chapter  2
‘Unreasonable force’: policing marginalised communities in the 1980s
Pages 19

Throughout Britain during the late 1970s heavy-handed policing in workingclass communities, on picket lines and in black and Irish neighbourhoods drew criticism from campaign and civil liberties groups, politicians and the media. In 1979 a sequence of events occurred in Knowsley, Merseyside that led to serious allegations of excessive use of force by police officers from Merseyside Police’s K Division. I had lived in Huyton a few years earlier and knew the area well. Following the death in custody of Jimmy Kelly, I began researching the case in the context of other events in the area. It was soon apparent that virtually no research existed on deaths in custody and none on the coronial system. I attended the inquest and was eventually involved in the submission of the case to the European Court. In April 1979 Blair Peach, a New Zealand teacher, was clubbed down

and killed by a member of the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group as he walked away from an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, London. Later the police entered an African-Caribbean community centre, lined the stairs and batoned everyone as they tried to leave the building. Not only were the police heavily criticised for protecting a racist demonstration through the heart of an Asian community, they were held responsible by an independent committee of inquiry for killing Blair Peach and for brutalising black people. With families bereaved by deaths in custody we formed INQUEST: United Campaigns for Justice. Two years later there was a full-on community uprising in Toxteth.

Drawing on the work of Stokely CarmichaeI I argued that inner-city uprisings were a consequence of institutionalised racism within the custom and practice of local government and state agencies, a charge dismissed by the 1981 Scarman Report into the disturbances. In October 1985, following a minor confrontation in Toxteth, the Merseyside Police sealed off the community and deployed its Operational Support Division (OSD). The OSD literally took no prisoners, dealing out summary justice on the streets. Chanting monkey noises, drumming their riot shields and shouting sexist abuse they made it clear that their revenge was long overdue. Yet chief constables, government ministers and mainstream criminologists continued to deny or simply ignore the existence of institutionalised racism

in policing Britain’s black, Asian and Irish communities. It took the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the appalling treatment of his family by the Metropolitan Police and the Macpherson Report to confirm from above what communities for generations had known from below.