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Lewisham Mums against 'sus laws' 1977-1980

Updated: Mar 9

Plague depicting key moments in bristol bus boycott of 1963 - protests, the five men behind the boycott (Stephenson, Bailey, Hackett, Evans, Henry and Prince Brown), and the first non-white bus crew hired Raghbir Singhhn

Britain of the 1970s and 1980s was a cold, bleak and unwelcoming place for the sons and daughters of immigrants who accepted Britain’s call for workers to help restore its post-war economy. There was widespread racism in housing, employment, and policing. African, Caribbean and South Asian heritage people in Britain were subjected to racist violence from far-right groups such as the National Front and struggled to find work despite being born in the UK. During this period, it was common for Black footballers to be subjected to racist chanting from crowd members.

It was a pivotal time for Britain and British Black History. The 1970s saw Britain try to come-to-terms with its post-colonial status. The decade was marked by four elections, blackouts, an IMF bailout, massive strikes, mass unemployment and 25% inflation. Life was hard for the ordinary working class Britons, and even harder for young Black people who faced racial discrimination in employment and policing.

In 1965, spurred on by the Bristol Bus Boycott, the Labour government enacted the Race Relations Act to make ‘racial discrimination unlawful in public places’. The act was later amended in 1968 to make it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland which had its own parliament at the time). It also created the Community Relations Commission to promote ‘harmonious community relations.’

But these laws didn’t cover the Police forces in the UK who had argued successfully to the then Labour government that it would prevent them from ‘doing their job properly.’ 

In particular, using the notorious ‘sus law’ to stop, search, arrest, detain and assault young Black people, some as young as 11 years-old. The law was based on section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act which was enacted to deal with a homeless population which had been swollen by veterans from the Napoleonic Wars and people displaced by the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Section 4 gave police the right to apprehend people suspected (hence ‘sus’) of ‘intent to commit an arrestable offence.’ As a result of a confected mugging scare in the early 1970s, police began to apply the law disproportionately and almost arbitrarily towards young Black people, especially in London. (1)

Under the ‘sus law,’ Black children as young 11 and 12-years old were routinely arrested for activities as inoffensive as waiting for a bus or walking down the road. In many cases, these Black youths - mainly boys - would be arrested and physically assaulted in the back of a police van or at the local station. Often they would be detained for days, without their families’ knowledge. And often they would be wrongly accused of a crime such as theft or conspiracy, in which case it became their word against the police’s. (1) 

Because under the law the burden of proof lay with the police. No physical evidence was required. It’s only requirement was two witnesses, almost always police officers, who could corroborate that they had reasonable belief that someone was about to commit an arrestable offence. In fact, more than 90% of convictions in sus cases were on the strength of police testimony alone.

Lord Boateng described the time in the Guardian newspaper:

“It was a very turbulent period in the history of Black people in Britain. We were up against overt racism on the part of not only the police but the entire criminal justice system. There were two Black solicitors in London and I was one of them. There were hardly any Black magistrates. There were hardly any Black police officers. Racism was rampant, and to be found everywhere.”

In 1977, a group of parents, led by Mavis Best, in Lewisham set up the ‘Scrap the SUS’ campaign to repeal the law. When Black youths were taken into custody, they would go down to the police station to get them out. Best said in an interview: “I used to go down to the police station and say: Come on. I demand that you let these kids out. I want to take them home. Because by then their parents were so debilitated by the whole thing that they couldn’t do anything.”

Under Best’s leadership, the group secured the help of a 28 year old community activist and lawyer, Paul Boateng (future Home Secretary and Labour Peer) to help them. He said ‘Best called me up out of the blue and just said: Would you come to a meeting on Friday?’.

The campaign first grew into a London-wide coalition rallied by the Black Parents Movement. As Black parents became more and more concerned about their children being targeted by the police. In Lambeth, Jean Bernard started the group ‘Lambeth Black Parents Against SUS.’ She said: “I never dreamed that police did the things they do. My attitude [of them] has changed drastically over the past two years.’

Veteran Black activist, Martha Osamor (now Baroness Osamor) recalled how Black mothers discussed the issue during the school pick-up. She joined the campaign whilst working as Community Outreach for the Tottenham Law Centre. Part of the Black People’s Organisations Campaign Against SUS (BPOCAS), a broad coalition of Black groups and lawyers, launched later in 1978.

The Scrap SUS campaign issued leaflets, ran stalls at public events, and drummed up support from the local press and other community members. Mavis said: “We used to scan the papers daily and if there was anything inaccurate about our community we would immediately respond with a rebuttal or story from our perspective. If we don’t do that then people tend to believe what they hear.”

Best would organise and attend demonstrations, and was often dragged away by the police herself. She also marshaled families and the community to attend court hearings en masse, to fight every case and to call as many witnesses as possible to contradict police evidence. “You have to cast your mind back to a time in which it was rare to challenge directly the evidence of the police,” says Boateng. “But a group of us came to the view that we had to be prepared to call them liars. We had to be ready to challenge them and bring home to magistrates that they themselves were being watched by the community.” (1)

Over time the campaign against ‘sus’ garnered nationwide support with TV stations and national newspapers covering the issue. Paul Boateng recalled: “The great strength of SUS campaign was it came from the grassroot experience of a group of Black women in Lewisham and came in time to embrace black and white people, churches, political parties, all united in the belief that this was a law that had to change.’

For three years, successive home secretaries, Conservative and Labour, failed to act on the Black community’s complaints. Mavis and Boateng even met with Merlyn Rees, the Labour home secretary at the time, to discuss the issue. He refused to take action as ‘the police commissioner felt strongly that without the power to stop and search the police wouldn’t be able to do their job properly’.

When questioned on the topic in 1980, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir David McNee stated that the reason for its disproportionate use on Black people was because they were “over-represented in offences of robbery and other violent theft.”

Paul Boateng described the problem with governments as: “The Home Office consistently under both Labour and Conservative home secretaries refused to accept that the ‘sus law’ was either inherently discriminatory or being used in a discriminatory way.’

But the Scrap SUS campaign’s efforts finally paid off. In February 1980, an all party home affairs committee on Race Relations and the ‘sus’ law began hearings into the law. Both Mavis and Boateng were called to give evidence to the committee. 

John Wheeler, Conservative MP for the city of Westminster, chaired the select committee and they had to use strong arm tactics to force the reforms. They issued the conservative home secretary William Whitelaw with a tough ultimatum: Repeal the law or we’ll put our own Bill before parliament. Wheeler said: “It was very controversial at the time, and I don't think I was always very popular.”

The ‘sus law’ based on Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act was finally repealed in August 1981. “It was an uphill struggle, but we believed in the justice of our cause, and we believed we would succeed,” says Boateng.

But we think that Mavis Best deserves the final word on scrapping the sus campaign: “It took us three years to convince politicians the need to repeal the Act. So, the credit must go to the Black community for this and no one else.”


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