Black Resistance to British Policing by Adam Elliott-Cooper

This book review of Adam Elliott-Cooper’s Black Resistance to British Policing was originally published on the Abolitionist Futures website here:

Black Resistance to British Policing is an important book based not only on Adam Elliott-Cooper’s wide reading and research but on over a decade of his anti-racist and abolitionist activism. The book’s central argument is that to understand Black people’s experiences of British policing and its racism we need to realise that these have long histories that can be traced back to Britain’s colonies. The racism that was central to British governance of its colonies embedded practices and ideologies into British policing that continue in Britain today. These extend beyond policing into housing, education, employment, border control and the whole range of state activities. Elliott-Cooper uses this historical context to explore both racist policing today and the resistance to it within the Black community. In doing this he draws on his own experiences, those of other activists, the young people he worked with as a youth worker, and more widely on the Black community and others involved in struggles. These he explores through an impressive engagement with key theoretical writings that link Black resistance to British policing to anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, Black feminism and Black internationalism.

In chapter one Elliott-Cooper focuses on police violence in the twentieth century and in particular highlights the experience of women. He introduces us to the activist Elma Francois and her understanding of the global nature of Black liberation. Born in St Vincent, she was subsequently an activist in Trinidad where she co-founded the Negro Welfare, Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA) and the National Unemployed Movement, organisations through which she organised both resistance within the colony and international solidarity. I had not heard of Francois and found her history both fascinating and inspirational. The activism and resistance that occurred throughout Britain’s colonies moved with those who came to Britain in the post-war period. Both the racism they experienced, and their resistance to it, were nothing new. Both were continuations of the colonial experience and many of the organisations formed in the colonies established London and British branches. Black Resistance provides an insight into a number of important Black organisations that developed in the 1970s and 1980s including the Black Parents Movement and the many Defence Committees established to support young people involved in the 1980s uprisings.

Throughout the book Elliott-Cooper’s deployment of history shows that contemporary racism’s origin was not a relatively recent phenomenon — provoked by the arrival of Black people in the 1950s and located in the prejudices of individuals — but has a long history in colonial governance and state practices. Given these origins he ends this chapter by warning that state responses to racism — seeking solutions to racism through “diversifying institutions, race equality education, and legislation’(p. 52) — fail to address racism’s link to the state, colonialism and capitalism. 

The central role of Black women in resisting police racism identified in the first chapter is a central theme throughout the book. The second chapter highlights the campaigning that followed the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence led by his mother Doreen. Her campaigning had a massive impact on future campaigns and on the women that led them, showing ‘how a successful campaign could be run, from grassroots community building and protest, to victories in the courts and mainstream media’ (p. 57). The pathologisation of the Black family, and in particular the Black ‘single mother’, that characterises state racist discourses  (and increasingly also Black conservative voices) is vigorously challenged by Elliott-Cooper who argues for the Black family as ‘a potential site of radical resistance’ (p. 76). This chapter gives voice to many of the women who lead campaigns and in particular Marcia Rigg who has relentlessly campaigned to expose the truth concerning the death of her brother, Sean, in Brixton Police Station.   

Chapters three and four focus on the 2011 uprisings. The former providing context and the second focusing on the uprisings and subsequent community defence campaigns. In placing the uprisings in context Elliott-Cooper focuses not only on the recent past — with increased police stop and search and other harassment of young, particularly Black, people — but also on the history of empire. He traces contemporary ideas about gender and race to their role in legitimising the brutality of colonialism and the slave trade. In particular he highlights how the racist construction of Black masculinity as inherently dangerous is central to justifying the everyday violent policing experienced by the Black community. In 2011, Elliott-Cooper identifies three deaths at the hands of the police that were to lead to the uprisings — Smiley Culture, Kingsley Burrell and Mark Duggan — and in chapter four he explores the defence campaigns and other resistance to British policing that followed. The historic section of this chapter focuses on the moral panic associated with ‘gangs’ and how supposed membership of them, determined by racist profiling, justifies both the oppressive policing of Black youth and their demonisation by politicians and media. The chapter gives an excellent insiders accounts of the defence campaigns established in 2011 as well as a detailed critique of official accounts of the police killing of Mark Duggan.

In chapter five Elliott-Cooper examines recent changes in policing powers and how they are entrenching racism into British policing. Starting by exploring the counter-insurgency strategies of the British state in resisting colonial liberation struggles in the twentieth century, the chapter then shows how many of these techniques and strategies have ‘come home’ to be used in Britain, particularly against Black people. This includes the targeting of whole communities, the criminalisation of Black culture, the use of the dodgy ‘gang’ membership lists and the use of the legal doctrine of Joint Enterprise. As in previous chapters, community campaigns of resistance are central, with the work of groups like JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association) and NPMP (Northern Police Monitoring Project) highlighted. 

The recent knife crime moral panic and the racist motivation behind its promotion is powerfully deconstructed. Elliott-Cooper highlights how ‘race’ only becomes significant in some explanations. In Glasgow, one of the whitest, as well as being historically one of the most violent, cities in the UK, race played no part in the state’s explanation of the high incidence of knife crime. However, in cities with a substantial Black population, race became the key explanatory factor, even where serious youth violence was disproportionately located in the white population. Glasgow has significantly reduced violence by moving from a policing to a public health approach. Significantly, when this strategy has been transferred to English cities, it has been adapted to give the police the central role. As Elliott-Cooper observes ‘the racialisation of the ‘Black gang’ makes a punitive approach appear necessary and unavoidable’ (p. 154).

Looking to the future, chapter six looks to the potential development of tactics to challenge state power and police racism. Central to Elliott-Cooper’s argument is that the whole range of resistance strategies are legitimate. Again, his arguments are grounded in his experiences as an activist, and, as he observes, ‘it is via this process of learning through practical action and prolonged, often critical, reflection that new ways of understanding state racism and organising to resist it are often forged’ (p. 165). I found the explanations for the targeting of shopping centres and transport networks by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists fascinating and convincing. Equally important to developing innovative tactics of resistance is establishing a vision of the future and Black Resistance is clear that this has to be an abolitionist future, a future without police and prisons, but also without capitalist exploitation and patriarchal social relations.  As the conclusion makes clear, this will require ‘the overthrow of racism and capitalism as modes of governance and reproducers of state power’ (p. 190). 

Black Resistance to British Policing is well written and jargon free. It is informed by activism and scholarship and makes an important contribution to ongoing anti-racist and abolitionist activity. In the long tradition of Black politics that it so beautifully describes, it recognises that ‘the movements which emerge out of struggles against racist state violence are organically multi-ethnic, and not without messiness, contradictions and conflict’ (p. 189). Black Resistance makes an important contribution to building those movements. Read it and use its insights to inform your activism.

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