alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

Menezes' Killing Casts Ugly Glare on Racial Profiling in Britain

The slaying of Brazilian legal immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes by the London police again cast an ugly glare on racial profiling in Britain. And race profiling there has nothing to do with stopping terrorism. During the past decade, London police have stopped, patted down, and detained legions of black, Asian, and Muslim British home office officials, doctors, lawyers, athletes, and business professionals. According to a 2003 British Home Office report on "Race and the Criminal Justice System," Blacks and Asians were four times more likely to be stopped than whites, and North African and Middle Easterners were seven times more likely to be stopped than whites.

The humiliation, and embarrassment of being subjected to an unwarranted stop and search didn't end there. London police have issued scores of what's euphemistically called a "producer." That's a summons that requires the detainee to appear at a police station and produce their driver's license and car registration.

British officials claim that the unwarranted stops and searches are a regrettable, but necessary tactic to fight terrorism. That's not true. Three years before the London train station bombings, and the killing of Menezes, British police made more than 20,000 stops and searches under authority of the Terrorism act. Less than two percent of those stopped were arrested. Even that figure is misleading. Only two of those arrested were charged with involvement with a terrorist group, and their arrest did not result from a street stop and search. By contrast, nearly 15 percent of those stopped as suspects in criminal activities were arrested. In London, nearly 40 percent of those stopped on suspicion either under the Terrorism act or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act were non-whites.

The issue of racial profiling has long been a sore spot for the black and Asian communities in Britain. It exploded to the surface in 1993 when white hooligans beat Stephen Lawrence, a black London youth, to death. Police came under intense fire for their foot dragging investigation into the beating. It took five years, and a mass protest campaign, before British officials conducted an "inquiry" into the killing. Scores of black and Asian Londoners told harrowing tales of harassment, verbal insults, and even physical assaults by police. In a stark admission, the "Stephen Lawrence Inquiry" concluded that institutional racism infected all levels of policing in Britain.

British officials made a mild stab at reform. In 2003, they announced that under new guidelines an individual could not be subjected to unwarranted street stops because of race, but only when there was clear suspicion of criminal activity. It was a hollow victory. Five years after the commission fingered institutional racism as the cause of profiling, and a year after the guidelines took effect, a commission advisor found that young black men were still twice as likely to be stopped by police than five years earlier. The Terrorism act gives British officials virtually unlimited power to question and detain anyone they deem a likely terrorist suspect whether there is any actual evidence of terrorist involvement on their part. In nearly all cases, the suspect is black, Asian or Muslim.

Britain, though, is not the United States when it comes to dealing with the prickly issue of race profiling. Some states have passed laws that ban racial profiling, and police departments have spent millions on sensitivity programs and training. Michigan Congressman, John Conyers' Traffic Stops Statistics Act, which would collect data on police traffic stops, has kicked around Congress for the past five years. That at least keeps the issue of racial profiling alive at the federal level.

But with the terror war now in full swing in Britain, and national jitters that more bombings and attacks could happen at any time, British officials are in no mood to do much to protect against blatant civil liberties abuses. The reaction of British officials to the police killing of Menezes is a prime example of the collateral fall-out of innocents getting killed in the terror battle. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's apology for the killing sounded more like a defense of the police than a sincere expression of regret over the tragedy. Blair and British officials made it clear that the street stops and searches will continue, and that there will be no change in the police shoot to kill policy. They gave no indication that the officers that killed Menezes would be punished.

Blair's half-hearted apology, and the hard-nosed attitude of British officials ignited justifiable outrage among many Brazilians. Relatives and friends of Menezes demanded that Blair arrest the cops that killed him. That, of course, won't happen. There will be a perfunctory investigation, another statement of regret, and compensation to Menezes' family. But police policies and practices in Britain will not change. Even if the train bombings had never occurred, and the British did not feel threatened by more attacks, blacks, Asians, and Muslims in the country would still be stopped, and searched with impunity on the streets and required to troop to police stations to "produce" documents. It won't stop one potential terrorist attack, or break up a terrorist cell. It will just be business as usual.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.