Those of us who sometimes imagine the freedom of being fifteen again have forgotten that being fifteen means going around in a body you hate: a body that seems misshapen, that people might laugh at; a body that smells, sometimes; that sprouts unwanted hair. Even worse if it’s a body that menstruates, cramping and gushing and threatening to leave mortifying stains on upholstery. Worse still if it’s a racialised body, distant from white ideals of beauty, more vulnerable to slurs and violence, less liable to be protected from harm.
In the changing rooms at school, we’d engage in elaborate contortions to peel off our clothes by holding our coats or jumpers around us, like flimsy Victorian bathing machines, each too preoccupied with her own embarrassment to look at anyone else anyway. No one ever used the showers. After PE, we’d perform the same convoluted acrobatics to wriggle back into our uniforms and return to the classroom in a collaborative fog of sweat. We stank, but the much greater humiliation of bodily exposure had been averted.
Child Q was fifteen when the teachers at her London school called the police because they thought they could smell cannabis. Those teachers then stood outside the room as if it was nothing to do with them while police officers strip-searched their student, a frightened Black child, forcing her to remove the underwear containing her menstrual pad, and then lean over, part her buttocks and cough. There were no drugs. Even if there had been, compelling a child to expose her genitals with no guardian present is on any moral view a much more egregious offence than the possession of a substance less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
Afterwards, the child said: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again … But I do know this can’t happen to anyone, ever again.’ She is now suing the school and the Metropolitan Police. The Met carried out over 172,000 strip searches between 2016 and 2021, more than 9000 of them on children, some as young as twelve. More than a third of those strip-searched were Black, almost three times the proportion of Black people in London. On Saturday, crowds of anti-racism protesters gathered around Stoke Newington police station, chanting ‘racist cops, out of schools.’ Hackney’s police commander, Marcus Barnett, who last month described stop and search as a ‘brilliant’ tool, tried to speak the usual platitudes, but was drowned out.
Black children are systematically treated as older than they are, and not only by the police. A 2017 US study, Girlhood Interrupted, asked 325 adults to rate the extent to which they thought Black and white girls aged between five and fourteen were independent, took on adult responsibilities, needed support and comfort, were knowledgeable about sex, and seemed ‘older than their age’. Across almost every measure and age group, Black girls were reckoned to be more adult than their white peers.
A systematically biased belief that children with particular social identities are more grown up usually ends up hurting them. The myth that girls are inherently more mature than boys (rather than socialised to be so) means that girls shoulder greater responsibility while boys get away with more wrongdoing. This effect is compounded by racism. Black girls aren’t given as much leeway, nurturing and protection as other children. They are less likely to be taken seriously when reporting sexual harassment and abuse, and more likely to face harsh penalties when they misbehave. In the UK, Black Caribbean girls are more than twice as likely to be excluded from school as white girls, and the numbers are growing faster than for boys.
Met officers don’t force 35,000 people a year to take their clothes off to keep London safe. Rather, it’s a tactic to obliterate a person’s dignity. The philosopher Koshka Duff was arrested by Met officers in 2013 after handing a legal advice card to a Black fifteen-year-old who was being stopped and searched. The transcript of the CCTV from the police station documents the arresting officers being ordered by a senior colleague to strip-search Duff ‘by any means necessary’ in order to show her that ‘resistance is futile’. ‘Treat her like a terrorist,’ Sergeant Kurtis Howard said. ‘I don’t care.’ Duff recently described the ordeal:
Imagine you are surrounded by an armed gang. They tie your hands and legs together, pin you to the ground, and cut off your clothes with scissors. While grabbing you all over, ripping out your earrings and hitting your head off the concrete floor, they crack jokes about the benefits of strapless bras. They call you childish for objecting.
In Abolishing the Police, edited by Duff, the philosopher Daniel Loick notes that police officers in the US are two to four times as likely as civilians to commit acts of domestic violence:
members of the police force are often recruited from masculinist milieus in which harshness, violence and domineering behaviour are commonplace and valorised as ‘manly’. These tendencies are further cultivated during service and cannot be restrained to it.
A year ago, Wayne Couzens used his police ID to abduct Sarah Everard. He is now serving a life sentence for her rape and murder. Last week he was charged with four independent counts of indecent exposure in the weeks before he kidnapped her. Last month, the Independent Office for Police Conduct published a ‘learning report’ following Operation Hotton, a ‘series of nine linked independent investigations concerning serving police officers from the Metropolitan Police Service’. They ‘found evidence of discrimination, misogyny, harassment and bullying … these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few “bad apples”.’
It is harder than ever to deny that the police are an unfixable menace. Yet their violence is smoothed along by our complicity, by the everyday policing that has so many of us roped into surveilling and reporting one another for minor infractions. There is no excuse for it. Teachers know what nakedness means to a fifteen-year-old and they know how the state treats Black children. Resistance is sometimes as simple as not calling the police.