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Black Lives Matter in Britain too

George Floyd’s death in Minnesota has led to the four policemen involved being dismissed from the Minneapolis Police Department, with one being charged with murder and the other three being charged with aiding and abetting.

The incident has sparked global street protests.

Unfortunately, while expressing their regrets over Floyd’s death, some MPs and members of the UK media have suggested that the issue of police violence against black people is a particularly American problem - one from which Britain is free.

On 7th June Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed, in an interview on Sky News, that the demonstrations seen in cities like London and Birmingham were "based in response to events in America rather than here". Some politicians queued up to suggest that while such racism was a problem in other countries, the UK was an oasis of fairness and equality.

Sadly, this assertion is not supported by the facts. Anyone who suggest this is either ignorant of those facts or being deliberately dishonest.

There is a history of racial tension in this country that dates back to when Caribbean immigrants first started to come to the UK en masse in the 1950s.  And the history of relations between black people and the police in this country is littered with tragic deaths like the one which befell George Floyd. Tragedies like:

Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old black woman from Jamaica who had overstayed her six-month visa. In 1993 an immigration officer and police officers arrived at her home to serve a deportation notice. When she refused to comply, the police entered her home and struggled and fought with her. As a result of their restraints of her, Gardner suffocated and subsequently fell into a coma, later dying in hospital.

Wayne Douglas, a 26 year-old who, on 5th December 1995, died whilst being held at Brixton Police Station on suspicion of burglary. On four occasions, Wayne had been held face down with his hands cuffed behind his back by officers. A jury found that he died of `left ventricular failure due to stress and exhaustion and positional asphyxia following a chase and a series of restraints, in prone position, face down”.

Christopher Alder, a 37-year-old trainee computer programmer and former British Army paratrooper. In 1998 he was assaulted outside a night club in Hull and taken to a local hospital, where he was then arrested for an alleged breach of the peace. While fit enough to get into a police van by himself, CCTV footage showed that upon arrival at the police station, Alder was unconscious and was dragged from the van and placed on the floor of the custody suite. He died lying face down, handcuffed, with his trousers around his ankles on the floor of the police station.

Roger Sylvester, in 1999 police arrived outside’s house as a result of a 999 call. Eight officers put Sylvester to the ground where he was handcuffed. He was detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. HIs body was already limp when it was placed in the police van. He was taken to St Ann’s hospital, and put on the floor by six police officers where he lay for nearly 20 minutes before being seen by a doctor. He had sustained numerous injuries and remained in a coma until his life support machine was switched off seven days later.

Frank Ogburo was involved in a domestic altercation in 2006.  The police were called by a neighbour. A struggle between the officers and Frank resulted in his being sprayed with CS gas, being handcuffed and brought to the floor. Frank’s wrists were in handcuffs behind his back. His death according to the jury at the inquest was as a “consequence of restraint”. 

Seni Lewis was 23 years old in 2010, when he died three days after he was subjected to two periods of restraint by police, lasting more than 30 minutes. He had been taken to Bethlehem Royal Hospital by his parents after an episode of mental ill-health.

Kingsley Burrell died in hospital from a cardiac arrest, days after being detained and physically restrained by West Midlands Police in March 2011.

Sheku Bayoh was 31 years old in May 2015 when he died after being restrained by up to five police officers, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland

In the last 25 years 19 black people have died while in police custody.  Of that number, eight died as a result of police restraint.

During that period, many more white people have also died, but there is a clear disproportion. Black people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody. An independent review of deaths in police custody found that between 1990 and 2009, 16 per cent of those who died after the use of force were black – more than twice the proportion arrested.

The most recent statistics from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice show that in 2018-19, black people were: 

This disproportionality also shows up in our prisons and especially for under 18s in custody. In youth offending institutions young black people make up a staggering 28% of the cohort but less than 10% of the general 10-18 general population. In the year ending March 2019 black young people were over four times more likely to be arrested than white young people.

What makes such statistics even more galling for the relatives of the deceased, is that those police officers who may have been responsible for the deaths are never brought to justice.

According to the Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody of eight prosecutions of police officers in connection with a death in custody in the last 15 years, all have ended with acquittals. These include prosecutions for murder and manslaughter. In fact, there has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter in such cases, despite unlawful killing verdicts in Coroner’s inquests.

Far from being a peculiarly American problem, deaths at the hands of the police is a problem suffered by black people around the world, as the worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations have illuminated. 

Rather than deny the problem or sweep it under the carpet, our government should face it, own up to it and put regulations in place to control the police’s use of force and restraint, and curb the number of deaths.  Only then can the UK become the oasis of fairness and equality that the current government claims.

Photo by ksh2000 from Pexels

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