Alfred Fagon was a Jamaican-born playwright who came to England in 1955 at the age of 18. He worked on the railways and joined the army, where he became a boxing champion. Leaving the army in 1962 to travel and sing calypso, Alfred settled in Bristol, learning the welding trade and starting to act part-time for HTV. He auditioned and starred in Mustapha Matura’s play Black Pieces in London in 1970 and would go on to become a playwright and a central figure of Black theatre.
Fagon’s play ‘Lonely Cowboy’ tells the story of English second-generation Jamaicans Flight and Gina, who open a new café in Brixton, London. The setting is the early 1980s: police sirens pass regularly. Flight wants to block out ‘music and back to Africa politics’, ‘ganja’ and ‘the front line’ and run a legitimate business, a place of sanctuary and a good life for him and his partner Gina.
One character in the play is of particular interest here: their friend Jack, who has joined the police. This is hard news to take for some who know him:
Wally: So Jack get posted back to Brixton. Still I have no business with no policeman whether I know him or not and on top of it Jack never throw a brick in the riot. The place [new café] look nice man. I could have been a successful business man myself if I did not get caught up in the riot. And now Jack is a policeman. One of our own blood.
Thelma: Stop worrying yourself about Jack.
Wally: No, I can’t. In days gone by, we used to sleep and eat in the same house. Our parents was friends when they were alive.
(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)
Later, Jack comes into the café for a drink: another character, Stanley enters. He is taken aback to see Jack standing there in uniform. Café owner Gina tells him to pull himself together:
Gina: Man, grow up, is only Jack, born and bred Brixton black man.
Stanley: No, well listen to me. I don’t know what to say. I mean one love to the brothers and sisters, but a black policeman is no rejoicement.
(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)
The play captures how individuals negotiate second-generation identity in the ‘mother country’. For some characters, Jack is a ‘traitor’ for joining the police and has essentially allowed himself to be co-opted by the British state. The audience can see how colonial experience continues to divide and rule.
Stanley: Every policeman is the same, whether they are black or white. You sell your birthright to the Englishman.
Jack: I am an Englishman. Boy oh boy you have chips, mountains and pressure on your shoulders.
Stanley: Yes, I know, why you is free as a bird.
(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)
Reading this play reminded me of a Guardian video I have used in teaching. In this 2013 clip, Metropolitan Police Constable Wallace discusses his experiences of being a Black officer. He presents a broadly positive picture but, if you pay close attention to this video, there are spoken excerpts and frame shots which demonstrate the challenges he faces, within and outside the force. Wallace says, “People ask me, ‘Why [as a Black man] am I a police officer?’, [well] why shouldn’t I be?” On 15 June 2020, a female police officer at the Metropolitan Police published a piece in the Guardian on her experience in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests. She writes:
As a black police officer, this has made my job difficult. Due to the complex political history between the police service and black Britain, officers of colour representing the Met are regularly targeted by these communities when out on patrol. I have seen and experienced slurs of “Here comes the black one”, “Coconut” (a racial slur meaning black on the outside yet white on the inside), “Trust them to roll out the black one for us” and jeers of “Uncle Tom”. I’ve been told repeatedly that I am “working for the white man”.
It is painful to acknowledge that this continues to be the experience of policing in 2020: it does not sound so far from the challenges and conflicted feelings facing Jack and his acquaintances in the Lonely Cowboy.
Co-incidentally, my current bed-time read is The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (1990, Faber and Faber). The book recounts the experiences of Karim, a mixed-heritage Indian and English teenager in the 1970s, who seeks to escape suburbia and ends up acting in theatre in London. On page 1, Karim introduces himself: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”. Kureishi himself joined the Royal Court at 18 and wrote a number of plays (as well as novels and screenplays). Likely, Hanif Kureishi and Alfred Fagon never met, but together they provide social histories of everyday racism and the challenges of being Black and Asian males in England; women face the compounding intersections of race and gender.
While the roots of the difficult relationship between police and Black and Asian communities in England stretch back before Peel established his bobbies in 1829, the post-war era is also critical in understanding contemporary tensions. For some commentators in the 1970s and 1980s, British policing of minority ethnic communities was an inversion of decades of colonial policing overseas to policing the ‘domestic colonies’ (Sivanandan, 1982; Fryer, 1984; Howe, 1988, cited in in Bowling, Parmar and Phillips, 2008, p.530). The Immigration Act 1971 extended such powers considerably and “began to shift the control of immigration from external border controls to internal controls, or ‘pass laws’ for people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent resident in Britain” (Sivanandan, 1982, p. 135, in Bowling, Parmar and Phillips, 2008, p.531). The Institute of Race Relations in 1979 published evidence that Black and Asian people were subject to persistent foot and vehicle stops, racially abusive questioning, arbitrary arrest, forced entry and violence, and provocative and unnecessary armed raids. (The IRR Black History Collection is an excellent resource for those interested in that period). In 1978, Stuart Hall and others published a seminal work entitled Policing the Crisis demonstrating how the media, politicians and criminal justice system engendered a moral panic about mugging, rooted in prejudiced associations between Black people and criminality. This meant that the Black community were subject to a hugely disproportionate level of policing. Public disorder in St Pauls in Bristol in 1980 and Brixton in 1981, followed the implementation of so-called ‘sus laws‘ and against a backdrop of recession and unemployment. This is the context of Fagon’s play. Injustices have continued over the following four decades, though some progress too has been made.
Media commentators talk about this being a potentially defining moment for race, but of course there is no single ‘moment’. In June 2020, Fagon’s statue in St Paul’s, Bristol, was defaced with acid following the Black Lives Matter protests. In any social movement, backlash is always lurking to counter and deplete the hopeful statements of today. Achieving real change requires constant vigilance. It is more and radical action that is needed: not extended reviews into the problem. The problems are long known.
As the female officer in the Guardian piece writes:
I love my job and always have. I joined the Met because I wanted to lead the way for children from my own community. These goals have been tainted by my experience so far. Here is an opportunity for the Met to self reflect. How does it treat its BAME staff? Why does the institutional racism identified in the Macpherson report continue to exist in 2020? And how will the Met better serve and mend its broken relationship with the black community in the months and years to come?
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.
Fagon, A., 1999. Plays [11 Josephine Place; The Death of a Black Man; Lonely Cowboy]. London: Oberon Books.