The Blog

Racism, Policing and the Quality of our Lives


The Guardian's campaign 'The Counted' is a running ticker, regularly updated to indicate the number of people killed by police in the United States this year. The information about those killed is disaggregated by race, state, whether they were armed and under what circumstances they died. The ticker is fast approaching the thousand-people mark (currently 981), and there is a clear indication that Black people have been killed disproportionately to their relative representation in the overall population.

The campaign has an ironic quality, though executed with due professionalism and rigour. The counter image mimics the type of rolling ticker made iconic by McDonalds, displaying how many millions have purchased cheap burgers. But this counting, though perhaps a voyeuristic engagement with the dead, is an effective if not necessary form of satire. It is a mirror for a different type of market--perhaps an economy of bodies and power, a reflection of the state of racism, policing and the law in contemporary US society.

But would such a campaign work in the UK? Would the numbers serve as a strong enough headline to capture widespread interest?

We in the United Kingdom may, understandably, have mixed reactions to this type of campaign being run by a British paper, since the content is US deaths rather than UK deaths. On one hand, it is important that the scale of police violence in the US is being acknowledged in such a direct manner in a mainstream news source, albeit not a US one. On the other hand, there does not seem to be comparable media focus on police violence in the United Kingdom, even when institutional and other forms of racism are similarly central to such discussions locally.

Of course, the magnitude of the violence is far greater in the United States for various reasons. However, perhaps in addition to counting the dead abroad, we should pay close and sustained attention to how policing affects the quality of our lives right here at home. Whether there are many or few, we must catalogue and classify these deaths if we are to lift the shroud that renders their structural and institutional causes invisible.

Efforts to render visible the structural and institutional aspects of racism and policing visible are made in the Runnymede Trust's new report, Justice, Resistance and Solidarity: Race and Policing in England and Wales. The report identifies, in an accessible way, some key policing-related issues affecting ethnic, racial and religious minority communities in this country.

It comprises commentary from activists, researchers and campaigners from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), Defend the Right to Protest (DTRTP), the London Campaign Against Police & State Violence (LCAPSV), StopWatch and the Reclaim Justice Network, as well as lawyers and academics from the University of London, Birkbeck College, the University of Oxford, the University of Sheffield, Westminster University, the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University.

The report's three sections cover a range of topics that put contemporary policing into perspective. The first section, "Taking Stock", aims to characterise the intersection of race and policing in England and Wales. This includes, for example, exploring patterns associated with deaths in custody identified by research of the IRR, describing the parallel development of race equality law and policing policy, and unpacking the phenomenon of immigration policing in the case of Jimmy Mubenga.

For those of us living in the UK, it is important not to pass up the opportunity to deeply investigate the structures of state violence, and this report serves this broad public education purpose. It urges us to recognise that police killings are a structural and institutional problem here, although the scale of deaths in the US may make the US context seem utterly incomparable. It also means that we need to connect our stories in ways that honour the similarities while recognising the differences among them.

The latter point was noted most recently by Paul Gilroy in his October opinion piece in the New York Times on 'Black Lives' in the UK, in which he insightfully noted the similarities (e.g., racial disparity and lack of policing accountability) and differences (e.g., conceptions of solidarity within resistance movements) between the US and UK contexts. To progress on the issue of racism and policing here in the UK, it will be necessary to engage with the work being done by community groups, advocates and researchers in coming to terms with how policing policies and practices contour the quality of our lives.

Eddie Bruce-Jones is Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College School of Law. He tweets at @EddieBruceJones

Before You Go