Concerns about the mistreatment of people of colour by police in the UK are legitimate. The deaths of Oluwashijibomi Lapite in 1994, Mark Duggan in 2011, Edson Frederico Da Costa last month and Rashan Charles last weekend, to name just a few examples, show the severity of the problem. In all of these cases, the individuals died following police contact and all were black.
Lesson one: when a black or minority ethnic individual dies following police contact, doubts about their character are often raised. They are portrayed not as victims of force but as criminals undeserving of sympathy. Simon Laurence, the Met’s borough commander for Hackney, warned against premature speculation about the causes of Rashan’s death after himself implying causality and chronology by announcing that Charles was “seen to be trying to swallow an object” before he was “then taken ill”.
This is not dissimilar to the way the use of force against Lapite was justified by the allegation that he had tried to strangle an apprehending officer, or the narrative that Duggan’s brandishing of a firearm is what led to him being fatally shot. The implication of Laurence’s statement is that Rashan Charles died as a result of swallowing drugs to evade arrest. History makes us rightfully distrustful of police accounts of events. The coroner in the Duggan inquest deemed it “very unlikely”, for example, that he would have been able to throw a gun to where police claimed they recovered one from. But whether Charles swallowed something toxic or not, what’s sure is that violently restraining him and impairing his ability to breathe could have exacerbated any risk and caused harm. The police should act on the basis of facts, not suspicions informed by stereotypes. Better regulations and guaranteed sanctions should exist to ensure that suspects are safely restrained.
Lesson two: any community reaction other than quiet, patient compliance is vilified, sensationalised and used to detract from the legitimacy of the cause. Media outlets were quick to caricature the disturbances in Dalston as a “riot”. This term has become highly politicised and is used to eclipse the legitimate anger felt by friends of the dead man, reducing them to “violent opportunists” with perverse incentives, to quote LBC presenter Maajid Nawaz. Think of the similar narrative attached to the 2011 uprisings in London and other English cities. What I find odd is that some people seem more perturbed by the inconvenience of a temporary roadblock than the fact that people are dying after contact with a police force that is supposed to protect. Somehow, it is easier to empathise with the intimidation that local residents may feel when a violent protest occurs than with the constant terror people such as me feel every day when encountering police. Blocking roads and smashing up shops do nothing to bring about real justice. Yet I believe it is unfair to expect perfect order after such incidents. How can it surprise anyone that when a person of colour dies after contact with the police, frustration at the lack of impartiality can erupt into violence?
This leads to our final historical lesson: justice is an outcome that legal systems cannot guarantee. Nawaz began his radio monologue on the Rashan Charles disturbances, and Simon Laurence concluded his statement, by highlighting the importance of an independent investigation into the circumstances leading to the death of Rashan Charles. But history makes it very hard to remain optimistic about the prospect of justice ensuing from this approach. No police officer has ever been convicted for any one of the more than 1,500 deaths either in custody or following police contact since 1990.
This is true even in the few instances when the killings were held to have been unlawful. It feels like no amount of evidence or lack thereof could alter this outcome.
The fact that there is video footage in the case of Rashan Charles may make some people a little more hopeful that any inquiry will be objective and that justice will be done. But given the history of police conduct, can you blame people for doubting that the outcome will be any different this time? I can’t.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010