Like Dawn Butler, I know what it’s like to be stopped by police

·4-min read
Labour MP Dawn Butler has accuse police of racially profiling her after she was stopped by officers while in a car
Labour MP Dawn Butler has accuse police of racially profiling her after she was stopped by officers while in a car

When I read that the MP Dawn Butler had been pulled over by police at the weekend, I sadly wasn’t surprised. The Labour politician was driving to lunch in Hackney, east London, when she and a friend were stopped by Metropolitan Police officers for, she says, driving a “nice car”.  

“There is an institutional racism in the police, we know that, and it needs to be taken out,” she later said. “It is just tiring and exhausting and mentally draining… It makes you realise that there’s something really not right with the system."

Growing up, I saw my black family members and friends harassed by the police in a way that their white counterparts were not. And seven years ago, when I was 18, I was stopped by a police van myself for the first time. It was evening, and I was driving with my black boyfriend, in London. Suddenly, we were surrounded by officers. I answered their questions and agreed they could search my car, even though we had done nothing wrong.

Eventually, they let us go. But it was terrifying. I’d travelled in the area many times with white friends and never been stopped. It seemed obvious what the difference was. Instead of feeling protected by the police, I now felt I needed protection from them.

Make no mistake, being stopped and searched is humiliating. It sent a clear message to me that black people are treated differently. It was a feeling that had been growing for some time – ever since my childhood friend, Ayo, was stabbed to death. After his killers were convicted, I started paying attention to other similar trials, and I realised just how stark the divide in the legal system is – with people like me mostly in the dock, and white people mostly wearing the gowns. It made me want to become a barrister and help change things.

That divide was reinforced when I went to Oxford, and was the only black person in my year. One fellow student made a toast at a formal dinner to anyone who “only got into Oxford because they are black”. I already felt like an imposter and the thought that everyone saw me as a ‘token’ was difficult to shake.

When I graduated and joined the Bar, that fear followed me: that people would overlook my achievements and assume I was only there because of the colour of my skin. I’ve had other barristers joke that I’m great for boosting diversity because I’m both female and black – comments that have made me question my place here. A few times, while waiting to enter court, I have been mistaken for the defendant. I know how Dawn Butler must feel.

The latest statistics show that the rate of stop and search for black people in the UK is 38 per 1,000 people, compared to four per 1,000 white people. Last month – after black British athlete Bianca Williams and her partner were pulled from their car and handcuffed in front of their three-month-old son – the Met Police referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is investigating whether officers in England and Wales racially discriminate against ethnic minority people.

But this sort of thing has been going on for decades. In 1982, my Uncle, a Rastafarian man confined to a wheelchair, and Aunty, were stopped by five Met officers who said they suspected my uncle of possessing drugs. While my aunt pleaded with them to stop, the officers dragged him from his car, pulling his dreadlocks, and threw him in the back of their van. There, he was physically assaulted and subjected to racist abuse. My aunt was made to strip naked, and jump up and down. They took action against the police for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The case was heard in the Old Bailey and the judge ruled in their favour. But it had a lasting impact on our family, leaving both my uncle and aunt traumatised and distrustful.

Such negative relationships between black people and the police can often lead to a distrust of other authorities, such as the courts and – among black defendants – their own lawyers, who they may deem to be part of the ‘establishment’.

That goes for judges, too – of whom just 1.1 per cent in Britain are black. I have been working in court almost every day since October 2018 and have never seen a black male judge. I vividly remember the first time I saw a black female judge. It felt overwhelming, so rare is it to see anyone who looks like me at the top of my profession.

Such role models are key to reinforcing that ‘people like me’ can achieve our goals. It’s why I recently founded the Black Women In Law network. Many of us feel that being black has made our journey more challenging. But we are determined to make the climb easier for those who follow in our footsteps – otherwise incidents like the one Dawn Butler experienced may never go away.

In Black and White by Alexandra Wilson (RRP £16.99). Buy now for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514