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Say their name: police brutality in the UK

Police brutality in the US is a real issue. But Britain is not so innocent.
Black Lives Matter Protest, London by Étienne Godiard | Public Domain | Unsplash

George Floyd was killed on 25th May while being arrested outside a shop. White police officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck, while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe, pleaded with the officers and the crowd that had gathered called for mercy.

His murder sparked protests against police brutality across the world, with over 450 protests taking place in the wake of Floyd’s death. Black Lives Matters protests and demonstrations have occurred in all 50 states, over three continents, including across England and the UK. Protesters have been seen lying on the ground and chanting some of Floyd’s last words: ‘I can’t breathe’. Politicians and athletes have taken the knee in support of the movement.

Hashtags like #SayHisName and #SayTheirNames sprung up on Twitter, remembering other victims, like Elijah McClain (arrested while walking down the street. He too was physically restrained, told officers he couldn’t breathe and vomited several times while pleading for help. He was injected with ketamine and died from cardiac arrest); Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun); Mike Brown (an unarmed teenager shot by a white officer); and Eric Garner (killed by a white officer who put him in an illegal chokehold).

The ‘Say Her Name’ movement followed, remembering specifically the Black women who have died at the hands of police; women like Breonna Taylor, who was shot while she was asleep in her home. Sandra Bland, who was stopped for allegedly failing to indicate while changing lanes, was taken into police custody and died three days later in her cell. And seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was also killed while sleeping.

There is no ignoring the history of police brutality against Black men and women in the US, but in the UK, we are by no means exempt.

The work of INQUEST, the charity that focuses on state-related deaths and their investigation, shows that the deaths of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people made up 14% of those that occurred in police custody or following contact with police since 1990 in England and Wales. Their work shows that there is a disproportionate amount of force or restraint used in these deaths—two times greater than that of other deaths in custody. All of which points to, as INQUEST’s Director Deborah Coles said, structural racism. Black people, specifically, form only 3% of the population in the UK and yet their deaths account for 8% of those that occur in police custody.

In 1969, British Nigerian man David Oluwale was killed in Leeds, after police continually hounded him in an effort to get him to leave the city (Owulale had been homeless for the last two years of his life). After years of being targeted by police, Owulale’s body was found in the River Aire. He was last seen being chased by officers towards the water. His death was the first that led to prosecution of British police for involvement in the death of a Black person, but in the ensuing years, the prosecution numbers have not risen with the number of deaths that occur.

Christopher Alder’s name was remembered at a Black Lives Matter protest in Hull in 2020. Alder died in 1998 at a police station, while lying handcuffed on the ground. He choked to death. An inquest into his death found Alder was unable to breathe for three minutes, but no one did anything. Though five officers were prosecuted, they were acquitted. In 2011, his family discovered it wasn’t even his body they had buried but that of a woman.

In 2008, Sean Rigg died at a police station in Brixton. Rigg had mental health issues and was suffering from a relapse at the time of his death. The manager of the hostel he lived at called police while Rigg was displaying psychotic and dangerous behaviour. Instead of getting him help, Rigg was arrested and physically restrained, lying face down on the ground. Witnesses reported seeing an officer kneel on his back for at least four minutes and abrasions were found on his face. When they returned to the station, Rigg was unresponsive, but no one called for medical help. He died in custody from cardiac arrest. An inquest later found ‘unsuitable force’ had been used, but again, no convictions followed.

Roger Sylvester also suffered from mental health problems. He was in a psychiatric unit in North London in 1999 when six police officers held him on the ground for 20 minutes. He stopped breathing and died five days later in hospital. Seven officers were suspended over their actions, but the following year, this was overturned and they were reinstated.

Similarly, Kingsley Burrell was being held in a psychiatric unit in 2011. He was physically restrained and a cover was put over his face. He died of cardiac arrest.

Sheku Bayoh died in custody in 2015 in Scotland. 30 seconds after police encountered Bayoh, three officers used batons and irritant spray on him. 45 seconds in and they had him restrained on the ground, six officers kneeling and lying on him. Within five minutes, he was dying.

Sarah Reed was found dead in in Holloway prison three years after she became a victim of police brutality after shoplifting in 2012. Video footage showed officer James Kiddie pushed her into a chair, pulled her hair and threw her to the ground, where he hit her in the head. Kiddie was later convicted of assault. In 2014, her body was found in a cell. She too had a history of serious mental health issues, which went ignored by officers.

Simeon Francis was also a victim of police brutality when he was arrested in Torquay in 2019: shoved against a wall and pinned to the ground, while an officer seemingly knelt on his back. This year, he died in a cell, arrested by the same police force.

The list goes on.

Police brutality in the US is a real issue. But we are not innocent.