The riots of 2011 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 for the riots by rioters themselves, was poverty (86%), unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%), all of which disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. The research also pointed to a profound dissatisfaction with policing, including a "deep-seated and sometimes visceral antipathy towards police," with widespread experiences of police harassment and brutality. Journalist Gary Young notes that "almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said "policing" was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area." At the heart of the rioters' complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice.
For Fahim Alam, an Oxford and LSE graduate, that sense of injustice has deep resonance. At the height of the riots, Fahim was arrested and falsely accused of 'violent disorder'. He spent six weeks in jail before being acquitted in under half an hour.
Reflecting on the experience which has left him profoundly scarred, he states: "When you leave prison, a part of you remains. It takes away a part of your soul." His lawyer, Imran Khan, of the Steven Lawrence inquiry, is lodging a formal complaint against police and 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 MET racism.
Prior to his arrest, Fahim had been heralded as the poster boy of inner city success. Born to immigrant Bangladeshi parents on the troubled Pembury estate in Hackney, his youth was marred in racist violence which culminated in the council having to relocate the family. An academically gifted child, Fahim excelled at his local comprehensive and earned a place at one of Britain's most prestigious universities: "I was driven, I believed education was something which would give me power in the world." Fahim studied law, but Oxford was a culture shock. He describes becoming a minority for the first time at the predominantly white university, the palpable disdain he felt from some of his peers and the realisation that with the benefits of his education came a responsibility to use it to serve the disenfranchised: " It was a formative period -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." A gap year deepened an interest in history which he formalised through a post-graduate degree at the LSE in race and post-colonial studies, before he began work at the London Civic Forum, strengthening citizen rights.
On August the 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 home in Hackney. His route took him through Mare street, an epicentre of the riots, where he came across a crowd which had gathered as a local garage was being looted. Rapidly, the mood changed. A car was set on fire and the thick smoke pushed people further down the street, where several lines of police officers were slowly edging in. Minutes later, the police charged, batons raised and shouting, cornering the crowd on St. Thomas Square, where a violent confrontation ensued. Mesmerised by the scene unfolding, Fahim describes a sight of utter chaos in which the police were pelted with rocks and bricks, fireworks were launched and a raging pit-bull let loose.
As people dispersed into nearby estates, a few bystanders were left on the suddenly empty square, most of them visibly residents - an elderly lady, a few kids. The police began to focus 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. Fahim's decision to run at this stage was one subsequently questioned by the prosecution: "As a young brown male, if you see the police charging you, wearing urban military gear and there is a riot going on - I think if you asked many people of my demographic, they would say it's instinctive to run." Had they approached him differently, he told the prosecution, maybe he could have helped.
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, there was a sense of disbelief that this was happening to me - it was so surreal". He was to spend the next six weeks in some of Britain's most notorious jails.
Fahim compares his arrival in prison to 'being trapped in a dungeon'. Having studied law for his degree, he began to experience the theory for himself: "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, caging 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 his arrival '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 dehumanizing' experience and one which had a profound impact on his self-confidence and personality. From an outgoing and confident young man, he became nervous and withdrawn. Amongst the pivotal moments in his ordeal was the receipt of his prisoner number "I felt really degraded, I'd become a cog in a wider system of oppression, it was very symbolic for me - 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 and vivid nightmares and degrading procedures he describes as tantamount to 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." His mood is somber and sullen, though the glimmers of a happier persona can occasionally be glimpsed when we discuss family and friends. He says the impact on them was hardest to cope with. What's clear is that he struggles with the deep psychological impact of having stood accused of such a socially stigmatising crime.
Throughout his ordeal, Fahim recounts incidents of racial and cultural slurs. A former military man turned police officer who testified against him alleged he was wearing a "shemagh", a "military style Arabic scarf" which marked him out as 'trouble' in his eyes. In fact, he was describing Fahim's purple and brown checked scarf, purchased in Puerto Rico. Upon his arrival at Wormwood scrubs prison, Fahim's Bangladeshi cell mate was told by a guard: "you're training for Afghanistan." White guards favoured white prisoners and the jail itself was divided along ethnic lines: "In jail, the way you're spoken to, what you get or don't get, is very much determined on race lines."
The feeling of entrenched racism he describes is not entirely unfounded. 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. But stop and search is just the tip of the iceberg. A widespread lack of confidence, fear of racism and violence, suggest a far deeper break down in community trust in the police. Indeed, research into the riots suggest police brutality was a central grievance amongst many: "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 like 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 disproportionately targeted by the police. 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 wont be investigated." And just this month, Mauro Demetrio a 21 black man from east London recorded a police officer telling him that "the problem with you is you will always be a nigger". Just hours later, a policeman was captured on tape allegedly assaulting a 15 year old black teenager. What's more, the IPCC is currently investigating three new cases of alleged racist comments by Met police officers, all of them in the East London borough of Newham.
Fahim's experience reflects serious problems in police-community relations. According to a recent IPCC report, young people 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 bore witness to within the criminal justice system 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 about the lessons he's gleaned: "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."
From an "Oxford success story", his face paraded in an article on education and social mobility, Fahim Alam was turned overnight into a public pariah. The same picture which had previously been used 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 defiance and revolt, to support allegations of criminal involvement. The experience has had a lasting effect on him, strengthening his resolve to combat inequality: "In everything I do, I remember people I've seen, caged, boxed, with no hope, who've been rejected by society - in slang terms, when we talk about prison we say "bin" - society has disposed of you - 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 belie such a claim and suggest we have a long way to go toward our ideal of equality and fairness for all. Reflecting on these inequalities, Fahim adds: "I am relatively privileged compared to the average brown male but this isn't about me and the fact I may have achieved something - its about why am I an exception, and why can't everyone have those opportunities?"
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