Perspective: ‘Undies’ – youth, police and race in Brixton
Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer living in Brixton, south London. With Black Lives Matter protests increasing in the UK, here he describes how perceptions about race and the police have shaped his experiences
“It’s going to take time,” said Ira, CEO at Marcus Lipton Community Enterprise – a community centre in Loughborough Junction, Brixton, which rests in the shadows of Loughborough housing estate’s huge, white towers. “They’ll think you’re feds at first.”
My flatmate Rory and I were in the staff office talking for the first time to Ira: a warm, firm realist, who has lived and worked in Brixton his whole life. He was welcoming our intention to volunteer, but warned that because we are (or would be seen as) white men, the young people at the centre – who are mostly male, from Caribbean and East and West African households – would assume we were undercover policemen. He was right. In the first few months, on entering the building we were glanced at by pairs of frowning eyes. I was asked several times if I was an “undie”. Fast-forward eleven months, we now run a successful discussion group for the younger boys, called Hero’s Journey. Every Friday night we sit round a coffee table and debate topics like money, school and gentrification.
In all this time, Ira’s initial words and the reality reflected in them have bugged me. Being half-Indian, I have never self-identified as ‘white’. Yet there I was, entering a new binary world, being told that I belonged on the other side of a rigidly-defined line. Then there is the bigger picture: that my perceived racial identity (as well as being middle-class, 24 and male) meant that it was reasonable to assume that I belonged to their most hated tribe of public servants.
"The consensus was a feeling of being “powerless”; all of [the boys we spoke to] had experienced altercations where a policeman had unfairly demanded to search them."
What made them think like this? Placed in the reinvigorated 2016 ‘Black Lives Matter’ context, this question is especially interesting. On both sides of the Atlantic, the whiteness of abusive police officers and blackness of their subjects in cases of drastic injustice, relating to gun use and treatment while in custody, is becoming an ever-crystallising dichotomy in the Western world’s imagination. It later became clear to me. On a warm afternoon in May, I popped into MLCE to debrief with Ira about the previous week’s Hero’s Journey discussion, where Rory and I had talked with the boys (who are all under 15 years old) about their ‘stop-and-search’ encounters with police. The consensus was a feeling of being “powerless”; all of them had experienced altercations where a policeman had unfairly demanded to search them.
The screech of a hatchback pulling into the carpark interrupted our conversation. Three police cars followed, blocking the entrance. Out of the hatchback hopped three older MLCE boys, and within seconds two more police vehicles had arrived. There was a total of roughly fifteen police officers. Two of them were female, all of them were white. The MLCE staff tried to calm the three panicked boys down and reason with the police. Some of the police officers were being defensive and aggressive like the boys. Some were perfectly calm. Others stood awkwardly, watching. They had outnumbered even themselves. One policeman pointed in Ira’s face: “Who are you? Are you in charge here?” It was painful to watch. Ira – a pillar of the local community, who has advised Lambeth council about youth activity for years, and seen police forces come-and-go – had to bite his tongue in service of peace. I could tell that he had done this before. The boys’ car was searched, nothing was found, and the officers all left, one vehicle at a time. Let’s be clear: I doubt the police would have chased the boys for no reason, and hostility was flying from all angles. The boys had apparently driven away when asked to stop, which led to them being chased to the safe-haven of the centre, which they shouldn’t have done. Why were they asked to stop? I don’t know for sure. Maybe they had a criminal history. Maybe the police had seen three black boys driving a shiny new hatchback and fancied their chances. The point is that whichever backdrop is true, it is impossible to deny that the number of police officers present was excessive. What’s more, the way they handled themselves as a group – disjointed and unapologetic – made the episode appear more like a demonstration of power than a proportional response.
If episodes like this are commonplace for black boys in Brixton, whereby a police force of almost exclusively white men act impulsively on their unqualified suspicions, it is no wonder Rory and I received raised eyebrows back in September. Or, to put it differently: if the only attention the boys receive from white men in the public sphere is from bullish figures of authority, who can blame them for assuming that we were from the same ilk?
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