Bianca Williams (third from left) was part of the 4x100m team that won gold at the 2018 European Championships and the Commonwealth Games the same year. (Picture Courtesy: British Athletics/Twitter)
It has been a little over a month since anti-racism protests have rocked America and gradually percolated through to different corners of the globe. The protests and the conversations have empowered many athletes to come out, talk about their experiences with racism and also offer support to the protesters and the movement itself. A big sign of how outdated the system really is can be found from the latest case surrounding British athlete Bianca WIlliams and her treatment at the hands of the Metropolitan Police in the UK.
Williams and her partner, Ricardo dos Santos, who are both coached by former Olympic champion Linford Christie, were stopped by the Met police on their way back home in Maida Vale, West London, on Saturday. Footage of the incident -- posted by Christie on Twitter -- shows the couple being forced out of the car and then handcuffed. In the video, Williams, who is obviously distressed, says repeatedly: “My son [her three month old] is in the car.”
In a statement the police said that officers were patrolling the area in which Williams was stopped because of an increase in youth violence. Later, having reviewed the footage the police released another statement noting that the couple were handcuffed because they were driving suspiciously, on the wrong side of the road and sped off when asked to stop. Additionally the commander for Central West, Helen Harper said having seen the footage they remained satisfied that there were no misconduct issues.
In the footage posted by Christie (with the caption “Racist police aren't just in America.”) a female voice can be heard saying, “Wait, wait, wait, he didn’t do anything.” When she later protests that her son is in the car, officers tell her to calm down. One officer appears to be trying to pull her from the car. The couple were handcuffed and detained for 45 minutes before being released.
Williams, who won gold in the 4x100m relay at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the European Championships the same year refused to accept the justification provided by the police. "That is false, we were never on the wrong side of the road. We were driving down through single-width roads,” she said. “We only found out about us driving on the wrong side of the road once they tweeted.”
Williams was also confused by the concern the police had about black tinted windows on her vehicle and clarified that they had come like that from the manufacturer Mercedes and were not illegal. Williams also confirmed later that the couple have decided to take the case down the legal route.
In what was perhaps the most damning sign of how systemic racism permeates our society and influences police decision making WIlliams described to the Guardian her partner’s reaction to being pulled up.
Dos Santos the Portuguese 400m record holder has been stopped by police before also. “He’ll just be like: ‘It’s a natural thing, it happens all the time’,” Williams said. “And for him to be like that, it’s really sad. Even when we were both handcuffed outside, he said: ‘Welcome to my world,’ and that hurt. It shouldn’t have to be like that.”
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In an interview with Sky News on Monday, Dos Santos himself said that in his interactions with the police it was always a case of being seen “as guilty until proven innocent.” He added, “The way they came out of the car was as if we were FBI top 10.”
The idea of ‘stop and search’ has been controversial and often pointed to as an example of racial bias influencing police decision making across the world. Williams' experience comes at a time when a lot of questions are being asked of policies such as these and their effectiveness in actually controlling crime.
Speaking at a remote House of Commons Human Rights Committee hearing, Doree Lawrence said it was "ludicrous" that black people could not drive around in expensive cars. Lawrence’s son Steven was murdered in a racist attack in London in 1999. The findings of a public inquiry into the murder found the Met Police to be ‘institutionally racist’ in its dealings. That, was twenty years ago, and very little has changed.
"Stop and search will continue to be an element young people go through on a day-to-day basis," Lawrence said, "And when they are stopped, it is not just one officer or two officers, you have six or seven officers standing around one individual, a young person who is probably frightened to death because he doesn't know what is going to happen to him.”
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"So if now people have mobile phones and start recording what is happening to them, we have the issues where police say it is one thing and the individual says it's another, and the authority believes the police over the individual. That is something that continues to happen."
Williams says that despite making headlines for the incident she will move on without feeling ashamed of anything in the incident. “I’m still Bianca Williams and I’m still going to compete for GB and hopefully make the Olympic team next year, so I’m still going to continue doing what I’m doing. And I just hope that more people don’t experience what I’ve experienced, because it’s horrible and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan said he took allegations of racial profiling "extremely seriously" and he had raised the case with the Met. The Independent Office for Police Complaints clarified that it has not received an official complaint yet.
According to the UK’s Home Office data black people in England and Wales are almost 10 times as likely to be stopped and searched than white people. The gap has widened steadily since 2015, when it was four times as likely, to 9.7 times as likely in 2019.