Shine A Light

Black deaths: still fighting for justice in the UK

Ken Fero's award-winning films about black deaths at the hands of the police in Britain record the continuing struggle to get justice. They have never been broadcast in the UK. Part of our partnership with the Unorthodocs programme of screenings and events.

Amrit Wilson
21 January 2016

From the openDemocracy 50.50 archive.

'3 and a half minutes, 10 bullets', on the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Florida, will be screened at London's Somerset House on 25th January. Here, Amrit Wilson discusses the work of Ken Fero, whose award-winning films tell of black deaths and 'law and order' from the British perspective.


In the last few weeks of 2014, I joined thousands of people in London to demonstrate in solidarity with Mike Brown's family and the protesters in Ferguson. On one occasion outside the US embassy, Carole Duggan, aunt of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by the police was a trigger for the 2011 riots across England, addressed us 'We know what it feels like' she said 'to know that a member of your family has been murdered in cold blood. That is why we stand in solidarity with the community in Ferguson'. Another speaker Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg, a musician who died in 2008 after being arrested and 'restrained' by police in south London  said  “What are they supposed to do? We try to go peacefully, just ask for the truth but all we keep getting is lies.”

The anger and pain that day were palpable, not only in solidarity with Ferguson but in remembrance of those who have been killed in Britain at the hands of the police, prison officers, and private guards employed by the immigration service. Some of their names are fairly widely known - Joy Gardner in 1993, Sean Rigg in 2008, Habib (Paps) Ullah in (2008), Jimmy Mubenga in 2010 and Mark Duggan in 2011. Others have not been mentioned by the mainstream media, they will not be remembered by British society but their deaths remain a testimony to the kind of country we live in.

The numbers speak for themselves- in 2014 alone there were some 231 deaths in prison, immigration and police custody and in other contact with the police.

What is it like to lose a loved one in these circumstances? How far is it possible to get justice from the complex and baffling apparatus which is the Criminal Justice System (CJS)? What is the alternative? These are the themes and questions addressed by Ken Fero's five films about Black deaths at the hands of the police in Britain. Made over the last three decades, each with the same intense empathy with the Black working class families who are fighting for justice, they tell of a continuing struggle uniquely relevant to the future. The most well-known, Injustice ( 2001), which Fero co-directed with writer Tariq Mehmood  traces the struggles of the families of Joy Gardner, Ibrahim Sey, Brian Douglas, Shiji Lapite and Wayne Douglas who died at the hands of the police between July 1993 and December 1995.

Despite winning international awards and being shown on television in South Africa, New Zealand, Greece, Iran and on cable channels in the US, not one of Fero's films has ever been shown on the BBC or Channel 4. He told me, 'Injustice has been screened  internationally. In the UK it has been shown in cinemas across the country and by the British Film Institute,  but UK broadcasters  refused to take the risk of libel action as the police are accused of murder. The BBC negotiated for two years about showing it and then claimed it was out of date'. 

The films demonstrate stark parallels with the US. Shiji Lapite was walking home from a restaurant in East London when he was grabbed by the neck and brought to the ground by three police officers for 'behaving suspiciously'. The neck hold (or choke hold in American usage) continued with all three officers on the ground and Shiji face down or on his side. The post mortem on his body revealed 'crushed bones at the front of the neck'.

Ibrahim Sey, was celebrating the birth of his daughter at home when he appeared to have a mental breakdown. His wife called the police assuming that they would take him to hospital. They took him instead to Ilford police station where he was thrown to the ground  and sprayed with CS gas at close quarters. He was placed face down by four police officers who kept him 'restrained' for 15 minutes. Eventually,  noticing that he was not breathing, one of them called an ambulance. When it arrived Ibrahim was dead - still in handcuffs and face down. As his cousin Kura Jagne Njie says, in Injustice, 'They treated him like an animal. He was nothing... He wasn't worth it...another piece of meat to them.' 

In the case of Joy Gardner, the suffocation was by other horrific means. Early one morning five policemen and women burst into her  home. They claimed she had overstayed her visa. She was thrown to the ground and forced face down on the floor in front of her five year old son Graeme. Then sitting on her body, they bound her hands to her side with a leather belt, strapped her legs together, shackled her feet and wound thirteen yards of surgical tape round her head to gag her. Injustice shows her mother, the indefatigable Myrna Simpson, unable to hold back her tears as she speaks at a public meeting. 'It has been a long struggle', she says, 'it has been a lot of pain for me and my family and for Graeme...Sometimes I break down in court. I couldn't take in what I was listening to. I couldn't believe that human beings could be so cruel to another human being. You don't know how much I cry. My tears will catch them.' 

In Britain as in the US, racist stereotypes are used to justify murder. While Mike Brown was described as 'like Hulk Hogan' and a 'demon', Jimmy Mubenga was described by G4S officers recently as 'extremely strong', Shiji who was five foot ten and of medium build was described as 'the biggest, strongest most violent black man'  and Joy Gardner the 'most violent woman' they had ever encountered.

Not one of the families in Fero's films achieved justice despite negotiating every difficult step of the Criminal Justice System. Even verdicts of unlawful killing by juries in the cases of Shiji and Ibrahim did not lead to police officers being jailed. Faced with incontrovertible evidence, as Francis Webber noted recently, inquest juries have delivered at least nine verdicts of unlawful killing in the last twenty five years, but no police officer has ever been convicted of homicide.  As Fero and Mehmood say in their Director's Statement  for Injustice, the message is that  'in the UK, police officers can kill, safe in the knowledge that they will not be prosecuted for their actions, even if they are found by a jury to have been unlawfully killed'.

Gradually the families realise that justice under the law is a mirage and Injustice shows their attitudes changing. Brian Douglas' sister, Brenda Weinberg, says bitterly, "I can't grieve, I can't put Brian to rest ever if I know someone's walking around out there responsible for his death and they haven't been brought to justice. The only thing that does happen is that as the time gets longer it's any justice. It can be legal justice or street justice. I don't really care anymore."

In Burn (2014), his latest film, Fero once again collaborates with Mehmood. The film looks at  the riots which followed Mark Duggan's death and explores the theme of  collective memory. As always in Fero's films the main protagonists are working class. They include the families of four people who lost their lives at the hands of the police - Joy Gardner, Cynthia Jarrett, Roger Sylvester and Mark Duggan - who all live in a 3 mile radius of each other in the London Borough of Haringey. Interspersed with these voices, and highlighting them, are Ken Fero's own poems.

Stafford Scott of Tottenham Rights Centre traces the thread of collective memory, 'Seven and eight year olds hear Mark Duggan's name and want to know more...they are going to grow up and be stopped by police officers on the street.... they don't need to be stopped and searched a hundred times... It needs to happen once or twice, a bad encounter. All they need is something that reaffirms the community's experience and then it becomes their experience and it runs deep.'

Speaking of the riots, Minkah Adofo, of the United Families and Friends Campaign  (a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody set up in 1999) says, 'Even though we may have a temporary respite, as long as the issue of justice is not being addressed then you can expect to see more fires'.

The community's  view of the riots is counterposed with that of the police. Chief Superintendent Colin Morgan, for example, says that the police must learn to monitor social media even more 'If there is a significant incident, where people are aggrieved, possibly with the police... we must stay ahead of that use our own intelligence and be able to mobilise resources'. He is unable to see any cause for the 2011 riots 'What I saw was opportunism, criminality ...I struggled with what I saw to link it to any form of rebellion'.

While police officers like Morgan may appear, on the face of it, very different from their American counterparts, there are clearly enormous similarities - a subject of discussion at next week's Ferguson Solidarity Tour which is coming to London from the US. The main difference seems to be that the use of guns in Britain is less frequent. The use of Tasers, which, according to the UN Committee against Torture, are as lethal as firearms is on the increase. In the last two months of 2014 alone two people died after being tasered. 

How do people in the US react to Fero's films? He tells me about a screening of  Injustice for the families of  those killed by the police in Los Angeles, 'They were shocked!', he says,  'they said,  in America, when the police kill people it is usually by shooting them. It is systematic and clinical. They were shocked by the level of sustained physical brutality in Britain'.

As Burn indicates, and history demonstrates, riots  are used by the state to increase coercion. After the 1981 riots, for example, Thatcher considered arming the police but settled on new equipment and new tactics like 'saturation policing' which had been developed in Northern Ireland. 

One is left wondering what form increased coercion will take in this neoliberal era. With Cameron's promised cuts in police numbers accompanied by the use of rapid response units  greater use of privatised forces is likely, which, in the light of G4S and Serco's record will make things worse. These forces and the police themselves, like their counterparts in the US, may well use military hardware and tactics from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Burn makes it clear that what we are facing is not just a crisis in relations between the state and the Black communities. As Minkah Adofo says, near the end of the film 'This is a crisis of democracy...How we as a society are going to be governed - are we going to be governed by just these elites and these lawless police? Or are we going to be governed by the people? With that understanding we can build up a base of resistance'.

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