The Blurb On The Back:
Suddenly, a single cry rose from inside the crowd.
“Kill the black one first.”
There was a roar. Guttural, like laughter, like fury, the fury of the mob.
A story about race, identity, belonging and displacement, Kill The Black One First is the memoir from Michael Fuller – Britain’s first ever black Chief Constable, whose life and career is not only a stark representation of race relations in the UK, but also a unique morality tale of how humanity deals with life’s injustices.
Michael Fuller was born to Windrush-generation Jamaican immigrants in 1959, and experienced a meteoric career in policing, from the beat to the Brixton inferno, through cutting-edge detective work, to the frontline of drug-related crime and violence on London’s most volatile estates. He took a pivotal role in the formation of Operation Trident, which tackled gun crime and gang warfare in the Afro-Caribbean community, and was later appointed as Chief Constable of Kent Police.
Kill The Black One First is an unflinching account of a life in policing during a tumultuous period of race relations throughout the UK, and a tale of how the human spirit can endure cultural barriers, prejudice and race hate.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
A police officer for 35 years, Michael Fuller became Chief Constable of Kent Police in 2004 (the first black officer to attain this rank) and then Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service. This is a guarded memoir that illustrates what an intelligent, accomplished, driven man he is, rising from a childhood spent in care and racism within the Metropolitan Police but chooses to be silent on institutional racism and how to change it.
It’s always difficult to review a memoir because you’re basically trying to judge how someone accounts for their life and their experiences. So I’m going to make clear from the off that this is a clearly written, easy to read memoir. Fuller is clearly an incredibly accomplished man who is self-reliant, very determined and ambitious. Having been taken into care when he was a young child during the 1960s, he “beat the odds” of the care system, obtaining good academic grades, using the opportunity given to him by the Metropolitan Police to obtain an undergraduate degree in social psychology from Sussex University and then rising through the ranks (combining his career with further study, earning an MBA, a separate masters degree, and 3 postgraduate certificates) until he became the first person of colour within the police force to attain the rank of Chief Constable.
The police force has clearly given him a lot and he believes in his service as a police officer and what it means for the community. He talks about having been motivated in part by watching Z Cars and Softly, Softly while in the children’s home plus the cadet ship he obtained as a 16-year-old (with its accommodation) gave him somewhere to go when he “aged out” of the care system and would have otherwise been homeless. But while Fuller was a dedicated police officer, he does not shy away from talking about the blatant racism he faced within the Metropolitan Police – from the casual racist terms used in front of him (which he does recount here so be aware) to the fact that some officers would openly put up National Front posters in the staff canteen.
He stresses that attitudes higher up the chain of command as he advanced were different and he did have white officers who supported him (including one who supported him when two junior officers decided that they could stroll into his office, use a racist term, and stroll out without any repercussions) but it’s fairly clear too that as a young officer he was encouraged to laugh off the discrimination and put it down to “banter” in order to fit in. There is one absolutely excruciating scene where he recounts how a comedian at a police social event did a lot of racist material aimed solely at him when he walked into the audience late and he had to sit there and pretend to find it funny.
He ascribes much of his attitude to this racism as being down to how he was raised not to take it personally, to take a moment and assess whether the racist words are aimed at him personally or caused by the person being under stress or having other issues going on. On the one hand, this stoicism and compassion is laudable and he’s a man who shows a great deal more restraint than a lot of other people would n his situation.
However, coming at this from a 2021 perspective, you have to wonder why he should have to do that. And that brings me to the subject of institutional racism, which the Macpherson Report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, identified as being endemic within the Metropolitan Police. Fuller does mention the Report and Stephen Lawrence’s murder as he was a serving officer at the time and he says how he recognises the definition that Macpherson used. More troubling though, is his brief account of the attitude of some of his colleagues to the report and their refusal to accept that there was institutional racism because they did not regard themselves as being racist and because the way in which junior officers spoke about the black community was how wider society talked about them. Fuller chooses not to speak about the attempts of the Metropolitan Police to tackle institutional racism, focusing instead on his own role in trying to improve relations between the police and the black community through improving the identification and solving of racist crime, including establishing a Racial and Violent Crime Taskforce and bringing in community leaders to scrutinise and advise.
I get completely why Fuller may not want to tackle institutional racism within the force and it’s certainly not his responsibility to come up with solutions. But his memoir demonstrates time and time again that racism was a problem within the lower ranks (not to mention the sexism faced by female officers) and he talks about how when he became Chief Constable he wanted a force where no one felt excluded but then utterly fails to say how he set about achieving that. More than that, while he talks about the anger felt by the black community about being unfairly singled out for stop and search under “suss” laws (a problem that persists today), he doesn’t have anything to say about how the issue could be improved or addressed.
There are parts of the book where he talks about having to choose between the “tribe” of the police force and being part of the black community. For example, he doesn’t tell the black barber he visits what he does for a living because he can hear everyone complaining about the police force. Certainly what comes through is how the anger directed at him by the black community when he was out as an officer (including serving during the Brixton riots, which drew the threat that serves as the book’s title) greatly hurt him. What isn’t clear is how he reconciled that and yet he is clearly troubled by his experiences. It’s for this reason that I found it frustrating that he opts not to talk about what the Force does wrong and where it can improve – and again, I know it’s not on him to come up with all the answers, but simply not addressing it is surely part of the problem and if someone who has attained the highest rank in the Force can’t say “We need to do things differently and here’s what we should do” then who can?
Fuller is similarly guarded about his personal life, revealing that he’s married but nothing more (and again, I cannot blame him for that). He is more open about his relationship with his parents – the cold relationship with his mother and his preference for his father and the visits they made around the Nigerian British community when Fuller went to stay with him. By far the biggest influence on his life, however, came from Margaret Hurst, an “aunt” who looked after him and the other children at the Fairmile Hatch Children’s nursery (an experimental form of children’s care used by the Greater London Council). What comes through is how much this young woman loved and cared for all of the children in the home and how close her bond with Fuller was. She encouraged him, stood up for him and taught him self-reliance and self-respect. She sounds like a remarkable person and she clearly left a lasting impression on Fuller, which he continues to carry through his life.
Ultimately, I was left with conflicting emotions about this book. On the one hand, as an account of Fuller’s life and experiences I think it’s very well done (although I would have liked some dates to have been dropped into the text rather than a broad time line being provided at the back). However, the book has a provocative title and the cover blurb describes it as an “unflinching account” of being a policeman during a turbulent time in race relations and while Fuller is unflinching in terms of showing the personal effects of racism and how it affected him, he doesn’t address the extent to which it remains a problem or to what extent there is an institutional entropy when it comes to addressing it. On that basis, while I think that this is worth a read, it isn’t as interesting and provocative a read as it could have been.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.