When the government handed the police powers to detain and fine people under emergency coronavirus regulations last year, anti-racists warned that some communities would be disproportionately affected. I was among them – as were a cluster of grassroots groups, which wrote, on the day the Coronavirus Act was introduced to parliament: “We believe increased police and immigration officer powers will only be used to target those already targeted by law.”
Unfortunately, our predictions have been proved right, with parliament’s joint committee on human rights concluding last week that every single Covid fine issued under the law in England should be reviewed amid concerns they were “discriminatory and unfair”.
The statistics behind the report paint a bleak racialised picture: by June last year, 26% of fixed-penalty notices for alleged breaches of lockdown in London had gone to Black people, even though we make up only 12% of the capital’s population. Across England and Wales more broadly, the Guardian revealed that fines – of between £200 and £10,000 – were up to seven times more likely to go to Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, with young BAME men and people living in poverty being particular targets.
When we consider the groups that have historically borne the brunt of policing in Britain this outcome is shown to have been inevitable. Under stop and search powers, Black people in England and Wales are nine times more likely to be targeted than their white counterparts, 18 times more likely to be stopped with no reasonable suspicion under section 60, and even more likely to be stopped if they are young men.
The legislation that underpins it, which legitimises criminalisation and state harassment for an act as simple as walking down the street, is understood by anti-racists as a continuation of the racist “sus” law, which activists mobilised against in the 1970s and 80s. Pandemic or not, Black people are police targets – and it is notable that the use of stop and search increased during the first lockdown, showing how coronavirus laws and pre-existing legislation coalesce.
In analysing the distribution of Covid fines, we should also consider the role factors such as geography and class play. While many stayed at home during successive lockdowns, Black people and ethnic minorities were disproportionately likely to be outside in the first place, because they are disproportionately represented in frontline “key worker” jobs. BAME groups are also more likely to have intergenerational family networks across households, which were an afterthought to those who crafted lockdown rules.
In response to questions over the uneven distribution of Covid fines last year, a number of policing bodies have said that geography may be responsible for overrepresentation of BAME communities – Suffolk constabulary claimed that although BAME groups were four times as likely to be fined, these statistics were “broadly in line with the diversity of those communities where the offences occurred”.
But this is a problem in itself – police presence is greater in areas that have higher rates of poverty, and larger ethnic minority populations – so of course they will be more frequently fined. Through these wider lenses, it quickly becomes apparent that fixed-penalty notices are a specific phenomenon that point towards a number of much larger structural and institutional problems.
In the discussion of disproportionality and fines, the context of a deadly pandemic should of course be taken seriously, and we should all be encouraged to be careful. People of colour and working-class communities probably understand this most, as groups that have been harder hit by the virus and associated state neglect. But a growing dossier of evidence suggests that pandemic policing and punishment bears little relationship to compliance.
For example, across spring and summer 2020, researchers in methodology and criminology at the London School of Economics ran a study investigating why people might abide by lockdown regulations, finding that adherence had little to do with the threat of punishment or fines, and far more to do with mutual expectations to protect each other, and the NHS.
The law’s most important function, when it came to things such as social distancing and wearing a mask, was found to be in reminding people that observing these precautions was the “right” thing to do. The researchers’ advice as we ease out of the most recent lockdown is that “using force, or fear of sanction, to ensure compliance will not be the most effective way of procuring it”.
More than a year has passed and more than 85,000 fines have been issued, but we are far from out of the woods. Those who are unable to pay their fixed-penalty notices (in other words, people living in poverty) still potentially face a criminal record – something that, as the cross-party committee has suggested, must be scrapped.
But we must also connect the dots between pandemic policing of the past 12 months and the legislation that is rapidly hurtling down the track. We now find ourselves in the midst of an even more unprecedented and dystopian expansion of police powers, in the form of the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. The proposed legislation will affect us all, but once again ethnic minorities and working-class people will find themselves at its sharp end. Proposals to extend stop and search, lengthen jail times, criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and increase surveillance under the racialised Prevent strategy will all curtail our right to protest against any of it.
Expansion of policing overwhelmingly hurts those with the least power in society. This will only continue if we allow more sweeping police powers to be rushed through, while taking advantage of the backdrop of a public health crisis. Anti-racists and feminist organisers on the ground have once again predicted it. We must all resist it.