From Mike Brown in Ferguson to Mark Duggan in London, black lives are being lost at the hands of police. But activists in the US and UK are coming together to share stories and fight for change.
From Mike Brown in Ferguson to Mark Duggan in London, black lives are being lost at the hands of police. But activists in the US and UK are building a transatlantic bridge, coming together to share stories of loved ones lost in their fight for change.
On August 21, 2008, mental health workers at a London hostel put in a 999 call to the Metropolitan Police. Sean Rigg, living in the halfway house, was suffering from serious mental health problems, and the team around him requested he be taken to a place of respite and safety, a hospital. Officers refused to attend. Five calls were made, but they were told it wasn’t a “police priority”.
“He was a talented musician, my brother, and just forty-years-old,” Marci Rigg tells me, as we settle down to chat in a lively North London pub. Marci is visibly tired, as I pass over a glass of rosé, although above the humdrum her voice remains piercingly clear.
With the Met refusing to attend, the hostel team had little they could do, as the extremely unwell Sean made his way out onto London’s busy streets. Members of the public could see he was suffering, his erratic behaviour a clear sign something was wrong. A stranger called the police, but this time they responded to the call.
“Sean was arrested and restrained by four officers,” Marci recounts, holding a poster of Malcolm X as I stare quietly into my G&T. It can’t be easy to retell this story, but she feels it’s important for people to hear what police actions can cost. “He died at the hands of Brixton police officers. My family and I have been campaigning tirelessly since then, to find out exactly why and how Sean died, and to have justice and accountability.”
An inquest jury found four years later that the officer used “unsuitable and unnecessary force,” restraining Sean in the prone position for eight minutes, which “more than minimally” contributed to his death.
He was then taken to Brixton Police Station, not a hospital, with the events that occurred caught on station CCTV. The case is currently a criminal investigation by the IPCC, with the Sergeant, Paul White, charged with perjury. It’s alleged that he misled the medically trained doctor called to see Sean, asserting wrongly that his unconsciousness was feigned.
Seven years later, and Marci still has questions but few answers. “What’s happening today is modern-day slavery. Nothing has changed. We aren’t chained but we are handcuffed; not lynched from a tree but killed by police,” she says. “There is change coming from the movements in the US, so in order to adapt with those movements, we need to join forces.”
From Ferguson to London, people are dying at the hands of the police. Shared experiences of racial profiling, disproportionate deaths of black people in custody and institutional racism have become a familiar story for citizens of both the UK and the US, connecting British and American campaigners in unexpected ways.
When people took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Mike Brown’s death, it triggered a stream of direct action in England, too. Marching to the US embassy, blocking streets in the centre of London, and holding ‘die-ins’ at one of the biggest shopping centres in the UK, British activists expressed solidarity with their counterparts across the pond. That relationship was strengthened in January this year, when co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement Patrisse Cullors embarked on a speaking tour across Great Britain.
“Those of us in the States, especially black Americans, must make more of a concerted effort to deepen our analysis and practice when it pertains to globalised anti-black racism and resistance,” says Patrisse, speaking from her home in California. “Movements become global when organisers of the world unite and make clear parallels about our issues.”
And that transatlantic connection is gaining strength. Over seven days in October, a delegation of British campaigners – family members of those who have died in police custody – made their way across California, from Oakland to Sacramento, Riverside to Los Angeles, meeting activists and communities to share their stories of injustice and compare the struggles their communities face.
Boarding what they called The Caravan for Justice, the tour kicked off in Oakland, where the Black Panther movement first began. “The best starting point,” says Kadisha Brown-Burrell, whose brother Kingsley died in 2011 after contact with officers from West Midlands Police. He was just twenty-nine when he suffered a fatal heart attack after being detained under the Mental Health Act. An inquest found Kingsley’s face had been covered, and he was left handcuffed for hours on a hospital floor. “Going to the US allowed me to bridge the gaps we haven’t been able to before,” explains Kadisha, “linking with campaigners and family members and organisations alike. It gave us that link in order to move forward in this country.”
It’s real stories like Kingsley’s that underpin what we read online. #BlackLivesMatter gained traction following George Zimmerman’s acquittal from the murder of Trayvon Martin, back in July 2013. Patrisse and two friends came up with the hashtag. While the movement came to international attention in the wake of Mike Brown’s death, Patrisse says it was the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland that saw their politicisation.
The momentum was unstoppable, going on to become one of the fastest growing movements of our generation. And yet, while social media provides a platform for information to be shared, a medium which Patrisse and her colleagues have used better than any social movement of our time, the opportunity to meet face to face with international counterparts is as important today as ever before.
“You can’t have a struggle around this unless the families feel sustained,” points out Hannah Dee, an organiser with Defend the Right to Protest, a campaigning group based in England that helped organise the trip. The National Union of Students’ Black Students Campaign also played a vital role, having supported actions and meetings calling for justice across cities and campuses nationwide. “I felt there was something as well about [the British families] meeting families going through this in the US,” adds Hannah. “You need to go through these struggles with people involved. Making that personal and direct connection helps you get through.”
Another cog in the organisational wheel was The United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC), a structure through which British campaigns for justice have worked together. Formed in 1997, UFFC started life as a network of family members and friends whose loved ones had died at the hands of the police, but has evolved into a campaigning organisation demanding justice and structural change. The tour was a natural progression of their work; an opportunity to share stories, no matter how hard they are to hear.
In Oakland they met Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson, whose nephew, Oscar Grant, was shot dead by California law enforcement on New Year’s Day 2009. The meeting, which took place at the Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland – a square renamed by the community in the wake of Grant’s killing – has spurred on Uncle Bobby, who is now planning his own visit to the UK.
And the stories kept flowing. “We also met this young man in Sacramento who’d been shot by the police six times, but was still alive to tell the tale,” says Marci Rigg, welling up at the memory. His mother spoke on his behalf, recounting how each bullet passing through him felt like a burning fire deep inside, melting his internal organs and almost drowning him in internal bleeding. “It was touching to meet and hug this guy, to tell him we are happy that he’s still around,” says Marci. “‘Our brothers and sisters have gone, but you are still around,’ we told him, and we could touch him. It’s important for families to know that we’re not alone, that we can support one another in our struggles.”
As the families shared stories, they realised their experiences were alarmingly similar. “It’s no coincidence,” adds Marci. “It’s deliberate. The UK and US are close, so this just highlights the institutional and systematic failings that are mirrored across borders.”
But it wasn’t just stories that were shared. At meetings and rallies throughout the week, all kinds of practical lessons were exchanged, including one particularly hands-on tool. The Mobile Justice App – developed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, in an attempt to amalgamate citizen “policing of the police” – was a standout takeaway for British campaigners, who are already developing a version for the UK.
The app allows you to capture exchanges between officers and the community, with recordings automatically uploaded to a database held by campaigners to ensure footage isn’t lost and can be monitored too. “It feels like a representation of the unity they’ve managed to develop,” says Marci, excited by the prospect of being able to hold law enforcement to account. “I know one thing that I want to do is push on that app, and make sure all young people have it, both young black people more likely to be targeted, and the people who could monitor this too.”
But some of the lessons being exchanged will take a little longer to foment, including learning from how different responses to police and state violence have panned out. On August 4, 2011, twenty-nine-year-old Mark Wayne Duggan was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police. A resident of Tottenham, an area with one of the largest black communities in the United Kingdom, Mark’s killing by armed officers sparked mass uprisings across the country.
For Shaun Hall, brother of Mark Duggan, the trip to the US gave him cause to reflect. “When I think back, there’s no doubting the riots were triggered by the failings of the police. People went to the police station wanting answers; they went to report a murder,” says Shaun, visibly moved by the memory. Those gathered were asking a simple question, one that had been asked time and again. When will we stop sitting idly by as young black men are killed by the police? The march escalated quickly, sparking riots across the UK.
But the discontent quickly dissipated. The justice system came down hard, and the narrative formed that this was nothing but “mindless violence”. “These people didn’t know Mark, I could see that on TV. But their anger came from being fed up, knowing how it felt,” argues Shaun. “You can’t just shoot somebody and then not be held accountable.”
Yet in Ferguson, things were different. The uprisings have been accepted as social protests. Patrisse Cullors believes that taking to social media allowed people on the streets to control the narrative. “Social media provides a platform that allowed us to be and go global, but more importantly allows us to raise the levels of consciousness in our communities, and then make these very important connections.”
But it’s also the sustained nature of the movement in the US that’s contributed to its success; people took to the streets, and they stayed there – a lesson the British activists are keen to bring back home.
Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett knows how important and hard it is to keep shouting no matter what. “It’s been twenty-two years, and I still have no answers, no justice,” she says, “and the destruction of my family and our lives has been just as relentless.”
Leon Patterson, Steph’s twin brother, died while in custody in November 1992. He was thirty-one. Since then his family has been dragged through three inquests. After the first was adjourned, inquest two returned a verdict of unlawful killing before being overturned, with the final inquest finding “misadventure contributed to by neglect”. “I still have no answer, no death certificate,” says Steph quietly, her eyes damp.
Steph is keen to highlight parallels between the two judicial systems, having watched witnesses and experts change their statements “from top to bottom” at each inquest into her brother’s death. “They do the same in the US, and it’s an outrage,” she says. One difference she did note was how families can access funding for their case. “They don’t get legal representation [in the US] unless you pay, or you can sometimes get one appointed by the court. At least here the pittance of a legal aid system gives you some word in court.”
And being heard was just as important as hearing from others. What astonished those who made the journey across the pond is just how little their American counterparts knew of the situation in Britain. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice. Their killings at the hands of US police attracted media attention around the world. But Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell and Leon Patterson are virtually unknown outside the UK. “They’re fed a Downton Abbey image of the United Kingdom,” says Steph, scathingly. “People in the States had no idea about our stories, and the hundreds, thousands of others.”
But it’s also taken a long time for these stories to be taken seriously back at home. Since 1990, over 1,500 people have died in custody in England and Wales, or otherwise following contact with the police. A disproportionate number of those are from black and ethnic minority communities. There hasn’t been a successful homicide prosecution for a death in custody for over thirty years. “People are concerned by what happens in the US,” suggests Steph, “but nobody here seems to notice what’s happening in their own back garden.”
But something is changing, a consciousness is forming, and the bridges being built internationally are a vital part. The stories of lost lives are starting to be heard. Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a review into deaths in custody, in which participants in the trip hope to play an important role.
And there’s no doubt that we’re witnessing the ongoing evolution of an international movement. Linking up families with shared experiences has given individuals nourishment for their activism, while the successes of the Black Lives Matter struggles in the US can collectively give us hope. The American movement is growing, with twenty-seven chapters and counting set right across the United States.
As we polish off our drinks, Shaun Hall shows me the still healing tattoo on his right arm, ‘No Justice, No Peace’. His reaffirmed commitment to ensuring his brother’s killers are brought to justice comes as the family are set for another fight in the courts.
An inquest jury last year found Mark was lawfully killed, although he was unarmed at the time, but as this magazine goes to press a judge has granted them the right to appeal.
“What I know now is that it’s everyone’s responsibility to take action,” says Shaun. “There’s a collectiveness I’ve been inspired by in the US. Just like [it was] with me, to be honest, people don’t think about these issues until they directly affect them. That has to change, and we’ll do our everything to make sure that it will.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 53 – The Change Issue.