Romain Brisbon. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Mark Duggan. Cameron Tillman. Sean Rigg. Latasha Harlins. Stephen Lawrence. Laquan Macdonald.
Here lie a few names which make up a much longer list of human beings, most of them teenagers, all black, some British, most American, all whose deaths have illustrated the huge flaws in the law enforcement and justice systems that are put in place to protect its citizens. From misunderstandings between neighbours to suspicious deaths in police custody to police brutality gone too far; all of these lives were taken by people who were never aptly punished for their crimes, except that of course of Stephen Lawrence, whose family fought for 17 years to yield a conviction of the teenager’s murderer after he was killed in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993.
In 1997 Tupac rapped “on earth, tell me what a black life’s worth// a bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts” . This was in reference to the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991, a teenager shot dead by a shopkeeper for appearing to steal a bottle of orange juice. Latasha’s killer was convicted but never sent to prison instead she paid a $500 fine, served 400 hours community service and was put on probation for 5 years. Latasha’s death left a bitter taste in the mouths of many black Americans and the following year the acquittal of the officers responsible for the excessive beating of Rodney King as well as the light sentencing of Latasha’s killer sparked the LA riots which went down in history as some of the worst the US had ever seen.
When asked whether he felt the Michael Dunn case (or the loud music murder) was ‘racial’ or not Grey’s Anatomy actor, Jesse Williams responded “it’s racial because it doesn’t happen to white people” . Let us note firstly that it is not racial because it is the case of a white gunman and a black citizen. Neither was Trayvon Martin’s case about a white male vs a black teenager, George Zimmerman who was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder in 2013 was latino. Latasha Harlins’ killer was Korean, not white. The police officer, who shot 14 year old Cameron Tillman dead in Louisiana this year, was black. This is racial because police brutality only affects the voiceless and marginalised, otherwise the police simply wouldn’t get away with it, and all too often the most marginalised are ethnic minorities and the poor. It’s racial because the justice system seems much more eager to lazily protect the killers of blacks than those of whites. A UK court will not hesitate to jail a black or mixed race teenager for 30 years for the murder of another black teenager, so why so must we wait 17 years in the case of a white killer? These cases have all demonstrated how the law seems more reluctant to protect its minorities than its majorities in a situation that occurs between two citizens. When one of those citizens is a police officer, the odds ae even worse.
In 2011 following the murder of black male Mark Duggan, for which the police officer who shot him was acquitted, riots, which began in Tottenham after protests outside the police station escalated, spread throughout a number of the UK’s major cities. The mainstream British media, leapt to the conclusion that the riots were the result of an unruly generation trying to create an excuse to grab themselves a new plasma TV or pair of Nike air forces. The moment has now arrived for us to attempt to put these riots in their correct context. In 1992, following the cases of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, there were riots. In 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, there were riots. In 2011, following the death of Mark Duggan, there were riots. Riots clearly inflamed by the economic situation, by the ongoing neglect represented by cuts to social and public services, as well as by the time of year, but riots bred from an injustice just like all the others. Despite initial reports stating that Duggan was holding a gun when he was shot the inquest revealed that the police had shot an unarmed man and yet ruled the killing lawful, punishing none of the officers involved, clearly reflecting a deeper race-related injustice in society.
In the UK and US alike police brutality makes it easier for every young black male to feel personally attacked when Eric Garner, Mark Duggan or Mike Brown lose their lives in such situations. Ask any law abiding black male from a troubled area and he will tell you that he too knows what it feels like to be treated like a criminal. Stopped and searched, stripped of your dignity, assumed to be up to no good. Ask the family of Sean Rigg who died in police custody and whose cause of death has never been revealed if they feel like the police work for them or against them. Frustrated and disenfranchised people use the only power they can think of or muster up to make their voices heard and their anger felt. Injustice breeds civil disobedience. It did in LA in the early 90s, it did in the UK in 2011 and it’s happening today in Ferguson and in New York.
The case of Mark Duggan may be far rarer here in the UK than the seemingly routine shooting of young, black and often unarmed males in the US, but we still face a huge amount of tension between the police and minorities in the UK. The conversation that emerged from the LA riots put the issues faced by the communities who rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, into national dialogue and meant that those who previously had no awareness or reason to care about racism and police brutality and misconduct, could ask the questions that we should always be asking about how our authorities treat the powerless. However, following the riots of 2011 there was almost no public acknowledgement of a need for change and no visible action taken to improve the relationship and trust between black people and the police.
The watershed case of Stephen Lawrence highlighted for the first time for the British public, the institutional racism of the metropolitan police, and while we have witnessed positive change we still have so far to go. From the Brixton riots of 1981 to those of 2011 we see again and again the manifestation of this ongoing and toxic relationship which continues to destroy communities, yet we, the British public refuse to indulge in any conversation about race. It couldn’t possibly be a question of race because we got rid of that with the multiculturalism act, right? Wrong.
Our incredibly biased media that will allow you to believe that in the presence of a black male (and it is more often men than women, although women are of course also affected), you could be in danger. You thus have the right to be afraid or suspicious and if you happen to be a police officer, you may then manifest this fear or distrust through violence towards aforementioned black male. If you are not a member of the police, manifest this fear violently, and we’ll probably still forgive you.
So we can see why Tupac’s lyrics resonate so strongly with black communities on both sides of the pond. What is a black life worth if there is no justice for taking one? Until the IPCC can effectively punish officers for mistreating citizens undeserving of such abuse, black Britons will struggle to find confidence in the police. The problem is simple. The police routinely operate with greater disregard for human life possessed by those whose race or (lack of) riches make him or her, another powerless member of the masses.
If you want to imagine what Eric Garner went through, firstly you can listen to the 14 minute recording that wasn’t sufficient to yield a conviction, and secondly you can watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which in 1989, twenty-five years ago, depicted the breakout of a riot following the death of a black male who is strangled to death by a police officer who initially intervenes to break up a fight. Twenty-five years ago, Spike Lee imagined a scenario to illustrate the effects of police misconduct, its unfairness, its brutality its devastating effect on the local community and yet twenty-five years later we still seem reluctant to heed his lessons so that we can accept and acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action to ensure this never happens again, in the UK and US alike.