On histories of policing, academic reconstruction and reparation
Brixton 1981

Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by Yasmeen Narayan, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK

This article is based on a seminar on ‘Nationalist Populism and Postcolonial Responses’ with Sivamohan Valluvan chaired by Gurminder Bhambra at the BSA Postcolonial and Decolonial Transformations Study Group that took place on 18 February 2021.

Dominant multidisciplinary discursive frameworks, at this historical conjuncture, are structured by postcolonial common sense modes of thought that have been sculpted out of colonial and postcolonial nationalisms. Postcolonial common sense can be defined by a ‘grid of intelligibility’ (Macey 1978, 365) composed of ideas of separate communities with specific histories and cultural trajectories, distinct diasporas and regions, universal, transhistorical ethnic and religious categories and different forms of racism (Mamdani 2012; Stoler 2008). Academic narratives that reproduce postcolonial common sense do not demand explanation. They are not uncontested but they are understood by all. This can be illuminated by the need to carefully explain and defend interpretations which do not utilise common sense concepts and the taxonomies that they lead to.

Postcolonial common sense formations erase histories of criminalisation and policing in Britain. I begin in the early 1970s which is marked by the imprisonment of thousands of Irish during the Troubles and torture in British prisons as ordinary. I am carving this history out of broader genealogies of racialisation, yet I will return to them, inspired by the project of Back and Sinha of ‘developing an inventory of connections’ (Back and Sinha 2018, 3).

The policing of minoritised communities was defined by indiscriminate surveillance and raids on community centres and homes, searches and beatings in the street and torture during interrogation, in police vans and in police cells. As Gilroy notes, ‘torture inside police stations became unremarkable features of London’s policing’ (Gilroy 2013, 534). It was marked by arbitrary arrest and detention and the ordinary concealment and fabrication of evidence. The demonisation of the terrorised by journalists, histories of indifference and unaccountability and affiliations between police and white nationalist political collectives were normal.

This police violence and corruption cannot be separated from histories of spying and political sabotage. Work such as campaigns to secure the release of those who had been falsely imprisoned or justice for those who had been beaten or killed and investigations of police negligence were interrupted. Possibilities of exoneration and legal actions against the police were destroyed and trade union activity was disrupted.  Miscarriages of justice littered this historical period. Cases such as the Mangrove Nine (1970), Oval Four (1972), Shrewsbury Twenty-Four (1973), Birmingham Six (1975), the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven (1975 and 1976), the Bradford Twelve (1981), the Newham Seven and the Pryce Family (1984) and the Tottenham Three (1987) stretched across the seventies and eighties. This history is interwoven with other forms of violence such as institutional child sexual abuse. A retired detective mentions in passing at a Windrush70 memorial how, as a young police officer, he used to return children who were being sexually abused in care homes run by Lambeth Council who had tried to run away.

Police violence, not unlike other forms of state and corporate negligence and violence, attempts to reconfigure the violated as less than human and responsible for the violence that they face. The subject is returned to themselves as monstrous. This violation is not classified as violence because there is no human and no citizen that has been neglected or violated. There is no one there. Fein argues in her discussion on the Armenian genocide and the Shoah:

‘Both Jews and Armenians had been decreed by the dominant group that was to perpetrate in the crime to be outside the sanctified universe of obligation – that circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other whose bonds arose from their relation to a deity or a sacred source of authority (Fein 1979 in Wynter 1994, 2).

Wynter applies Fein’s argument to her analysis of the acronym ‘N.H.I’ which is the classification ‘no humans involved’ that was used by officials of the judicial system in Los Angeles to refer to young, unemployed black men who had been subjected to police violence. Wynter illuminates in this discussion of the riots of 1992 how different ‘non-humans’ come to stand ‘outside the sanctified universe of obligation’ (Fein 1979 in Wynter 1994, 2).

The subject who is faced with police violence must be absolved of their own dehumanisation. The need to defend, exonerate and protest led to riots in areas such as Southall, St. Pauls, Brixton, Chapeltown, Handsworth, Moss Side, Tottenham and Toxteth. Translocal, interconnecting, West Indian, Asian, African, Irish, Jewish and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller political collectives emerged. Many incorporated white radicals from different classes. In other words, the history of each neighbourhood and minoritised community also takes place in others. This cannot be reflected using dominant theoretical frameworks. These projects stretched across different spaces such as neighbourhood law centres, squats and prisoner groups drawing subjects from intersecting, black, sex worker, queer and feminist collectives together (Cook 2011; James and Harris 1993). This work was intertwined with struggles within and between different political communities. These collectives were international. Black lawyers in London, for exampleworked with the NAACP Legal Defence Fund as they defended black, Irish and working-class, white defendants in Britain. This work led to reconfigured, intensified, police spying operations. These political cultures were inseparable from everyday life and narratives on police violence travelled through different urban cultures amplified by the magnificence of the India, Pakistan and West Indies cricket teams. These cartographies of police violence, corruption, spying and sabotage and histories of political and cultural hybridisation are erased by postcolonial common sense formations. They further dissolve earlier connections between modern systems of categorisation, colonial histories of land expropriation and the formation of offences, legislation and punishments. They erase how colonial military strategy and methods of policing were cultivated across colonies and how technologies of policing were developed across communities (Moore 2014). The existence of intertwined modern, medieval and ancient creolised cultural worlds and communities with shifting borders and centres disappears.

Can we understand contemporary forms of state and corporate negligence and violence if they do not rest upon earlier cartographies? Can we understand domestic violence and sexual violence committed by police without locating them within broader histories of police violence? Do we need to accommodate these histories into our discussions of violence within minoritised communities? How can the police investigation of ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ and the police violence that led to the riots in Chapeltown further our understanding of the riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley that took place twenty years later and the riots of 2011? Academic work which rests upon common sense nationalist formations of separate communities and colonial and postcolonial histories further erases the connections between the global projects of ‘the War on Drugs’ and ‘the War on Terror’, the criminalisation of addiction and the kaleidoscopic nature of racist fury. Ordinary, indiscriminate domestic surveillance, searches, beating, detention and killing are separated from contemporary warfare. Connections between different inventions of the inhuman fabricated by capacities to terrorise and kill and treachery towards the nation disappear.

Hall and Pick (2017) note that examinations of the policies and practices central to the suppression of dissent in colonial regimes involves ‘the reconstruction of actual events, and the history of contemporaneous and subsequent cover-ups and denials’ (Hall and Pick 2017, 15). Multidisciplinary work on ‘race’ and racism, that reproduces postcolonial common sense modes of thought, obscures or denies these histories of political violence. We cannot be exonerated from responsibility for the violence through which we have come into being if we have thrown ourselves out of our own histories. The work of producing reconstructive academic counternarratives and the reparatory work of mourning are interwoven.

What do we do with all that we have witnessed? How do we live with others who are unharmed by these histories yet who may be still, as Sivanandan argues, their warm, safe beneficiaries? How do we live with their innocence or thoughtlessness? How do we live with our own silence? If academic communities are sites of erasure, are they sites of humiliation? How do we mourn all that was destroyed and piece these histories back together in the university when we may be shamed because our lives were engulfed by police violence? Does the ridicule, hate or brutal indifference that we may face leave us with responsibility for this violence? Does humiliation in the university and police violence rest upon the same imaginations of the insignificant or the disposable? Do we find ourselves, forty years after the riots of 1981, still outside ‘the sanctified universe of obligation’ (Fein 1979 in Wynter 1994, 2)?

Dominant, multidisciplinary discursive frameworks, at this historical conjuncture, are shaped by colonial and postcolonial nationalisms. They erase histories and cartographies of police violence and thus broader genealogies of state and corporate negligence and violence and racialised subjectification. The obedient reproduction of modes of thought that were indispensable to colonial and postcolonial histories of racialisation is taking the place of reconstructive and reparatory academic work and all the new possibilities of being that could be produced.

Back, L. and Sinha, S. with Bryan, C. Baraku, V. and Yemba, M. 2018. Migrant City. London: Routledge Advances in Ethnography.
Cook, M. 2011. Gay Times’: Identity, Locality, Memory, and the Brixton Squats in 1970’s London.’ Twentieth Century British History 24 (1): 84 – 109.
Gilroy, P. 2013. ‘1981 and 2011: From Social Democratic to Neoliberal Rioting’. The South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (3): 550 – 558.
James, W. and Harris, C. 1993. Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain. London: Verso.
Macey, D. 1978. The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Verso.
Mamdani, M. 2012. Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
Stoler, A. L. 2008. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
Wynter, S. 1994. ‘No Humans Involved: An Open Letter To My Colleagues’, Forum N.H.I: Knowledge for the 21st Century. 1 (1).

My thanks to Gurminder Bhambra, Sivamohan Valluvan and Identities.

Image credit: Brixton 1981, PA Images/ Alamy.

Read further in Identities:

‘Each one teach one’ visualising Black intellectual life in Handsworth beyond the epistemology of ‘white sociology’

Containment, state racism and activism: the Sheku Bayoh justice campaign

On deaf ears: anti-black police terror, multiracial protest and white loyalty to the state