Watching the situation which has come to a crescendo in the States hurts deeply. As a young man of colour, I looked to America to find the sense of identity I was longing for in the UK. Back then, I felt that whenever I tried to carve out my place I was being told that I did not belong. The conflicts I experienced with my own sense of masculinity and what it was to be male, just compounded this, leading me to search for some sense of significance and self-worth within an eco-system that often claimed that I, and people like me, had disturbed it. During adolescence it is all too easy to internalise these struggles and that can affect every interaction, if you allow it to.
That leads me to another cultural dilemma. For many of us, growing up meant searching for a history we could own and, for some, a history in which many people who looked like us had been exploited was difficult to buy in to. Being told you didn't belong here just buttressed that view. As I got older, I saw the legacy of black Britons stretching back for hundreds of years. Everywhere I looked, from science to politics to sport and music, I saw the influence of people who looked like me. Let's face it, we all know how Lions became a prominent symbol in England and it isn't because they are indigenous to the countryside. And, there is a reason the jewel in the Queen's crown is called the "Star of Africa".
But as a young man, I looked to America for guidance because everything I saw associated with people of colour seemed to be emerging from there. I found heroes and sheroes in abundance, from Angela Davis to James Baldwin. Then when my parents moved to the Boston neighbourhood of Roxbury in the late 80s, I was quick to follow - only to find myself longing to return to the UK.
Why? Well, the poverty I saw there begat a desperation, and in some cases despair, that I had never experienced before. People living in houses which had clearly been condemned and with no facilities. Young men the same age as me were carving up into zones a neighbourhood which had little in the way of assets and using their own law to protect themselves and survive via gangs.
I had seen some of this on TV. And while it was sometimes daunting to leave my parents' flat and walk past these groups of young men, nothing was as worrying as the attitude of the police to me as a young black male. The relationship was very clear as their hands hovered around the holster area on their hip. It was not a relationship of respect based on authority or trust, it was based on fear. They had guns and would not hesitate to use them if they felt threatened or disobeyed. It was the most vulnerable I had ever felt.
When the chief of New York police, Bill Bratton came to the UK in 2012 to "advise" on policing issues, he labelled UK gangsters as "wannabes" who were trying to copy criminals in the US. He had introduced zero-tolerance policing to New York and Los Angeles and his comments echoed some of America's less attractive qualities. Those included a very healthy gun culture about which he seemed almost to be bragging. That may offer some interesting insights into the combative nature of American policing and the "them and us" environment which creates friction, especially in the black community.
With deaths in custody, institutional racism and incident after incident involving corruption, we have challenges of our own in the UK. The lives ruined tell their own tale. When I was growing up, the police often stopped us whether we were on our way to the park or library, or coming back from a party. Sometimes they were ok and other times things took a violent or racially abusive tone. But I never quite felt the way I did in the US. (It is important to say that I have visited several US states since then and had great experiences. I've found the police helpful and courteous. But I was obviously a tourist and was usually in the nicer parts of the city.)
We often look to America, particularly for solutions to inner city social issues. In fact, many of our recent approaches to issues like gang violence are tempered using methods in circulation in the US. "Shield", a "collective punishment" scheme was designed by American criminologist Professor David Kennedy and received a mixed reaction here in the UK. I recall many of the young men and boys we had begun working with at Working With Men bringing us letters from the police addressed to each young person individually. These letters informed them that the police were not going to stand for their activities and behaviour any more and as a result would be clamping down on them as a group. As you can imagine, instead of invoking fear, the response was anger in many cases and ambivalence in others, especially when they had worked hard to move away from that lifestyle.
Any programme or initiative which focuses on gangs and knives instead of the motivations of the people behind them will ultimately fail in the long term. Our time is better spent addressing issues like the skills gap, institutional racism, poverty and misunderstood ideas of masculinity by using evidence-based programmes to ensure high degrees of social identity, social intelligence, collaboration, empathy, good judgement and self-efficacy.
You may think I am talking about young people in the community, but we also need to ensure that our law enforcement officers are equipped with these same skills.
If there is any time to be learning from America it is right now. Guns and community policing don't go together. In the UK, we are courageous enough to make our communities safe without them. We have seen time and time again throughout history that in the long term you cannot control people using fear, violence and oppression. And we've seen that when those who have vowed to protect our communities lose the trust and faith of those communities, the system begins to fail.
This is no longer about who has right on their side (as many organisations and political groups would have you believe) because when situations like those in the US occur, ultimately we all lose, regardless of our opinion.
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