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The Pythian Club's Benjamin Rosser on His Time in Nottinghamshire Police and the Removal of Statues

3 July 20

Not only did the death of George Floyd spark anti-racism protests all over the globe, it placed the role of the police in society under a level of scrutiny never seen before. While Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin replicated an event that has become depressingly commonplace in the United States, protests in Britain had large elements of anti-police sentiment to them. Having spent ten years as a member of Nottinghamshire Police before leaving to establish The Pythian Club – an organisation set up to enrich and empower young people in Nottingham – community leader Benjamin Rosser is uniquely placed to offer an insight into the inner workings of the British police force…

Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in London, and ended up getting into a bit of mischief – when I got arrested it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My mum and stepdad decided that we should move to South Africa, where he was originally from. At the time, it probably had more racial problems than any other country in the world as it was still going through Apartheid. Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison and, as my stepdad had been part of the struggle for equal rights, he wanted to go back. It was hard living there for seven years, but it gave me a lot of strength. 

Did that impact your decision to join the police once you returned to the UK?
I was 23 and living back in the UK when I decided to join Nottinghamshire Police. It was always something I wanted to do – I wanted to help people and support my community. Growing up in Britain, I felt that the police targeted me unfairly. So I joined up wanting to make a difference to that. It was everything I wanted to do: it was exciting and I was stopping crime, but I knew that there was institutionalized racism, as the MET had just been found guilty of it. I knew what I was walking into, but the thing with me – and with a lot of police officers – was that I thought I could be tactical. I wanted to try to fix it from the inside. 

How common was that attitude?
I found out that there are a hell of a lot of officers that try really hard to fix their communities, and who don’t see colour. We know that we can’t fix the entire system, but we want to try and help repair the problems in our own areas. Obviously there are officers who are ignorant, abusive and don’t play by the rules, like in any walk of life. Sometimes they dampen the entire force, when in reality they’re not representative. 

What was behind your decision to leave?
During my ten years with the police, I had one racial incident in which a colleague said something to me that was unacceptable. We had a discussion and it was decided that it was best that I leave. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I got the support that I needed. I was the face of Nottinghamshire Police, and I’d received two commendations during my time. I had a lot of respect for the police, but when it came to the crunch, they didn’t back me up. 

The general debate at the moment tends to focus on whether the issues in the police are systemic, or whether they’re the result of bad individual officers. What was your experience?
That’s the big question. The MacPherson Report, which came out after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, concluded that the MET was institutionally racist. The public sees that and thinks it applies to 99% of police in the country. But having worked in the force, I did see elements of systemic racism, but I also saw a huge number of officers from all racial backgrounds that work really hard to improve their communities and support young people. They’re really a credit to themselves, their families and their community. 

When the police commit such heinous acts in the United States, it’s going to cause people in Britain to reflect on their own police force. But it’s important not to paint everyone with the same brush. We need to appreciate that there are a lot of good people in the British police who had shed blood to help keep people safe – and I was one of them. Officers need to continue to learn, continue to make sure they have the correct practices in place and continue to understand the importance of human rights, equality and treating people correctly.

Yes, we can look at the system and blame that, but the bottom line is that it boils down to you. In a world that seems crazy, we still have control over ourselves

How did you go from being a police officer to establishing The Pythian Club?
I was very disillusioned when I first left the force. I’d never imagined myself doing anything else, and I didn’t see my time ending the way it did. That lasted for about six months before I set up The Pythian Club. We’re all about supporting young people and giving them role models to look up to. We want them to rise to the occasion and stand up tall, especially those that don’t think they can. The name came from Ancient Greece; the Pythian Games weren’t about winning, they were all about heart, passion and not giving up. I want people to keep going and going, no matter what gets in their way. I mean it when I say it’s my true calling in life. 

How has the project developed over the years?
We grew slowly and steadily. We have had a lot of successful missions and projects with young people in the area, and were awarded the FA National Project of the Year in 2018, which was a great accolade. It comes down to having a great team of people – I’ve got a great support network, and they give their all for the cause. 

I’ve seen on your Facebook page that you make an effort to share photos and stories of black historical figures that aren’t associated with slavery. When you’re educating young people, how much of a balancing act is it to address slavery as an integral part of history without letting it become a defining feature?
We pay homage to everything that has happened in history. I’m very connected to the Windrush Generation, and it’s important to understand how our people suffered. Obviously the slave trade was important, but it’s also important to know that there are plenty of great people who had huge achievements in history. Our community is about finding hope, and that comes by recognising that there were a lot of great men and women of colour in history. 

What are your thoughts on the ongoing anti-racism protests happening in Britain, particularly with the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol?
Can you imagine walking past a statue of someone that brought so much misery and sadness to your descendants? Would you be happy seeing that every day? I honestly don’t know why it was even there in the first place. What was the thinking behind it? What is it celebrating? It shouldn’t have even been a debate. 

I’m very much behind the changes that need to take place. We need to look at things on a systemic level, and we need strong leaders – whatever their colour – to make changes. I don’t believe that violence is the way, it just distracts from the cause. As a community, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror – we can’t just blame others. We know that the system is stacked against our favour, but we need to look at how to overcome that. We do that by being peaceful, powerful and strong. It comes with telling our kids not to see their colour as a way of stopping them. 

I have three girls and they will never see their colour as something that stops them. In fact, they will work much harder than the next guy or girl. They will get up early and work hard, even if it’s a job in a warehouse or something just to make ends meet while they’re looking for their dream job. Don’t tell me there aren’t any jobs out there, because there are. You have to look at your mindset and the morals of hard work that have been instilled by your parents and family. Parents have to look at themselves and think, “Am I giving my child the best opportunity?” Yes, we can look at the system and blame that, but the bottom line is that it boils down to you. In a world that seems crazy, we still have control over ourselves. Hard work pays – some people think opportunities just fall into your lap, and for a small percentage it does, but for the majority, you have to work damn hard. And some people aren’t prepared to do that. 

But the argument is made that for many people of colour, opportunities don’t arise regardless of how hard they work…
Take Barack Obama. He became President of the United States, which is probably the most powerful position in the world. What did people chant for him? “Yes we can.” There are systems in place that make it hard, but you can smash through them by trying damn hard. I’m not saying you have to go to university, but whatever you decide you want to do in life, you need to make sure you never, ever give up.  

I guess that touches on that quote from George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, “The soft bigotry of lowered expectations”… 
I think that kind of perception can manifest a reality. It’s important to remember the past, but also know that it is just that: the past. But my slogan for 2020 is that ‘the time is now’. It’s time to stand strong, and understand what we need to do as a community. Obviously Black Lives Matter are addressing important problems in society, but we need to have a very holistic approach that ignores what people’s perceptions of us are, and look at what has and what hasn’t worked before, as well as what we can do as individuals. As I said, I’m not in the blame game – I tell my daughters not to come to me and say that they’re not going to achieve something because of their colour. If you’re going to do something great, you need respect and discipline. 

The Pythian Club, 45 Bingham Rd, Carrington, Nottingham NG5 2EP

thepythianclub.co.uk

facebook.com/ThePythianClub

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