“To them I’m just another little n----r,” the young man told me matter-of-factly. It was a few months after the 2011 riots in England, and I was part of a research team interviewing some of the 3,000 young rioters who had been arrested, summarily convicted, imprisoned, tagged and released.
We were trying to analyse the explosion of violent disorder – several days of looting and burning that followed the police killing of an unarmed black man. We looked for patterns to see if there was a common thread of motivation.
Nearly 80 per cent of interviewees were aged ten to 25 and 70 per cent were non-white. Colloquially-speaking: “The yout’ dem.”
The most significant factor, common in nearly every interview, was anger and frustration at the way they were routinely treated by the police.
But lying deeper within that was the idea that the police are merely the physical embodiment and enforcers of a larger oppression: authority, the establishment, bosses, politicians, prisons, racism.
Kirk, the young man I quoted at the start, felt it everywhere, every day. In shops, on public transport and especially in places he felt he didn’t belong, like museums or fancy restaurants.
“I never feel like this is my home really,” he said. “If they wanted to move us out quickly they could, it’s their land at the end of the day.”
The appalling behaviour of the UK Government in allegedly deporting Windrush generation black Brits has made those words – at the time unthinkable to me – chillingly real.
The riots were an eye-opener. They exposed a hidden, unspoken divide at the heart of British society. A class divide, mostly, but race is inherent within the class structure and the two things intersect and magnify each other.
But the rioters were quickly dismissed as opportunists. The cracks were neatly papered over, London “came together” and we carried on enthusiastically gentrifying the communities, as though lattes and loft extensions could expunge racial tension.
Last summer, the anger resurfaced after Grenfell. This year, stabbings and shootings have spiked dramatically in London.
The deportations will further affect race relations.
While it is men in uniforms taking people to the detention centres, behind those uniforms is a mandate from Theresa May’s callous anti-immigration policy.
In my lifetime I thought I had seen a shift away from racism in Britain. The murder of Stephen Lawrence by racist thugs 25 years ago today and the labelling of the police as “institutionally racist” after their corrupt investigation, preceded a national condemnation of racism. It would no longer be accepted in British society, I felt certain. Recent events have disabused me of that notion.
The message I am receiving is that it’s okay to be racist again.
Is Britain in fact any more tolerant than Trump’s America? Were those post-Stephen Lawrence years, the Blair era of equal opportunity, just a politically correct surface change? Have black voices been ignored and black lives devalued all the while?
It’s easy in Britain to not hear black people. The generation who sailed from the Caribbean as citizens of the British empire have behaved as polite guests invited over to somebody else’s house. Younger generations’ protestations over injustices done to them in the job market, housing, social services, the judicial system and even healthcare are routinely overlooked. I recently used the word “voiceless” to describe vulnerable minority groups, and was told there is also such a concept as “deafness.” A reluctance to hear.
While Theresa May cannot be accused of deafness when ordering crackdowns on immigration – she was simply reading the mood of an increasingly insular nation and winning votes – she was deaf, as she now admits, to the voices of immigrants themselves. Individual’s family lives are not just statistics to be checked off a spreadsheet.
When Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union, a third of black and Asian voters were among those who voted to leave. They were seduced by Brexiteer promises that the Commonwealth would once again have priority. Already, before Brexit has even happened, they must realise how horribly cheated they have been.
UK Home Office figures show that seven people were enforcedly removed to Trinidad between 2014 and 2016. Whether they arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971 (the period when many were invited to help rebuild that struggling post-war nation) is unclear. Who knows where they are? My requests for information here in Trinidad remained unanswered at the time of writing.
The figure is far fewer than the 169 deported to Jamaica. But with Rowley in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week, one would have thought that establishing exactly how many Trinidadians may have been wrongly deported, and seeking an urgent review of those cases, ought to have been high on the agenda for his ministers back home.