Though I grew up in the shadow of the Rwandan genocide, I didn't realise what racism was until I was fifteen years old. I was visiting my best friend in Sloane Square when two policemen stopped me and told me that I "fit the description" of a young black man who was dressed in similar clothes to what I was wearing, a hoodie and trainers. This was only the beginning of my run-ins with the police, which I initially found confusing because I was a highly-respected and well-behaved student. Ever since then I have continued to have encounters with the police, who have stopped and searched me repeatedly throughout my life. I soon came to the realization that they had a preconceived notion that to be black was somehow to be intrinsically criminal, and that this informed the way they treated me when I was in their presence. This repeated racial profiling made me feel powerless - I can't, after all, rip off my skin - and, in a creeping way, worthless.
As I grew older, my friends would tell me similar stories of how they too had been stopped and searched on numerous occasions; of how the police had punched and beaten them or called them "nigger" when they believed no one was looking - or no one whose word would be taken. And I read this singular statistic: there have been 827 deaths resulting from 'police contact' since 2004 in the UK, and yet, despite several rulings of unlawful killing, no officer has been successfully prosecuted as a consequence.
As an artist who is also a young black man in this country, I want to give the world a window onto the tense and traumatic encounters that can happen between black people and the police, and how in some cases this results in unwarranted death.
To tell this particular story I have conceived a theatrical work, Custody, drawing inspiration from Migrant Media's cult documentary films Injustice and Who Polices the Police. Custody, and the real experiences of families who have suffered from police brutality and struggled to find justice. It is an incisive exploration of the ways in which young black men and women are mistreated by the police in modern British society and draws directly from the stop and search experiences I faced in my youth.
With Custody I want to show that police brutality and the routine devaluing of black lives is not specific to the African-American experience, but also powerfully affects Black Britons. This is not as well known as it should be, largely due to the power of British institutions such as the police, and the state's ability to cover things up. It is also due to a culture of apathy in Britain and the inclination we have to sweep uncomfortable facts under the carpet.
I chose theatre as my medium because it places the audience in a space where it is difficult to run away from uncomfortable truths. In theatre, in a ritualised way, for a short time we breathe the same air and inhabit the same space as the people who experience these tragedies. My intention is to present work that is provocative and transformative.
To realise this work, I'm asking for help. I've already raised money to stage an R&D and have succeeded with a substantial grant application, but I can only access it if I obtain matching funds from other sources. Because of this, I am asking for donations - please check out the Custody page on Indiegogo for more details about the project, and how your money would be spent. I would be honoured if you could consider becoming part of this work, and involved in a valuable dialogue that speaks directly to today's political climate.
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