The Policing of Black Youth Projects: From Broadwater Farm to the Present

This article originally appeared in the Institute for Race Relations:

Jessica Pandian examines the historic policing of Black youth projects in London, from the seventies to the present day, and associated community resistance. 

Black Lives Matter has highlighted the over-policing of Black British youth. And Black History Month provides the ideal opportunity for an exercise in historical retrieval. Drawing on an interview with veteran Tottenham campaigner Stafford Scott, observations at BLM protests, and historic cases of the policing of the Notting Hill Metro Youth Club in the 1970s and the Broadwater Farm Youth Association in the 1980s, the author reflects on the parallels and continuities between past and present. Ultimately, this piece reveals a lesser-known, but lengthy history of the Metropolitan Police Service targeting Black youth projects.

On Friday 7 August 2020, in a sweltering 36-degree heat, The 4front Project, a member-led youth project, were busy at their base at Grahame Park Estate, north-west London, a day before a peaceful protest against the over-policing of Black communities was due to take place in Tottenham. However, at 2.40 pm police officers carried out a stop and search on a 14-year-old boy on the estate – and then arrested him.

According to 4Front, young people from the estate alerted 4front staff of the arrest. 4Front say that they then attempted to engage with officers so as to determine the reason for arrest, but that officers refused to engage. Young people and 4Front members proceeded to sit in the road and block the police vehicle, and police summoned further police units.

Eyewitnesses say these police units were the Territorial Support Group (TSG). What happened next is subject to fierce debate, but a further two people, two 4Front youth workers, were arrested on suspicion of obstruction of a constable. The police vehicle left the scene. A group of approximately 30 – 40 people from the estate followed the police on foot to Colindale Police Station where they demanded the release of the arrested individuals. A section 35 dispersal order was put into place, and further officers were called to disperse the crowd. Another 19-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer. Later that day, the police released all four individuals from police custody under investigation.

Genealogies of police racism When referring to histories of police brutality in London, the iconic case of The Mangrove, a vibrant Black Caribbean restaurant which was repeatedly raided from 1968 to 1988, is often cited – which, whilst undeniably important, needs to be contextualised in the deliberate police targeting of other distinct Black spaces.

In fact, in the same time-frame the police targeted The Mangrove, Black youth projects across London were attacked with the same oppressive tactics. This piece will uncover the lesser-known, but lengthy history of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) targeting, swamping, and raiding Black youth projects. By digging deep into past layers of police violence against Black youth projects, we might become more attentive to the contemporary targeting of Black youth projects and begin to imagine the future relationship between the MPS and Black youth projects[1].

Specialised Units: against the people In the case of Notting Hill’s Metro Youth Club, the police besieged the premises in 1971 on the pretext that a Black youth who had committed robbery had escaped into the club. The way in which the alleged presence of a Black robber rationalised the police’s attempt to search the Metro Club, and when the Black youth resisted, to enlist the Special Patrol Group (SPG) who assailed the West Indian youth inside and arrested 16 of them – encapsulated the zeitgeist, as it was during the seventies that the state and the media worked in tandem to create a racialised moral panic over street crime in order to legitimise the aggressive policing of Black communities. By the mid-1970s, this had morphed into the generic folk devil of the ‘mugger’, with the critical point arising in 1973 when Paul Storey, a 16-year-old youth from Handsworth, was sentenced to twenty years for stealing five cigarettes and 30p.

The deployment of the SPG, a centrally-based mobile force, equipped with riot gear and firearms, the ostensible purpose of which was to police serious public disorder and crime, to the Metro Club was also a sign of the times. The constructed crisis of Black street crime had facilitated the mobilisation of SPG vans and cars en masse into Black communities where they regularly orchestrated raids on their public and private spaces; performed mass stop and search campaigns; and utilised violence against them. Two of the highest-profile examples of the SPG engaging in such tactics were during the 1979 Southall Protests and Operation Swamp 1981.

In the year of ‘Swamp 81’, localised public order units were also created. Named Instant Response Units, these units emerged onto the streets and accompanied the SPG in their crusade against Black people. And so, when a crowd of residents at Broadwater Farm Estate gathered outside Tottenham Police Station in 1982 to protest the arrest of a member of the Estate’s Youth Association for burglary – it was the Instant Response Unit who saw the crowd, attacked the demonstration and arrested four members of the Youth Association.

Council estates as the frontline The targeting of Broadwater Farm Youth Association in 1982 was emblematic of how council estates, where a great proportion of the Black population lived, and which were portrayed as cesspits of Black gangsterism and drug-trafficking, began to be singled out for aggressive policing. The transparency of this exercise lay in the way that the MPS drew up a list of 20 ‘target’ estates in 1986, categorising them from ‘high’ to ‘low’ risk based on criteria such as an estate’s ‘ethnic mix’ and the perceived severity of gang conflict. Broadwater Farm Estate was classified as ‘high’ risk. This concentrated operation fitted into a broader spatialised police project, whereby areas with a high BME population such as Tottenham were designated as ‘high crime’ areas, which intensified police presence in these areas[2].

Broadwater Farm Estate Photo source: geograph Photo credit: Marathon (adapted from original)

Into the present, the police have sustained theirspatialised version of racial profilingby continuing to target council estates. The racially discriminatory cartographic practices of the eighties live on today through the MPS mapping of ‘gang-territories’, which are layered onto council estates in areas with dense BME populations, such as in Haringey. Meanwhile, the Territorial Support Group (TSG), which replaced the SPG and IRU, has kept alive the legacy of its predecessors by operating in ‘hotspots’,inferredas those with serious levels of gang-related violence – i.e., in working-class BME spaces, such as council estates.

On top of this, the MPS has created new units to target gang-related violence and knife-crime. When, in September 2018, London mayor Sadiq Khan established aViolence Reduction Unit (VRU) at City Hall, he promised that it wouldwork alongside police enforcement, in particular with theViolent Crime Taskforce, also funded by City Hall, with an annual budget of £15 million and 272 officers in 2018. The VRU, which draws on the Scottish public health model which treats crime as a disease, is a ‘multi-agency’ initiative, involving partnership between The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, community organisations, and health and education sectors, with the aim of diverting young people from criminal activity. Moreover, the VRU adopts a ‘hyper-local, place-based’ approach – explicitly mentioning ‘housing estates’. Outwardly, the VRU may appear to be a holistic endeavour, but in the context of historic police aggression against Black communities; it represents the percolation of racist policing into all aspects of life in BME areas. Meanwhile, the Violent Crime Taskforce, which was established in April 2018 to fight knife crime and ‘serious criminality’, is all about police enforcement. Furthermore, the latest addition to the MPS’s specialised units –Violence Suppression Units(VSU) –  the appearance of which on the streets of London coincides with the Coronavirus Act 2020, injects intense police activity into 250 of London’s ‘microbeats’: areas identified as ‘