Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic


Yesterday’s ‘lawful killing’ verdict on Mark Duggan, shot by police in North London, sends a clear message: that the lives of black men in Britain today are still cheap, and that there is still effective police impunity in such cases.

As usual when something like this happens, the mainstream press reports the incident as if it were isolated, a one-off, a ‘tragic mistake’ or a ‘bad apple’. That’s why the film Injustice, which came out over a decade ago, is still so important – even if the names have changed, newer deaths have piled up on top of the older ones.

Injustice examines 10 cases of deaths in police custody, 9 of them black men and women. They include shootings – like that of Harry Stanley, a Scottish man who was walking down a London street carrying a chair leg in a plastic bag. He’d been helping to repair it. The police decided it was a sawn-off shotgun, and shot him in the back.

Other killings included people like Joy Gardner, a woman originally from Jamaica who died whilst being ‘restrained’ by police. They wrapped thirteen feet of tape around her head, and she suffocated to death.

The accounts begin with that of David Oluwale, probably the first death from racist police brutality in Britain. After suffering years of mental illness, possibly due to a blow on the head during an earlier arrest, he was beaten to death after a series of incidents in which police urinated on him and tortured and humiliated him in other ways.

The history of the film Injustice is as revealing of police priorities in Britain as its narrative. When it was released in 2001 the Police Federation launched legal proceeding against it, harassing venue owners and the film-makers. That resulted in events such as a screening in London, when the audience at Conway Hall barricaded themselves in in order to be able to watch it. Other venues, often small independent cinemas or politically sympathetic pubs, simply had to cancel.

In Manchester, a screening at the Cornerhouse cinema was pulled because of the same legal threats. The film-makers did a Q&A at the venue, but then announced that they would be unable to show the film there. At that moment, local activists stood up in the audience and announced that the screening would instead take place at the OK Cafe, a squatted social centre just down the road, and led the audience there. It’s hard to threaten a squat with having its licence pulled. In order to expose police killings in this country it is, apparently, necessary to go outside the law entirely.

In the wake of the Duggan verdict the Metropolitan police have been making statements about needing to rebuild trust with black communities. That seems unlikely to happen when policemen seem to be able to kill, over and over again, with impunity. Perhaps – twelve years after it was first released – a new national tour of Injustice is needed, to remind more people of that.

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