Gbenga Ojo-Aromokudu reviews A Search for Belonging by Michael Fuller
Over the past few months, you have likely heard many discussions about defunding the police, and calls to stamp out racism on an individual, and structural level. It is essential that everyone engages with these topics, or British society will never reach an equitable solution to the problem that is racism.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in the United States in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer.1 Since then, there have continued to be a disproportionate number of killings of Black people at the hands of the police, both within the US and beyond. Scores of names have unfortunately been added to the list of the deceased, while the perpetrators in many cases have gone unpunished, or simply lost their jobs.
The United Kingdom is by no means innocent when it comes to racism and racist policing. While it is helpful to make comparisons with the United States, it is important to say that being “not as bad as the US” is not inherently good enough. Racism very much exists here and is a problem that must be addressed irrespective of what goes on abroad. To give just one, very recent example, the current Metropolitan Police commissioner recently denied the existence of institutional racism in the force, in response to accusations of racial profiling.2 This is particularly important, given that the Macpherson report of 1997 did in fact label the force as institutionally racist.
For most people, our understanding of the police is based on the present, but not on the past that lead us to be here now. This is what makes Michael Fuller’s book so timely. A Search for Belonging (Bonnier Books), was first published in 2019 when it was titled Kill the Black One First. The book is a memoir by Michael Fuller, who in 2004 became the first Black Chief Constable in the United Kingdom. Fuller examines his experiences as a senior police officer, as well as his life leading up to this appointment.
Fuller was born to Windrush-generation3 Jamaican parents, which provides an additional dynamic to his relationship with British institutions and makes his story particularly important to reflect upon. In this review I will focus on three crucial important moments in Fuller’s story: his decision to become a policeman; an encounter with skinheads; and coming face to face with rioters.
In the second chapter, Fuller recounts the moment he stated his desires to become a policeman to his father and his friends. “They all stared at me as if I had just announced I wanted to be an axe murderer.” Those in the room gave multiple examples why Fuller could not become a police officer, like “Don’t you know they are our enemy?“. However as Fuller attests, the gap between the police and Black communities is not one straight border, but a nuanced and individual relationship. Black police officers do indeed exist.
But when acknowledging the existence of racism in the police force, where does a Black police officer align themselves?
Fuller describes going to a Black barbershop and choosing to conceal the fact he was a policeman, to avoid being ostracised amongst the other customers. The same day, he intervened when passing a Black man being attacked by skinheads, using his police status as a lever to defend the victim. This is a perfect example of the duality (or multiplicity) of the Black identity. Many people want to join the police force with a goal of helping others. While a noble intent, this will only be possible if you as an individual are accepted and supported by your colleagues.
What happened next is both literally and metaphorically an example of the reality of being Black. Fuller entered a phone booth to call for help, and the skinheads continued to threaten and insult him, calling him a “Black bastard.” Fuller notes that “Most criminals did that. It wasn’t enough to call me a bastard. My colour was an important part of their hatred and always had to be named.” Ultimately a police car arrived and the assailants scattered, but had they chosen to physically assault him or worse, his status as a member of the police would not have saved him. If you are Black in a racist system, no amount of accolades or titles can protect you from the danger that your Blackness might attract.
Later, Fuller describes the experience of being on a bus with colleagues and commenting on people on the road outside. These were the events that led up to the book’s title. It was a moment of multi-faceted intersections. While sat on a bus full of white police officers, hearing all manner of racist comments and slurs he had to decide whether or not to speak up. Crucially, he recalled advice he was once given to “not taking it personally” and “sit tight and complain through the official channels“. All the while his “official channel”, namely the Inspector, was engrossed in a crossword. This is so emblematic of discussions around race in the United Kingdom, both then and now. Black people have to spend energy bringing attention to the very existence of racism that is occurring in plain sight, before even getting into the possible solutions.
This episode evokes very clear imagery. Fuller was sat on a bus, with the glass windows reinforcing the metaphorical and physical barrier between the police and the public. Although both parties could see each other, it does not make them one and the same. The other officers spoke with full knowledge that there would be no negative consequences for their words, rendering Fuller himself almost invisible. However, this is contrasted harshly a few pages later, when in a confrontation with rioting crowds, he was anything but invisible. Fuller recalls, “a strange lull and then suddenly a single cry rose from inside the crowd, ‘Kill the Black one first!'” Fuller’s Blackness separates him and isolates him from both the Black public, and the White police force.
The juxtapositions of being Black and existing in a racist environment are crystal clear throughout. By communicating his own experience to the reader, Fuller does an excellent job of holding the mirror up to his reality and allowing us to see it for what it is.
For a more contemporary example of what it is like to work as a Black police officer in Britain, I would really recommend the following episode of the Over The Bridge Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/overthebridgeuk/over-the-bridge-black-police. Topics discussed include: increasing representation within the Met Police, addressing the necessity of the police, and an insider’s perspective on the implicit rules of policing.
Account of a Black Police officer https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/15/black-police-officer-met-institutionally-racist-bame-officers
Kill the Black One First: An Intersection between the Police and Society
Gbenga Ojo-Aromokudu reviews A Search for Belonging by Michael Fuller
You can read a brief summary of the Windrush Scandal here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43782241, but I would encourage you to research this further