Monarchy in the UK: how White power does its thing

“Master, you eated me when I was meat, and now you must pick me when I am bone” (Anonymous Canadian slave, 18th century, reported in Patterson 1982, p. 338)

It was sobering to come across this very recent news item concerning a guest at a reception at Buckingham Palace being racially abused by a ‘Lady of the king’s household’, one Sarah Hussey, a godmother to William Windsor, the king’s son; and as it goes the widow of old Marmaduke – ever a name to conjure with – who used to be Chair of the British Broadcasting Corporation, way back and long before I built me a barrel to barf in.

Now, I don’t want to pile in upon, brandish my stick at or in any other wise throw  self-righteous stones at Lady Sarah, properly vertiginous as has been her fall. She definitely doesn’t get a free pass, but I am solemnly conscious that there are people much closer to me than her who might also not have shone on such an occasion. The thing to do, I believe, is not to locate racism in the even-more-privileged other, but to work all the harder to uproot it in oneself.

Ngozi Fulani, the founder of Sistah Space, who was the person abused, has indeed very aptly pointed out that what is clearly needed over at the palace is some cultural competency training, rather than (yet more) scapegoating – and so there we will leave the matter – except to say that here is a link to the Sistah Space website if you would like to find out how to support their very important work.

I begin with the incident at the palace, though, not for what might be inferred about any particular person who is part of the failing institution that is monarchy in the UK, but rather for what might be said about the institution itself – and about the White power that it propagates.

The story particularly caught my eye because, now that we have us a ‘Charles III’ on the throne of this country, my mind has kept going back to what was wrought by his forebear Charles II (and that ‘merrie monarch’’s brother the Duke of York, later James II). I then wonder what might be said about the period of world history that runs (on an admittedly parochial view!) between those two right Charlies: from the Restoration of the Monarchy (and the accession of Charles II to the throne of England, Scotland and Wales) in May 1660, up to and beyond the succession of Charles III (to the throne of the United Kingdom, and of those other ‘Commonwealth’ countries that still for various reasons bow the knee) this last September.


Charles Stuart, exiled in Europe after being defeated by Cromwell in 1651 – and via many a jolly jape (dressing up as a servant, can you imagine?) as he escaped England and the fate that befell his father Charles I – lived off of the hospitality and generosity of his fellow monarchs for the rest of that decade, nursing his grievance and plotting his revenge, in France and then in Spain.

Perhaps part of the whole appeal of kingship, if you are professionally speaking a scion of a royal family between gigs, is first of all payback and, immediately following, nest-feathering. Certainly the very second thing that happened after Charles claimed back his father’s throne (and had those responsible for his father’s execution hung, drawn and quartered) was the Chartering in 1660 of the Royal Company of Adventurers Trading into Africa, afterwards known as the Royal African Company. Adventurers, indeed! James Stuart, Duke of York, was the company’s primary shareholder. Initially it traded in Ghanaian gold; but it was also an official instrument of State policy of taking control of the slave trade and excluding other European powers, at that time especially the Dutch, from its lucrative profits.

Bear in mind that ‘the scramble for Africa’ of mid to late Victorian times is yet two centuries into the future. The Portuguese had started taking sub-Saharan African people into slavery in the second half of the fifteenth century (armed with the blessing of, and a guarantee of immunity issued by, Pope Nicholas V, who decreed that any and all “Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be” might be reduced to ‘perpetual servitude’). But by the 1660s, the presence in the African continent of White European invaders is still limited to a hotch-potch of coastal forts and outposts, regularly changing hands as the next particular Power-of-the-day would come along to claim and gain the ascendancy.

The English muscled their way into the slave trade in the second half of the sixteenth century, after Henry VIII’s excommunication in 1538 had rendered irrelevant the continuing Papal protection of the Portuguese; and by the first quarter of the seventeenth century the demand for unpaid labour in the sugar plantations of Britain’s new Caribbean colonies had generated a sustainable ‘market’ for slaves. However, it was only when the Stuart family got in on the act that the violence and plunder began to escalate.

Here, if you don’t believe me, is the Company’s coat of arms, which rather says it all. Its Latin motto, incidentally, translates as “By royal patronage commerce flourishes, by commerce the realm”; or, to put more directly, “we expect a free pass, for we are only in it for love of country, and there’s gain for you all and plenty, if you turn a blind eye, o citizens of Thebes”. That there were no illusions, about who authorised this trade and who were the primary stakeholders, is evidenced by a contemporaneous reference to the ‘Barbary Company’ in Samuel Pepys’ diary.

From 1663 the Royal African Company’s renewed charter not only specified that slaves were part of its stock in trade but, according to the custom of those days, it explicitly claimed monopoly in that trade. By the 1670s the Stuarts had formalised the ‘triangular’ slave trade. Ships loaded with goods for trade sailed from England to Africa; captured and abducted slaves were transported to the West Indies (this was the ‘middle passage’); and plantation produce (more plunder) was then shipped to England – thus generating yet more wealth and profit, and new goods a-plenty to be traded abroad.

The Stuarts in the end didn’t profit quite as much as they no doubt had hoped, as that piratical royal ‘Company of Adventurers’ were in turn displaced by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The slave trade as dominated by the English/the British in fact only really boomed after the Royal Family relinquished its monopoly in 1689. Nonetheless, between 1672 and 1731 the Royal African Company transported more than 187,000 slaves to the Americas (or towards the Americas: nearly 40,000 of these died en route).

The Company thereby violently displaced more human beings than any other single entity in the whole abominable history of the Transatlantic slave trade. Many of those 5,000-yearly people transported in the 1680s were branded on the face with the letters DoY (for Duke of York) or on the chest with the initials of the Company (RAC). The wealth generated and plundered by the triangular slave trade that the Stuarts inaugurated would kick-start the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and power the might of British imperialism into the nineteenth century and beyond.


This prolonged and terrible violence is a story that cannot be told often enough. It will be familiar to many if not most readers. However, I must also acknowledge that anyone with access to Google and a smattering of British history for background and context could put together a similar account – and I must also go no further without owning my own positionality as a White man and property-owner who is beneficiary if not accessory after the fact of this colossal criminality.

As I have already commented, neither is it open to me to attempt to project racism into the Other: it is mine for the owning. Anti-racism begins at home. So I must say now why this story needs this, my particular re-telling. The thing I want to do here is look at the history specifically as a history of White power and Whiteness: how it operates; how it propagates and reproduces itself.

Fear and disparagement or demonisation of the Other is as ancient an aspect of human history as the first forming of humans into social groupings. However, racism is a distinctively modern strain of ideology. The concept of ‘race’ came into being among the White colonial powers of Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century, at around the time of the Enlightenment – and the reign of the Stuarts. Racism launches and lands as ideology as part of the social, economic and political and philosophical processes that also birthed secularism and liberalism, industrialism and imperialism.

The historical moment in which racism, in what would become the modern sense (Audre Lorde defined racism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (2007, p. 45)), is first enshrined in law arrives with the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 (the year after the Restoration). This piece of legislation, formally known as ‘An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes’, came into being because the White planters felt the need to scaffold their violent exploitation of their enslaved workforce with a legal framework. It was this document, not so much ruthless as pre-ruth in its conception, that established the legal status of slaves as ‘chattel’ of their masters (as the great Angela Davis noted, constructed as “a herd of subhuman labor units” (1981, p. 12)).

In order to profit to such an extent from treating human beings like cattle, it became ‘necessary’ to establish in law an equation with cattle as the status of certain groupings of people. Racism was the ideological rock out of which this legal dungeon was hewn. It set a grim and gruesome precedent, template and augury for the legal codification of the violence of slavery in multiple other jurisdictions, including the American colonies.

By means of and consequent upon its spurious clustering of all Black bodies as ‘Negro’ and its outright denial of their humanity, the colonists, traders and slavers of multiple European nationalities came to construct themselves, in antithesis, as White and human:

“The Atlantic slave trade had taken Africans from numerous and widely differing cultures and ethnic groups and defined them en masse as ‘negroes’. Now the pioneers of English plantation slavery … ushered all Europeans, irrespective of their ethnic or social backgrounds, into the new category of ‘white’; a term that had to be explained to newly arriving Europeans who were unfamiliar with the working of the new slave society” (Olusoga 2016, p. 71)

‘Whiteness’ and ‘human-ness’ became a subliminal equation built into the molecular structure of modernity. WEB Du Bois famously observed that “[t]he discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing” (1903, p. 227). The emergence of skin colour as the imaginary determinant of identity and worth and the construction of Black-ness as equivalent to dangerousness, worthlessness and Other-ness (an inferior, ‘sub-human’ Other-ness) has led, among other disastrous consequences, to the emergence of a (mostly but not always) subliminally-held and (perpetually) self-reinforcing belief system built around the assumption of the ‘good’ of Whiteness.

The ideology of racism emerges out of slavery, but slavery pre-existed racism for millennia. Black people were not exposed to explicitly ‘racial’ prejudice until the British planters in the Caribbean required ideological justification for the slave trade and the plantation system it serviced and sustained. The construct of ‘race’ is the ideological creation of White people and Whiteness is an offshoot of ‘race’. Emergent white European capitalism and imperialism (and the profits to be made from sugar, cotton and tobacco if labour costs were minimised) begat the Atlantic slave trade; the slave trade (gradually) begat ‘race’; and ‘race’ begat ‘Whiteness’, which Guilaine Kinouani defines as “the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privileges of people racialized as White” (2019, p. 62)

Racism as an ideology is therefore not alien to, or outside of, or some aberrant offshoot of the emergence of modernity in the Global North: it is foundational and central to that historical process. Hiding in plain view amid the outpourings of hostility towards racially minoritized peoples is the elevation and idealisation of Whiteness and the White body, of White culture and aesthetics, dressed up as the ‘natural order of things’. The ‘bleaching’ or ‘White-washing’ – both representationally and conceptually – of the Brown bodies of both the Ancient Greeks and the historical Jesus and his disciples offers one example of how discourses and aesthetics of Whiteness continue to dominate thought and perception and practice in the Global North. Indeed, Orlando Patterson has chillingly pointed out that the very idea and ideal of ‘freedom’, so exalted and beloved in the West, emerged

“as a necessary consequence of the degradation of slavery and the effort to negate it. The first men and women to struggle for freedom … were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedmen” (1982, p. 342).


So, let’s ask: what is it that White people need, in order that Whiteness may continue to be propagated? The answer, my friend, is not so much ‘companies of adventurers’, though there have been plenty of those. What White people need is institutions: institutions steeped in Whiteness, dedicated to reproducing themselves, having survival as their primary task. The monarchy of this no-longer-really-very-United Kingdom is but one example of this phenomenon.

Every so often a sudden, fleeting cloud of consciousness scuds across the white-walled face of that institution. ‘Hang on a second’, the cloud seems to whisper, as – just for example – happens when a local charity is rewarded for its work with a reception at the palace: ‘isn’t it somehow our task to stop this sort of thing happening?’

Perhaps this fragment of awareness is what possessed Sarah Hussey to act into her given role in such disinhibited fashion the other evening. But it’s only by seeing that her words were not egregious in relation to their context that the institution she represents can be seen in a clear light: not as harmless, decorative, ossified, irrelevant, but rather as living and breathing and propagating, beating out its ancient and deadly rhythms with a steady hand and a constant pulse.

It won’t do to simply squeeze the zit, cover up the traces with a dab of foundation, carry on as per usual. It’s the internal toxins that need draining and cleansing and healing.


Much of the line of thought in this blog and some of the forms of words derive from my work with Chris Scanlon and in particular from Chapter Eight of our book together that came out earlier this year (Scanlon and Adlam 2022). I no longer know where my thought ends and Chris’s thought begins and I find that this is an experience to cherish rather than to worry about. But thank you, Chris!

Many thanks also to Leslie Brissett, whose conference presentation earlier this year caused something to ‘click’ inside me about Whiteness, and who put me on the trail of that old villain and war criminal, Pope Nicholas V.


Davis, A.Y. (1981) Women, race and class. Reprinted 2019. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903) The souls of Black folk; with ‘The talented tenth’ and ‘The souls of white folk’. Reprinted 2018. London: Penguin Classics.

Kinouani, G. (2019) ‘Difference, whiteness and the group analytic matrix: an integrated formulation’. Group Analysis 53(1), pp. 60-74.

Lorde, A. (1978) ‘Scratching the surface: some notes on barriers to women and loving’, in Lorde, A. and Boreano, N. (eds) Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 45-52.

Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten history. London: Pan Macmillan.

Patterson, O. (1982) Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Reprinted 2018. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, C. and Adlam, J. (2022) Psycho-social explorations of trauma, exclusion and violence: Un-housed minds and inhospitable environments. London: Routledge.

Practising ignorance – exercising restraint

“…ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. James Baldwin (1972)

The online Cambridge Dictionary records that the word ‘ignorant’ signifies not having enough knowledge, understanding, or information about something – and the online Collins English Dictionary adds the nuance that when we describe someone as ignorant, we mean that they do not know things which they should know.

I think I may therefore confidently echo James Baldwin in suggesting that ‘ignorance, allied with power’ may be understood to be embodied in the priapic figure of our present Premier when, politicking around the Home Counties with Priti Patel recently (as is his chilling wont), he prescribed membership of “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society” (Guardian 2021) for those convicted of ‘anti-social behaviour’ (no trace of irony there!).

In case this spot of racist dog-whistling was too shrill for human ears to detect, he also lit the gas on half a century of fraught community policing when, with his very next breath, he proclaimed that ‘stop and search’, that key instrument of racially-targeted State oppression in modern Britain, was “a kind and a loving thing to do”.

It’s always problematic engaging on any level with the proliferating populist poseurs that (over-)populate the public sphere in post-modernity. Best in some ways to let it all wash over us, pour ne pas encourager les autres. But I want to try to think and write in a clear-eyed way about ‘race’ and racism and I think that these prime ministerial pronouncements illuminate the mindset of a whole class. As it happens to be the ruling caste in this country, it’s worth paying attention. And because it is about ‘race’, silence from the likes of me very quickly tips over into collusion or endorsement.

In that press conference, chattel slavery in the American South of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as particularly extended through to the present day by the American penal system (in which more African Americans are incarcerated, than there were slaves in the United States in 1850 (Resler, 2019)) – is an historical phenomenon that is being referenced, but its true nature, its continuation by other means, and the identity and mindset of its perpetrators is being actively ignored.

Our protagonist, therefore, is being ignorant in the most violent possible way. He is indeed a candidate, as Baldwin warned, to be “the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. Furthermore, as Baldwin had previously observed, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (Baldwin [1963] 2017, pp. 43-44).


Because this particular paragon of our ruling ‘elite’ is such an admirer of Winston Churchill – that Colossus of Empire (in its (British) late period) and committed ideological adherent and proponent of racist imperialism, who in 1902 insisted that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and in 1955 proposed “Keep England White” as the Conservative Party’s electoral slogan (and so who undoubtedly would have nodded his head at that ‘chain gang’ dog whistle) – it is with the figure of Churchill that we may as well begin.

In Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (1998), reference is made (pp. 641-642) to an episode when Churchill was Home Secretary, in which he and his Parliamentary Private Secretary Edward Marsh “spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with a plaited birch”. There had been debate whether official adoption of this newly designed implement amounted to cruelty and so Churchill and Marsh had ‘done their duty’ by testing its efficacy. They are supposed, in Barker’s retelling of the tale, to have drawn the conclusion that “they’d had worse beatings at school” (Churchill’s experiences of being caned at Harrow are well-documented; the incident with Marsh is mentioned in Hassall (1959); Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary during World War Two, Brendan Bracken, set up his own secret summer school in the 1950s so that he could contrive to have himself regularly caned, in role as a 16 year old schoolboy who suffered from premature ageing).

Now, it is not my purpose here to practice ‘wild psycho-analysis’ at a distance, or to pry into private lives, even if some such details have come into the public domain; nor to be prurient or judgmental about sexual or sexualised practices in what were sexually repressive times. We might at most very gently and cautiously infer, at the human and individual level, that these are the survival strategies of tormented souls. Moreover, I too am a survivor of single-sex boarding schools: to declare an interest, and not to put myself above the fray. I too must atone for my own guilt by association with the racist ravages of Empire.

No: the context and rationale for having anything at all to say about the personal lives of such historical figures lies in their power and privilege in the public sphere and the relations of domination which they considered themselves entitled to pursue. What I want very simply to notice for now are two particular phenomena: the first of which is the pervasive quality and characteristic of cruelty – elevated almost to the status of a virtue, as in ‘it’s cruel to be kind’; ‘it will make a man of you’; and other more or less insidious bromides and banalities of that ilk.

(‘I went through it, and it didn’t do me any harm’ is another one of these sayings, and it reminds me that at the boarding school in which I was deposited, I was a member of the first intake after the practice of being required to act as personal servant to the older pupils had been abolished. This was certainly a matter of personal relief to me; and it also meant that I bore witness to the disappointment of those who arrived in the four years before me, who had the practice passed on down to them, but couldn’t ‘make it alright’ by passing it further on down the line (and therefore had to find other less structured ways and means to assert dominance).)

The second phenomenon I want to foreground is the practice and exercise of restraint.

I have in mind to make full use of the double meaning of this word. It was essential in these disciplinary institutions that one took one’s beating (from housemasters or from older ‘fellow’-pupils) with a ‘stiff upper lip’: one did not ‘blub’; cruelty was something to be bitten back and doubled down on. This is not self-restraint in the sense of that conventional social virtue associated with the Aristotelian ‘Golden Mean’. This is systematic ‘control and restraint’, deployed ruthlessly against the creative spontaneity of the self, in order to suppress any upsurge of human emotion and cut it off at the source.

The Duke of Wellington famously claimed, on behalf of his officer classes, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. His rank and file (those who survived) might have begged to differ. But we could perhaps argue that the great prizes of Victorian Empire – the power and reach of British dominion between the moment of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in Paris in December 1851 and Gavrilo Princip’s two well-aimed pistol shots in Sarajevo in June 1914 – were won behind closed doors, in places and spaces dedicated to ritual humiliation. Generation upon cold, repressed, brutalized generation were sent away by their parents to be restrained in disciplinary institutions where they learned to exercise (self-)restraint when cruelties were administered to self or other; thus were they ‘trained for Empire’ and then sent out from these schools, and these shores, to rule over their fellow human beings, for whom they had no fellow feeling (were perhaps not capable of entertaining such fellow feeling).

The ideology of Free Trade presented them with an overriding mission to profiteer and to plunder; the ideology of racism allowed them to consider that their subjects were not human beings at all; and the ideology of Christianity (as opposed to the teachings of Jesus) provided the figleaf of the ‘civilising’ project, to still any lingering qualms.

This was the Rule of Britannia.


Toni Morrison wrote about chain gangs and restraint in Beloved (1997): her furious, anguished, transcendental account of the trauma and the ghosts of slavery. A ‘chain gang’ (so ignorantly referenced in that prime ministerial photo opportunity), in the world of Beloved (pp. 125-130), means forty-six Black men caged in boxes like kennels or coffins (except that both dogs and the dead are housed in greater decency and comfort); the boxes lined up in a ditch dug five feet deep, five feet wide. Woken each morning to gunshots; uncaged and forced to pass a thousand foot of chain onward to each other through their ankle irons; forced to submit to sexual abuse from the guards before being marched to their long day’s sledgehammer toil in the quarry; sleeping, if sleep be found, in mud and floodwater, waiting for the bite of the cottonmouth.

This compass of cruelty beyond measure or comprehension is not literally what is being proposed today as Conservative policy; but it is what is being referenced. In case you doubt me, one notorious and flatly despicable scribe writing in The Sun (I won’t give him the recognition of an actual reference) in the immediate aftermath of that dog whistle suggested that these new ‘chain gangs’ in their new yellow jackets should be made to sing ‘Negro spirituals’: so that passers-by would be sure they were ‘wrong ‘uns’, as they scrubbed graffiti off of walls or picked up litter off of grass verges.

To be very explicit: this extreme of cruelty and intensity of white supremacist ideology is being referenced because our ruling ‘elite’ have a notion that there are enough nodding Churchills among us who find the references congruent with their innermost feelings. They calculate that it is worth being referenced. They’re not just chatting around the dinner table as the port is passed (in such conversations, subliminal referencing and sly dog whistling aren’t felt to be needed and more open language is used). They’re speaking to us this way because experience tells them that there’s votes and funding in it for them.

Have these pontificators and provocateurs read Beloved? The question is irrelevant. They are ignorant, because they elect not to integrate the knowledge, the awareness, and the shame that is present and inherent in the history.

If any of them have read that book, they will also have encountered what Morrison writes about the ‘bit’ or ‘iron-bit’ or ‘face iron’. In her story, the character Paul D., who has escaped that Georgia chain gang described above, is reluctantly disclosing to Sethe, his host (whom he knew from ‘Sweet Home’, an earlier and relatively less troubled period of captivity) some of what he has endured. Sethe asks him why he didn’t say anything at a particular juncture in the story and Paul D. tells her that he had the ‘bit’ on him – and therefore he was physically unable to speak:

“he wants me to ask him about what it was like for him, about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it.  She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back.” (1997, p. 84)

This practice is also briefly depicted in episode three of the recent television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2017). However, Irina Popescu (2017) explains that contemporary research into slavery, restraint and torture has uncovered very little information on the iron bit. She hypothesizes that “this suggests that its physical representation and implementation remains locked away in the realm of the unimaginable”. She continues:

“Some human bits covered the entire mouth, neck, and nose, leaving the eyes unfettered so the slave could continue to see and thus proceed with his or her work. In this sense, the bit initially prevented speech by covering the mouth. After the bit was removed, the mouth was so dehydrated that the victims found themselves too hoarse to form words. (ibid.)”


James Baldwin once wrote: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language” ([1963] 2017, p. 62); and I must at once concede that at this point I don’t know what to write. I don’t know whether I can, or should, write anything at all. It may well be that my complicity disqualifies me, white middle-class male of a certain age that I am. I do know for certain that I can add nothing to what Toni Morrison has written. Here is unspeakability; unthinkability; unimaginability.

And yet: I perceive that it demands to be known. No – let me not hide behind the passive voice. Let me say rather that ‘it’ (the unspeakability, the unthinkability, the unimaginability of restraining human beings in chattel slavery) demands of me that I know it: that I not practice ignorance in the face of it; that I not stifle or suppress it, nor leave it lying in the shadows of consciousness, a ‘subjugated knowledge’ (Foucault 1976). I also think this is what Paul Gilroy is getting at when he writes of ‘imaginative proximity to terror’ (although that would be Baldwin’s or Morrison’s, not mine to claim) and says that “though they were unspeakable, these terrors were not inexpressible” (Gilroy 1993, p. 73).

Restraint. Control. Mild, measured, moderate-sounding words. A clinical tone, when coupled together – ‘control and restraint’ – the ‘and’ forging a collocation, a connection, like a link of chain. Makes eminent, self-evident sense, on the face of it, no?

But now let’s review some more recent history. Here is David Harewood, speaking of his own lived experience of ‘control and restraint’:

“I remember being confused and terrified … my body was under assault. They performed a ‘rapid tranquillisation’, which was as terrible as it sounds. Whilst I lay there, just trying to stay alive on the floor with seven people holding me down, the drugs slowly started pulsing through my body. I was held down for about two hours until finally I stopped resisting. … In my own records I’m often described as a ‘large Black man’ and it’s also interesting to note the very high doses of drugs I received (Diazepam and haloperidol), both at levels four times the current recommendations. What was the thinking behind these high doses? Were they afraid of me? Was it to control and subdue, as opposed to treat and help? Was it a decision rooted in fear of the ‘large Black man’? It’s no wonder Black people are so reluctant to seek help with their mental health.”

Harewood (2021), pp. 194-195

David Harewood has said that he feels lucky to have survived his ordeal. Here now are the deaths of six Black men; five of these deaths taking place in the UK, the sixth in the USA. There isn’t space here to do justice either to their lives or to the manner of their deaths; however, what links them, apart from the social constructs of ‘race’ and gender, is the fact that all six of them died of asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest as a result of being restrained by agents of State. Three of these men at least – the first and the last two – found breath, during the restraint, sufficient to be able to say, to those agents of State, “I can’t breathe”.

David Bennett died during a nursing restraint on 30 October 1998 at the Norvic Clinic, a Medium Secure Unit in Norwich in which he had been for many years, off and on, a patient. Bennett wrote a letter to the Head of Nursing Services in 1993, on a previous admission, observing that “there are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realized that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment. We feel there should be at least two black persons in the medical or social work staff. For the obvious reasons of security and contentment for all concerned please do your best to remedy this appalling situation” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 9). On the evening of his fatal restraint following a violent disturbance on the ward, Bennett was heard saying to the nursing team “Get off me, get off me, I can’t breathe. Get off my throat” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 21).

In January 1999, Roger Sylvester died under police restraint in Haringay, London. The report of the inquest (Guardian 2003) relates that Sylvester:

“stopped breathing at the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne’s hospital, Haringey, when six police officers held him down on the floor for about 20 minutes, St Pancras coroner’s court heard. He fell into a coma and died later at the Whittington hospital, north London. The court had heard that dangerous and unreasonable force was used and Mr Sylvester was handcuffed and sometimes restrained on his stomach.”

On 21 August 2008, Sean Rigg died of cardiac arrest and partial positional asphyxia under police restraint in Brixton, London. The Wikipedia summary of the circumstances of his death record that Rigg was chased by four police officers and

“was handcuffed and restrained in a prone, face down position as officers leant on him for eight minutes. Arrested for assaulting a police officer, public disorder and theft of a passport—which was actually his own—he was then placed face-down with his legs bent behind him in the caged rear section of a police van and transported to Brixton police station. During the journey “his mental and physical health deteriorated” and he was “extremely unwell and not fully conscious” when eventually taken out of the van. This followed a delay of ten minutes during which he was left handcuffed in a ‘rear stack’ position, unattended and unmonitored while the van sat outside the station in the car parking area.”

On 4 November 2013, Leon Briggs died under police restraint in Luton. According to a news report of the inquest (BBC 2021b):

The way police officers moved a restrained man who later died was “potentially dangerous” and against “strict guidance”, an inquest heard. Leon Briggs, 39, was restrained under the Mental Health Act on a street in Luton, handcuffed and placed in leg restraints on 4 November 2013. He was lifted face-down to a van and taken to Luton police station. He later became unconscious and died. An officer told the inquest carrying Mr Briggs face-down was “not ideal”.

The jury found that “there was a gross failure to provide Leon with basic medical attention and that there was a direct causal connection between this conduct and his death. They recorded a conclusion that his death was ‘contributed to by neglect’.”

We should pause here in the sequence to note that, in January 2017, the Angiolini Review report (commissioned by Theresa May) found that:

“57.  There is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths. Any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force has the capacity to provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. This can be exacerbated if people are not seen to be held to account, or if the misconduct process is opaque (Angiolini 2017, p. 15).”

Now we come to the fifth of these deaths: consider this BBC News report on the death of Kevin Clarke under police restraint in Lewisham, London in March 2018 (BBC 2021a):

“Mr Clarke had been lying on the ground and attempted to get to his knees before being restrained …. He was handcuffed and legs restraints were applied. Police body-worn video footage reveals Mr Clarke repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe”, before being made to walk to an ambulance, still bound at the knees while barely conscious … .”

The final death in this sequence is perhaps the most well-known. On 25 May 2020, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed under police restraint. Here is the Wikipedia summary of witness accounts and video recordings taken at the scene:

“Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”, “Please”, and “Mama”; Lane then asked for an ambulance for Floyd, “for one bleeding from the mouth”. Floyd repeated at least 16 times that he could not breathe. At one point a witness said: “You got him down. Let him breathe.” After Floyd said, “I’m about to die”, Chauvin told him to “relax”. An officer asked Floyd, “What do you want?”; Floyd answered, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”


James Baldwin (to which very great writer, we can never return too often) once wrote that “when a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed” ([1963] 2017, p. 51). Derek Chauvin is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for second-degree murder. However, in the UK, it is a fact that:

“despite more than 1,700 deaths in police custody and following police contact since 1990 there has never been a successful prosecution of any police officer for murder or manslaughter (Coles 2021).”

192 of these deaths were of people racialized as BAME and this number (14%) reflects the overall population ratios in the UK as of 2011. However, BAME deaths in police custody involving restraint, use of force and mental health issues are in each category more than twice as likely compared to other deaths in custody. Coles, who is the Director of INQUEST, has also argued that “the disproportionality in the use of force against Black people adds to the irrefutable evidence of structural racism embedded in policing practices”.

A very recent United Nations Human Rights Commission report (United Nations 2021), commissioned in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, concludes:

“61. Behind today’s systemic racism, racial violence, dehumanization and exclusion, however, lies the lack of a formal acknowledgement of the responsibilities of States, institutions, religious groups, universities, business enterprises and individuals that engaged in or profited from, and that continue to profit from, the legacy of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism”

and calls on States Parties to the UNCHR to take action thus:

“68. Listening to the voices of people of African descent, the need for a global transformative agenda for racial justice and equality is clear. The four-point agenda in the annex sets out the key changes that are needed, which have also been elaborated in the present report under the subheadings on the way forward. Comprehensively implemented, the agenda would:

 (a) Reverse the cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action;

 (b) End impunity for human rights violations by law enforcement officials and close trust deficits;

 (c) Ensure that the voices of people of African descent and those who stand up against racism are heard and that their concerns are acted upon;

 (d) Confront legacies, including through accountability and redress.”

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur (United Nations 2017) has commanded States Parties to the UNCRPD (United Nations 2006) to desist from all coercive practices in psychiatry and this would include ‘control and restraint’. The importance and urgency of the challenge to the status quo upheld by the racist State, and to the range of practices by which that status quo is maintained, cannot be overstated.

I am conscious of not having said anything new here as such and I hope this piece reaches a readership who may instantly recognize just how far behind the curve I have been – and, likely enough, still am. But I want to say that I’m taking notice and that taking notice is, I believe and trust, a creative antidote to practicing ignorance. Those great lambasters of restraint of trade and mealy-mouthed objectors to restraint of press freedoms that have been governing this country since the days of Empire are pursuing the active continuation of the practices of restraining entailed in slavery and the toxic ooze of it seeps out through every membrane of the body politic. And I wonder what happens to a ruling class, to use that term, when in order to keep power it has to (officially) renounce the practice that brought it such unimaginable riches and yet corrupted it so completely? What happens when institutional approval and statutory sanction for the handing down and passing on of misery and cruelty is withheld? Perhaps practices of cruelty on such a scale must somehow persevere and find outlets for expression, because such drives can never be sublimated.

Racist dog whistles are not ‘merely’ racist dog whistles. They tell us that nothing – nothing whatsoever – has changed in the mindset. And this brings us back to the beginning of this blog, and the need to take our leave of the present monarch’s present First Minister (and let’s take every opportunity to remind ourselves that it was the Royal Family in this country (albeit in those days not the Windsors themselves, but the Stuarts) that formalized the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the seventeenth century (hence the mind-boggling wealth now at the Windsors’ disposal)).

What, then, are we to make of the figure of the man whose remark apparently in passing set us off on such a journey? Perhaps the figure of Churchill may provide further illumination, if not the kind of light that anyone would much want shone…

For if associations to Churchill’s cane inexorably took us back to the ‘iron bit’, then associations to Churchill’s cigar lead inevitably to another pale, scruffy-blond-haired, ‘Aryan’, self-promoting, ‘Establishment’ (of the ‘in it yet not of it’ type), self-consciously ‘eccentric’, bonhomous, clowning, hob-nobbing, celebrity serial abuser; hiding in plain view, in the very apple of the public eye, on first-name terms with the world at large; impervious to questioning, immune to criticism; the full horror of his depradations and the full extent of the cover-up around him only emerging even partially into view after he had passed beyond reach of the law of this country, or indeed of any other earthly judgement….


Racial abuse. Let’s renounce it in ourselves. Let’s call it out in others, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly, privileged, supremacist head. Let’s be going along with it not one second longer.


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