Ferguson Solidarity Tour gets under way with thought-provoking assembly in Brixton

MP Chuka Umunna speaking at the event and the panel of guest speakers including

Marcia Rigg, Lee Lawrence and Carol Duggan

Written by Greta Tugwell

On Saturday evening the UK Ferguson Solidarity Tour, which aims to highlight the injustices carried out by police officers – overwhelmingly against black people – both in the U.S. and in the UK, got underway at the Karibu Centre in Brixton.

The tour, organised by Defend the Right to Protest, United Families & Friends Campaign, NUS Black Students Campaign, will move across the UK over the coming week, culminating on Monday 4 February in Leeds.

Brixton seemed the perfect place for the tour to kick off given, not only because it has long been the home of many Caribbean and African diaspora here in the UK, but also because of its history, which tells the story of a long-troubled, strenuous relationship between the police and Britain’s BME population. In the 1980s Brixton became a battleground as the police and members of the community violently clashed in the infamous Brixton riots. Much more recently, in 2008, there was the death of Sean Rigg at Brixton police station after his prolonged restraint by officers.

The crowd at Saturday’s meeting was truly diverse, reflecting the fact that police brutality is something that affects everyone, of all races. Ian Tomlinson, Harry Stanley, James Ashley, and others – all white, all killed by the police in highly controversial circumstances. To put things into context, there has been a total of over 1,500 deaths in police custody since 1990 yet a single successful prosecution of a police officer for manslaughter or murder since 1969 (when the first death in custody was recorded).

Yet the fact remains that all too many of these deaths are those of members of the BME community and it is undeniable that institutional racism exists within Britain’s police force.

Saturday’s meeting began with a video call to Patrisse Cullors, the organiser and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter campaign, who has played a major role in the demonstrations that have been occurring in Ferguson and St Louis.

Comparing the situation of black people in the UK and the US and emphasising the importance of joint international efforts in asserting that Black Lives Matter, Ms Cullors said: “In the UK you have a black presence that is part of a colonial past and comprised of immigrants, in contrast to the blatant slave history in the US. […] But you still have systemic oppression, and state sanctioned violence plays a role in each of our contexts.” She continued, “We are in a historical moment where we can make great shifts inside and outside US borders to ensure that #BlackLivesMatter around the world.”

A number of notable guest speakers attended the assembly, including Labour MP and Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. Mr Umunna spoke about instances where the Met police abuse their powers and suggested tangible ways to lessen, if not eradicate, institutional racism within the country’s police forces. The Streatham MP told the audience that police “abusing powers of stop and search” is something “I’ve seen far too often in my constituency.”

Mr Umunna also revealed that in the 1980s his own father had been “beaten black and blue” by police in Lambeth, in what he believes to have been a clear case of racial stereotyping and racism. After court proceedings, not a single police officer was disciplined for what happened.

Acknowledging that there have been some improvements in policing and how the police deal with members of the BME community since the previous generation, Umunna told the audience: “Yes we’ve made progress but God we’ve got a long way to go.”

Mr Umunna ended his speech by detailing key steps – including having all police officers wearing cameras and greater BME representation within the police force – which he believes must be taken if there is to be a real improvement in police-public relations, particularly relations with the BME community.

Marcia Rigg, the sister of Sean Rigg and leader of the Sean Rigg Justice and Change Campaign, took to the stage next. Ms Rigg pointed to the fact that over ½ deaths in police custody are those of young black men with mental health issues, raising interesting points over the (commonly overlooked) issue of how the police interact with those suffering from mental illnesses. Sean Rigg had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and, unbeknown to his family, had not been taking his medication for months when he was restrained by the police.

Marcia Rigg addressing the crowd

Ms Rigg also told of the thoroughly insulting treatment that families receive when trying to get the police to be held accountable for the death of their loved ones. “CCTV goes missing, officer’s notebooks go missing,” said Rigg, as she described the wholly flawed and unjust process of seeking to hold a police officer accountable for a death. She added, “If you’re going to rely on the IPCC you can forget about it […] there’s nothing independent about it.”

Lee Lawrence, the son of Cherry Groce, who was shot by police who raided her Brixton home in 1985, sparking the Brixton riots, attested to the mockery of justice described by Marcia, which he and his family have experienced in seeking some kind of justice (a word he said he does not like to use) for his mother.

Mr Lawrence began by saying: “my mum had a very slow death.” Ms Groce had to spend 26 years in a wheelchair after the shooting, which left her paralysed from the waist down. Mr Lawrence then detailed the struggle just to get legal aid – which the family were denied on three occasions until 133,000 people signed a petition supporting them.

Eventually the jury came back with eight counts of failure on the Met’s part. Mr Lawrence had to wait 29 years for an apology for what happened to his mother and said it was “a bittersweet moment” when it finally came since his mother was not alive to hear it herself. Yet Mr Lawrence remains hopeful about the future, telling the crowd: “Things have changed, things are changing. We must have hope that we can evoke change.”

Carol Duggan, the aunt of Mark Duggan, attacked what she perceives to be an entire system – extending beyond the police to the criminal justice system and the media – which serves only to protect those who are rich, which is overwhelmingly those who are white. To substantiate her claims, she pointed to the fact that whilst the police officer accused of unlawfully killing Mark had 26 of the very best QCs to fight his case, Mark’s family’s limited financial resources meant that they could only have 3 QCs.

Ms Duggan described the “smear campaign” carried out by the media following Mark’s death, with attempts to portray him as a gangster who somehow had it coming to him. “The police pay the media, the media pay the police for stories,” said Duggan, who also detailed the difficulty her family have had over the years in finding a venue to celebrate Mark’s birthdays because of the way that the media portrayed Mark and his family.

Like Marcia Rigg, Carol Duggan has no expectations of justice being served as long as the IPCC, which she prefers to call the “Independent Police Cover-up Commission,” is the only channel available to families seeking for police to be held accountable for the deaths of their loved ones.

“Mark’s death mirrored Mike Brown’s death,” said Ms Duggan, who has repeatedly expressed her support and sympathy for the families of Mike Brown and the countless other African-Americans unlawfully killed by police in the United States.

The meeting ended with a Q&A session between the audience and panel.

For the full listing of tour dates visit: http://fergusonsolidaritytour.com/dates/

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