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Talking Blues - the black community speaks about its relationship with the police

Talking Blues, published by the Handsworth-based organisation AFFOR in 1978, was a collection of transcribed interviews about relations between the black community, and particularly young black people, and the police.

Below is the Introduction, by Clare Short, who was at the time the Director of AFFOR.

You can download the whole booklet, in PDF format, here.


OUR aim in publishing this collection of interviews is to attempt to communicate to a wider audience the experiences, frustrations and sense of bitter injustice of young black people concerning police behaviour.

We are, of course, aware that complaints about police behaviour are not confined to young black people, but the extent and depth of the feeling of injustice expressed in these interviews is a reflection of a problem of quite different proportions than any normal distrust of the police amongst the young.

Our aim is not to 'knock' the police. The interviews reproduced in this study make clear that the cause of this frustration goes beyond police behaviour to lack of jobs, inadequacies in the education system and, most deeply, to a feeling that this society is incapable of accepting young black people as full citizens. Those who are in touch with them will know how truly representative are the attitudes and opinions expressed. Our hope is that those who do not know will open their minds to the message contained in the interviews.

The message is quite simply that our society is failing savagely to respect its young black citizens and that something must be done and done urgently to improve the situation.

Action is needed in the schools and to provide jobs and housing, but the flashpoint is the relationship between the police and black youth. It would be quite wrong, after reading these interviews, to blame the police for all that is wrong. But it would be very foolish indeed not to accept that there is an urgent need for improvement in police attitudes and behaviour.

The interviews were collected in the Birmingham area. Since we began work on this report, statistics have become available concerning the extent of crime in Handsworth (one of the major areas of West Indian settlement in Birmingham). We know that the police sub-division which includes Handsworth has one of the lowest levels of recorded crime in the West Midlands - tenth out of twelve police sub-divisions - and is the only area with a fall in recorded crime in 1977.

We also know that police in Handsworth estimate that less than two per cent of the West Indian population are involved in crimes against people and property.* Yet almost all young West Indians live with a constant fear of being stopped and questioned by the police and have little expectation of just treatment; and most West Indian parents fear that their children, whenever they go out in the evening, may find themselves in conflict with the police.

When one talks to senior police officers about this question, they make the point that the police can be no better than the society from which they are drawn. They argue that because racist attitudes are widespread in our society, it follows that they will be reflected in the police force. This is of course true and many of the kids who were interviewed made the point that the police are no more than representatives of a racist society. Nevertheless the matter cannot rest there. Powers of leadership, education and discipline must be brought into play to improve quickly and radically the attitudes of the police to young black people.

I should make it clear that we are in no sense suggesting that the police of Birmingham or Handsworth are in any way unusual. Our survey was conducted in Birmingham because that is where we are based but the problem is the same in Brixton, Chapeltown and the rest of the country. Nor do we claim that each of the allegations made are true in every particular - we cannot know that. We hope that readers of the report will look to the overall message rather than seek to quarrel over particular details.

We cannot, of course, claim that the sample contained in this report is scientifically based. We set out to collect on tape, the views of a cross-section of young black people. A random sample, filling out a questionnaire could not have achieved this end. There are parts of human experience that cannot be communicated by scientific sampling. Nor did we have the resources for a massive survey.

We obtained a small grant to produce the report and employed, on a part-time basis, a West Indian bus driver to collect most of the interviews. He went out with his tape-recorder to coffee bars and youth clubs and asked young West Indians to speak of their experiences. He did not prompt the interviewees in any way. He explained that we were conducting a survey on the attitudes of young blacks to the police and asked them to speak in their own words of their experiences. He told them that he would not interrupt and then handed over the tape-recorder to the individual concerned.

The material collected was then painstakingly transcribed and finally edited. The editing sought to be as true to the original material as it was possible to be. We cut out repetitive paragraphs and some very long stories, in the belief that we could not otherwise hold the attention of our readers. We have not selected the material that we reproduce in order to fit any ideas of our own. We attempted to keep the sample balanced by going out of our way to interview some successful and highly qualified young people so that there was no possibility that the views expressed represented only the outlook of the unemployed and alienated. We were ourselves surprised to find how universal the feeling of rejection was.

We also decided to include some interviews with priests and parents. The interviews with Church Ministers involved in youth work with young West Indians would, we thought, be of interest because they came from an almost unimpeachable source. They are not as forceful, eloquent and impatient as the words of the young blacks themselves but they do support the thesis that something is deeply wrong.

The interviews with parents are limited in that number and therefore more easily open to the accusation that they are not representative. We nevertheless thought some should be included. The interviews with the parents from the Tenasicod Order of the Morning Star represent the sector of black parental opinion that tends to blame the young people themselves for their troubles.

I cannot end this short preface without some words of thanks to all who have been involved in this project. The report may not be voluminous but it has involved a lot of very painstaking work. It would have been much easier to employ an individual to produce a subjective report but our whole aim was to let the people involved speak for themselves. Special thanks are due to Carlton Green who collected most of the interviews, Marcia Stewart who did most of the transcribing, helped by Cina Corcoran, and Derek Bishton and Brian Homer who took on the onerous task of editing and ordering the material.

I'd like to end by quoting the words of Lambuston:

"... We would like to show you the way we feel, how the black man feel from the black man point of view... and I hope say that this show dem say we can't take much more 'cause is too much really. I hope after they read this report they do something fi try to improve the relationship between black and white, especially between black youths and police before any war and things. We can't stand this oppression any more, we can't stand this pressure..."

March 1978

* Shades of Grey - John Brown (Cranfield Institute of Technology).

Talking Blues was first published in 1978 by AFFOR, 173 LozelIs Road, LozelIs, Birmingham B19 1RN, and reprinted 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982.

Edited by Derek Bishton and Brian Homer. Patois edited by Phil Nanton. Additional material by Danzie Stewart. Interviews compiled by Carlton Green. Transcribed by Marcia Stewart and Cina Corcoran. Photos by John Reardon, Derek Bishton and Brian Homer.

Download the whole booklet in PDF format.