“People like you … ” These three words, as innocent as they might sound, should be the epitaph for last August’s riots.
It was 3am when the police barged into my house to search for stolen goods. “We’ve seen hundreds of people like you before, just tell us where the stuff is and don’t waste our time,” they said. I had nothing to hide. I stood by and watched them hunt for something that wasn’t there.
They arrested me on suspicion of theft and they took me to the station. “I get people like you coming here every day,” I remember the custody sergeant telling me, “so don’t think you’re special.” I definitely didn’t feel special then and once I was refused bail there was nothing special about spending a month in Feltham young offender institution. There was meant to be hundreds of other “people like me” in jail but, aside from everyone else being young and often black, I felt very alone.
They charged me with two offences – dwelling with intent to commit theft and joint enterprise – and they said I was looking at five years in jail. I gave my side of the story in court and explained that I’d left my house to see all the madness on TV in real life – it looked like history in the making and I didn’t want to miss out. I’d followed others into a shop for five minutes and had no intention of stealing anything. I left of my own accord. Emptyhanded. “That’s what people like you always say,” the prosecution said. The judge told me he didn’t believe me. My heart sank. As far as I could tell, for people like me, fate was already decided.
Every black kid is told the same thing: “You have to try harder in life because you’re black.” My mum was the first one to tell me this, and then a white teacher gave her version of it at school: “You’re smart, but there are two routes for you: crime or a career. And as a black boy you should try to be different,” she said.
As a teenager this was tough to understand. First, you’re insecure and just want to be like everyone else, wear the same clothes – for me and my friends it was mainly cheap tracksuits – and listen to the same music. Second, why the hell do I have to try harder just because I’m black?
As I got older the answer became clearer. With that cheap tracksuit, trainers and hoodie came routine stop and searches. Weekly, sometimes daily, if I walked with my black friends. But with that came a weird sense of pride. I thought that if the tracksuit pissed the police off I’d keep wearing it and it seemed that being black to them was like showing red to a bull. But one month in prison, eight weeks on an electronic tag and the possibility of spending five years in a jail quickly turned any sense of pride into fear.
I was released in the end after being found not guilty on all charges. That was 10 months ago and my life hasn’t returned to normal. The tracksuit’s gone and I always wear jeans and a shirt now and never walk down side roads through fear of being stopped again. In many ways I still feel like I’m tagged.
Like many of my friends, I still feel the police represent a community that doesn’t include me. No one could understand why rioters targeted their local areas, but on that night the shops were owned by the police who had forever targeted us with stop and searches. On that night, the shop I went into wasn’t the shop I know well where I regularly speak to the owner.
There’s rarely a day goes by when the thought of being sent back to the place where they kept me doesn’t go through my mind. I live an honest life and have a job. I live by the law. But I know that sometimes isn’t enough for people like me.