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The Drama of Stop and Search, From the Street to the Stage

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A compelling story, whether fictional drama or reported news, stays with us. Perhaps this is why the case of Trayvon Martin won't go away. Though few people will know much of the facts about ethnic profiling - suspecting someone guilty of a crime based on their skin colour - many now know the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The details are hard to forget. Like the fact that Martin was coming home from a convenience store with iced tea and a packet of skittles; or the unnerving 911 calls when the dispatcher instructs Zimmerman not to pursue Martin.

As coverage of the Trayvon Martin case spills over into Britain, the Metropolitan Police Authority is in the news for a number of disturbing cases of alleged racist abuse, and meanwhile London prepares for its most important summer yet. It's an appropriate moment for this country's own reflection on how it treats its black and other minority communities. But the facts have never gone away. Stop and search - stopping and or searching an individual in a public space on suspicion of a crime or potential crime - remains one of the most tangible signs that in Britain today, we are all far from equal. More than 30 years after the Brixton riots, black people are still stopped and searched at seven times the rate of white people. Fewer than 10% of these encounters lead to arrests. The government's own panel on the riots last summer singled out stop and search as a reason for the huge anger amongst young people towards the police. But what about the story? Must Britain wait for its own Trayvon Martin before it sits up and takes notice?

Stop Search, a new play, based on testimonies of those who live with stop and search, many on a daily basis, aims to make Londoners and Britons alike part of this urgent conversation. What does it actually mean to live with stop and search? To be the parent whose young son is so fearful of the humiliating public stop and search encounters he's endured he won't leave the house anymore; to be the children younger than 10 years old who are stopped by police many times their age; to be the police officer, father and husband, brought in to patrol an ethnically diverse community he's not from and has no previous knowledge of. Stories matter.

In 1966 a quarter of the British population watched the BBC Television play Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach. One commentator called it "an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it". The play examined issues of homelessness and unemployment. As well as discussion in parliament and a flood of phone calls to the BBC, for years afterwards the actress who played Cathy was stopped in the street by people pressing money into her hand, convinced she must be actually homeless. Homelessness, previously a marginal issue, was now part of a national debate.

Theatre and drama that can challenge a nation is not of course confined to the stage or the screen. However you feel about this summer's London Olympic Games: delighted by the celebration of success and internationalism, worried about how the big money is being spent in hard times, or ambivalent for any number of reasons; what is certain is that this country, our capital city, will be on show to a large chunk of the planet. What story will we tell the world about our society? The experience of black and other ethnic minorities in Britain is not marginal; it is a crucial, indivisible part of our national narrative. How this story unfolds is far from certain.

Policing around the Olympics in London's boroughs, from the most deprived to those with the most prestigious landmarks, may well make or break the much discussed legacy agenda. The police cannot be expected to get this right on their own. The familiar politician's truism about policing - "They do a very difficult job, under very difficult circumstances" - should not be used to subdue debate. Policing is too hard, too complicated, for us to leave the difficult thinking to them alone, and it serves neither the interests of the police nor the policed to do so. It must be done in our name in the light of an ever-evolving conversation of the greatest importance and urgency.

Current police policy and practice makes it all too likely that stop and search could play a defining role in this summer's London story, and not in a good way.

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