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No more deaths in police custody

Organise against police harassment

Black deaths in police custody are the extreme expression of the brutal racism of the police forces in this country. It's a scandal that nothing is done about it, the police get away with it every time. It shows that it's not a problem of a few racist police, but of the whole racist system in this country.

No police officers have been disciplined and certainly none have gone to jail for any of these deaths. The immigration police who suffocated Joy Gardner to death with adhesive tape were the only ones ever brought to court for the death of a black person, and they all got off free!

In the last couple of years in Lambeth alone three black men have died in police custody. Brian Douglas was beaten up on the street with US-style side-handled truncheons shortly after they were introduced by the Metropolitan Police, left seriously injured in a cell at Kennington police station, and then dumped in St. Thomas's Hospital to die. Wayne Douglas died after he was chased and beaten up by officers from Brixton police station shouting racist abuse. Oscar Okoye died in hospital last November following a brain haemorrhage when he was arrested in Streatham; his first brain haemorrhage followed an earlier incident when he was beaten up by the police.

That is just one London borough. But there has been a mounting national toll of deaths at police hands or in police custody; it goes back at least two decades, but it has escalated sharply over the last few years. Governments have given the police more repressive powers to keep down youth, poor people, workers, and black and Asian communities. The result has been more police racism and more police brutality.

Nothing is done because the courts and the politicians want to protect the authority of the police. They think that is far more important than justice for black people or working class people. It is only on the rare occasions when the violence and corruption of the police affects middle class white people that action is taken.

The Labour government that was elected on 1 May has not behaved any differently on this issue. They supported the Tory Police Act just before the election, which gives the police massive extra powers (including the power to break into your house and bug it without getting a warrant from a judge). They are refusing to scrap the Tory Immigration and Asylum Act which has taken away the benefits and basic rights of most asylum seekers. They are keeping asylum seekers who have committed no crime locked up in detention centres. It is not surprising that they haven't done or said a thing about deaths in custody.

The new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, felt he had to meet the parents of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered by racist thugs in south-east London. The racist handling of the 'investigation' by the police has protected the killers responsible; they have never been brought to justice. Now Straw has set up a public inquiry into this case.

So why doesn't he meet the families of all those who have died in police custody? Why doesn't he set up a really open and public inquiry into all of these deaths, so that the police responsible can be brought to justice and punished? Thousands of people have already signed our petition supporting these demands.

Some recent court cases have highlighted the need for a massive campaign to win justice for these victims of brutality. In October a Coroner's Inquest gave a verdict of unlawful killing in the case of Ibrahima Sey, killed by police with CS gas spray in Ilford.

A few months before, In July, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Police Complaints Authority, faced with a likely defeat in the High Court, had to announce that they were going to 'reconsider' their decisions not to take any action against the police responsible for the deaths of Shiji Lapite in Hackney and Richard O'Brien in south London. O'Brien was an Irish victim of police racism, the same anti-Irish racism that led to the framing of the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4, wrongly imprisoned for 18 years.

So far, though, nothing more has come of these cases. The police are getting away with this because there isn't a really strong, active movement fighting against racism and injustice. There have been a lot of separate local campaigns around different cases, but nothing which unites them in action.

Many 'official' anti-racists and 'community leaders' don't want to rock the boat, because they work in organisations which are sponsored or funded by the authorities. Many of them think they will have more influence with the new government, so they definitely don't want to see a militant movement that might upset Jack Straw and Tony Blair.

We can't expect to get justice by politely asking the politicians and the courts. We will only win justice if we build a militant, integrated mass movement, a movement which is based in the communities, housing estates, workplaces, schools and colleges, which involves black and Asian people, and especially youth, who are the main targets of police racism and injustice in the courts. It is only when we are building a movement that challenges the powers-that-be that they will feel they have to take notice of our demands.

That is the important thing about the March for Justice on 15 November. It isn't because one demonstration will win our demands by itself, any more than one petition will. We want to make the march part of the work we are doing to build the movement we need. A march can focus attention on the need to do something about police racism and give people more confidence, but the most important thing is to be building a movement before and after the march.

This has to be a movement that is organising against police harassment. Deaths in police custody are the tip of the iceberg of racist brutality, harassment and intimidation that go on all the time. We need a movement in the community that can get people to turn out and stick together to confront the police and defend the victims of harassment, organise pickets of police stations to demand the release of people unjustly arrested, and win the support of local workers and students.

It's essential to organise legal support and advice too, which is why the Movement for Justice has produced legal rights information cards, complete with solicitors' phone numbers, but it is only by building a movement that is based on action and combines the fight against all the different issues of racism that we will really be able to defend our legal rights.

As well as deaths in custody and police harassment our movement has to fight against every form of racism and injustice. We have to fight the racist treatment of asylum seekers and immigrants, and support the asylum seekers in detention who have been organising hunger strikes and protests to win their freedom. We have to fight the unjust imprisonment of people like Winston Silcott and the M25 Three, jailed as black scapegoats by a racist system. We have to fight for justice for the victims of racist attacks who can't get any justice through the police and courts system. Get involved in building a movement that is really committed to fighting.

Updated (4/2/1998) from the November, 1997 Movement for Justice magazine

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