Ricky Bishop's mother & other family members at the remembrance tree outside Brixton Police station, Nov 2013 (Peter Marshall)
The London Campaign Against Police & State Violence held its annual conference earlier this month at Goldsmiths in New Cross. Writer and activist Kojo Kyerewaa was the closing speaker.
The other evening I was on my way home through London and saw three police officers had cornered and were harassing a black boy no older than 16 or 17. I went to the young man who was refusing to talk to the police and told him that he wasn’t legally obliged to tell them anything. The police didn’t like that. In a bit I’ll tell you what happened next.
I am Ghanaian and there is a popular Ghanaian saying which I think is apt for this event, it is called Sankofa, which roughly translates as “Look back before you go forward”. I want us to look at the history of Malcolm X. Embarrassingly I only read his autobiography this year. When I read it, it gave me confidence in the method and beauty of our struggle. This is what I want to explore with you.
It was Police brutality that first brought Malcolm X into the public spotlight. In April 1957, Johnson X Hinton, a member of Malcolm X’s temple 7 congregation saw New York cops beating up a black person. Using the black pride that he had within him, he called out to them and said: “This ain’t Alabama”. The cops stopped their attack and instead smashed Johnson X Hinton’s skull then charged him with assault.
Let’s reflect on that: the victim is criminalised by the police to be the attacker. In other words when the police commit a crime, they lie and they lie in a big way. Sound familiar? Nearly 60 years later, we see the same tune played out not only in America but also on London’s streets. This is the progress in modern policing.
When Malcolm was aware of the situation he went down and tried to talk to the police to secure the urgent medical attention that Johnson needed. But after being ignored he left and came back bringing over two thousand blacks out on the street. When the Police captain saw his precinct surrounded by thousands of so called Negroes, he spontaneously decided to allow Johnson to go to a hospital.
The charges were taken to court and an all-white jury in 1957, acquitted Johnson. He then went on to win a record-breaking $70,000 in compensation (in today’s money that's around $590,000) for his life-changing injuries and ill-treatment.
That is the method. Individually we are ignored, but collectively we can win. Malcolm X didn’t start off famous. Alone, he was just another Negro. To even the informed, Malcolm was just another Black Muslim with a hatred of white supremacy and other strange ideas. Malcolm was not just a preacher, but also an organiser, a recruiter, a critic and a persuader. As part of the Nation of Islam, they grew large and multiple temple congregations across the country that formed the basis of a formidable movement.
So in the struggle against police and state brutality, there are patterns before us that we could follow. Today, we need a thousand Malcolms and from all genders. It is down to us, those directly affected, to organise, to argue, to agitate and build the movement.
Marching for Sean Rigg, Brixton 2009 (Matthew David) That means going in our small groups to gather in churches, in mosques, community halls and libraries to discuss and debate these issues. It means dressing in black on Saturday 25th October and marching for justice for those who died in custody. But that important work alone won’t guarantee our rights. We need to organise our collective power on the streets between events.
In London Campaign Against Police and State Violence we do this by supporting one another in court. Through organising and publicising court solidarity, we create and maintain radical friendships and allies. We take our workshops from the classroom into communities and onto the high street. We get our coats, our pens, our cameras and go out to watch and monitor the police. Those are some of the big ways we build our collective power and confidence but there are small and powerful ways we can do this also.
About that evening, when I saw three police officers harassing a black boy? Well, I stood with him. Other older black commuters came to support us. Within 10 minutes, the police went from “we are arresting him” to “we are letting him go and are you happy with the outcome?”.
That is the method. We build and gain victories together when we have the perspective of seeing this as fighting for ourselves and not for someone else.
That doesn’t mean we are all in this together or that we are all Mark Duggan. We are not. We face a common problem but we also have different experiences and backgrounds. We should recognise this, remember this and respect it. For me, the issue of Police & State Brutality is fundamentally about race but it is also about much more.
One of our members who spoke earlier, A, had spoken about her trauma being targeted and unlawfully imprisoned by the police because she wanted them to investigate her abuse. She knows this is also about Violence Against Women.
Another member of the group, Jack, last week was with the homeless Focus E15 mothers who took their children to occupy decent empty homes in East London. They, like countless others in places like Peckham, Soho, Brixton, Hackney and Tottenham, are being forcefully moved and policed out of London. They can tell us it is also about gentrification or social cleansing.
Earlier you may have listened to the stories of the campaigning working class families of JENGbA [Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association] or know about the Hillsborough families who fought state stitch-up, their struggle is in the spirit of South Yorkshire communities who battled police brutality during the 1984 miners’ strike. They can tell us this is also about class.
Then there is the bereaved parents of Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney, or Mike Brown and most recently Vonderrit Myers in St Louis, USA. They could tell us that this also about reproductive rights, the right to choose to have a child and for that child not to be killed by the State. We should make these links, bring these different aspects together to build our collective strength towards our rightful victory.
This struggle is hard, frustrating and it sure is not quick. But this struggle is necessary and carries beauty. In London Campaign Against Police & State Violence, we’ve seen those like Husani who were humiliated and beaten down, in the struggle, rise up and reclaim their dignity. We’ve witnessed those like Jamal, now serving 5 years in prison, in the struggle, through receiving and sending letters, start to regain their inner freedom. We have watched those like Marcia Rigg, who have lost loved ones and left bereft in depths of despair, in the struggle find themselves with a renewed purpose and sense of determination. Their examples lead me to say that this is a beautiful struggle.
You might hear some earnest student radical argue and say: “but your demand is not revolutionary, it is just the enforcement of our supposed basic rights.” Well, they are correct, and until all of us enjoy the right to walk down a street, without being harassed, attacked or killed by our own government agents, then none of us really will have it, and until we do, we will continue to organise.
So when you leave here and anyone asks you what London Campaign Against Police & State Violence is about, tell them this:
- We organise our communities to end racist police violence
- We struggle against the powerful to realise our own power.
- We fight against their oppression and for our liberation.
- Join us, fight with us and fight for yourselves.
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This is an edited version of a speech to the annual conference of London Campaign Against Police & State Violence, Sunday 12 October, Richard Hoggart Building Goldsmiths (University of London).
The film 'Who Polices The Police?' exposing failings in the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation into the death of Sean Rigg, is free to watch here. (director Ken Fero, Migrant Media Productions, 2012, 52 mins)
Click here to download United Families and Friends Campaign's roll of 3,180 individuals who have died in custody since 1969: