When Rashan Charles died in police custody in East London last weekend it highlighted a problem we can no longer afford to ignore
UPDATE: The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has found that the item removed from Rashan Charles' airway was not an illegal drug. They're awaiting the preliminary results of a post-mortem examination, which was carried out on Monday. This news follows widespread online criticism of Charles, from commentators claiming he had died after swallowing his "stash".
Hundreds of people gathered in Dalston this week to protest the death of Rashan Charles. They marched with placards repeatedly chanting “murderers”. A man put a megaphone to a policeman’s ear. “You kill our people,” he screamed. Tensions are running high, and last night a riot broke out close to where Rashan died.
After being chased on foot, 20-year-old Rashan was apprehended by police officers in a London shop on Saturday 22 July. Scotland Yard say he “tried to swallow an object” before being “taken ill” and that an officer sought to prevent the man from harming himself. But this statement stands in stark contrast with the CCTV footage released online.
An officer is clearly shown tackling Charles to the ground, wrapping his arms around his neck while he struggles, and a little while later another officer sits on his back. #JusticeforRash quickly flooded people’s timelines. But the cycle of death-to-hashtag has become far too formulaic and the circumstances of Charles’ death are eerily familiar.
The deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Michael Brown received a healthy amount of attention in Britain, as did the rise of Black Lives Matter and the huge protests that took place last summer that shut down London. However, when it comes to acknowledging our own problems with structural racism in our police and mental health services, stories are deemed far less newsworthy and the uproar is significantly shorter lived.
While you could argue this due to the pervasive nature of America’s gun problem or the circulation of mobile phone footage, it doesn’t explain why Britain shows more solidarity to US victims than our own. Sarah Reed, Mzee Mohammed, Sean Rigg, Julian Cole, Kingsley Burrell, Christopher Alder, Jimmy Mubenga – all of these lives were ruined or stolen by law enforcement but passed quickly out of public consciousness. And larger (and more diverse) protests have occurred on the streets of London for American victims than the ones that have taken place in East London throughout the week.
“Charles is one of four black men to die in London after coming into contact with the Metropolitan Police in the last five weeks”
Out of the 349 deaths in custody in the last decade, 14 percent have been from an ethnic minority background. And for violent altercations such as shootings, they represent 40 per cent of the fatalities. Considering black and minority ethnic citizens make up 12 per cent of the UK, these figures are troubling. Troubling enough that in 2015 Theresa May (then Home Secretary) deemed it necessary to launch an independent review into deaths in custody – the results are yet to be released despite the fact that it was due last summer.
Charles is one of four black men to die in London after coming into contact with the Metropolitan Police in the last five weeks. At a vigil organised by Movement for Justice today, a hundred or so people gathered outside an east London police station and listened to statements from his family about their grief and next steps that should be taken by those who care about the situation.
However, there was conflicting messages from the speakers. Following on from the riot last night which saw demonstrators clash with police and attempt to block traffic, both the family and local MP Diane Abbott called for peace (“(We have to think about the) importance of peace on the streets, violence is not the answer,” she said), other speakers such as artist and activist Raspect said that they didn't want the calls for peace to amount to pacification.
“There's an agenda that Diane Abbott and these people have,” he added. “I'm not saying Diane Abbott is wrong, I understand that she's an MP, but I'm saying if you're going to tell the youth peace, you have to give them justice.”
That agenda, it seems, is to make everything quieten down and go back to normal: where the majority of black deaths in the UK fly under the radar. However INQUEST, a nationwide charity, documents each fatality, supports families and provides them with vital information needed to seek answers.
“What is particularly concerning about the deaths of people from Black, minority, and ethnic communities is the fact they are disproportionately represented amongst deaths following abuse of force by police officers,” explains director Deborah Coles. “That raises important questions about structural racism and whether or not discriminatory attitudes and assumptions are informing the way in which they are treated.”
For many families though, when the public are made aware of these police killings the battle is only half won. Press coverage can be vital in making sure your case receives enough attention to keep the public asking questions, but they can be detrimental if they get them asking the wrong ones. News outlets play a key role in helping to drive attention away from the prospect of foul play by turning their focus to any dirt they can find on the victim. There were hordes of cameras and rabid reporters at the vigil today.
“What we often see in these cases is an attempt by the state to create a particular narrative about those people who died to try and demonise the character of that person, and almost blame them for their own death,” Coles explains. We saw this after the shooting of Mark Duggan. Despite his family and friends insisting that he was not gang affiliated, the press persistently framed images of him looking mean to verify their argument. When uncropped the images showed him holding and leaning on tributes to his late daughter.
“Is justice delayed, justice denied? Of course. One of my biggest frustrations is to see the same failings repeat themselves time and again” – Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST
Duggan’s family waited over two years for answers and the inquest was subject to a number of delays. By the time the contentious verdict was delivered the burning rage displayed a few years earlier had died down. Barely anyone showed up to a recent court date in support of the family. Since Coles started tracking these cases 25 years ago there have been over 1600 deaths in custody. She says that Duggan's inquest, along with the government’s delay on the official review, is in keeping with the way these sorts of cases are handled.
“Something so many families experience is unacceptable delay,” says Coles. “Is justice delayed, justice denied? Of course. One of my biggest frustrations in this job is to see the same failings repeat themselves time and again. You get recommendations coming out of investigations, inquests, inquiries only to see them gather dust.”
It’s no wonder that families begin to suspect that public bodies purposefully wait a long time to release findings from reports and inquests. Even if the cases reach the press, after a couple of years it is likely to have fallen out of the public consciousness.
We know there are over 1500 deaths in police custody since 1990, hundreds were suspicious. Not one officer has been convicted of wrongdoing— #BlackLivesMatterUK (@ukblm) July 26, 2017
The @IPCCNews has a terrible record on holding police officers to account on deaths in custody. They failed @justice4mark and so many more— #BlackLivesMatterUK (@ukblm) July 25, 2017
Kadi Johnson is the eldest sister of Sheku Bayoh, who died aged 31 in May 2015, after coming in contact with police in Scotland. Police received a call of a man brandishing a knife, though CCTV has subsequently shown that he did not have a weapon. Up to six officers were involved in the encounter using CS spray, batons handcuffs and leg restraints, yet the family feel like the English press has largely ignored the case. They still don’t have a conclusive answer as to how he died, or who was responsible and Johnson says she fears that her brother has been “forgotten about”.
“We are still waiting to hear from the crown office. The investigation has been handled very poorly. We feel the authorities are dragging the case so people can forget what happened to him. Like us (his family), the Scottish public are asking the question why is it taking so long to come out with an answer.”
Police brutality here and in the US isn't new. Convictions for deaths in police custody are incredibly low and police misconduct appears to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and working class citizens, yet it doesn’t appear to be high on the agenda. It is clear that there needs to be a more collective movement to demand answers and protest against injustice because by allowing ourselves to forget, we allow these cases to get swept under the carpet and for more lives to be lost.
Additional reporting by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff