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Transcript: In conversation with Courtenay Griffiths QC


Paul Gilroy: Hello everybody, I'm Paul Gilroy, I am the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. And I'm absolutely honoured and delighted to welcome here Courtenay Griffiths QC, distinguished practitioner of the law advocate; criminal barrister; someone whose 40 years of experience at the bar has led them through all manner of extraordinary trials and political opportunities, among them the Damilola Taylor murder trial, the trial of those men who were accused of killing PC Blakelock, and a number of key criminal cases, too many really to enumerate here; recipient of numerous awards, who has spent, as I said, 40 years of practice at the criminal bar. And Courtenay worked at Garden Court chambers for number of years, and now practices from 25 Bedford Row. Courtenay I'm really, really happy to have a chance to talk to you in these extraordinary circumstances that we're in right now, and I suppose I've been wondering how someone with your experience and your eye- your angle of vision- on the institutional racism in our country and the various movements that have risen up during those four decades to press back- to fight back against it- how you're looking at what's unfolding around us at the moment?
 
Courtenay Griffiths QC: Well, the thing is that I think there are concerns here in the United Kingdom. Currently, I am defending a 16-year-old boy, charged with five others, with murder. And the reason why I raise that is this: The Old Bailey, where this murder trial is taking place, I've practiced there for the last 30 years, almost constantly. There are 18 courts there, and on any given day, if you were to tour all of those courts, I promise you, the majority of those courts will involve the trial of young black males between the ages of 14 and 25, with murder. And in all of those cases, we're not talking about one individual that's being charged with murder, we're talking about for the most part, three black youngsters who are charged with murder in all those courts. Now, what's the background to that? One or two were said to be knife crime, whereas the other two it was firearm related in a number of places around the country like Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. But now it's primarily knife crime, concentrated for the most part in London. And what concerns me about that is this: behind what is happening in relation to that is the exclusion of most of these boys from school; and hence, their inopportunity to work properly, get a job, and not be tempted to get into crime in order to provide a living for themselves. And it concerns me because it suggests to me that racism is at much at work in the criminal justice system here in the UK as it clearly is in the United States of America. And that what concerns there having done some war crime, is that this racism is not limited to national criminal justice system in the US, the same can be found here, in Germany to an extent involving the Turks, in France involving French nationals from North Africa, and elsewhere from French colonies in West Africa. The same problem is present. Because the bottom line is this: in reality, racism within the criminal justice system follows the laws of gravity; it drops from north to south. And so consequently, when you look at the work the International Criminal Court has been doing under the Rome Statute from its outset, every single person put on trial there, or indeed arrested, is from guess where: only Africa. Why? So, the concerns that people are expressing now, in a number of states globally, needs to be in some way thought about, as to what we're going to do to confront this. How are we going to deal with it internationally? Because it's an international problem. And it's clearly a heritage from the slavery and colonialism which has plagued Africa and black people for several centuries now. What do we do?
 
Paul: I suppose looking at the incredible global explosion of feeling amongst young people of all kinds, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, I suppose I have hope that we are on the edge now of an unprecedented period of political change; and that that mobilisation will turn into a movement; and that the movement will show the world that the rising generation - the generation which is so subject to all the anxieties and concerns about almost existential kind as they face the climate crisis too - is looking at the question of freedom, is looking at the question of justice, looking at the question of equality through the frame that the struggle against racism provides them with. Would you agree that's possible?
 
Courtenay: I think it's possible, and the reason why I think so Paul is this: if we look back to the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to confront racism, not many white people were involved. I agree, remember there were occasions when Jews based in North America, and particularly in New York, were supporting that, and some of them got murdered in the southern part of the United States. What I find quite special about what has been happening globally now is the number of young white people who are supporting this globally. We've never experienced that before so publicly. And the question is, how do we as black people in that situation deploy that in a way which is going to confront the politicians who run the country, who now need to be- I'm talking about Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, and indeed Keir Starmer and the Labour party. How do you now confront the racism within the NHS? So that- the majority of those killed during this pandemic are black, but what are they doing about it in terms of the hierarchy of the NHS, which is still dominated, despite all those bits, by white people? What do they do about the educational system in terms of the disproportionate number of black kids who get excluded from school? How do you also cope with the sentencing system operated by the criminal justice system, whereby a disproportionate number of black people are serving senior sentences in our prisons? How do we- particularly given what Boris Johnson is thinking about the predominance of knife crime and the need to appeal to a part of society in response to that concern- what do we do now as a collective, white and black, BAME, to confront all of that? And that's my concern.
 
Paul: Yeah, we share that concern and it's reality based because, let's face it, let's be brutal here and say we traditionally and historically we've looked to our community organisations and struggles on the one side, and then we've looked to the Labour party on the other which is our principal vehicle, and the record of the Labour party in this is- well to put it very mildly and bluntly- is mixed; it's a mixed record. Because when it's been expedient for them to appeal to nationalist and racist and xenophobic constituencies that they think are important for the electoral bloc they need to hold together, they've shown themselves in the last decades really to be as absolutely as opportunistic in their voicing of those arguments, in their appeal to those instincts, as the Conservatives are. It's almost as though they covet the electoral magic that the appeal to what's supposedly called the 'white working class' is somehow going to be sending the right signals that will enable them to motivate people into the political process, who wouldn't be motivated to operate politically at all perhaps without that pitch. So you get someone as intelligent and thoughtful a man as Gordon Brown voicing the opinions of the ultra-right and parroting their slogan 'British jobs for British workers'; you have Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson posing at the White Cliffs of Dover, and so on. And there is a sense, I suppose, among many voices in the left, not only the parliamentary ones, that really the people who vote for them are stupid and that they can be manipulated easily by this racist language, these racist symbols, this racist rhetoric; and that Margaret Thatcher got it right when she incorporated the National Front and all of these people in to the Conservative project and pulled the rug out from underneath them in 1979. So, people covet those tactics, they covet that approach, and they think that they can expediently annex it for their own alternative. Of course, we look at that and we say that makes it no alternative at all; and I think the future is going to have to be different, and that's the message which is being transmitted from the streets of this country and the streets of so many other countries. Tonight I was just looking at photographs that have been sent to me of the Black Lives Matter protests in Kyoto, in Sweden, in so many different parts of the world, not just the postcolonial countries, not just the global north; these things are evident everywhere and they have been energised by the crisis- the pandemic- the health crisis which is part of all of this too. So, I want to be hopeful about it, and I want to think about it; but you set us off in a different track because you very boldly began by saying that the patterns of criminalisation, so familiar to us from our own youth actually, are not only still functional in Britain, but in a sense intensified and that the focus on guns, the focus on gangs, the focus on knives, is in some respect a rehearsing of things that are absolutely familiar to our generation; what Linton Kwesi Johnson, who spoke for many of us, called the 'rebel generation'. I don't know what to call the generation that's being criminalised now; it's tempting to call them the 'lost generation', but I'm not yet ready to write them off in that way.
 
Courtenay: I'm not writing them off; my concern is that the attitude of the police, at one level judges, and also at one level the crime prosecution service, and those who present cases in court, hasn't really changed yet despite what is happening now. There isn't even a debate going on within the legal profession and with judges about the kind of concerns that I have; about the disproportionate input of the criminal justice system on black people, not just here, but everywhere. What do we do about it?
 
Paul: How do you think that legal training, that legal education, has to be transformed to be able to change that and to force back onto the agenda things that flickered in there a little while- perhaps in the early '80s? I'm thinking of the period immediately after the riots of 1981, which will be 40 years next year- there was a moment- maybe I'm deluding myself, but I seem to remember a moment where these things were briefly of concern. And I'm wondering what institutionally, as far as the law is concerned, as far as criminal justice and prisons are concerned, as far as policing is concerned, from your perspective, how does legal training have to be reformed and transformed? How do the institutions and apparatuses of the judiciary have to be transformed in order to meet this challenge?
 
Courtenay: I think there are three points to be made. The first point is this: if you do a law degree at any university in the United Kingdom, you'll cover the law of contract, criminal law, European law, all these other topics. What doesn't feature in any of the law degrees is the way in which racism, particularly in the criminal area, as resulting in certain things when it comes to black people, that doesn't feature as a topic in law degrees. The idea is to cover all these topics and to go into a profession which is dominated by white people; and as a consequence of that, the areas at the bar, for example, and indeed for solicitors, where you have a likelihood of earning proper money- commercial law, or transport law, that kind of stuff- it's still predominantly white. The only place you find black people in the legal profession now is criminal law, immigration, family law, all of which is funded by legal aid, okay? And the other aspect of it is this: most of those white-dominating chambers making money, only picking graduates from Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, King's College London, and the London School of Economics where I went. And you know how difficult it is now for black youngsters to get into those legal departments; it's still a problem for them. And as a result, there are a number of levels of which these problems are being created. And another one is this: there are one or two more black judges these days in the Crown Court, in the Family Court, but the dominating judges- High Court judges, Supreme Court judges- are still predominantly white. So the hierarchy still has that difficulty. The people who are dealing with this racist criminal justice system are predominantly white, coming from a public school and certain university background. What do they know? Not a great deal. And in fact, I should tell you Paul, that I was approached to become a High Court judge and I refused to do it. You know why? Because I realised that as an individual, I wouldn't have the greatest impact at that level; and not only that, black people who I know who have sought to get on to that level, haven't lasted for very long; they've resigned early because of the difficulties they've been experiencing at that level. So the bottom line is this: there is a structure in place which is dominating the law, which I'm not so sure is minded, despite what's happening now at a protest level, to reflect that thinking at that level within the law. I'm not so sure it's there.
 
Paul: Yeah, I know that we can say that there're a number of key institutions in this country that have this problem, and that as inequality has intensified during the last two decades here, that problem has become more intractable and that those opportunities are fewer and further between, more fortified against the possibility that the outsiders and intruders- and this raises a number of questions of inclusion and diversity- more fortified against the possibility that anyone who isn't already part of that 'cultural bubble', let's call it that, is ever going to be able to not only enter but to be able to remain. I know that has to happen, I know that that has to be transformed; I suppose I've watched these things long enough to know that there are no guarantees input- it's necessary to have a change of personnel, but there are no guarantees in that because I think that by itself the transformation of personnel is insufficient. So we have to have that, it's a practical goal, but there're number of other things that have to happen too and you've already pointed to some of them in your sense of how legal education and training have to be altered in order to accommodate a serious engagement with what we've known for so long those systems can do to the lives of black and other minority ethnic people. I was thinking a lot actually about the Mangrove trial because it's 50 years this summer, August, since the trial of the Mangrove Nine, and of course your sometime colleague Ian Macdonald at Garden Court was one of the counsel for the defendants in that trial. I think we have to restore the memory of these important occasions to the lives of the activist groups, but we also have to restore the history of these trials- these pivotal moments- we have to restore that memory to the life and habits of the legal profession as well.
 
Courtenay: I totally agree Paul, because we've lost our recollection of what happened with the Sus laws on black people in the '70s and '80s. We've lost what had triggered off the riots in Brixton, Bristol, all around the country- Liverpool, in the early 1980s. And it wasn't just something you needed; it was like several decades of the way we were treated as black youngsters growing up in this country. Yes I'm a QC now, but I recall being stopped as a youngster in the precincts in Coventry by police officers when I hadn't done anything; and they took me into a small hall in the middle of the precinct in Coventry and basically threatened me; and I hadn't done anything, it was just the way I was dressed and the colour of my skin. And that's the way things were. And it was in the early 1980s that black youngsters decided to confront that through riot. And it's the reason why I decided I wanted to become a criminal defence advocate, because that's where I thought now I've qualified, it's gonna be too difficult for you to arrest me, so I can curse you in court in a way in which I couldn't do out on the street. And I enjoyed it. But, the only difference is that things have changed. Back then when I started out in 1980, police officers fitted up black people in court, like Winston Silcott for the first Blakelock murder trial which I was involved in. They fitted him up. It was common practice to attribute certain admissions to black defenders when they were arrested. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act passed in 1984 whilst Thatcher was the Prime Minister. That's changed things, surprisingly, so that nowadays it's very difficult to come across a police officer who has fitted it up in the way it used to happen back in the 1960s-'70s and '80s. So nowadays, in a criminal trial, the primary evidence is CCTV, mobile evidence, and DNA; and in many cases they don't need eyewitnesses anymore; so it's changed. But, despite that change and the absence now of the fitting up which went on in earlier years, it's still resulting in a disproportionate number of black people being convicted. Why? Because to my mind, the answer is, who is conducting and in charge of this system? And what is the motivation behind that desire to have these more convictions? And it has to do, to my mind, with racism; that it's still a structured part of the criminal justice system here, without it being discussed openly; because without it being featuring in trials the way it used to do, back with for example the Mangrove trial, the consequences still remain the same. And it seems to me we ought to be confronting that in a different way altogether.
 
Paul: That's obviously true and I wonder really about how that confrontation is going to be organised? Because you spoke a moment ago about the impact of technology on the patterns of prosecution, the kinds of decisions that are being made on the basis of discretion by police officers, on the basis of the assessments of the evidence that's produced by the Crown Prosecution Service and other authorities who are implicated in the functioning of the systemic patterns. And so I'm thinking a little bit about the technology and what role the technology might play, not just in bringing this end about, in bringing this result about, but what role the technology might play in the struggle against these patterns? What role the technology might offer in a more defensive or even liberationist way to protect the interest of those who are so disproportionately victimised by these structural processes?
 
Courtenay: Let me give you an example of the concerns that I have. I have currently been engaged in a trial at The Old Bailey which started on the 9th March of this year. The interesting thing Paul is this: at the centre of the case is CCTV evidence. What happened was this- and I'm limiting the evidential situation in order to confront the principal point I want to make; on the day this occurred, some Arab boys attacked some black boys from South London in a park in North London. There was contact between some of the boys who were injured, during that initial episode, on the phone, and some of them came up to North London in a cab; as the cab arrived in that part of North London, a group of Arab boys once again attacked them. A fight started, which resulted in one of the Arab boys being stabbed to death after a chase. And despite that overall picture of Arab boys picking on black boys, not one of the Arab boys was charged with anything; nothing at all. The only people charged with the murder trial are six black boys. Why? Why are they perceived as a threat and the ones to be targeted, even though they didn't provoke this situation? And it tells you, it seems to me, where the direct concern is. It's black kids. That's the prominent and direct concern. I cannot understand why that is being reflected in a context with kids. It doesn't make sense to me.
 
Paul: Yeah, and it's interesting that you put it like that, Courtenay, because it seems to me that in our day it was the Caribbean descended- Caribbean heritage- young people who were being actively criminalised; and now the black communities involved are actually quite different. Very often they're African heritage people- I mean, to be honest it's quite a different blackness in a way; sometimes the language of blackness in terms of identity doesn't even feature because these young people- I meet many of them around here-  think of themselves as Ghanaian, or Nigerian, or they have a particular attachment, which is perhaps a national attachment, they receive the kind of generic blackness through the computer and the culture and so on that they're exposed to, through some of the music; but the centre of that music production isn't even the United States any longer, often it's a west African scene that's generating that music. It's a different blackness, and yet they're still on the receiving end of these processes. And we can't explain it only through looking at poverty, looking at inequality, we're driven time and time and time again back to the effects of racism itself as a factor, in the same way that people looking at the disproportional vulnerability of black populations to the infection and the death and the health outcomes associated with the racial discrepancies that the Covid data has yielded. So, we really do have to return to thinking about racism. The problem is, and I say this from within the academic world I guess, which is a bit like the legal one in this, that as soon as you start to talk about racism - explicitly, directly, consistently - people think that you are an interloper who doesn't know the rules that govern the functioning of professional life in these institutions. And it's really a conversation about racism itself that we lack; it's a conversation about racism itself that we lack, and one that requires us to go beyond these ridiculous definitions that continually circulate 'racism is prejudice plus power' - no it isn't. We're talking about something much more complex, much more elaborate, much more sophisticated, much more embedded than that. We need some fresh thought, we need some different perspectives that are not just the repetition of McKinsey multiculturalism and diversity speak; we're dealing really with something that- well, I think actually the young people who are out in the streets right now have understood this, because the penny has dropped for them that their own freedoms, their own horizons, their own hopes, their own survival, is bound up with a reckoning with this machinery. And without that reckoning, none of them will be able to be free.
 
Courtenay: I totally agree with you Paul. But Paul, can I just mention something to you, which I think as black people we ought to be confronting? And it's this: I've spent virtually all of the last 30 years at The Old Bailey defending young black boys; and there's a feature to those trials which is concerning me so much now, that part of me doesn't want to deal with murder trials anymore. And it's this: when you're doing one of those trials, and you look in the public gallery, all you see is mum, not dad, for the most part, and they're black. And it there's a conviction, as I'm leaving The Old Bailey, their mum's crying because their boy- their young boy- has just got a life sentence. Why is that? And now, knowing that, what should we do about it? Is that about racism? Or is it another issue which we ought to be confronting, apart from racism? What is it? And what are we, as a community, doing to confront that and question who should be confronting it? And with whom ought it to be confronted? And so consequently, what should be done about it?
 
Paul: Yeah, these are good questions, and they're hard questions to answer; and of course, let's be blunt again; there are things about the ways in which black households- over represented among the legions of the poor, and lacking in social institutions of one kind or another, operating within kinship structures that need to be recognised as historically formed in certain sorts of conditions- the danger about this is, Courtenay, that by going into this area that you open the door to the old script that you and I know so well, the script to black pathology which says that 'black criminality is an outcome of household disorganisation, in particular the absence of the appropriate varieties of gender roles'. And this is the kind of thing that we saw brought to bear on explaining the nature of the civil rights conflicts and the riots in the United States during the 1960s- even Scarman, if you remember Lord Scarman's report into the riots in Brixton, had a version of that argument that was there even though in his case of course it was coupled with a dismissal of the idea that institutional racism was part of the diagnosis that he was offering having visited and reached out to those communities. So, I'm a little bit wary about being seen to rehearse and repeat this old argument about the measures of responsibility that families and households bear for the criminalisation of their young people. I'm not saying there aren't issues there, and I think there are some perhaps more interesting solutions that lie in the direction of approaching some of the patterns of violence that you described through the language of public health, for example. Let's face it, for everybody in this country, that mental health support services are not really functional; offering these young people CBT to manage their anxieties is not an adequate resource to really deal with some of the pressures that they're under. The question earlier on that you mentioned, which is fundamental: the way in which school exclusions factor into this, into this story, is another one. And then there are a number of ways in which this situation you described is also something that we can apprehend as a crisis of masculinity itself; certainly black feminists have been writing about these things for many decades now, looking at questions of black masculinity looking at gender patterns, looking at the role of violence against women in that mix as well, and thinking about safety in households, thinking about supporting those households where people are vulnerable- not just intimate partners, but children of course as well. And for a long time when I was interested in social sciences- sociology- I made myself very unpopular by saying that what you're invoking as a kind of incorrigible black culture is actually a form of abuse that needs to be identified, and in the language of today, called out. So, there are resources that are addressed at community level; many people working very, very hard to turn the attention of what's left of our welfare and support services and social services in the direction of a more positive intervention in these patterns. And what I can't really- I'm not saying you were doing this because I didn't hear this in what you said at all- but there is a neo-liberal sense that we're all responsible for our own fate, and we all have the chances, and really whether you go down a path of criminality and violence and hyper-masculinity is your own decision, and if you dress properly and study hard and have high standards, that your opportunities will unfold in front of you and you can go marching off to Oxford and have a very happy life in the future. I don't really buy that dream, that optimism, which is in some respects a very cruel trick to play on people who are invited to drink the Kool-Aid of neo-liberalism in circumstances which don't admit those kinds of mobility.
 
Courtenay: I agree with you Paul, I agree with you. And the primary reason why I've raised that topic- I know you, I know the kind of work you've done over the years, and how beneficial and instructive it has been. But given the situation in which I work in, I am getting concerned about it now because it's been back to back for 30 years. And that's the reason why now I am particularly concerned about it. And I want a debate amongst us - just us. I don't expect its exploitation by the national front on the right wing, that's not gonna help us. But I would like to see us thinking more constructively about the need to attain the certain aspects of that. To date I'm not so sure that is happening at the kind that I'd like it to.
 
Paul: No, I agree, I agree. We should really mention Diane Abbott here because she's somebody who has tried, at some cost to herself actually, to raise some of these questions and to in a sense politicise them- make them political- within the consciousness of the Labour party. And I remember the reaction against her, I think absolutely inappropriately and wrongly, when she raised questions about the use of pornography amongst young black men; and these were immediately dismissed as being instances of washing your dirty linen in public. In a way, Courtenay, the time has come for us not to worry about those things and that there is a discipline that's required from us and from the conversations about policy, about education, about housing and living space, that we pay too much attention to those anxieties about what other people will think, and that we have to have the courage, we have to have the consistency, to have that conversation among ourselves, to have it publicly, and not be too concerned about the use that will inevitably be made of it by those who don't hold our interests at heart. So, the time has come to have that conversation, to have those difficult conversations, and not to be overly concerned about the fact of having them as a potential source of damage to our interests. So yes, absolutely, let's begin to have those conversations. One of the things I feel- I was thinking about it earlier on today, African Americans- one of the things I was very struck by was the way that they had been a community and that many of those people- people who occupy positions like the one you occupy or the one I occupy- had a set of institutional mechanisms and habits that enabled them to talk to one another and act together politically as a group. Obviously when those individuals, the extraordinary things that people have been doing - men and women have been doing, black men and women, particularly of our age group who have maybe less to lose - have been trying to do; but we seldom, we very, very seldom act as a collective; we very, very seldom act in a coordinated way to intervene in these political conversations. And we've got to begin to do that too. And I feel questions of reforming education is fundamental to this and that's where I guess- I'm not just saying that as an educator- I feel that that for me still supplies the key.
 
Courtenay: I totally agree with you Paul. I think that the way in which education is conducted, globally, needs to be changed. Because yes, we can pull down the statues of slavers, but at the same time we need to remind people of the history of what they did. There's two aspects to it. No longer prominent are pulling statues down, but I want the people to know at the same time what you did, okay? So, there's two aspects to it. And that second aspect has never occurred, and I think it's something which I've fully addressed.
 
Paul: Yeah, absolutely; and maybe thanks to the fact that those young people pulled that statue down, those conversations are beginning to be had and let's hope that there's some outcomes and some positive developments that will flow from that, because without their action, these conversations would be happening.
 
Courtenay: Not at all. And I thank them for that. And that image of white boys pulling down that statue in Bristol just shocked me; because most of them are white. Some of them have got to a stage now where they like black people, in a way in which, although there have been interracial relationships for years here, I think that prompted me to think that we've overstepped a hurdle now. And it's that energy and it's that enthusiasm which I'd like to see us trying to exploit even more, and promote even more, because I think it's important.
 
Paul: Well, let's hope that our political voices can find some courage in these examples too. And Courtenay thank you so much for this very wide ranging and stimulating conversation; I hope that as the Centre moves forward you'll be able to continue that conversation with us and use the platform that the Centre provides to pursue your arguments about the nature of legal education. I'm sure my colleagues in the Laws department at UCL would only be too delighted to host you in a discussion about how they can improve their own performance in this area.
 
Courtenay: And I'd love to assist in that sense, because I'm at an age now where it's not just about practice; it's how I'd like to help in terms of education, and in terms of how, black people in particular, should be seeking to pursue their careers in this profession. So I'm more than happy to help. And it was a pleasure talking to you again, Paul, after all these years. You just take care.
 
Paul: And you Courtenay, thanks a lot my friend.