Smiley Culture and the march for justice
My local pastor, Bishop John Francis of Ruach Ministries, often talks about the power of faith being able to “change the atmosphere”. His sermons hint at the transformative power of deep faith capable of bringing about radical change in both your personal life and wider society.
Over the last six or so months I have noticed a change in the atmosphere in the African Caribbean communities right across the country. You may not have noticed but I can tell you that the tectonic political plates within the African Caribbean community are stirring. There is definitely something in the air.
The recent deaths in custody of reggae icon Smiley Culture in London and Kingsley Brown in Birmingham have left many people reeling with shock and anger. These deaths are all too reminiscent of the dark days of the 1980’s and there is real poignancy that these two controversial deaths have both occurred all in the year and almost to the month of the 30 anniversary of the Brixton uprisings.
The global appeal of Smiley Culture and the bizarre and incredulous circumstances surrounding his death have transformed the political debate within black communities and have brought together black and white communities in common cause.
The death of Kingsley Burrell two weeks later and the reported brutal circumstances of his death is viewed as further evidence of a deep and callous disregard for the lives of black people in custody. This is a fundamental fault line in the relationship between black communities and the police; a constant theme over the last 30 years that has resurfaced with a depressing regularity.
Packed meetings in Birmingham and London In relation to both deaths and support from community radio stations and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have come of age in relation to the struggle for race equality and the support of families for the campaign against deaths in custody. These platforms are creating the framework for unified and coordinated campaign for justice for affected families.
Saturday 16 April saw nearly two thousand people march for justice for all those who have died in custody in suspicious circumstances. They key demand was for an independent public inquiry.
I had the honor to help organise and lead this historic march alongside Merlin Emmanuel (Smiley’s nephew) and Kedisha Burrell Brown (sister of Kingsley), The families of Sean Rigg and Julian Webster, Jody McIntyre, trade unionist and people from all walks of life and representing all communities marched in unity.
The march was historic and I believe signifies a reawakening of black political consciousness in the UK. The outrage stems first from the yet more black deaths in custody, the fact that a millionaire reggae singer is reputed to have stabbed himself whilst surrounded by police officers, an explanation that is widely disbelieved and the fact Kingsley Brown called the police for help and is reported to have been badly assaulted in front of his five year old son.
Demonstrating the tenuous basis for the much-repeated claim that relations with the police and black communities have moved on, these two horrific cases have exposed that claim as hugely inflated. The fact is whatever progress has been made and it would be churlish not to acknowledge some progress has been made, these two cases have poisoned the well of trust and confidence. In an instant we have been transported back 30 years.
But nothing will be allowed to undermine that cause or the Emmanuel and Brown families’ moral authority on this issue.
Secondly we must avoid raising expectations of justice being delivered by either the Independent Police Complaints Authority. It too must be brought within the remit of a public inquiry as currently undoubtedly the IPPC lacks public confidence.
Our focus should be on pursuing justice through the courts and simultaneously motivating a radical political agenda for change that seeks to fundamentally reform the inquest system, police accountability and the process of independent inquiry into police malpractice and criminality.
The pending abolition of the policing authorities and replacement with Police Commissioners could potentially result in further alienation of inner city communities’ dependant on the political character of local administrations. I think the maintenance of public confidence and the upholding of the principle of policing with consent is far too important to be left solely to the police or politicians.
No doubt that the context of massive public sector cuts and the massive disproportionate effects on black communities will acutely exacerbate and already grievously inflamed situation in relation to policing and the administration of justice.
Recent event have changed all that and the black community has been shocked out of its lethargy. No longer having trust and confidence in policing or criminal justice, unemployment and cuts have forced our communities to wake up to the fact that both central and regional and local Government has abandoned race equality as a political priority.
The result will be a huge resurgence in independent political activity in challenging racism and injustice. The cases of Smiley and Kingsley can be seen as metaphors for a community that feels beleaguered disempowered and abandoned. The march on Saturday marked a watershed moment in our history here in the UK. In short we are a community on the move.
Lee Jasper, Co-Chair of BARAC