The Met is better than any police force in the Caribbean

I have been careful, and so has my editor, not to impose upon the readers of this column my intense preoccupation with the game of cricket. But the defeat of the West Indian cricket team in South Africa by five Tests to nil - the first time in their history that West Indies have lost by such a margin - amounts to an international incident. The cricket team is virtually the only practical and lasting example of unity among the English-speaking Caribbean islands.

Not even the destruction of Montserrat by volcanic activity, nor the devastation of some of the islands by a series of hurricanes can compare, in the minds of the Caribbean peoples, with defeat by the South Africans. I have been inundated with phone calls from my friends in the islands asking me what went wrong. Since I have watched, ball by ball, every moment of the five Tests on cable television, I could give them the technical reasons. Instead, I ask them to look in the mirror. West Indian cricket has degenerated to the same degree that West Indian society has, I insist. Shabby and sloppy are just two of the adjectives that come to mind. And, I add, spiritually and morally bankrupt. I have asked for the clippings of articles, tapes of radio and television programmes from the Caribbean. They have been arriving in a flood. And nowhere is there a single line or phrase, except in the articles by Tim Hector from Antigua, which indicates that articulate citizens of these small island states grasp this reality.

Yet among Caribbean peoples overseas, a different story is emerging. Last weekend, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on the Stephen Lawrence murder. It showed how Stephen's parents embodied the discipline, the order, the quiet but enduring charisma which is absent from those who live in the islands. Witness the authority they wielded over those angry youths involved in the fracas at the inquiry. The Lawrences have transcended their local community. They have become national leaders.

Police officers of all ranks now know that their organisations must not go the way of those in Trinidad, where I was born, in Jamaica, which I have visited umpteen times, or in that murderous little island of St Vincent.

Police officers in these islands kill ordinary citizens with amazing frequency. They are involved in every area of crime. They accept bribes from murderers and serious criminals to conceal evidence. They stop and search without reasonable cause on a huge scale. They set up roadblocks, and the only citizens who are allowed through without being turned over are recognisable individuals from official society or those with white skins. And no one bats an eyelid. They display the most murderous weapons in full view of the public. Life is cheap if the lawbreaker is of a certain class or caste in the society. Some magistrates and judges collude in all of this. It is left to the Privy Council in London to rescue citizens from the easy compliance of many of the courts of appeal in the Caribbean.

Here in the UK the Lawrence campaign has jolted police officers to the realisation that, if severe actions are not taken at once, then the Metropolitan Police and their counterparts outside London are headed the way of the Caribbean police. Many of the officers I know are more determined to get it right than those who accuse them of racism.

Let me offer a glimpse of change. Ron Davies was caught in his shenanigans on Clapham Common. In the past, his position in society would probably have saved him once he had said that a black man had robbed him. That would still be so in a comparable case in the Caribbean: a man like that would have been trampled on. He would have told the story that people in high places wanted to hear.

Not here in Brixton. And why? Because the Lawrences in their campaign had forced upon police officers the understanding that their treatment of blacks was "a litmus test" for their conduct in society as a whole. That is now the difference between England and the Caribbean.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage