Naomi Anderson Whittaker
Aug 05 2016
If you’ve listened to our #AllBlackLivesMatter podcast (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) you’ll know about Black Lives Matter, and the marches that took place across the UK. They happened so that people in the UK could show solidarity with the movement in the US. People took to the streets in memory of those killed. The events were truly a coming together for the Black community – a chance for people of all ages to express rage, pride, sadness, and hope.
I hear a lot of people saying “I’m so glad I don’t live in America” and “at least we don’t have those kinds of problems in the UK”. But this completely erases a history of institutional racism. To pretend that we have it so much better is to ignore the racist attitudes so prevalent in the UK justice system. To stay complacent and blissfully ignorant, to act as if we have come far enough, is to deny the legacy of senseless killings by police, and the broken families left behind.
Make no mistake, people have been brutalised and even killed by police for being black in the UK. BME people make up a third of London’s population, but are 55 per cent of the alleged victims of police brutality by Met officers. And statistics released by The Institute of Race Relations show that 57 per cent of people who died after police contact between 1991 and 2014 were black or black British. Although people aren’t being shot at by trigger happy cops, they have instead been neglected, restrained or strangled to death.
54 people were killed in police shootings between 1990 and 2015. Mark Duggan, aged 29, was one of them. He was fatally shot in the chest after exiting a cab which police had surrounded, in 2011. Witnesses say he was only holding a blackberry, and the gun found nearby was planted there. Police claimed he was involved with a criminal gang, and yet they had no evidence. His family were not immediately told that he was dead, and police circulated false information about him having fired the first shot.
Sean Rigg, aged 40, died in 2008 while being restrained during a mental health relapse. Police assumed he was faking distress. He is an example of how black deaths can be caused by neglect and physical mishandling – things like shackling, throwing injured people into cells and vans, and incorrectly or unnecessarily giving people sedatives which lead to choking.
Violence is quickly escalated against black and Asian suspects in a way that it never is with white suspects, especially those aged 18-34. They are more likely to have batons, pepper sprays, guns, and questionable restraint methods used against them. On top of this, black people are five times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and this often involves the use of force.
According to the Guardian 3000 officers were investigated for assault last year, but only 2% of them were suspended. This says a lot about how the force protects its own and can be reluctant to bring victims justice. Often, instances of undue force and suspicious deaths are kept quiet – the media do not report on them widely enough, and evidence is hidden unless you fight for disclosure.
Families of black people killed by police fought to get the Independent Police Complaints Commission established in 2004. And yet still, unlawful killing verdicts are mostly overturned, and no one is found guilty for the deaths.
The attitudes in the police force which lead to brutality and suspicious deaths don’t happen in a vacuum. They are fed by institutionally racist attitudes which criminalise black people, especially young black men, and see BME lives as less important. Stereotypes about black people cause officials to be biased. This leads to the fact that black people are more likely to be misread, criminalised, and then unjustly restrained or even sectioned for just being, by officers who see black people through a racist lens.
History has repeated itself, and once again, allies in the UK marched in solidarity with those in the US dying at the hands of police officers, as it was in 1963, when people marched from Ladbroke Grove to the US Embassy in solidarity with their brothers and sisters at the March On Washington.
This solidarity is vital, but we must not forget about the changes which still need to be made in Great Britain today. The work to be done in the UK isn’t glamourous – its about legislation changes, inquests, and trawling through the local news to find snippets of limited information about cases. But even if we do hit brick walls, it is our duty to carry on; keep complaining, resisting, and speaking out – to support BME families and bereaved communities who have been campaigning for years to get justice.
Written by Naomi Anderson-Whittaker
Picture: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
Dying for Justice. (2015). Harmit Athwal and Jenny Bourne. London: Institute of Race Relations.