FOR the past year and a half, I’ve been immersed in the story of a black man’s death in police custody. The wealthy and respected Guyanese poet Robert Rose, a man with a history of run-ins with the police, was discovered in a cell in suspicious circumstances.
That this (true) story happened more than 170 years ago makes it all the more shocking, and bringing it back to life in a play has taken on an uncanny resonance in this post-George Floyd world.
Britain’s racial landscape has always been a feature of my theatrical work, explored most explicitly through my last play, Black Men Walking. But now, more than ever, many have been asking: Has anything changed?
Humans of LeedsThe rapper, beatboxer, and playwright Testament
Leroy Logan seems like the right person to ask. During his three decades in the Metropolitan Police, rising from bobby on the beat to the rank of Superintendent, he navigated the internal politics of the police at a time of high-profile race-related deaths, including the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
To say that his autobiography, Closing Ranks, is timely, is an understatement. He doesn’t pull any punches. “The Met is still institutionally racist,” he writes of the present day.
From the very start, a life in the police had its challenges. Just after Logan applied to join, his father was assaulted by two officers. After reflection, he decided that this was precisely why more black officers were needed, and pursued his application. Closing Ranks is gritty and honest about his experiences, painting a picture of a highly focused man, steadfast in his integrity, with a no-nonsense attitude to the job.
It details an impressive string of achievements for one person’s career, including being one of the founders of the National Black Police Association, and being awarded an MBE — all the more remarkable for his being black against the backdrop of the in-your-face brand of racial antagonism of the 1980s.
As a storyteller, there is no doubt that Logan’s life is a compelling one. It is little wonder that the Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen has chosen to tell his story in his new drama series on the BBC, Small Axe, where Logan will be played by the Hollywood superstar John Boyega.
Despite his retirement from the Met, Logan’s presence on the national stage is as relevant as ever: he appeared on television to comment on the disappointing closing of the Stephen Lawrence case the night before the interview.
Logan is relevant, too, not only as an advocate for change nationally, but at the grass-roots level, continuing to work with Voyage Youth, the leadership programme that he set up for young people more than 20 years ago. He walks the talk.
Testament: What did your father make of your decision to join?
Leroy Logan: Unfortunately, he found out that I had applied the hard way, because, in those days, when you were applying for the Met, they had to come and visit your premises. And, unfortunately, they didn’t get the memo that I’d moved on to Highbury with my wife.
They visited my dad’s house, and I get a phone call from him saying: “Leroy, there’s police at my door. What are they doing here? They said you’re joining the police!” He put down the phone on me, and I was devastated.
Eventually, I went round and said: “Sorry, I should’ve told you” — not just because I was going to be a policeman, but because I was on track to be a scientist, with the possibility of being a doctor.
Anyway, he turned it around, a testament to his real courage and qualities as a man. It showed itself literally the day before I was going to Hendon, and he drove me there, totally unexpected, which was really good. It gave us the time to really get to know from my heart why I was joining. He was supportive right the way through, until he passed away.
You had this wonderful thing in the book: “Good times build confidence, bad times build character,” and that’s obviously stuck with me. I’m going to put that on my fridge. I can understand why Steve McQueen wants to dramatise your life. We’ve had 12 Years a Slave, now we’re gonna have 30 years a cop.
[laughing] Yeah, that would be the sequel.
Your book seems so timely. And it reminded me that, as Christians, we often find ourselves in certain places, building next to those want to see justice.
Leroy LoganLeroy Logan is awarded an MBE, in 2001
It’s clear to me that this is not just a moment: it’s a movement. It’s people coming together. It’s not just “OK, we’ll say it in writing”: it’s the doing. And people recognising in other people that it’s timely. I couldn’t have made it up if I tried.
I’ve been writing this book on and off for ten years, and linking up with Steve McQueen actually influenced how I wrote the book. How could I pen a picture in the book that ties in with the series? And then I find out John Boyega’s playing me? And the BBC are gonna transmit it? It’s not by my own might, it’s by God’s might.
John Boyega gave a wonderful speech — a really passionate, tearful speech — on a podium on a Black Lives Matter march in June.
I was there, but I couldn’t get anywhere near him. He was surrounded by hundreds of youngsters, and, you know, we’re supposed to be Covid-aware, social distancing, masks; so I just stood back and I felt: “Wow! That’s the young man who, in a few months, everyone’s gonna know, is enacting my life.”
It seems as if, right from the onset of your career, you had decided to be a catalyst for change: “If you see it, you can be it.”
Absolutely. And for me, because of my earlier cultural immersion in Jamaica, those few years in the early 1960s were phenomenal for self-empowerment. I saw not only black cops, doctors, nurses, and teachers, but a black Prime Minister, even.
You’ve spoken about the negative side of the culture within the police force. I can imagine it’s difficult when you’re mainly on the worst side of the public, and being called racist, whether you are or not. I’ve got mates that are officers, and I’ve seen their mentality change once they joined. You’ve called it an “internal radicalisation”. Did you see colleagues affected in that way?
Even at training school, they adopt the swagger and the whole vernacular, and they’re only two weeks in the job. They get a lot of it from the staff, because the staff have a certain persona, and it’s a macho, testosterone-driven culture.
It’s easy to fall in line because you’re surrounded by it, and it can easily fuel your assumptions. Like, if you’re going to Hackney, where it’s a lot more challenging, you hear: “Oh my word, you’re in trouble, mate.” Before you even put a foot on the streets, it conditions you, and already creates that “them-and-us” adversarial position.
Sometimes, I had to tell the officers in recruit school: “It’s not that bad, please don’t buy into that narrative.” I believe that we had a role to give some on-the-job education for our recruit colleagues.
But it’s easier said than done. If you challenge, and you’ve got team members, they may think, “Well, you can’t be trusted,” and see you as a bit of a trouble-maker. So it might have some risk on your literal well-being. If you’re getting a kicking somewhere on the high street, and you call up and say “Listen, urgent assistance,” they might find something wrong with the radio, can’t hear your location. So it’s got some real risk that could have life-and-death implications.
I’m a father of three, and its full on. You’ve got three as well, haven’t you?
That’s right. And I’m blessed with three grandchildren. You learn so much about your children because now they’re parents, and you see how they operate.
There’s a whole stereotype surrounding black fathers and black men. I’ve come from hip-hop culture, which is often renders a hyper-masculine distortion of the “black man”: he’s strong, got money, all the girls. A lot of it is nonsense, quite frankly. In your book, you mention this phrase “tender warrior”, which really spoke to me in thinking about what a black man is.
BBC/McQueen Limited/Will Robson-ScottJohn Boyega plays Leroy Logan in Small Axe, a drama anthology of five films by the award-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen. Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, each film tells a different story involving London’s West Indian community
That’s the thing. It’s like: “Be in the world but not of it.” You’re not actually taking on those things. You can have that strength of character and stand up for yourself and others, but you need to be cognisant of how people can find you are unapproachable — and that will push people away from you.
So it’s a question of getting that mix of being sensitive and passionate, and knowing that pastoral side. Even in policing, it’s not all about feeling collars, or sirens with blue lights: it’s about problem-solving, it’s building relationships, it’s understanding people’s position.
I know if it wasn’t for the family I had, I could have easily been on the road and getting on to all sorts of things. One of the guys I grew up with got involved in a major crime, and I could have easily been with him.
If I’d just done what I wanted, I could be caught up in that thing, easily. I feared my parents more than the authorities — being fearful like we fear God, in respect and love. So I wasn’t going to upset them.
I’ve been running a charity, Voyage Youth, and you hear them saying that their friends mean more to them than their parents The pecking order was: parents first, peers second. Now, it’s reversed: you’ve got, through social media and other sorts of discourse, they seem to learn more from peers than their parents. For me, it’s like the blind leading the blind.
In the book, there’s a little story in the Jamaican part of your childhood, about how you were preaching as a kid, and then, in the book, faith sort of dissipates for a while. Then you feel a calling to the force, you get involved in all this stuff, and then there are marital problems which you talk about, and then faith comes back in a really more present way. What was happening in terms of your faith?
I don’t think it was totally absent. I’ve always felt that presence, and we always used to go to the local church. I think I was just so absorbed in policing and the role, and it was also about finding my role. I thought, “I’ll take the promotion — constable, sergeant — but there’s something else I’m searching for.”
I suppose it was in that searching, I missed a certain amount of grounding in the Church and in the Fellowship. We had the founder-member meeting of what eventually became the Black Police Association in the same month that Stephen Lawrence was killed, in April ’93.
We didn’t know that at the time, as the case wasn’t that high-profile, and we were keeping our heads down. If the Police Federation knew that we were meeting to challenge the organisation internally as well as externally, they would have really tried to eliminate us in terms of what we wanted to do.
Even now, in the time of social media, there are certain federation-type individuals always having a go; some are current officers in disguise, some are just retired officers. Most of them are abroad, but they are terrible, these social-media trolls. It’s all of these things that make you think: “Let’s keep it going.”
You mentioned “giving your life to Christ”. Was that the first time you consciously were like, “You know what, God, you’re in charge”? Reading the book, it’s clear you’ve got a stubborn streak, and you want to get on and do things, but faith-wise you’re saying: “My life is in God’s control.”
Absolutely. I knew I was going into certain corridors of power, and he had to be with me, you know, and, if I went into any situation operationally or strategically, I wasn’t on my own, I’ve got the heavenly host behind me, I’ve got the Holy Spirit; so I’m set.
But I had to be totally adherent to what the Lord was telling me to do and how to do it, through his word, through prayer, through fasting. Everywhere I went, I’d be saying: “Lord, claim that ground”; so, if I’m going into a meeting with two constables or the Home Secretary, wherever: “Claim that ground, that’s holy ground.”
So, when I go in there, I prep for my meeting, but I know God will give me the words; and practically every situation was like that.
There was one part where you were going to Manchester for an event, and you just had this feeling that you should bring your wife, Gretl, with you, and, as it turned out later on, it was unexpectedly really spiritually and practically significant.
Yeah, it’s that discerning spirit. To really understand how the Lord speaks to you really hit home once I gave my life to Christ. It was strong, it was saying: “Listen, be vigilant, vigilant, vigilant.”
And I remember, at certain points, Gretl would say: “What’s wrong with you? You’re paranoid,” and I’d say “No, Gretl, I don’t know what it is. Just be prepared.”
There was a backlash to the successes that the Black Police Association [BPA] were having, trying to get things addressed. There were a number of investigations launched against you and other members of the BPA — I guess, to try and undermine you?
Mark HarrisonLeroy Logan
Absolutely. Especially after the Macpherson inquiry with Stephen Lawrence. You look in history: once you put your head above the parapet, you’re someone’s target.
And you don’t know how it’s going to happen — hopefully, not physical. In this country, it’s a lot more micro-aggressions and various other insidious ways in which they try to undermine you morally, ethically, your integrity, whatever.
They were trying to resurrect my work in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and claimed I didn’t pay for a hotel bill in 1999 for £80, and I thought, “Are you serious? You think I’m going to jeopardise my reputation for 80 quid?” Maybe £8 million, but not £8!
It was so farcical, and so many people came to support me, and this is where I just thought, “Lord, you’re so good.” I had such a wealth of people saying, “We’re praying for you,” “Don’t worry,” and I just felt that strength of people — even if they were of no faith, they just had that real positive energy.
The only issue was when my younger son said to me: “Dad, does that mean you’re going to prison?” That really hurt me, but, like everything, we got even stronger through that experience.
[After an investigation said to have cost £100,000, Mr Logan was cleared of any wrongdoing, and, in 2003, he was awarded compensation. A joint statement released by the Met and Mr Logan read: “The Metropolitan Police Service is pleased to confirm that the conclusion of this investigation leaves Chief Inspector Logan’s integrity and reputation demonstrably intact.”]
Recently, my concern as someone who wants to see Black lives mattering is: what is the change that needs to happen? What do you think this movement — obviously it’s more than the police force, we’ve seen that now, but in terms of the police aspect — what are your recommendations there?
The movement needs to have that pressure on political parties, from the Prime Minister right across those in authority to regional and local mayors, to understand that these inequalities and injustices can’t continue.
You might think that it’s just an American thing, but we have it over here: we’ve had our George Floyds. I was involved in the Rashan Charles case [Charles, aged 20, died in a Hackney convenience store in July 2017 after being restrained by a police officer. The inquest jury returned a verdict if accidental death.] I had to speak out. His great-uncle, Rod Charles, was a chief inspector, and he and myself worked very closely. We’ve got to avoid these deaths — not just deaths in police contact, but the street violence that we see.
A lot of the adverse child experiences and the community stress that we’ve got in our towns and cities are building. We need to redefine and have a paradigm shift in how we assign certain assets.
When I was in Hackney, in charge of the Safer Neighbourhood teams and the Safe Schools officers, if I had a problem with youngsters, I would bring in the youth workers. I’d bring in social care to assist, or, if I’m dealing with mental-health cases, I would deal with those cases through a triage approach with paramedics and approved social workers and doctors, etc.
It’s part of the public-health approach which has been running in certain towns and cities in this country; in Glasgow, in particular, they’ve been running that public-health model for the past ten years or so.
And in Glasgow it had been quite effective?
They’ve reduced knife crime by 80 per cent, and how they did that was by reducing [school] exclusions. That was one of the main things. They’re working with youngsters and schools to have inclusion units, so you’re not excluding them or sending them to alternative provisions where no one monitors them.
So, that’s what it means: the reassigning of assets to ensure that police are not just going into certain situations and just by turning up in uniform making it worse. When people are suffering from drug psychosis, why would you need a police officer?
It means a certain amount of the public being re-educated about what police are there to do. I think that the Covid-19 period has shown that police are lacking in certain skills; so they shouldn’t be seen as the first port of call.
A lot of people think we’re beleaguered, run-down; it’s so tough, especially for challenging areas and in challenging homes, and, really, my heart goes out to some situations; but, if we can just get through this, I think it will make us a better society, if we’re willing to listen and to act.
Transcript by Serena Long.
Leroy Logan’s autobiography Closing Ranks, written with George Luke, is to be published by SPCK on 17 September at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).
Testament is a rapper, a world-record-holding beatboxer, and the writer of the hit plays Black Men Walking and Woke. He is also a guest presenter of Radio 4’s Pick of the Week. The full conversation is available on the Church Times podcast.