(FinalCall.com) – Recent revelations that the Metropolitan Police sanctioned spying and a smear campaign against relatives of slain teenager Stephen Lawrence to derail his family’s battle for justice was the focus of an intense discussion held in South London.
The Nation of Islam’s “Community Question Time” forum also explored the effects of police tactics on Black organisations and individuals.
Featuring a panel of legal and political experts, veteran community leaders, and Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the racially-motivated murder of his friend Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the discussion was chaired by Student Minister Hilary Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.
Alphage Bell, one of three barristers on the panel, explained that the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), the former undercover police unit at the heart of the scandal, had infiltrated many justice-seeking movements in the community.
“Practically every campaign for justice, all those campaigns where Black people have died at the hands of police, are always monitored by undercover police officers,” said Mr. Bell. “They are there lighting candles, praying at the vigils, pretending to be wounded individuals with the community but spying and sometimes agitating.”
The activities of SDS undercover officers reportedly included assuming the identity of deceased children, having relationships with and even fathering children with female members of organisations as part of infiltration assignments.
Even when taking into account historically tense relations between police and the Black community, a number of attendees voiced shock at such gross invasions of personal privacy and ethics violations. Some likened the espionage tactics to those used by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and other sophisticated spy organisations.
Among the questions posed by Student Minister Muhammad was should the community demand a full list of organisations and individuals spied upon?
Duwayne Brooks, who was targeted by SDS officers, drew parallels between the question and the ongoing debate over the Data Communications Act, which would have given police access, with warrants, to all online communications.
People should be able to find out whether they were spied upon, he said. Mr. Brooks argued police could also wrongly link what they see as potentially dangerous links and snare innocent people.
“They may spy on you and you’re not up to anything but you’re talking to somebody else. They (police) may see that name and mix that name up with somebody else and spy on that person and their family and friends,” he said.
“Then it continues and continues until we get to a stage where everyone’s being spied upon and everyone’s a suspect and that when mistakes happen.
“Names get muddled up, people get arrested, lives get muddled up and it can be a very upsetting time especially if you have no support and all of sudden you’re a target of the police or MI5,” he observed.
And, Mr. Brooks said, just making an enquiry as to whether one had been spied upon could be viewed as suspicious in and of itself.
Panellists and audience members alike highlighted the fact that the police are able to access a great deal of personal data at present. Text messages for instance are stored by phone companies for up to 12 months and can be accessed by the police if deemed necessary, while Oyster cards and Smartphones with GPS technology can be used as tools to track citizens’ whereabouts.
A number of audience members voiced concerns over the police having so much power.
“Once you start storing information it means that whoever is collecting the information has the power to manipulate it,” one audience member said.
Speaking about police corruption, panellist Lee Halliday-Davis, an experienced barrister, said corruption was not limited to a few individuals.
“You have to look at this country and look at the history of this country, you have to know that the foundation of this country is based in racism,” she said.
A recent community forum explored the effects of police tactics on Black organisations and groups.
“The moment you see that, as Black people living in this country we must appreciate that the deceit is not at Brixton level, it’s not at Whitehall level, it goes as far as it can go.”
The Macpherson Report found the Metropolitan Police force to be “institutionally racist” in 1999 following a public enquiry into their handling of the fatal stabbing of Stephen Lawrence by a White mob. The enquiry resulted in 70 recommendations for change but not enough has been done to address the problem, said barrister Laurie-Anne Power, who was part of the panel.
“Things have altered so I suspect that overt racism is less obvious,” she said. “We are less likely to find ourselves attacked verbally on the streets but I think that the changes are more dangerous to our community because they are more difficult to reveal and it’s harder to appreciate their existence which makes it harder to deal with.”
Mrs. Anne-Power said the test as to how far police have come will be their handling of those who were involved and those responsible for the nefarious activity.
“Will people be charged, will they be convicted? I doubt it. There may be a few people, tokens, hung out to dry so the government don’t seem to be too complicit but the likelihood that there is going to be any real change in the policing of the community because of these revelations is slim,” she said.
With numerous investigations underway, whether any significant changes will be made remains a question, but Minka Adolofo, a dedicated political activist since the 1970s, stressed neither the police nor mainstream political parties could be relied upon to bring about change.
“Change won’t be achieved by voting for a different party in power but rather by people standing up,” he said. “When we look at the different political parties today, we’re looking at different slave masters and our objective shouldn’t be which slave master we want, our objective should be our liberation.”
Mr. Adolofo likened the Black community’s relationship with political parties to that of a woman in an abusive relationship.
“How many times do we have to take a beating before we realise that man is no good and we have to separate from him?” he asked.
The need for the community to take greater responsibility for itself was widely touted as a solution to corrupt policing but Duwayne Brooks said that would require the community holding itself to a higher standard.
“How can we police our own community if we allow unruly children, parents who are lost to stay in our community?” he asked.
“I remember when I was growing up, if I was to backchat any adult and I got a little ‘one-touch’ for it, I couldn’t go home and say what happened to me because the next touch would have been a harder touch,” he said. “Serve you right, when you see big people, know your place” would be the lesson, Mr. Brooks continued.
Today things are very different and many parents have not passed on such discipline and instead are their children’s best friends, he said.
“We are quick to look at the behaviour of the police and I am first to criticise their behaviour but first we have to look at our behaviour, what we tolerate in our community,” added Mr. Brooks.
Ms. Halliday-Davis echoed similar sentiments, explaining that love and responsibility are the keys to improving conditions in the Black community.
“If we see a young boy delivering drugs on his bicycle and we decide we are going to look and walk on by, we haven’t taken responsibility,” she said.
“If we know that there’s someone next door hasn’t got money to buy bread for her children, so it’s likely she might shoplift and we’ve got a pound we can give, we must give. It’s about responsibility and love for one another.”