Too many deaths, too many lies...Is the judicial system really fair?

By Saqib Deshmkh, Development Officer for V4CE

On the 5th October 1985 Cynthia Jarrett died during a police search of her home in Tottenham. A week earlier Cherry Groce had been shot dead by the police in Brixton so the situation on the ground in our communities was tense. I was a young eighteen year old young writer and had just left school and remember this time distinctly and the impact of the subsequent deaths in custody that followed in African, African Caribbean and Asian communities  (link). The shooting of Colin Roach in 1983 in Stoke Newington and the subsequent deaths of Muhammad Parkit, Tunay Hasan and Clinton McCurbin in 1987 led me to write my first full length play on deaths in custody ‘Black & Blue’ in that year.
 
A few years later in 1993 Joy Gardner was killed during a violent struggle with the police and immigration officers during which she was restrained using a body belt and wrapped with 13ft of tape around her head. The brutalisation of predominantly African-Caribbean people in London, particularly North London and Tottenham, has a long and disturbing history.
 
So what does it mean for us in the BME VCE Sector and how relevant is the verdict of lawful killing that was given last week in the case of Mark Duggan? Those of us who engage with the Criminal Justice system perhaps need to examine the faith that we put into the legal processes when we work with our communities. For all of us who are working on the ground advising and supporting families and individuals who have experienced police harassment, brutality or even lost a loved one after a death in custody or as in this case after contact with the police,  we need to realise how long and precarious the process is. The family of Mark Duggan will await the results of the Independent Police Complaints Commission review of the case and will look to appeal. But they and us need to be mindful of the years and in some cases decades it takes to get justice. The families of Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah and Sean Rigg have been waiting more than five years and in the cases of Janet Alder the sister of Christopher Alder, who died in a police station in Hull in 1998 and Mikey Powell who died in Birmingham in 2003, you are looking at more than a decade.
 
There is a real need on one hand to support the likes of the United Family & Friends Campaign, and build the community networks and resilience that is needed, whilst on the other challenging policing on streets in our neighbourhoods. Those of us who are engaged in partnerships and contract work though the Police and Crime Commissioners and Home Office through the charity Prevent and gang based work need to re-examine those arrangements. At a time where there is little trust between police and Black communities in this country are we providing further legitimacy and ‘cover’ for the State and police? In the context of the Coroner at Mark’s inquest asking the family to help ‘shape policy gun policies’ (link) do we need to look at the degree to which our concerns and criticisms have become emasculated by our close involvement in partnership work and contracts?
Whatever the answer is what we still need to address are the people from our communities who are dying in police custody/after police contact, in prison and YOIs and in immigration detention centres and that nothing is being done to address this. 
 
As Karl Oxford, one of V4CE's trustees stated on BBC 5Live last week (Podcast link): 
 
“When we are talking about issues generally that effect everyone in society  then we seem to be able to talk about it objectively and pragmatically and everyone can get to the root  issue and provide strategies but when it comes to minority communities and in particular Black communities going back to the Windrush generation from 1948 and the present day in 2014, this country  still does not feel comfortable with sections of the Black community who are just trying to get on with their everyday lives. If we look objectively and pragmatically over the last twenty or thirty years how many unexplained deaths that have taken place to black people in prisons and custody and compare that to if that was the case for the wider community. It’s not fair and trying to convince people to accept something that isn’t fair isn’t helping people to find a solution to these issues.”
 
There are many BME VCS groups doing valuable work engaging with those who are the most marginalised in our communities many of them who are ex-offenders or young people who are vulnerable to criminalisation. But are we in danger of not seeing the wider context, of not developing critiques and ripostes to the violence and brutality that we encounter in the Criminal justice system? At a time where the non-white prison population continues to grow and almost one in five are now Muslim there are serious questions that the shooting of Mark Duggan poses as well as how we as a sector and as communities engage with the reality of a challenging judicial system. (link).
 
The gap between campaigning and activism, and our community and voluntary sector needs to be addressed otherwise others will take over that territory, and it should not be something that only mainstream charities and organisations are able to take on. 
 
Have Black-led and BME groups become neutralised and our dissent stifled at a time where we are most needed or is this a time for new groups and movements to emerge that will address the pressing issues that exist? On a personal basis I’m looking to write a sequel to the play and revisit some of these issues as someone who has supported a family who lost a loved one to the police, but maybe we all need to revisit the issue of police harassment and brutality that is at the heart of our interaction with the State.