Out-of-control: 'Spit hoods' and police racism

Out-of-control: 'Spit hoods' and police racism
Comment: While the Black Lives Matter movement in the US has made police racism a national debate, British media has failed to give it adequate attention, writes Liam O'Hare.
5 min read
12 Sep, 2016
The issue of police violence remains intrinsically linked to race [Getty]

The UK's Metropolitan Police declared its intention last week to trial the use of "spit hoods". These mesh fabric masks cover the entire head of a suspect. They make it impossible to see the face of a person, impossible to see whether they are breathing and impossible for a person to see out.

Martha Spurrier, Director of civil rights campaign Liberty, has called them a "primitive, cruel and degrading tool". She was right. One need only watch the footage of the arrest of IK Aihie by British Transport Police in July, to recognise this.

The footage makes for painful viewing, underlining the fact that the use of such hoods is dehumanising and showing them to be unfit for use at any time, let alone the 21st century. An outcry from the public has led to the Met delaying the introduction of the hoods, but they remain keen for the pilot to proceed.

Another incident of over-zealous policing took place in Brixton earlier this month. Sulaiman Lee and Leonegus Darealest who run a stall promoting black literature were ordered to pack up. After refusing, they found themselves surrounded by more than a dozen officers before being violently arrested.

Meanwhile last month in Telford, Shropshire, former Aston Villa footballer Dalian Atkinson, who was reportedly suffering ill health, died after police shot him with a Taser gun. One eyewitness reported him being kicked and tasered repeatedly by officers while he lay still on the ground.

Aside from the obvious concerns over disproportionate use of force, these incidents have something else in common. The victims are all black.

The issue of police violence remains intrinsically linked to race. A study by the charity INQUEST shows that of those who die in, or following police custody, a disproportionate number are from black and minority ethnic communities.

At a time of rising Islamophobia in Britain, the police are guilty of stereotyping Muslims too

So, not only are you more likely to be stopped and searched by police if you are black, but you also more likely to be tasered, shot, or to die from some other police contact. According to INQUEST, institutional racism is a contributory factor to these deaths.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has thrust the issue of police racism to the centre of a national debate across the Atlantic. Yet, as Kiri Kankhwende pointed out in a recent article, the media in Britain has failed to give the issue the attention it deserves.

It's not for a lack of victims. One need only think of Sheku Bayoh who died after being restrained by Police Scotland in Fife in May last year. His body was covered in cuts and bruises, including over twenty injuries to his face and neck. His family are still waiting to find out if anyone will be prosecuted. 

Or 18-year-old Mzee Mohammed, who died after being restrained by Merseyside police earlier this summer. He had no pre-existing medical conditions.

Or Sarah Reed, found dead in a Holloway prison police cell after being moved there from a psychiatric hospital. She had previously been a victim of police brutality in 2012 leading to the officer responsible being dismissed from the force.

Or Joy Gardner, Roger Sylvester, Leon Patterson, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, Jermaine Baker, Smiley Culture and Mark Duggan. The list goes on.

Yet the last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted for the death of someone in custody was in 1969. Even then, the two officers found guilty of assaulting David Oluwale were sentenced to a matter of months.

In the intervening 47 years, there have been over 1,000 deaths in custody and several verdicts of unlawful killing. However, not one has led to a successful prosecution of a police officer.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, tasked with investigating such deaths, has too often been found to be on the side of the officers rather than the complainant.

The last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted in the UK for the death of someone in custody was in 1969

In order to force the issue into the mainstream in the UK, activists here have launched a Black Lives Matter campaign. Using the hashtag #Shutdown, they've taken part in direct actions, blocking traffic on busy roads and recently even forcing their way onto the runway at London City Airport.

There have been the expected complaints about disruption. But campaigners argue that continued police violence, and the racism inherent to it, can no longer be ignored. This, they say, is a crisis which is very literally costing lives.

At a time of rising Islamophobia in Britain, the police are guilty of stereotyping Muslims too. The government's counter-terrorism "Prevent" strategy compels people to report any suspicious behaviour to the police. But the UK's own terrorism laws watchdog says that this is encouraging "mistrust to spread and to fester" in Muslim communities.

Greater Manchester Police were recently forced to apologise after a counter-terrorism simulation exercise included a man running around The Trafford centre screaming "Allahu akbar!" And only last month I broke the story about how Muslim NHS worker Faizah Shaheen was questioned by police for the mere act of reading a book about Syria on a plane.

In modern Britain, the belief that people are treated differently by the authorities because of their ethnicity or religion is not confined to one community.

In June, Victor Olisa, the Met's head of diversity, admitted that the force still treats black people worse than white people. This echoed an earlier sentiment from Britain's most senior police officer Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said that the force remains institutionally racist.

However, incidents like the one in Brixton earlier this month indicate that we are still some way off seeing this rhetoric of understanding translate into any meaningful change on the streets.

When it comes to police conduct, actions speak louder than words. Scrapping the ludicrous idea of bagging suspects' heads might be a small step in the right direction.


Liam O’Hare is a journalist based between Glasgow and London. His work has been published in the Independent, the Herald, Al Jazeera, and Jacobin Magazine among various other titles. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_O_Hare

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.