– and bloody annoyed at the constant micro and macro racism of the British police
By Des Willie
My day started as it often does when I’m shooting with the alarm going off way too early and just at the point when I’d got back to sleep after a fitful night worrying about how early my alarm was set for. I showered, made coffee but no breakfast. There would be food at work.
I’m a photographer and that day I was shooting ad-hoc ‘specials’ on a film set. I was booked to take ‘unit’ stills which are the action and the behind the scenes ‘making of’ pictures but also on this day it was decided it would be good to try and get some posed pictures as well. Ordinarily I like to do this with an assistant but the call had come in late and as I couldn’t envision it being at all complicated I decided to fly solo. I’d left the house at 5.45 for my store where I keep the larger items of my kit.
It was just daybreak when I loaded up so as I approached the Vauxhall one way system it was thin grey daylight.
I was distracted as I drove, the reality on these days was often far wide of the brief and short of the expectation. Would there be enough space to shoot how I wanted? Would I get the actors long enough to make good pictures or would it be a 2 minute get what you can?
I thought, I’m fifty something, graying, I’m driving a twelve year old estate car with a roof rack at 6.30 in the morning. Surely not.
But as I waited at the lights I noticed a police car to my right, parked in a side road but pointing towards the main road. As I pulled out and drove past I realised the officer in the driving seat was giving me ‘the look’ He’d been looking for something, someone to be suspicious of and he had found it. Me. I know this look because I’ve had it land on me thirty something times in the past. Mainly as a much younger man driving or walking around Birmingham or London decades ago but I doubt if anyone Black or visibly mixed-race reading this will not know what I mean by the look.
But no I thought, I’m fifty something, greying, I’m driving a twelve year old estate car with a roof rack at 6.30 in the morning. Surely not. But yes, as I pass by the car pulls out to follow me. All of the old protocols kick in. Speed, not above the speed limit obviously but not too slow, mental scan; brake lights, tyres, any reason at all I might get a ticket. Without looking like I reach for it I turn my phone off and put it in my jacket pocket. Know anyone with a driving while using a mobile phone ticket? I’ve got one. In the first week it became illegal, my phone was in my lap, spotted by a copper driving a police van at the lights side by side on the Old Kent Road. I’m not using it I protested, I can show you the call log, the message log. Not interested, take the on the spot fine or we’ll charge you and you’ll get a bigger fine and points on your licence.
I’m also thinking how bloody annoying this is.
“Is this your vehicle sir?’ The respectful address always sarcastic.
They follow me for about half a mile, I presume while running number plate checks then flash the blue lights and give one considerate blast on the siren. Although I’m waiting for it, it still makes me jump. I feel my heart rate increase.
I pull over and get out. I don’t want them talking down to me if I sit in the car. I briefly consider doing what a white lawyer friend of mine did when he was stopped for using a mobile and march up to the squad car and demand of them what they want. But know if this is going to pass without complete disruption to my day/life that’s not an option that’s open to me. I stand on the pavement and wait for the two officers to get out and approach. Suddenly I think shit, have I got a multi tool or penknife in a pocket anywhere, it’s too late to check.
Is this your vehicle sir? The respectful address, always sarcastic.
But as I say it I remember it was bought in my partners name. “But” and already I know I’m going to sound defensive, duplicitous.
It’s registered in my partners name. Fiona Lewis.
And does she know you’re driving the vehicle, sir?
She’s asleep, with another ten minutes before the alarm goes to get the kids up for school so technically no.
I can’t believe this now. I’m trying not to get irritated. The roads are getting busier, I’m noticing passers-by looking but not looking. Passing judgement.
Of course, it’s our family car but I drive it to work.
And are you driving to work now sir?
Yes I am.
Again a wave of slight panic rolls over me as I realise I don’t know where I’m going and the answer to the next question. Since I submitted to the power of the satnav like many I’m sure, I input the postcode and set off. But I can’t show them because my phone is off and in my pocket.
While the male officer has been asking questions the female cop has given the car a once over. She now rejoins us.
Can I ask you what you have in the car? Pointing to the bags of cameras, lights, stands, reflectors taking up the whole of the seats-down cargo area.
It’s photographic equipment. I’m a photographer, on my way to work. I need to be somewhere in Surrey by 7.45.
He looks at me suspiciously and you need all that to take a photo?
I can’t believe this now. I’m trying not to get irritated. The roads are getting busier, I’m noticing passers-by looking but not looking. Passing judgement. We are in Battersea, an archetypal London cheek by jowl wealthy and not wealthy area. ‘Wonder what he’s done/been there brother, I feel for you’ I imagine are the two varieties of thought.
They ask for ID. I get out my license and hand it to him.
The female officer is now feeling uncomfortable, almost apologetic.
Sometimes, you never know till you get there, I have to set up a studio but then also shoot action, I never know what I’m going to need. I’ve started rambling, over answering. Too much information.
The male cop has gone to their car now with my license. I presume to run the details through a cop database.
He comes back with a look on his face I can’t read.
Do you have commercial insurance?
I’m confused. I have insurance on my kit, I have public liability insurance, what has that got to do with this. I’m feeling a slight panic rise again because I don’t know where this is going, don’t know what he’s got and what I haven’t got that I should have.
I ask him what he means. He says You might have insurance but do you have insurance on the vehicle to use it for a commercial purpose?’
The penny drops. I’m thinking and speaking I think so, I mean I have the insurance I need.
Do you? he says
Yes, I think. But what happens here is you doubt it and doubt what you know. I looked in to my car insurance after driving an actor to a shoot and checking if I was covered. There is a clause allowing me to travel to and from work and to convey my equipment.
Yes I say.
So you have insurance to work from your car? You have commercial insurance?
No, but I am insured to drive to work. Listen, I have quite a drive and if I don’t leave now I will miss breakfast’ which comes out sounding petty.
lf you are carrying all this equipment for work you need commercial insurance?
Who is your insurance with?
I tell him. But, what’s that got to do with anything? Can’t you give me a producer and I’ll bring in my papers?
Just wait here.
He goes back to his car and makes a call. The female officer is now feeling uncomfortable, almost apologetic.
I tell all this now at this time of hyper focus on racism, injustice and the police not because this was some great travesty in itself but as a small example, a micro of the everyday
I really need to get to work.
I’m trying not to let anger rise.
I can hear him on the phone, I don’t know who he is talking to but I overhear …but he has equipment in the car, he isn’t insured for that.
I start to go over to find out who he is talking to but the police officer with me raises her hand against my chest to stop me. All I want now is for this ridiculous waste of everyone’s time to be over so I don’t insist. Just stand.
He comes back, hands me my driving licence, says nothing and goes back to his car. She sort of smiles an apology and turns and leaves as well. I still don’t know and never will who he was talking to, my insurers? His superiors? But he was trying to convince someone who believed otherwise that I was in the wrong. In order to give him grounds to charge me with something.
I tell all this now at this time of hyper focus on racism, injustice and the police not because this was some great travesty in itself but as a small example, a micro of the everyday and what that can mean. I am established in what I do. I was late for work and completely missed breakfast so ate nothing all morning but that was about it. But what if I had been a young black man, on his way to a new job? That officer was so determined to find something to get me on he called someone and when they told him he was wrong he argued with them.
the next person he stopped might not have been so lucky. And this is what it is about.
I’m not in any way equating my morning’s inconvenience with the murder of George Floyd obviously. I’m not even equating it with much worse racism I’ve encountered, never mind the really grave moments we have seen in this country. As it was I had a shit day at work. I was angry and hungry all morning. The little bit of extra creativity you have to find sometimes just wasn’t there so didn’t happen. But as I say being an hour late on that one day and not operating at 100% for one day couldn’t ruin my career. But the next person he stopped might not have been so lucky. And this is what it is about. The person in the next country might be less lucky still because the police there are easier with lethal force and more empowered in their racism.
The anger we’ve seen on the streets these last two weeks is a powerful coming together of people who have had enough. Had enough of all the micro and macro aggressions but also had enough of waiting politely for racist idolatry to be removed, had enough of a massive swing towards totalitarian, elitist thinking, had enough of populism, had enough of lies, had enough of injustice. And it’s young people. Young people get it. They get it because they can’t understand the world any other way. I talk to my 13 year old daughter and all she can understand is equality, justice and fairness. Whether it’s race, gender, sexuality, disability. They cannot understand how it can be seen any other way. And what she wants more than anything is to be old enough to be part of the resistance.
Des Willie is a London based stills photographer who has worked with a wide range of clients including organisations like NETFLIX, BBC, ITV, Channel 4, UKTV, SKY, AMC, Apple TV, many different private companies and NGOs like UNICEF, Comic relief, Action Aid, OXFAM, Rationalist Association and Chance for Childhood.