Looking at the Stephen Lawrence verdict and racial justice in Britain.
“There’s no such thing as freedom in this country for a Black man. There’s no such thing as justice in this country for a Black man.” Malcolm X
“I had to go to court the other day. You go there looking for justice and that’s what you find – just us!”- Richard Pryor.
The guilty verdicts obtained in the Stephen Lawrence murder trial came as a surprise to many Black commentators, myself included. And why would it come as a surprise? Because even a cursory glance through the history of Black people in this country uncovers a litany of racial violence and an absence of justice. Sometimes the perpetrators are racist thugs and the events take place on the street. Quite often the perpetrators are the police themselves and the events happen in police custody, but the outcome is the same – the perpetrators go free.
Let me take you on a quick tour of Britain racial injustice of the last 50 years. As soon as Caribbean immigrants arrived in this country on mass in the 1950’s we were met with intolerance, racism and violence.
The first high profile murder came in 1959. On 17 May 1959 young Antiguan Kelso Cochrane was knifed to death in west London in a racist attack. The police tried to dampen down the issue, claiming that it was a robbery and not a racist attack. But locals knew different, fascist inspired gangs had operated in the area for some time. There was a conspiracy of silence which meant that his killers, to this day, have not been brought to justice. It was in response to this racial tension and climate of fear inspired a show of strength, solidarity and cultural pride that led to the birth of the Nottinghill Carnival.
Ten years later a young Nigerian student became a fatal victim of racist violence and this time the Police themselves were the suspects. David Oluwale came to England from Nigeria in 1949 with dreams of studying to be an engineer in Leeds. In 1953 Oluwale was charged with disorderly conduct and assault following a police raid on a nightclub. He subsequently served a 28-day sentence. In prison it was reported he suffered from hallucinations, possibly because of damage sustained from a truncheon blow during the arrest. He was transferred to Menston Asylum in Leeds (now called High Royds Hospital) where he spent the next eight years. Upon release Oluwale was unable to hold down a job and a permanent residence, and quickly became homeless. He found himself in trouble with the Leeds police again several times and accused the police of harassing him. In April 1969 his dead body was found in the River Aire. A year later an enquiry was launched, carried out by Scotland Yard, and sufficient evidence was gathered to prompt manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm (GBH) charges being brought against two police officers (Ellerker and Kitching) in 1971. Ellerker was found guilty of three assaults against Oluwale and Kitching of two assaults. They were both found not guilty of causing GBH. Ellerker was sentenced to three years in prison, and Kitching received 27 months.
The 1970’s saw a rise in the prominence of the far right National Front Party. The start of the 80’s saw one of the most tragic events and criminal scandals in Black British History.
The New Cross Fire was a devastating house fire which killed 13 young black people during a birthday party in New Cross, southeast London on Sunday 18 January 1981. There had been early complaints about noise from the party and the initial police suspicion was that the party had been bombed either as a revenge attack or to stop the noise. The inquest into the deaths saw criticism of the police. The coroner’s summary for the jury was heavily directed towards suggesting the fire was accidental, and the jury returned an open verdict which implied agreement. The victims’ families challenged the procedure and while the High Court agreed that the summing-up was inaccurate, it refused to overturn the verdict. Nobody has ever been charged in relation to the fire.
On 12 January 1983, a young black Hackney man, Colin Roach walked into the lobby of the old Stoke Newington police station, and allegedly blew his head off with an old shotgun. Roach had only minor convictions and was not wanted by the police at the time. There was evidence that he feared ‘someone’ was out to get him. Among the black community of Stoke Newington, ‘someone’ was the police. There were sections of the local community which believed he had been shot by the police. Others believed that whilst the police generically might be capable of doing this, they would not be so foolish – unless this was the most amazing double-bluff – to do it literally on their own doorstep.’
A coroner’s jury voted eight-to-two that Mr Roach committed suicide, but Hackney residents staged angry demonstrations and refused to accept the verdict, pointing out that (among other puzzles) no fingerprints had been found on the shotgun; nor had it been forensically linked to the dead man.
In 1985, an independent inquiry into his death on behalf of the dead man’s family was told of police harassment, wrongful arrest, uncivil conduct during home raids, misuse of stop and search and other abuses to Stoke Newington’s residents.
1985 was a particularly bad year for relations between the British Police and the Black community. In September of that year the police conducted an armed search of the home of Cherry Groce seeking her son Michael Groce in relation to a suspected firearms offence – they believed Michael was hiding in his mother’s home. Mrs. Groce was in bed when the police began their search and Michael was not there at the time, but Mrs. Groce was hit by a police bullet – an injury which left her paralysed from the waist down. This event was the spark for the Brixton Riots of 1985. The police officer who shot Mrs. Groce, Inspector Douglas Lovelock, was prosecuted but eventually acquitted of malicious wounding. Mrs. Groce received compensation from the Metropolitan Police.
The very next month a young black man, Floyd Jarrett, was arrested by police, having been stopped in a vehicle with an allegedly suspicious tax disc. Four police officers searched his home. In a disturbance between police and family members, his 49-year-old mother, Cynthia Jarrett, fell over and died of a stroke. Cynthia Jarrett’s death sparked outrage from members of the black community against the Metropolitan Police, and was the spark for the Broadwater Farm Riot.
Not only do the Police occasionally kill Black people – sometimes they fit them up for crimes which they have not committed. Such was the case with the Cardiff Three in 1988. Valentine’s Day of that year saw the murder of 20-year-old Lynette White in Cardiff. White, who had been working as a prostitute, was stabbed more than 50 times. Five men were charged with the murder and three, Antony Paris, Yusef Abdullahi and Stephen Miller, were convicted in 1990 and jailed for life. The men, known as the Cardiff Three, were released on appeal after serving four years and campaigned for years to clear their names. In 2003 a security guard, Jeffrey Gafoor, 38, from Llanharan, south Wales, pleaded guilty to the murder after he had been linked to the killing as a result of DNA developments. He was jailed for life at Cardiff crown court for the murder. South Wales police launched a huge investigation into the actions of officers involved in the original White inquiry. There were to be two trials involving 13 police officers but the legal action was discontinued when the paperwork went missing!
In February 1991 Black teenager Rolan Adams was fatally stabbed by a gang of more than a dozen white youths, in Thamesmead, south London. Many of the attackers were already known to the police as they regularly terrorised the local black community, so it was easy for the police to identify who they were and they were quickly arrested. One youth was tried and convicted for murder. Of the other 14 perpetrators: four eventually faced trial, but for the lesser offence of violent disorder. After much plea bargaining by their defence team they were convicted of the offence and sentenced to 120 hours community service.
Joy Gardner was a 40-year-old Black woman from Jamaica who was killed during a struggle with the police at her home in Crouch End, London. Joy had come to visit her mother, Myrna Simpson, in 1987, but had overstayed her 6 month visa. In 1993 an immigration officer and police officers arrived at her home to serve a deportation notice. When Gardner refused, the police entered her home and struggled and fought with her. Police gagged and restrained Gardner using a body belt and wrapped 13 ft of tape around her head which they later claimed was to prevent her biting them. Gardner suffocated and subsequently fell into a coma. She later died in hospital. These events were witnessed by Gardner’s five year old son. The three police officers involved were found not guilty of manslaughter in 1995.
In April 1998. Christopher Alder, a 37-year-old trainee computer programmer and former British Army paratrooper who had served in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, had been assaulted outside a night club and taken to a local hospital, where he was arrested by officers for an alleged breach of the peace following complaints about his behaviour from nursing staff . While fit enough to get into a police van by himself, CCTV footage shows that upon arrival at the police station, Alder was unconscious when dragged from the van and placed on the floor of the custody suite. Officers calmly chatted among themselves, one of them suggesting he was faking illness. Eleven minutes later, when officers finally realised he had stopped breathing, attempts to resuscitate him came too late. Alder died lying face down, handcuffed, with his trousers around his ankles on the floor of a police station in Hull. Following his death, Alder’s sister Janet launched a long struggle for justice. In 2000 a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, and in 2002 five police officers went on trial accused of manslaughter and misconduct in public office. All were cleared on the orders of the judge. An internal disciplinary inquiry by Humberside Police cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. In 2006, an Independent Police Complaints Commission report concluded that four of the officers present in the custody suite when Alder died were guilty of the “most serious neglect of duty”, but the officers responsible walked free.
On January 11, 1999, police arrived outside Roger Sylvester’s house as a result of a 999 emergency call. Two officers came to the house initially and found him naked in his front garden. Within minutes another six officers had arrived. The eight officers put Sylvester to the ground where he was handcuffed. He was detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. Police officers told his family that he was restrained “for his own safety.” According to one witness, Sylvester’s body was already limp when it was placed in the police van. He was taken to St Ann’s hospital and carried from the van to a private room where, still restrained, he was put on the floor by upwards of six police officers for nearly 20 minutes before being seen by a doctor. The officers, with the assistance of medical staff, tried to resuscitate him but he had sustained numerous injuries and remained in a coma at the Whittington hospital until his life support machine was switched off seven days later.
24 year old Azelle Rodney was a back seat passenger of a Volkswagon Golf travelling the streets of North London in April 2005, when the police performed what they call ‘a hard stop’. The car had been under surveillance for several hours before officers stopped it in Edgware. Police believed he was part of an armed gang who were on their way to rob a Columbian drugs gang. With this suspicion the Police could have arrested Rodney and the other occupants of the car before they even started their journey, but instead chose to allow them to start their drive across London. Alternatively, the officers who had been following Rodney’s car covertly, could have switched on their lights and siren when making the stop so that they could clearly have been identified as officers. Instead, within seconds of the Police surrounding the car, Rodney was shot six times by an armed officer who offered no verbal warning. Two other occupants of the car were later convicted for firearms offences, but there was no evidence that Mr Rodney was holding a weapon at the time of the shooting. True to form an investigation by the IPCC exonerated the Police, and the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was no criminal case for the police to answer. Seven years later in 2012 a public inquiry was opened instead of an inquest because a coroner would not have been able to see some of the evidence that Police say was behind their actions. In July 2013, a public inquiry chaired by a retired High Court judge concluded the killing was unlawful.
Frank Ogburo was 43 and was on a brief tourist visit to London to see friends in September 2006. The police were called by a neighbour when he was involved in a domestic altercation in the friend’s flat where he’d been staying in Woolwich. Eye-witnesses saw a struggle between the officers and Frank which resulted in him being sprayed with CS Gas, being handcuffed and brought to the floor. As the struggle on the floor continued more people gathered. Frank Ogburo was heard to shout “you’re killing me, I can’t breathe”. CCTV footage captured several more officers joining in the restraint and striking Frank to subdue him. By this point Frank’s wrists were in handcuffs behind his back. His death according to the jury at the inquest was as a “consequence of restraint”. Bringing us up to date, events of last year illustrate that little has changed.
On March 15th 2011 Police conducted a search at the home of David Emmanuel aka reggae artist Smiley Culture. Whilst Police were at the property Smiley Culture sustained a single stab wound to the chest, from which he later died. An investigation into the Police operation was conducted by the IPCC and found no evidence that a crime had been committed, and no misconduct by Police officers. An inquest into Smiley’s death will be held in front of a jury and will not take place before the conclusion of the trials to which Smiley was allegedly linked.
Mark Duggan, 29, was a passenger in a minicab when on Thursday August 4th 2011 he was shot dead in the street by police. The death occurred during an operation where specialist firearm officers and officers from Operation Trident, were attempting to carry out an arrest. It was at first announced that Mr Duggan had been shot after an apparent exchange of fire. Later the IPCC admitted it may have misled journalists into believing Mr Duggan fired at officers before he was killed. In November 2 members of the community group set up by the IPCC to oversee the enquiry of Mark Dugan’s death stepped down alleging a cover up and white wash. On Wednesday January 8th 2014, the jury at the High Court in London found the Police officer who shot Mark Duggan , not guilty of unlawful killing.
So does the Lawrence verdict represent the turning of a new page in British justice, and a new chapter in the Black British experience, or is it just a blip achieved only through the tirelessness and tenacity of Neville and Doreen Lawrence? After this anomaly will it be back to (racist) business as usual? Though the apologists say that relations between the Police and Black people are much better than they were back in the day, the truth is that little has changed. Back in the 80’s it was the hated ‘Sus’ law that caused tension between the Police and young Black men – now its Section 60 powers. Introduced in the 90’s to deal with football hooliganism, now its used to harass those who’ve never been to a football match.
In 2010 there were 70,000 stops and searches in London alone. Analysis by the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative shows that during the last 12 months a Black person was nearly 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched that a white person. And a separate analysis, based on Home Office data reveals that less that 0.5% of section 60 searches led to an arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon, five times fewer than a year ago. And then they wonder why so many young Black men hate the Police?
How much have things really changed? The death of Cynthia Jarret at the hands of the police led to the Tottenham Riots in 1985. The shooting of Cherry Groce by Police the same year led to the Brixton Riots. The shooting of Mark Duggan by the Police in 2011 led to the Tottenham Riots of last year, and the general hostility towards the police by Black people, and feelings of alienation and hopelessness from the underclass took those riots nationwide.
Watch carefully the outcome of the Azelle Rodney, Mark Duggan and Smiley Culture cases to see which way things are really going.