British Home Secretary Theresa May: Savior or Slaughterer of Black People?

Over the last three months, I have been writing a short series of articles on some of the horrific deaths in police custody that have taken place in Britain in recent years and the fight for justice waged by the families of the victims and their supporters. Each story is unique, but there are certain similarities, depressingly familiar to those who have followed such cases over the years. These include: the brutal use of force by police – even once victims are incapacitated; neglect of their victims when they are clearly in need of medical attention; omissions, lies and cover-ups over what actually happened; and an absolute refusal to administer justice by all the various state agencies tasked with doing so. All of it together amounts to one thing – the effective impunity of the British police. And, no surprise, Britain’s Asian and, particularly, African-Caribbean communities are bearing the brunt of it.

Enter British Home Secretary Theresa May. Theresa May is apparently promising to change all this, portraying herself as all but the saviour of the black community, fearlessly taking on the police in a battle to reign in their abuses. She has addressed a community meeting in Brixton, met with the families of two of those who have died in custody (Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis), and written an Op-Ed for the Voice, Britain’s largest black newspaper. She has even done something which no Home Secretary – perhaps even no British government official – has apparently done before: admit that deaths in custody is a problem, and that the families campaigning for justice have been denied it. Specifically, last month, she acknowledged the “pain and suffering of families still looking for answers, who have encountered not compassion and redress from the authorities, but what they feel as evasiveness and obstruction.”

She has made no bones about the failings of the police. Her speech to the Police Federation last year was unequivocal, beginning with a roll-call of some of the latest scandals to embroil the force: “In the last few years, we have seen the Leveson Inquiry. The appalling conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the sacking of PC Harwood. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times. The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption. Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after “Plebgate”. Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence. The Herne Review into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad. The Ellison Review into allegations of corruption during the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Further allegations that the police sought to smear Stephen’s family.” She could also have mentioned, of course, the systematic framing of miners and their supporters at Orgreave, the ever more repugnant revelations about Humberside police’s abuse of Christopher Alder, the use of undercover officers to infiltrate – and indeed, impregnate – peaceful environmental campaigners, and much else besides. Nevertheless, it was a damning list, illustrating what May called “contempt for the public”. She went on to point out that police misconduct is a “significant problem”, far more than a case of “a few bad apples”, and pointed out that “opinion polls show….a third of people do not trust police officers to tell the truth”, with the figure rising to almost 60% within the African-Caribbean community. Then came the threat: “Make no mistake. If you do not make significant progress towards the implementation of the Normington reforms [36 reforms proposed by a review led by David Normington in January 2014], if the Federation does not start to turn itself around, you must not be under the impression that the government will let things remain as they are. The Federation was created by an Act of Parliament and it can be reformed by an Act of Parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you.”


British Home Secretary Theresa May.

By then, however, change was already under way. Back in 2011, May had ordered a review of the police’s use of stop and search, which, she subsequently pointed out, is “excessive and inappropriate” and disproportionately targeted at Black and Asian people. The review revealed that over a quarter of the million or so stop and searches conducted that year may have been carried out illegally. In April last year, she threatened the police with a barrage of statutory reforms to the practice unless the police improved their performance: “I want to make myself absolutely clear:” she told the House of Commons, “if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen”. The following August, all 43 police forces in England and Wales voluntarily signed up to her reform programme, which included restrictions on the use of “no suspicion” searches, the recording of the outcome of every stop and search, and the involvement of community groups in observing searches being carried out and triggering action against their misuse. As from this month, details of stop and searches carried out by every force – including age, ethnicity, and outcome of each search – will be published on the national police website.

Now Theresa May has turned to deaths in custody. In October 2014, at a conference part-organised by Black Mental Health UK, she announced a number of measures she claimed would tackle the problem. Specifically, she promised to create more alternatives to police custody for those with mental health difficulties, and more transparency in the use of restraint and tasering. At last year’s police federation speech she promised to end the practice whereby officers involved in custody deaths have been allowed to resign to avoid being investigated by the IPCC or subjected to internal disciplinary hearings – one of the many systemic obstacles to justice encountered by family justice campaigns. Another obstacle has been the lack of legal aid to provide families with lawyers at inquests and other legal battles, with Sean Rigg’s family, for example, having to raise £21,000 for a lawyer; as his sister commented: “While the police and two other state bodies received automatic funding out of the public purse, we had to go through an extremely intrusive legal aid process which included the incomes of all of Sean’s siblings, their partners, and our mother.” This January, however, May followed up meetings with relatives of Olaseni Lewis and Sean Rigg with a promise to “look favourably” on the future provision of legal aid for such families.

Then, last month, May announced an independent inquiry into deaths in custody which, according to government sources, will *Examine the procedures and processes surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody, including the lead-up to such incidents, the immediate aftermath, through to the conclusion of official investigations” including “a particular focus on the family liaison and support experience at all stages”. The inquiry will make recommendations “seeking to ensure appropriate, humane institutional treatment when such incidents, particularly deaths in or following detention in police custody, occur” and will also specifically evaluate the use of restraint, the inappropriate use of which was a cause of death in 69 cases of police custody between 1995 and 2005. Inquest, a charity providing invaluable support and advice for families of those who have died in custody, has been promised a significant role in the inquiry.

It all sounds very promising. The Voice are clearly impressed, describing her in an editorial last year as “fast becoming someone who the black and minority community can do business with”. Similarly, Marcia Rigg, Sean’s sister, told Theresa May at a meeting last month “Today is a good day. I like the fact that you have come to Brixton…I think your heart is genuine.”

But is it? Do we really have a Tory Home Secretary who genuinely believes that “Black Lives Matter” – and is prepared to do something about it?

Before we get too carried away, it worth briefly reviewing the rest of Theresa May’s record in government. She has made frequent use of Labour’s 2003 law which allows the Home Secretary to arbitrarily strip dual nationals of their British citizenship, using it against at least sixteen people within her first three years in office, at least five of whom were born in Britain, and two of whom have gone on to be executed without trial in US drone attacks. Yes, the woman the “black and minority community can do business with” has been setting up black and Asian Brits for extrajudicial execution.

Needless to say, she was also an enthusiastic supporter of the British-led NATO bombing of Libya – a war that facilitated the mass executions of black people by turning the country over to militias with names like the ‘Brigade for the purging of black skins’ (not to mention ISIS); that led to the total ethnic cleansing of the 30,000-strong black town of Tawergha; that destabilised the entire surrounding region from Mali to Nigeria; and that was a major cause of the refugee crisis now engulfing Southern Europe.

And what of that refugee crisis? What was Theresa May’s response to the millions of desperate Africans, Syrians and others fleeing the warzones she had helped to create? Did she issue an apology? Push for greater efforts to rescue those drowning? At least support the existing Italian search and rescue effort – the only one patrolling the whole Mediterranean? Not quite. Rather, she led the push within Cabinet for a concerted campaign to close down the Italian operation, with the open intention that this would lead to fewer migrants being rescued. The policy – aptly named the “drown a migrant” policy by Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges – eventually achieved its aim in October last year, when the Italians were finally pressured by the British-led campaign to stop the operation. This has led to thousands of immigrants being drowned this year alone, a massive increase on the previous year’s figures. It is no exaggeration to say that the woman “the black and minority community can do business with” bears significant personal responsibility for the deliberate drowning of thousands of African men, women and children. We are evidently not dealing with someone who believes that ‘Black Lives Matter’.

So why is ‘drown-a-migrant’ May, sponsor of the ‘Brigade for the purging of black skins’, now positioning herself as champion of oppressed minorities against the British police?

A number of explanations are possible. The most obvious is the quest for the ‘black vote’. At the Tories’ 2002 annual conference, Theresa May famously lambasted her party for having an appeal and popular base that was “too narrow”: “You know what some people call us”, she pointed out, “the Nasty Party”. If they wanted to get re-elected, she argued, they would have to ‘diversify’ their support base – and with the Tories’ current wafer-thin majority, this remains as true as ever. With almost two thirds of African-Caribbeans seeing the police as systematic liars, taking on the police could be a smart electoral move – especially taking them on in the areas in which police racism most visibly manifests itself: stop and search, and deaths in custody. An editorial in the Voice in summer 2013 suggested this was already paying dividends, with May’s work on stop and search specifically identified as a sign that the Conservatives were gaining ground from Labour in terms of appealing to black and minority voters. With the non-white population growing – and May widely seen to be positioning herself as a future party leader – this could all be a very astute attempt to build up a solid base of support.

However, there is almost certainly more to it than that. For the Tory party’s battles with the police go far beyond the issues outlined here; indeed, ever since coming to power in 2010, the party has been involved in more or less open war with the Police Federation (the closest thing the police are allowed to have to a trade union) over the austerity agenda.

Thatcher had been very careful to exempt police from the attacks to which the rest of the workforce were subjected – even significantly increasing their pay (not to mention providing lucrative overtime opportunities during the miners’ strike) whilst everyone else was seeing theirs cut. Cameron’s party have not gone down this road, arguing instead that the crisis today is so deep that no one (well, no workers anyway) should be exempt. And this attempt to push cuts and privatization onto the police has sparked fierce opposition from within the police force, with a 30,000 strong demo by the police held in 2012 quite possibly the biggest political action by the police since they went on strike in 1919 (when the government genuinely feared revolution). Given that Theresa May has so far threatened a lot more than she has actually delivered in terms of statutory reform, could it be that she is simply using the threat of removing the police’s time-honoured impunity as leverage to drive through the cuts agenda?

Personally, I am both not as cynical as this – but also much more so. Although it remains to be proven, I believe Theresa May could well be genuine about her desire to tackle black deaths in custody – not, however, because she wants to see fewer black people killed, but more – far more – and not because she wants to move us away from being a police state, but ever further towards it.

Let me explain. We are living through times of an unprecedented emerging crisis of the capitalist world system, both economically and militarily. Economically, the world system is tipping once again into a classic overproduction crisis, of a type endemic to capitalism: a crisis which re-emerges with greater force and destructive potential each time around. Within capitalism, overall demand is never enough to consume all the goods that are produced – because people, as a whole, are not paid the full value of their labour. For some time, this crisis was staved off with the ‘credit trick’: artificially boosting demand by lending people money to buy things they could not afford – but this collapsed in 2007-8. Capital, desperate for profitable sources of investment, then flooded into property, ‘commodities’ and government bonds, sparking price bubbles in each one. One by one, these bubbles are now bursting. The day of reckoning – the day, that is, when banks suddenly realise their ‘assets’ are only worth half, or a third, or a quarter, of what they had previously been valued at, and their cash machines stop giving out money – is drawing near.

The Conservatives understand this very well, better perhaps than most of the left; after all, they have had more experience of navigating this system than probably anyone else in the world. So they are preparing for this future. One way they are preparing is through militarism: endless wars to destroy rival capital, and to create the basis for more profitable investment of their own. Libya was here a textbook case: a war costing barely £300million produced investment opportunities (reserved, we now know, for the conquering forces) of £300 billion. But this war was just the prelude to bigger wars, becoming a launchpad for proxy wars against Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. These in turn are laying the groundwork for yet more future wars, being prepared as we speak. People do, and will increasingly, flee these wars. Yet Europe would rather sink their boats than let them flee to Europe, and have already turned this desire into official policy. Economic crisis is leading increasingly to ever more desperate and depraved forms of warfare against the global South – that is, against the homelands of a large section of the British population.

Malcolm X said it clearly when he said, “you can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo”. What he meant is that the lynchings and discrimination being experienced by African Americans were part and parcel of the US and Western Europe’s ongoing war against African liberation, and third world liberation as a whole; part of the colonisers’ permanent aggression against Africa, Asia and Latin America . He always fought for black and minority communities in North America to see themselves as part of this worldwide struggle, and to identify with the homelands in their struggle against such oppression. It was for this reason that he was seen as such a threat by the authorities, and for this reason that the Black Panther Party, who continued to put this thinking into practice after this death, were identified by the FBI as the number one threat to US national security. The presence of black and Asian people in Europe and its extensions has always been seen as a threat precisely because of their potential allegiance to their homelands in the ongoing imperialist wars against them. They have always been seen as a potential “fifth column”. Yet their treatment as such a fifth column, and the violence towards them this entails, has the effect of reinforcing their skepticism and hostility towards the state, and deepening their sympathies towards the anti-imperialist movements and states abroad. Racist state violence, then, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: the state’s permanent suspicion about the loyalty of its black and Asian population creates a very real basis for disloyalty; by treating them as ‘prone to rebellion’, it prompts them to rebel. Being subjected to racist violence by the British state automatically creates a kinship with those subjected to racist violence by that same state abroad, that is the victims of British wars and economic subjugation. If she is serious about dealing with racist police violence and impunity (which, I reiterate, remains to be seen) Theresa May could in fact be attempting nothing less than the final obliteration of any identification of its non-white population to their blitzed and besieged homelands.

Ultimately what is being attempted is a form of racist flattery: where once black people were effectively told ‘You’re no better than the n*****s in Africa’, Theresa May is now effectively telling them: ‘You’re nothing like those n*****s in Africa: they deserve to be drowned and droned and beheaded; but you are worth so much more’. This is a bold new racism for the 21st century: all British citizens, no matter what their skin colour, should be able to support the drowning, strafing and droning of Arabs and Africans.

Yet just as violence and oppression is being ramped up abroad, so too at home. The combined reality of permanent mass unemployment and a benefits system unable to provide basic subsistence is leading to a growing underclass potentially drawn to revolt, and likely to be drawn into frequent contact with the police. The state’s response has been mass surveillance and, increasingly, mass incarceration. The public have been led to accept this increasing intrusion of the state into their lives on the grounds of Islamophobic ‘anti-terrorist’ propaganda and hate stories about ‘feral youth’. Yet police racism and police violence continue to be major faultlines in relations between police and a large section of the public, a major obstacle to the acquiescence of the black community in accepting this massively increased role for the police and security services in the governance of Britain. To co-opt black and Asian people into accepting the structural violence of mass poverty and incarceration, requires a limitation on the arbitrary meting out of individual violence and persecution by racist officers. Remember that, against a backdrop of the massive use of racist stop and search, widespread unemployment and benefits cuts, it took the execution of Mark Duggan to actually trigger a riot.

Theresa May, then, is attempting to improve police relations with the black community for a very simple reason: to buy their acquiescence in her war against the poor at home and abroad. We should not be fooled. Through its war on both Libya and migrants in the Mediterranean, this government has facilitated a massive ramping up of violence against Africans, and is preparing the grounds for mass incarceration at home.

Nevertheless, even as we recognize this, and without any illusions, we must use this moment to push for an end to police impunity: to insist on an end to all the institutional practices that allow the police to escape accountability and to demand murdering officers are prosecuted. Genuine community control is the only way to ensure this happens. But we must never forget that it is not only police officers, but Theresa May too, who must be held to account for her crimes.

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Dan Glazebrook is a political commentator and agitator. He is the author of Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis (Liberation Media, 2013) and Supremacy Unravelling: Crumbling Western Dominance and the Slide to Fascism (K and M, 2020)