At 19, I was stopped and searched 12 times in one year. I want to save other young Black men from the same fate

In the year ending March 2022, there were 27.2 Stop and Searches for every 1,000 Black people (Picture: Sam Lawson)

‘We’re looking for a male of your description’, the police officer said as I rolled down my window. 

I was 19 and it was the umpteenth time that year that I had been stopped. 

Before I knew it, I was outside the vehicle, being searched and asked if I had any drugs on my person, where I’d got my nice car. It went on for an hour.  

I’d been working in radio since I was 16 and was doing reasonably well for my age. Most of my friends were in a similar position, and as a result we all had nice things.

My car, a Mercedes A-Class, brought me lots of unwanted attention from the police, but it didn’t seem to matter what vehicle I was in (I ended up selling my car for something cheaper), whether I was alone, with mates, or if I was just walking down the street.

I was getting stopped by the authorities consistently. And 12 times that year alone. 

Growing up, I had friends of all races, but there were stark contrasts in the way I was treated depending on who I was with.

Travelling with my white friends, for example, was always so much easier. I’d rarely get stopped, and if we did the police would simply ask for licence and insurance before sending us on our way.

I was getting stopped by the authorities consistently (Picture: Sam Lawson)

But with my Black and Asian mates it was always different.  

I remember being in Kilburn with friends over 20 years ago when we saw a white woman being harassed by her partner. She was clearly in distress, so we decided to intervene. 

Despite her partner being aggressive, we were confident he wasn’t going to do anything against four guys, and after someone called the police to report the ongoing incident, we expected them to ask us for statements when they turned up.

Instead, we ended up being the ones questioned – why were we in the area? What were we all doing together? Two of my friends were even stopped and searched for drugs

The worst part though, was that the woman we helped never spoke up. Rather than defend us, she stayed silent.

From that day, I became a bystander. I didn’t want to be the person who was going to end up in trouble for helping others.

Even when me and my friends would be minding our own business, it felt like the police were pouncing on us (Picture: Sam Lawson)

It’s such a horrible thing to have to defy all your natural instincts, but unfortunately the actions of police have caused these divides and tensions.

The way they treat us has a trickle-down effect. It demonises Black people and impacts how we’re regarded – by the woman on the street, by passersby, teachers, employers. 

Even when me and my friends would be minding our own business, it felt like the police were pouncing on us, knowing that we weren’t fully aware of our rights

We had no idea that, if they informed us that we resembled a suspect (regardless of whether that person was real or manufactured), it was considered ‘reasonable grounds’ to carry out a search.

Nor did we know that our rights entitled us to know what they were searching for, or that we could get a record of the encounter. 

Without this knowledge, we often got frustrated, wouldn’t instantly cooperate and instead asked questions – which in turn would spark frustration and things would escalate.

Our pockets would be emptied, cars searched and we’d be held for long periods of time, even when we said we had to leave to get to meetings or appointments. 

As a child, my mum taught me what to do if I was ever stopped by the police (Picture: Sam Lawson)

As I got older and into my late 20s, I taught myself about the grounds that police can stop people. Though, by that time, it had largely ceased happening to me – I think because I was too old. 

From what I’ve seen, this is something that primarily happens to Black boys and young men – many of whom don’t know that they could be being searched unjustly. 

In the year ending March 2022, there were 27.2 Stop and Searches for every 1,000 Black people compared to 5.6 for every 1,000 white people. Look at the huge disparity there. 

Boys between 15 and 19 were stopped most often, with 71 stop and searches per 1,000 people. 

It’s absolutely ridiculous and something I want to help change. 

Now 43, I work as a creative managing director, and have been working as a communications expert with Centric – a community-led organisation in Lambeth and Southwark dedicated to enhancing the skills and potential of local residents.

In December 2023, they partnered with advertising agency Hijinks to create Legalitees, which is a community research-led fashion brand that aims to spread knowledge on stop and search rights.

On the back of these T-shirts is a piece of art created by someone who has been impacted by stop and search. This is my shirt (Picture: Legalitees)

It’s hoped that the widespread presence of these shirts could act as a statement (Picture: Legalitees)

On the back of these T-shirts is a piece of art created by someone who has been impacted by stop and search. While, on the front, you have your legal rights printed upside down so you can read them. 

The aim is that if you’re stopped while wearing the top, you can instantly check what your rights are instead of having to Google them, which can be hard when police can get tetchy upon seeing a phone. 

Even if you’re not the one being stopped and searched, wearing one can allow you to help if you see it happening to someone else. It’s also hoped that the widespread presence of these shirts could act as a statement and potentially alter the behaviour of the police in the long run.

For now though, I am honoured to have been asked to design one of the pieces of art. I took inspiration from other artists on the project, but two stories in particular really hit home.

Matty’s story of experiencing frequent stop and searches and being treated with suspicion really touched a nerve. While Ishmael’s tale of watching his older brother being put on the ground in handcuffs after a confrontational stop and search broke my heart. 

I can’t wait to see everyone wearing my top (Picture: Legalitees)

If you’re stopped while wearing the top, you can instantly check what your rights are (Picture: Legalitees)

I am honoured to have been asked to design one of the pieces of art (Picture: Legalitees)

My design, however, was inspired by the death of George Floyd, as well as similar incidents in the UK. 

In my artwork, you can see a police officer kneeling on the back of a Black man, handcuffed on the ground. Someone captures and shares this moment on their phone, which leads to protests and activism due to the power of social media. 

This is an extreme possible outcome of stop and search and the biggest fear that a lot of ethnic minorities have. 

As a child, my mum taught me what to do if I was ever stopped by the police. ‘You’re Black, so don’t show any anger, frustration, aggression – basically just sit there and do nothing if you come face to face with police. Doing anything at all is going to create more problems.’ 

I know from experience that it’s a common conversation Black parents have to have with their children, but I wish it wasn’t needed.

Just recently I was in Westfield and I saw a queue of young Black males – around 20 years old – waiting to be searched at a temporary police booth. All I could think was that these young people were going to be hugely affected by this interaction.

I’m sure most of them didn’t know their rights, and it’s them I want to reach. 

I don’t want them to feel unprepared when they are stopped. I want to raise awareness of how this policy unfairly targets Black men. I want reform to make sure it’s being deployed impartially and fairly – or scrapped completely – because at the moment it doesn’t work. 

I can’t wait to see everyone wearing my top and though it won’t make the issue suddenly disappear, it will put a smile on my face because then I’ll know I’ve played a part in stopping this happening to someone else. 

You can find out more about Legalitees here

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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