Colin Roach Centre: We look back at the Hackney institution that fought police brutality
- Credit: Archant
The Gazette discovers the history of the Hackney associations that were infiltrated by police during the late 1990s.
When the Colin Roach Centre was burgled in 1994, a message was sprayed on the wall: “Hard luck matey.”
“How many people living locally, let alone burglars, would use the word ‘matey’?” a spokesman from the pressure group campaigning to expose police corruption asked the Gazette at the time. “The answer is hardly anyone.”
The Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) believed the unusual slang was a sign Special Branch or MI5 had been responsible for the break-in at the centre. It was December 23 – the day the HCDA was due to help organise a picket of Stoke Newington police station demanding action over the death of Oluwasijibomo Lapite in police custody.
The raid at the office in Bradbury Street, Dalston, was decidedly odd. Money in jars was left undisturbed but the photocopier was urinated on.
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Video equipment was smashed and the computer and fax machine were stolen.
The HCDA was convinced the burglary was timed to disrupt the protest and believed the real target was a new database the group was setting up to store information about police officers involved in crime, violence drug dealing and corruption.
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In fact, they’d kept the computer elsewhere, fearing just such an occurrence.
Describing itself as a “self-help group of victims of police crime”, HCDA was set up at a conference in Hackney Town Hall in 1988.
Speaking in 2001, founding member Graham Smith, now consultant to the Council of Europe on human rights law, said: “You have to recognise the particulars of Hackney and Stoke Newington at that time where everybody was aware of the behaviour of the police.
“It was just open for everyone to see. Police would be haring around with their sirens blazing, suddenly come to a halt, jump out and people would be assaulted.
“In some respects the police were behaving like an army of occupation.”
The group exposed serious corruption, with Panorama and World in Action investigations confirming 77 police officers at Stoke Newington were dealing cocaine.
HCDA founded the Colin Roach Centre with Hackney Trades Union Support Unit (HTUSU) on January 12, 1993, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Colin Roach – who was shot in a police station.
Hackney Council, with whom the HTUSU was in “constant conflict” according to its organiser Mark Metcalf, had cut funding for the group, and they needed new premises to continue their work.
The HTUSU was set up to encourage people to become active members of trade unions, especially people from black and minority ethnic groups.
At the time, the construction industry had the highest death rate in the UK.
They did a lot of training for Turkish and Kurdish workers, and Mark claims they organised the largest single international strike the UK has seen since the Second World War, when 5,000 workers picketed the Halkevi Centre in Dalston Lane on January 3, 1990.
The strike saw textile factories shut down in Hackney in solidarity with a general strike in Turkey against its military dictatorship.
“It brought down police from the local police station who attacked us twice, and 65 people were arrested,” said Mark.
“There was a serious amount of violence.
“We were incredibly successful in unionising people but in doing that you came into contact with the police on picket lines.”
Shortly after the break-in, a man called Mark Cassidy turned up out of the blue to join. In fact his real name was Mark Jenner and he was an undercover cop.
Mark remembers how Cassidy would accompany him to picket lines, and that he was privy to confidential information on hundreds of policing cases – including where officers were charged with unlawful imprisonment and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
“Within weeks he had thrown himself into virtually every area of the centre’s political life and quickly began writing for our internal bulletin and the quarterly magazine sold to the public,” said Mark.
“Although I don’t really know what Jenner’s role was, we had been effective in bringing out groups of workers, and I think that’s why Jenner got involved in our work – to monitor us.”
The Colin Roach Centre closed in 1999.
Mark remembered: “It just all became a bit too much, to be honest, for lots of people.
“There are some people who suggest Mark Jenner was successful in spreading dissatisfaction among people who were members of the centre.
“I don’t personally share such a feeling, but I’m open to persuasion on it if anything comes out at the Pitchford undercover policing inquiry.”