By Tayo Aluko
It had been a very loud and angry exchange. I was the only Black person in the place, I think, and had been at the centre of it all. And then the police arrived.
This story ends much better than many would expect, given the multiple tragic stories one hears coming from out of the USA these days, but for me, the officer from the Port of Liverpool Police did what was expected of him, and the matter was settled to my satisfaction: a very irate truck driver who had racially abused me during a confrontation eventually apologised, I accepted the apology and he drove away feeling chastened. As far as he was concerned, that was the end of it. It would have been the same for me too, had it not been for the subsequent behaviour of P&O Ferries’ staff and management.
It was December 2014, and I had just returned to Liverpool from a short tour of Ireland. Having been the last vehicle onto the ship in Dublin, I should have been first off, but due to misinformation from the duty manager, I didn’t return to my car when passengers on my deck were called, and I ended up delaying an entire line of traffic for several minutes. When I heard, “Would the driver of vehicle number….” specifically being asked to go to the deck immediately, I rushed down, apologised to the staff, and as I went to do the same to the driver immediately behind me, was met with a torrent of abuse, including a racial slur. My refusal to move without an apology resulted in him producing a large metal bar with which he threatened to break my skull. I stood my ground and asked for the police to be called. As we waited, I suggested to a member of staff that I could move my car so that those behind us could get away. He agreed, and as I started to move, I was stopped by another member of staff who, arriving on the scene for the first time said to me, “You cannot conduct yourself in that way and expect to be able to leave the vessel”, making me hold up the traffic that much longer until the policeman arrived. Almost immediately, he got me and the offending driver to move to let the others leave, then proceeded to take statements from us individually, during which I offered not to press charges as long as I received a genuine apology.
Before I left, I said to the woman who had stopped me from moving my car in the first place that I hadn’t appreciated being spoken to the way she had done, but she was adamant that she had treated both the other driver and me equally, in a way that she considered appropriate. I left it at that and went home.
It continued to rankle however, and I sent in a complaint a week later, thinking that eventually I might receive something of an apology from P&O and that the lady might be given a talking to about better customer care. What followed over the next three months however was really quite different. P&O Customer Relations first stated that on investigation, the information they received differed greatly from my version of events. Later, it transpired that their investigations indicated that it was I who had been aggressive, offensive and threatening, as borne out by the fact that the police were called and that no action had been taken against the other driver. Confident that CCTV footage would vindicate me, I asked for this to be made available, but was told that this was not permissible under Data Protection law. I persevered, defying them to produce some footage, which I assumed they had seen but were suppressing, confident that it would show my initial contriteness, my attempts to apologise, the threatened serious physical assault on me as staff looked on, but above all, my lack of aggressiveness. In my emails, I mentioned the fact that whilst my case was thankfully very different to the shocking incidents from the USA that one has seen shared on social media, Black people are now beginning to be grateful for the usefulness of mobile phone technology in exposing racism. I particularly mentioned the footage of some Chelsea fans’ racist behaviour in a Paris underground station, and the fact that its having gone viral on social media had contributed to the Chelsea management’s promise to take decisive action against the hoodlums. I also pointed out the fact that one of them had called in to a radio phone-in programme in London to say that they had been acting in self defence as the Black man had himself been aggressive, when the video clearly showed this to be untrue.
Racial profiling, I argued, had been at work here on the deck of a P&O ferry – a Black man defending himself from abuse is perceived as aggressive and dangerous. Never mind the fact that this Black man had just returned from a trip where several hundred Irish people had been introduced through him to Paul Robeson – a great African American artist who had educated the world about racial equality; that this Black man had performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and travels the world with his art; that this Black man is a published writer and is also responsible for the design and construction of a good number of buildings in the UK as an architect. I had thought it sufficient to make the offending driver grovel with an apology to the very Black man he had abused, after being made to see that the Black man could react to serious provocation in a peaceful and magnanimous manner. I had hoped to persuade him that every person, regardless of their skin colour, deserves respect – especially when they first approach you with humility.
Sadly, P&O, according to their Head of Security, concluded that no apology was due from them, that their ground staff were not guilty of racial profiling, and that as there was in fact no CCTV surveillance in that part of the vessel, I could (and I paraphrase here) go away and do my worst. Having determined, with the very generous help of the Duty Sergeant at Port of Liverpool Police, that the unbelievable is indeed probably true (no CCTV), it seems that the “worst” I can do is tell this story to those who would care to read it.
I consider it a story worth telling not just to laud straightforward decent policing where such praise is due, but also because to remain silent is to be complicit in behaviour which, if unchecked, can so easily have tragic consequences. The recent UK cases of Deen Taiwo and Sheku Bayoh remind me to be thankful that I lived to tell this tale, but also that it is my duty to speak out against racism with every breath I have in me, and to do what I can to educate others – be they on the bottom decks or at the top echelons of well known ferry companies.
Tayo Aluko tours internationally with his award winning play Call Mr. Robeson – by air, car and sea.