On 11 January 2016, Sarah Reed, a vulnerable 32-year-old woman suffering with mental health issues, was found dead in her cell in north London’s Holloway prison, where she was on remand awaiting trial. Throughout her life, she had been a victim of failings by the British state: in October 2012, she reported being sexually assaulted while being detained under the Mental Health Act, and in November 2012 she was ruthlessly beaten up by a police officer, with the attack caught on camera.
On 3 May 2015, Sheku Bayoh, a British-Sierra Leonean man who worked for British Gas and had two young children, died after being arrested by police in Fife, Scotland. He was detained, handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, and put in leg restraints following an alleged altercation with a police officer. According to the Bayoh family’s lawyer, post-mortem evidence suggests that Bayoh died of positional asphyxia after being pinned to the ground by four officers.
Reed and Bayoh's stories are just two examples of police brutality in Britain. The U.K. has a long history of state violence, however, compared to the U.S. there is much less visibility of this in mainstream media. According to a report from Inquest—a British charity that investigates deaths in custody—over 1500 people have died in, or following, police custody in the U.K. since 1990. A report by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows that, of this number, more than 500 were Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals. Yet, according to the IRR, not a single police official has been successfully prosecuted, though a large proportion of these deaths involved undue and excessive force and many more were due to a “culpable lack of care.” Often, the individuals detained suffered from a severe mental illness.
If we look back at records dating to 1969, the number of deaths in police custody or following police contact is closer to 3000. One of the most high-profile black British victims of police brutality, police neglect, and gross misconduct by officers is David Oluwale, who died in 1969, and was the first recorded black person to have died in police custody in the U.K. Oluwale’s case was the only instance in contemporary British history in which officers were held responsible for a death in police custody. Officers viciously beat Oluwale with truncheons in a shop doorway in Leeds, then kicked him into the city’s River Aire. His lifeless body was pulled from the river two weeks after the attack.
Other victims include Cherry Groce, who was shot—and as a result, paralyzed—in 1985 by Metropolitan police inspector Douglas Lovelock, sparking two days of unrest in Brixton, south London. Joy Gardner was a 40-year-old Jamaican mature student living as an undocumented migrant in London when she died in 1993 following an attempt by police officers to detain her for deportation. Stephen Lawrence’s death in a racist attack in that same year, 1993, led to an investigation that revealed the alarming extent of institutional racism in the U.K. and corruption within the British police force.
The pattern of black men being disproportionately killed by police officers is as consistent in the U.K. as it is in America. Mark Duggan, who was shot by police in August 2011, in a case that famously sparked riots across the country that summer. Then, Sheku Bayoh was killed by Scottish police on 3 May 2015 after being arrested by 11 officers. His case is ongoing and his family demand answers.
In the U.K., a black person is less likely to be shot dead on the streets than their counterpart in America. But we are more likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of neglectful officers. The racism in Britain’s justice system is insidious, but deadly nonetheless.
It was the death of Sheku Bayoh in 2015 that spurred me into action: in an attempt to add black British voices to the ongoing story of worldwide police brutality, I’ve teamed up with filmmaker Troy James Aidoo to create the documentary film 1500 And Counting. We have been working with members of the Bayoh family and organizations to put a spotlight on the criminal behaviour of officers, in an attempt to shake British people out of their current state of complacency. If we cannot trust the state to police us fairly, then we are all walking targets. Time and time again, we see a similar pattern in the stories of black victims of police brutality: they are often vulnerable (usually suffering from mental illness), arrested by several officers, and brute force is used to detain them.
The making of 1500 And Counting led me to ask what has really changed since the 1980s—a time when skinheads ruled the streets and terrorized immigrants, and (now-abolished) 'sus' laws allowed police officers to profile black men and boys, searching and brutalizing them for no particular reason. Although the Race Relations Act was initially introduced to outlaw racial discrimination in the U.K. in 1965, and was extended to apply to the police in the ‘90s, not much has improved. If we examine any area of British life, we will see significant racial inequalities. The unemployment rate for ethnic minorities in the U.K. is 11.3%, more than twice that of white people (5.5%). Depressingly, black people are almost three times as likely to be unemployed than anyone else in the U.K., with 38% of young black men currently unemployed compared to 17.8% of young white men. Healthcare is another area where gross inequality exists: Black people are 44% more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than their white counterparts.
Black people are more disproportionately represented in U.K. prisons than in the U.S. The proportion of black people in jail in the U.K. is almost seven times their share of the population, whereas in the U.S. the proportion of black prisoners is four times greater than their population share. And terrifyingly, police officers have used routine arrests to collect the DNA profile of three-quarters of young black British men between the ages of 18 and 35.
In the U.K., a black person is less likely to be shot dead on the streets than their counterpart in America. But we are more likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of neglectful officers. The racism in Britain’s justice system is insidious, but deadly nonetheless. British people are complacent because they do not think things like this happen here, but they do and they have done for years. Britain is the motherland of racism— it taught America everything it knows about intolerance and oppression.
With 1500 and Counting, we aim to make audiences want to take action, and support those who already are. This is an independent grassroots project, which is why we have crowd funded this project as a way of ensuring as many people and communities as possible have a stake in this film, and thus in holding the British police to account. Too often we are encouraged to think we are ‘just one person’ and we cannot make change happen. My collaborator Troy and I are two ordinary members of our community who have decided to utilize our skills and resources to tell an extraordinary story of everyday injustice on our doorsteps. As poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote in 1980, “Inglan is a bitch/ Deres no escapin it.” So with that very British truth in mind, it’s time for Brits to face up to our very British problems.