At a full Lambeth Town Hall on Friday evening, the sixth meeting of the Equality Movement was held. Entitled ‘Who Polices the Police?’, the meeting aimed to share some of the stories of police brutality, in the heart of Brixton, and to strengthen community ties, as well as to encourage young people to speak out, without fear, about how they are treated by the police. The vital question was, and remains, how can we overcome a culture of unaccountability and double standards within the Metropolitan Police? How can we ensure that the police obey their duty not only to uphold the law, but to abide by it?
First to address the meeting was Samantha Rigg-David, a sister of Sean Rigg, who died in police custody, in Brixton police station, on 21st August 2008. We heard how the IPCC failed to cordon off the area where witnesses say they saw Sean being assaulted by the police. We heard how the IPCC failed to obtain the relevant CCTV footage from the station, which was misplaced or overlooked, and took several months to interview the police officers involved in Sean’s death. The good, old IPCC; fair, effective and “independent” as always. Whatever the circumstances surrounding Sean’s death, and whatever one’s opinion of the event, no-one could dispute Samantha’s closing words:
“As a family, we believe that if the police had not laid their hands on Sean that day, he would still be alive with us today. From our experience since, we simply cannot trust the State to investigate itself.”
Next to speak was poet, author and political activist Benjamin Zephaniah. “One day a policeman was kicking me,” Benjamin began, “and to stop him from kicking me more, I grabbed his leg. I looked down at the boot, and I wondered… who’s paying for this boot? That’s where I learnt my politics… living on the front line.”
Benjamin spoke about the confidence and blatant nature of the police’s actions when he was younger; experiences of being locked in a cell for nine days, then brought before a court, only for the police to tell the judge he had been arrested the night before. He spoke about the case of Colin Roach, a man who died in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station. The police claimed he had walked in and killed himself. He spoke about Blair Peach, a teacher who had died at a demonstration in Southall. But, perhaps most movingly, Benjamin spoke about his own cousin, Mikey Powell:
“Mikey also had some mental health issues. Once, he climbed up onto the roof of the house, and threatened to throw himself off. His mother, my auntie, called the police, and a nice, he described as ‘good-looking’ policewoman came round, and talked him down. She promised to have a cup of tea and a biscuit with him, and that maybe they could go on a date some time in the future. So Mikey came down and that was it; the officer said ‘Take care of yourself, and be nice to your mother,’ and she went away. There was another occasion when he was hyperactive, this time late at night, at around 1am, and my auntie thought she could do the same thing… maybe the policewoman would come round and have a cup of tea. Instead, a police van came, and ran Mikey over as he was on the pavement. They took him away, and within an hour, Mikey was dead.”
“Mikey Powell died on September 7th 2003,” Benjamin continued. On September 18th 2009, a jury found that Mikey died from positional asphyxiation. That he had come into contact with a moving vehicle, that is the police vehicle. That he had been sprayed with CS gas, and also struck with a baton.”
Again, it strikes me that an investigation into Mikey Powell’s personal history is irrelevant. What is relevant is how he died, and that is what the jury were deliberating over. But, no police officer has ever been held accountable for his death. Why?
Merlin Emmanuel, the nephew of Smiley Culture, who died after a police raid on his home, shared similar sentiments. “The content of a man’s character is not measured by his garments, but by his deeds, and as such, we know that we need to keep a keen eye on the police and what they are doing.”
Merlin spoke about the ‘pre-crime’ arrests in the run-up to the royal wedding, and asked, “How can an officer detain a person for a supposed they fear they are about to commit, but have no evidence of that intention?” Merlin suggested that the arrests were a portrayal of the police’s actual role in our society, “to serve the Crown, and to protect the interests of the elite.”
Merlin spoke about Kingsley Burrell, whose family led a demonstration of 1000 people to the headquarters of West Midlands Police headquarters in Birmingham on Saturday, who called the police in need of protection.
Like Sean Rigg, and like Mikey Powell, Kingsley Burrell died in police custody. In each of these three cases, the victim has suffered, or in the latter case, has been accused of suffering a mental illness. However, no valid explanation has been given for their deaths, and no police officers have been held to account in any case. Perhaps it is fear that is driving the actions of the police, perhaps it is discrimination; either way, the motivation of their actions, reckless or reasoned, provides no comfort for the families of the deceased.
We do not trust the police any longer. As Benjamin said in his closing words, in response to the title of the meeting, “we do. We police the police.” For that reason, immediately after the meeting, young people in attendance marched down to Brixton police station, to hand in complaints of how we have been treated by police officers. Our demands to make these complaints were roundly ignored. Nevertheless, the foyer of the police station and the front court were occupied, and our we made our voices heard through acoustic guitar and freestyle rapping, inside and outside the station. When the Inspector on duty suggested that I step into an inner room to make my complaint alone, I referred him to a picture of Sean Rigg that his sister had placed beside me.
The journey to justice and truth for victims of police brutality will be a long one, but it has already begun.