer, more just society. The behaviour of our policemen and women (if I might be allowed to use that word without causing offence) matters. They are there to enforce the law, not to take the law into their own hands, nor to empathise or sympathise. As for our citizens, they need to have some understanding of history so as not to fall into the trap of trying to obliterate it and re-write it as they would like it to have been. We can only influence the future, not (unless time travel ever becomes a thing) the past.
*After Prime Minister Robert Peel (1778-1850) who introduced the first organized police force.