In the light of a forthcoming play, which imagines what life might have been like for Anthony Walker, the 18 year old student, who 15 years ago was brutally murdered, Phil Scraton returns to a radio script he wrote 14 years ago. Its argument resonates vividly and painfully down the years.
Anthony: A Drama by Jimmy McGovern BBC 1 8.30pm 27 July 2020
For several years I wrote and presented a scripted radio broadcast for Féile Radio in Belfast. Seven each a year, 90 minutes long, the script interspersed with music. What follows is the final section from the programme: The Roots of Race Hate broadcast in 2006. The programme opened with my experiences of working with the Irish Traveller Community on Everton Brow, Liverpool in the 1970s. In this extract I mentioned the murder of Anthony Walker:
‘At the beginning of this programme I recounted my experience of visiting Walsall in the aftermath of an unlawful eviction in which three young Irish Traveller children died. They were trapped inside a burning trailer dragged from its jacks by bailiffs.
At the time I struggled with unanswered questions:
• under whose authority could a local authority, using private bailiffs supported by the police, recklessly evict Traveller families in the dead of night, killing their children in the process?
• what kind of supposedly democratic, pluralist state – national and local – would sanction such acts of brutality?
• what kind of investigative system would deny that a grave crime had taken place?
• why was there no expression of public outrage, no media concern, no political condemnation?
• what kind of inquisitorial system would return verdicts of accidental death?
• why was academic research uninterested in researching and recording the experiences of Gypsies and Travellers?
Alongside these six key questions was what I called the Henry Reynolds’ question. Gypsies and Travellers had endured violent repression for generations. Why weren’t we told? As an active anti-racist, why didn’t I know?
In a typically lucid, moving and considered commentary on Rwanda the Irish journalist, Fergal Keane looks down from a bridge and sees two bodies, man and baby, caught in the rocks to the side of the river. He writes:
‘I saw that the child had been killed with a machete, a gash across its skull. It did not seem like a real child. It looked like a doll. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say I did not want to accept that it was a child. I looked again and of course knew that further back along the river, perhaps fifty to one hundred miles further back, an adult had taken a knife and ended the life of this child and then hurled it into the water … I kept my eyes closed and gripping the rails of the bridge made my way back to the car in the manner of a blind man. I did not want to look back at the river, to see it ever again. And on the journey north to Kigali where the war still raged, I kept asking myself the same question: ‘what kind of a man would kill a baby. What kind of a man?’
Keane goes on to talk of genocide, of how in Africa ‘we almost invariably explain such a slaughter as a matter of tribalism’. Naively, he continues:
‘A crazy African thing. A horror somehow mitigated by the knowledge that Africans have always been prone to this kind of behaviour. Genocide prompted by implacable and ancient tribal antagonisms.’ Like many of his fellow journalists and photographers Keane had arrived in the midst of recurring massacre and migration. There was no shared consciousness of the ravages of colonial rule and the exploitation of cultural differences.He says, ‘I drove in from Uganda believing that the short stocky ones had simply decided to turn on the tall thin ones because that was the way it always had been.’
Scratch below the surface of this genocide and you find not a simple issue of tribal hatreds but a complex web of politics, economics, history, psychology and a struggle for identity. Two years later, following his personal quest to understand the consequences of the brutal colonisation of Africa by competing European States and the protracted and bloody struggle for independence, Keane returned to his initial question, ‘What kind of man?’ he responds:
‘I think the answer is very different. What kind of man? Anyone, anyone at all. Not a psychopath, Not a natural born killer. A man born without prejudice or hatred … but a man who has learned hatred. A man like you and me.’
My research into deaths in custody in England reveals the depth of racism within the state and its institutions. Throughout the 1990s, custody deaths leading to unlawful killing or neglect verdicts at inquests represented the sharp end of the continuum of state violence directed towards Black people.
While brutality knows no hierarchy, the killing of Joy Gardner in July 1993, by officers of the Metropolitan Police extradition unit, exemplifies the impunity with which physical force can be directed towards those who resist arrest. She was bound with tape, her mouth gagged, dying of suffocation. Following her death it became apparent that black people featured disproportionately in the numbers of controversial deaths in custody. Oluwashiji Lapite, Brian Douglas, Leon Patterson, Wayne Douglas, Ibrahim Sey, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Sarah Thomas, Alton Manning and Kenneth Severin became familiar names mourned within Britain’s Black communities. Each died in custody, their families alleging neglect or brutality
As inquest verdicts of unlawful killing began to stack up, actively pursued by INQUEST, the United Nations Committee Against Torture produced a report on its extensive UK investigation into custody deaths. It concluded that a significant cause for concern was ‘the number of deaths in police custody and the apparent failure by the state party (UK) to provide an effective investigative mechanism to deal with allegations of police and prison authorities’ abuse’. Soon after this report was published the Police Complaints Authority stated that the police ‘have to ask themselves whether they are treating black and ethnic minority people as well as they would white people’. Coming in the wake of reassurances from all criminal justice agencies and the Home Office that the Macpherson Report’s recommendations had been implemented effectively, this was a significant indictment of police policy and practice.
In March 2000 the killing of Zahid Mubarek by his racist cell-mate in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution was a clear illustration of how, within an institution, racism can be ignored or even encouraged. Stops and searches, house raids and wrongful arrests, internment without trial and so on, together add to the experience of vulnerability in communities where institutionalised racism has a long and established history. Racism on the street draws support, even legitimacy, from institutionalised racism.
Anthony Walker died in Huyton, Liverpool just over a year ago. With his cousin, he walked his girlfriend to a bus stop. For no other reason than the colour of his skin he was on the receiving end of a torrent of racial abuse from a young man outside a pub. Frightened, the three walked quickly through the local park to another bus stop. But the racist and his mates jumped in a car and ambushed the three as they left the park. Anthony was left with an axe in his head. He died several hours later. In a climate of hate, to be different is enough to be a target.
To be Black or Asian, is to be other, to be an outsider. With racist attacks throughout England and Wales up six fold, in the current climate the deep seated racism that is Empire’s legacy has once again risen to the surface. And racist attacks are a regular feature of daily life throughout the island of Ireland. Abuse and assaults on the street, people firebombed from their homes, mosques and shrines desecrated. It is a climate of hate that emphasises already existing inequalities in a society that promotes the pretence of multiculturalism.
Working class Black and Asian communities understand all too well the meaning of economic marginalisation and social exclusion. They also understand the historical context of imperialism that treated their ancestors and their homelands as places to conquer, to enslave and to own.
And so it is with Travellers. Like Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker, Johnny Delaney was killed by racists in Ellesmere Port in 2003. Johnny was 15 and lived with his family on the Travellers’ site in Liverpool. He was attacked by a group of youths on a playing field. Knocked to the ground he was repeatedly kicked and one of his attackers stamped on his head with both feet. He said Johnny deserved the kicking ‘because he was only a fucking gypsy’. To his family and to witnesses the attack was undoubtedly racist. The Cheshire police investigated it as racially motivated. Two 16 year old boys were prosecuted for the killing. The judge, however, ruled that there was no racial motive for the attack. The boys were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four and a half years.
Johnny’s father and mother, Patrick and Winifred, campaigned tirelessly to have the killing recognised as racist. The real concern remains that because Johnny was neither Black nor Asian his death could not be classed as racially motivated. Yet it is difficult to appreciate how the killing could be considered anything but the ultimate act of race hatred. The trial judge’s ruling exemplified how easy it is to take racism out of context, to remove it from the equation, thus denying its ever-present and all-pervasive reality.
Hate knows no hierarchy. Yet Gypsies, and Irish Travellers in particular, remain the most vilified of all ‘ethnic’ groups. They exist at the sharp end of the continuum of institutional and interpersonal racism. In the media they endure levels of racist abuse and stereotyping that would lead to immediate censure if directed against any other ethnic group.
Earlier this year Patrick Delaney died, campaigning to his last breath for justice and rights for Gypsies and Travellers. In the tributes to his work one stood out:
Patrick took every opportunity to challenge the inequalities that Gypsies and Travellers experience in the criminal justice system. He was destroyed by the lack of justice to such an extent that it killed him.
In understanding racist or sectarian violence and murder, the long history of colonial rule and the power it dispersed to its beneficiaries, at home as well as abroad, is central. Its legacy is racism, its currency is hatred and its consequences implicate us all.’