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Echoes of Empire: Excavating the Colonial Roots of Britain's "War on Gangs".


The entanglement between notions of Blackness and gangs in Britain suggests that Black people exhibit some supposed compulsion for criminality collectively as well as individually. This commentary critiques the criminalization of (young) Black individuals as gang members and the corresponding racialization of anti-gang policing and punishment measures through Britain's history of colonial control and exploitation. I argue that the myth of collective Black criminality and the incorporation of clusters of Black individuals into an expanding prison labor market via joint enterprise relate to the criminalization and collective punishment of castes and tribes by the British colonial state in India. The resonance of Britain's destructive past in present-day antigang initiatives makes it even more necessary to abolish gang databases, to question the validity of the idea of "the gang," to review the convictions administered under joint enterprise and to repeal the doctrine of common purpose itself.


There it is, us. In another time, of course. But unmistakably us. --Howard Zinn, The Politics of History (1990)

It is widely acknowledged across academic and activist circles that over the past couple of decades, there has been a noticeable increase in media attention, academic research, and policy responses dedicated to youth gangs in urban Britain (Alexander 2008, Williams 2015, Wood 2010). Indeed, when responding to the 2011 riots that broke out across England, former Prime Minister David Cameron declared an "all-out war on gangs and gang culture" (Amnesty International 2018, 5). April 2018 saw renewed calls for more police on London's streets, tougher police powers, and more funding for law enforcement (rather than social services) to tackle gang violence. This law-and-order agenda reemerged after a string of incidents that have seen young people in London killed or injured by knives and guns. In response to these tragedies, the Home Office has announced the introduction of a new Offensive Weapons Bill which includes prohibiting the possession of certain weapons in public and private. The government has also launched its Serious Violence Strategy which continues a longstanding tradition of "total policing" by aiming to tackle gang crime through "a multiple strand approach involving a range of partners across different sectors" (HM Government 2018, 14).

Fear and anxiety over "the gang" explicitly and implicitly underlie popular and political responses to the loss of life through gun and knife violence. However, the reality of these tragedies is complicated--not least because what constitutes a gang is by the police's own admission contested, and because the perpetrators and victims of violence come from many ethnic backgrounds (Wood 2010). Yet, despite its disputed and complex nature, the notion of the gang is taken for granted and politicized as more or less "specific to, arising from and potentially encompassing, the black community as a whole" (Alexander 2008, 7).

This "race-gang nexus" (Williams 2015) points to a reconditioned and arguably more sinister, dangerous, and destructive version of what Paul Gilroy (1987) terms "the myth of black criminality"--one that suggests Black people now fulfill some supposed compulsion for (violent) crime collectively, as well as individually. It also signals a continuation of institutional racism in and across the British Criminal Justice System (CJS), two decades after the Macpherson report (1999) into the Metropolitan Police's calamitous handling of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence found the police to be institutionally racist. Macpherson's understanding of institutional racism was far from adequate, however, as he reduced the problem to one that implicated individual police officers, rather than the policies of policing (Bridges 1999).

The shortcomings of the Macpherson report have been compounded in recent years by attempts to reframe institutional racism as a problem of the past. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick (2012), declared that the force "can be proud of how it has been transformed in attitudes, practice, training and professionalism," and David Cameron claimed in 2012 that Britain is "less racist" than at the time of Stephen Lawrence's murder (Burnett 2012). Current Prime Minister Theresa May conceded in 2016, however, that Black people are "treated more harshly" by the CJS than whites (Travis 2017b). Furthermore, recent government-commissioned research into the treatment of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) communities by the CJS--The Lammy Review (Lammy 2017)--acknowledges that the disproportionate labeling of Black youth as gang members is a factor in conditioning racial disparities in arrests, charging, prosecution, and imprisonment. However, whereas symbolic acceptance of Black communities as criminalized and, thus, over-policed and under-protected is welcome, it is "the objective relationship which counts, not rhetoric" (Carmichael & Hamilton 1967, 6). In this sense, racism has always been, and remains, a definitive feature of the relationship between Black communities and the British CJS.

In this piece, I argue that any serious effort to expose and challenge the problem of institutional racism must include a reckoning with, working through, and illumination of the legacies of empire in and across contemporary antigang policies and practices. This means not only identifying racism as a formal strategy for policing the "war on gangs" in contemporary Britain, but also highlighting, understanding, and interrupting its enduring nature, given Britain's punitive and exploitative history of constructing, controlling, and punishing colonial subjects as criminal collectives. My argument rests on a two-sided analysis, with the first part examining official discourse about race and gang crime through Britain's colonial history of constructing colonized communities as networks of criminality. The second part situates the resulting power relation between Black people and the British CJS in a history of British colonial efforts to collectively control, punish, and exploit racial subjects constructed as criminal collectives.

The Enduring Discourse of Race and Collective Criminality

Before situating the racialization of gangs in Britain's history of empire, it is worth briefly illuminating the entanglement between notions of race and gang crime across the formal knowledge structures of policing. In October 2014, London's Metropolitan Police released figures revealing that of the 3,422 individuals registered in its Gangs Matrix database, a staggering 78.2 percent (2,683) were classified as Black, whereas a mere 439 were classified as white (Bridges 2015). As of May 2018, 3,362 people were in the database, with 89 percent from BAME groups, compared to 87 percent in October 2016(Gayle 2018). For Lee Bridges (2015), once we consider" such organised criminal activities as drug-dealing; sex and people trafficking; multi-handed robbery: fraud: theft (including auto theft) and extortion; football hooliganism; and racist violence, these figures are simply not credible." Furthermore, in 2016, figures from the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) showed that the matrix is overwhelmingly comprised of young and male "gang nominals" and that 35 percent have never committed a serious offense. This suggests that "mere 'membership' of or association with a 'gang' appears itself to be sufficient for inclusion on the database" (Bridges 2015).

This official construction of young Black people as the primary perpetrators of gang crime, which rests on "ad hoc and inconsistent standards and procedures" (Amnesty International 2018, 43) for adding individuals to the Matrix, represents the most recent phase in the formalization of myths about Black criminality. It undoubtedly signals an evolution in the discursive overlap between race and crime that has produced a succession of racist images, ranging from "the pimp of the 1950s, to the Black Power activist of the 1960s, to the mugger of the 1970s, to the rioter of the 1980s and, quite possibly, to the ultimate folk devil, the underworld 'Yardie' of the 1990s" (Keith 1993,245). However, it also suggests the resurgence of a colonial racism, given that the construction of Black communities as networks of criminality and the corresponding legitimization of racism as a strategy for policing and punishing groups of racial subjects are coterminous processes not entirely confined to the here and now. Rather, resonant in them are overlapping conceptions of race and collective criminality that were a central modality of British colonial control, punishment, and exploitation.

The question of crime in Britain's colonies, in terms of how it was formally conceptualized and the crime-control measures that were formulated and implemented on racial subjects by colonial authorities, was a central and continuous, although shifting, feature of colonial governance. Ajay Skaria (1997) offers a useful starting point for unpacking the construction of colonized groups as networks of criminality. Skaria (ibid., 729) notes that throughout the nineteenth century, entire tribes in British-ruled India "were attributed adjectives such as 'wild,' 'savage,' 'plundering,' or 'predatory,' and nouns like 'groups,' 'bands,' 'tribes,' 'races,' or even 'castes'" by colonial officials. This process of primitivization also included classifying tribal communities as racially and culturally distinct from Hindu castes. However, the differences constructed by the British between castes and tribes were secondary to identifying both sets of collectives as uncivilized in order to preserve a distinction between colonizer and colonized (ibid.). The rule of law, "that highest achievement of civilization" (Gilroy 1987,108), was inevitably critical to these colonial myths, as it shaped and was shaped by racist discourses that defined colonized subjects as naturally lawless, having yet to fulfill their historical potential for law and order, or some contradictory combination of both (Goldberg 2002).

A pivotal moment in the institutionalization of the notion of colonized tribes and castes working together for criminal purposes was the development of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in British-ruled India. Established in 1829, the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was, like contemporary antigang police units, a police intelligence bureau tasked with gathering data on suspected criminal gangs that served to assist in securing convictions (Brown 2014). The department emerged in response to growing concerns among colonial officials over the phenomenon of thuggee: the idea that certain natives operated in gangs with the aim of befriending travelers who were thought to possess cash, jewelry, gold, and other valuables, and then robbing and murdering their victims. Mark Brown (2014), as well as Claire Anderson (2004), add that the Thuggee and Dacoity Department materialized through a discourse that initially defined thuggee as a criminal threat arising from religious custom, because the gangs were considered to commit robbery and murder in worship of the Hindu goddess Kali.

The idea of thuggee as a problem emerging from religious custom extended into one that constructed certain castes and tribes as inherently criminal (Schwarz 2010). This racial ordering of whole communities as preconditioned for criminality was codified into law through the notorious Criminal Tribes Act (CTA). Passed in 1871, the CTA emerged from a combination of police intelligence on suspect communities and a series of preceding laws designed to tackle thuggee (Brown 2014). It made mandatory the registration of "any tribe, gang or class of persons" across Northern India (and later nationwide) that local government had reason to believe was "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences" (Criminal Tribes Act 1871 Section 2, cited in Brown 2014). Registered tribes, including the Magahiya Doms, the Sansyah, and the Minas, were deemed by law to be criminal by nature. Furthermore, the CTA "provided a framework for dealing with threats to the colonial state that now operated not at the level of individual criminals, but at the level of whole tribes and classes" (Brown 2014, 4). Hence, the bill formalized a discourse in which myths about race and collective criminality combined to define colonized communities. By independence in 1947, the CTA had classified some three million people as part of criminal tribes (Brown 2002).

The construction of colonized communities as networks of criminality is not confined to a particular colonial epoch or territory but is evident across empire, albeit in mutated form. For instance, tribes of Somali origin in Kenya's North Eastern Province were also recognized by the British as collectively criminal, because they were suspected of organized gun running, cattle theft, and other illegal activities (Whittaker 2015). Furthermore, during Britain's brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Kenya, the Kikuyu tribe was categorized as a network of support for Mau Mau rebels (Newsinger 2006). British paranoia about a collective agenda against its authority, coupled with state-sponsored propaganda that racialized the Mau Mau as "primitive savages, barely human, who had to be put down"(Newsinger 2006, 190), legitimized the extensive torture, rape, and killing of Kikuyu people. Thus, it seems that the racialized formation, development, and application of modern principles like the rule of law and law enforcement, as well as the legitimacy of colonial rule, were not only contingent upon ideas about colonized spaces harboring naturally and/or historically lawless individuals. Equally important was a discourse that defined racial subjects as gangs and tribes of criminals, based on ideas about group kinship, communal networks, and shared racial, religious, cultural, and political identity.

By situating the racialization of gang crime against this colonial backdrop, it becomes apparent that there is some continuity from the colonial to the postcolonial concerning the formal construction of racialized subjects as criminal collectives. This does not mean that the racialization of gangs in contemporary Britain is a direct extension of the criminalization of colonized communities across distant times and spaces, nor that colonial discourses of collective criminality offer a straightforward explanation of contemporary overlaps between notions of race and gang crime. Nonetheless, analyzing the discursive entanglement between race and gang crime through Britain's colonial history has important theoretical, empirical, and political implications. More precisely, like racism generally, we might recognize the race-gang nexus as "a scavenger ideology, which gains its power from its ability to pick out and utilize ideas and values from other sets of ideas and beliefs in specific socio-historical contexts" (Solomos & Back 1996,18-19). Unpacking how racialized discourse about gang crime variably reinvents itself over time and space is critical to a broader antiracism agenda. Such an exercise emphasizes the persistence of institutional racism in a post-Macpherson climate that impetuously celebrates its erasure and works toward disrupting the momentum of racism to reproduce itself in diverse ways across today's British CJS.

Racism and Collective Control, Punishment, and Exploitation

To this point, I have suggested that examining the racialization of gangs through Britain's long history of characterizing colonized communities as criminal networks is important for inverting a post-Macpherson climate in which institutional racism, as an enduring feature of British society, is all too easily disavowed. With young Black people constructed through official discourse as the primary perpetrators of gang crime, and antigang police command structures correspondingly positioned along racial lines, it is inevitable that racism variably materializes as a strategy for policing and punishing gangs. Indeed, Black people are disproportionately subject to a frightening mix of militarized antigang policing measures, including armed policing, stop-and-search practices, gang injunctions, and multi-agency forms of surveillance (Bridges 2015, Williams & Clarke 2016). The latter symbolize a growing police state, where essential everyday services are required to identify and monitor gang suspects under the direction and leadership of police. In addition, because gang data are shared by police with various nonpolice agencies, a process that violates data protection laws (Mohdin 2018), the racialization of gang crime has a detrimental impact on the employment, education, housing, immigration status, and general life prospects of young Black people.

Perhaps the most punitive effect of the discursive overlap between race and collective criminality is the needless and disproportionate dragging of clusters of Black youth into the British prison system via the legal doctrine of joint enterprise (JE) (Bridges 2015). JE is a law which enables multiple people to be prosecuted for the same offense, "even where the suspects may have played different roles and in many cases, where a suspect was not in the proximity of the offence committed" (Williams & Clarke 2016, 7). Convictions could initially be secured if prosecution teams demonstrated the principles of common purpose (an association between all of the suspects involved) and foresight (that suspects knew what the principal offender was going to do). In early 2016, the UK Supreme Court ruled that prosecution teams must now also demonstrate the principle of intent, because judges had been misinterpreting an outcome that might be foreseeable as criminal intent (Bowcott 2016).The case of Ameen Jogee, who was with Mohammed Hirsi when he fatally stabbed Paul Fyfe and whose retrial saw his original conviction under JE for murder overturned to manslaughter, was a watershed moment for differentiating foresight from intent.

Although official data regarding JE convictions are hard to come by, the campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) currently supports over 800 people (the youngest being 13 years old) imprisoned under the principles of JE for crimes they did not personally commit, almost 80 percent of whom come from BAME communities. (1) Furthermore, 53.1 percent of the 241 respondents imprisoned under JE law in Williams and Clarke's (2016,14) report were from BAME communities, whereas 45.6 percent self-disclosed as white British, thus likely indicating "the disparity in the use of JE against BAME people." The authors add that 78.9 percent of BAME prisoners convicted under JE suggested that prosecution teams invoked the notion of the gang during their trial, compared to 38.5 percent of white prisoners. Undoubtedly overseeing this disproportionality is the overrepresentation of Black people in police gang databases, which assist prosecutors in alleging gang membership and satisfying the principles of JE. Hence, JE is a weapon for collective control and punishment that, given the racialization of gang crime, is disproportionately used on Black people. However, situating contemporary practices of collective punishment in a colonial context prompts one to consider the political economy of JE, which has yet to be seriously considered, scrutinized, and challenged.

Given that discourses of collective criminality are not confined to a particular colonial time and space, the collective control, discipline, and punishment of racial subjects by the British span a broad historical and geographical canvas that includes Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Kenya. As mentioned above, collective punishment was a grim feature of the British counterinsurgency campaign against the Mau Mau. Perhaps the most punitive measure exercised by British troops and police on the Kikuyu tribe was villagization, which involved the forced displacement of over a million people from their lands into regulated villages with heinous living conditions, where suspected Mau Mau sympathizers were subject to horrific acts of violence (Newsinger 2006). Villagization was designed to disperse the Kikuyu tribe and, thus, crush a supposed network of support for Mau Mau rebels. However, there was also a political economy to the measure, as it made way for colonial officials to embark on programs of commercial agriculture (Anderson 2005).

In addition to this economic dimension to Britain's use of collective punishment on the Kikuyu in Kenya, there was a political economy to collective control and management across the colonies. For instance, the formal construction of tribes and castes as criminal networks via the CTA in British-ruled India meant that colonized groups were collectively and systematically subject to numerous control and disciplinary measures. These included requiring registered communities to regularly present themselves to police as part of a broader surveillance agenda, restricting their movement (like gang injunctions today), and cruelly removing children from their parents and placing them in reformatory centers (Nigam 1990). Furthermore, before the CTA was introduced, 3,849 individuals were punished under thuggee laws between 1826 and 1841 for allegedly belonging to gangs practicing thuggee and other criminal activities (Anderson 2004). Notably, the most common punishment following police surveillance and conviction was hard labor, with 1,504 people transported to penal settlements overseas during that 15-year period (ibid.). India's penal labor market expanded further under the provisions of the CTA, when whole communities were routinely moved onto special settlements where forced agricultural labor was carried out under police supervision (Brown 2002, Nigam 1990).

Penal labor was justified through a discourse of reform that spun it as a necessary means to discipline criminalized groups into settled communities and, thus, "reclaim them from their morally and socially moribund position" (Brown 2002, 412)--a clear contradiction with dominant ideas of inherent criminality. However, there was also "a politics and economy of containment" (ibid., 410). To elaborate, British colonial officials associated the supposed criminal tendencies of communities registered under the CTA with a collective disinterest in and resistance to capitalist principles of wage labor and changing modes of production put forth through the "civilizing mission" (Anderson 2004, Brown 2002). Hence, the identification and investigation of suspect castes and tribes by police, and their subsequent registration and punishment through hard labor, proved convenient for developing an extensive pool of penal labor. This mass of imprisoned workers contributed greatly toward ensuring that "Indians and their productive labour were no longer to be isolated within a local feudal economy but instead connected into a framework of British global capitalism" (Brown 2002,418) and, so, economic exploitation.

Given the contrasts in and between colonial and post/neocolonial discourses of race and collective criminality, there are many differences between the strategies of racial governance that materialize from current discourses about gang crime and those that were exercised on criminalized communities across Britain's former colonies. Despite the ambiguity of colonial relations and their resonance in the post/neocolonial era, drawing on Britain's colonial history to examine current efforts by the British CJS to collectively control and punish Black people raises questions about a power relation in which racial discrimination and capitalist exploitation work in tandem. In other words, Britain's history of collectively criminalizing, controlling, and exploiting racial subjects indicates that the formal construction of gang crime as a Black phenomenon, alongside the use of JE law to disproportionately incarcerate clusters of Black youth, are integral to a broader discursive and material basis that sustains the prison as a privatized profit-making entity.

Pioneering activist and scholar Angela Davis discusses at length how unemployed Black people across the United States "constitute an unending supply of raw material" (Gordon 1999, 153) for an expanding neoliberal agenda she terms the prison industrial complex. Davis scrutinizes how corporations claim contracts from governments to manage state prisons, and then profit from inmates using their facilities or by using prisoners as a source of cheap labor. Regarding prison labor in Britain, former Conservative Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced plans in 2012 to double the number of employed prisoners to 20,000 by 2020--an initiative that will currently impact just under 25 percent of Britain's incarcerated, who comprise one of the highest prison populations across Europe. In 2017, there were over 86,000 prisoners in England and Wales. As such, the incarceration rate stood at 148.3 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population, which is higher than Spain (137.9), France (98.3), Italy (86.4), and Germany (77.4) (Travis 2017a). This trend has persisted despite overcrowding, understaffing, regular prison uprisings, a surge in the number of inmate deaths and self-harm incidents, and prison conditions that, as recently revealed, fall woefully below the government's own basic standards of safety (Grierson 2019, Savage & Townsend 2018).

Overseeing the Rehabilitation Revolution (as the Ministry of Justice calls it) are enterprises such as ONE3ONE Solutions and G4S, which profit from encouraging businesses to transfer production to British prisons and administering low-skilled, repetitive, and low-paying jobs to inmates (Aviram 2013). In fact, HM Prison Oakwood, located in the Midlands and run by G4S, recently built a workshop that created 400 jobs for inmates, adding to prisoners already working in areas such as carpentry and plumbing (Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee 2016). Furthermore, before being sacked as justice secretary, Liz Truss announced plans to reform Britain's prisons, which included an explicit commitment to consolidating them as "places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement" (Travis 2016).

Like British colonial officials before them, state and corporate personnel justify these unprincipled profit-making practices by insisting that prison work provides inmates with the necessary skills to find employment, turn away from crime, and reduce their chances of reoffending upon release. Prison labor is further sugarcoated by unhelpful claims that prisoners admire, respect, and are advocates (Pandeli 2014) of an absurd reality in which they earn as little as 3 [pounds sterling] a day (2) for levels of productivity that ensure substantial profits for the enterprises managing their labor. However, far from an institution of rehabilitation, the prison is nothing short of a money-making machine that is fueled by a dynamic relationship between racism and capitalism, discrimination and exploitation. Hence, the power relation between Black people and the British CJS that materializes from official entanglements between notions of race and (collective) lawlessness in large part drives, and is driven by, Britain's burgeoning prison industrial complex.

Black people in Britain and elsewhere are, of course, not the only ones exploited by profit-making prisons, as Angela Davis notes. However, even The Lammy Review (Lammy 2017) recognizes that individuals from BAME communities comprise a staggering 25 percent of Britain's incarcerated, while forming merely 14 percent of the general population, thus making them "by far the most threatened members of our society when it comes to the new form of enslavement being implemented through the prison system" (Gordon 1999, 154). Furthermore, although the government has yet to concede a direct correlation between race, JE convictions, and prison labor, Lammy (2017) finds that young Black people are nine times more likely to face incarceration than their young white counterparts, with the disproportionate association of Black youth with gang activity acknowledged as influencing sentencing decisions (Travis 2017b). Hence, the racialization of gang crime and the racist use of JE are processes that should be considered in a colonial context, because they disproportionately fast-track clusters of racial subjects into a profit-making prison/punishment system. In doing so, it is conceivable that they also speak to a colonial tradition whereby colonized groups penalized for collective criminality fueled an ever-growing pool of penal labor for the sake of profitable collective punishment.


By situating racialized discourse about gang crime and the resulting power relations between Black communities and the British CJS in a colonial context, it becomes clear that the race-gang nexus is a deep-rooted and enduring form of institutional racism. The discursive overlaps between race and lawlessness in general, and race and collective lawlessness in particular, endure because they legitimize varying strategies of racial governance, discipline, and exploitation that are an intrinsic feature of modern political arrangements, or what David Theo Goldberg (2002) terms "the racial state." Destabilizing the hegemonic status of law (enforcement), order, imprisonment, and capitalism--principles that form the fabric of modern society--to reveal them as constitutive of, and constituted by, racist formations discredits popular and political claims that institutional racism can be overcome after a few years of social and political soul-searching following Macpherson. It also suggests that disrupting the regenerative capacities of institutional racism requires a gradual and committed abolition of modern structures like the police and prison system, whose emergence, development, and unquestioned acceptance are steeped in racist and capitalist power relations.

The fact that formal knowledge structures like gang databases discursively construct groups of Black youth as the primary perpetrators of gang crime makes ending them critical to disrupting the mechanics of racism. As such, it is worth reiterating the point made by Williams and Clarke (2016, 5) regarding how formal knowledge creation about gangs requires "urgent reflection." Williams and Clarke's statement is important, because the racialized composition of antigang apparatuses such as gang databases not only reflects an age-old myth about race and collective criminality but actively reproduces it. Furthermore, JE law is, to quote JENGbA's Gloria Morrison, "a sledgehammer in the hands of the police and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] when it comes to fighting 'gangs"' (Fekete 2012). The fact that JE's destructive logic of collective punishment recreates a colonial experience based on controlling and disciplining racial subjects on a group basis, as does its devastating capacity to disproportionately drag clusters of Black people into an expanding and exploitative prison industrial complex, renders its abolition necessary.


My thanks to Sanjay Sharma, Monica Degen, Jaspreet Nijjar, and the two anonymous reviewers for their useful feedback on some of the points made in this article.


(1.) See

(2.) Becoming Green, an environmental roofing and refitting company from South Wales, was found to be paying local prisoners this unacceptable wage for working in their telephone sales division (Malik 2012).


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Jasbinder S. Nijjar *

* Jasbinder S. Nijjar is a PhD student in the Department of Social Sciences, Media, and Communications at Brunei University London. He is currently examining the relationship between institutional racism and the militarization of policing in London. He has written for journals including Sociological Research Online, Race & Class, and Popular Communication. He is also the editorial assistant of the online open-access darkmatter journal.
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Author:Nijjar, Jasbinder S.
Publication:Social Justice
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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