Almost eight months on from the police killing of Michael Brown, the black youth shot by an off duty police officer that led to mass protests in Ferguson, another in what appears to be unending police killings and subsequent attempts to cover it up in the United States has been revealed. The civilian recording of the murder of 50 year old Walter Scott went viral, with horrified responses across the globe.
I work as the activism lead for RECLAIM, a youth charity committed to ending leadership inequality within a generation, working specifically with working class young people aged 12-15. Our young people came into our offices the following day and created a short film about their emotions after watching the video. The overwhelming response we received was one of solidarity with the victims' family in the US, justifiable anger, but worryingly, not shock. Many of them felt that similar experiences have happened in the UK, and that we have to do more not only to highlight this abuse of power but also to ensure more young people are aware of what is actually happening in regards to police brutality. Many of our young men, irrespective of race, tell us they have experienced discriminatory treatment based upon their socio-economic status and that similar attitudes are prevalent where they live. We must fight to ensure that those who abuse their positions are held accountable in society, irrespective of position.
In addition to the 8 gunshots fired at the fleeing, unarmed Scott, the police officer then proceeded to further alter the murder scene by dropping an item closer to the victim, to completely alter the narrative around what actually happened and further distort the truth. At no time did the officer attempt to deliver CPR or provide life-saving support to Scott. At a time when more and more miscarriages of justices are being unearthed in the US prison system, the ease with which this police officer appeared to doctor the crime scene suggests it is not only an abnormality but a routine process that exonerates the guilty. Out of this tragedy, truth must be winner. There is a real opportunity now to address the legitimate pleas for help from those most vulnerable. A positive start would be an investigation into the officer's previous cases that have resulted in state sponsored homicide, and for a total review of the cases this officer has been involved in that concluded in convictions for the perpetrators. That would be a welcome start.
Eric Garner was murdered after being placed in a police chokehold, despite the NYPD policies clearly prohibiting the use of chokeholds. Garner's crime? Alleged selling of single cigarettes without tax stamps. A grand jury decided the police officers had not done anything worthy of indictment, despite the medical examiners declaring that Garner death was "A homicide caused by compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restrain by police". He couldn't breathe. They literally choked the life out of him. Live on camera.
This isn't just a case of individual police brutality, there's a wider argument about the militarisation of a domestic security apparatus already engulfed in the systematic oppression of the American worker, particularly minority groups. 312 civilian deaths at the hands of US law enforcement officers and we are barely in April, a disproportionate amount of them people of colour suggests a troubling issue with accountability, brutality, class, corruption, institutionalised racism and police conduct. This becomes truly worrisome when you understand these statistics could well be underestimated. The annual statistics on excessive force haven't been compiled by either the FBI or the US attorney general despite orders from the US congress to do so. Unlike the killers of Garner and Brown, the police officer implicated in the murder of Walter Scott is in custody. Primarily because he was caught red-handed, but also due to the successful pressure applied by the demonstrators that have forced the legislators to think twice before acquitting those who still haven't had time to clean the blood from their hands. For justice to prevail, the law must apply equally to all. The recorded killing of Walter Scott demonstrates that we have a long way to go before this is achieved.
How does this relate back to the United Kingdom? The role of social media also has unintended consequences for bringing the reality of state sponsored violence back to our shores in the UK. Many of those watching the protests unfold in the US are unaware of how eerily similar police abuses are routinely treated in the UK The stats on BAME deaths in UK custody and via police marksmen do not make pretty reading. Nearly one thousand Black and Asian men have died in police custody here since 1990, with over 500 of them happening in 'suspicious circumstances' that haven't resulted in a single prosecution. We witnessed the riots that occurred across the nation in 2011 following the death of Mark Duggan, but for many there are still many unanswered questions in regards to his death. Not a single trace of Duggan's DNA was found on the weapon or the sock the weapon was found in. The evidence of eyewitnesses was dismissed by the Independent police complaints commission (IPCC), who to date have not been involved in a single successful prosecution of a police officer involved in a shooting 'Incident'.
Other high profile cases, such as the deaths of Azelle Rodney and Peter Grainger, who both died at the hands of UK police marksman and had inquests that brought up conflicting police accounts, have done little to address legitimate concerns within the black community in regard to police impunity and largely discriminatory practices around shoot to kill policies that are often at odds with the actual threat posed by the deceased. In addition to, the near universal media character assassination that follows the death of many black men in either custody or police altercations suggest that at the very least objective, balanced media reporting is something we are yet to achieve in regard to cases of police brutality and extra judicial killings in the UK. Furthermore, spurious reasons given for justify stop and searches on BAME young men, disproportionate sentencing in law courts, all of these oppressive factors that exist in the UK are comparable with the United States and allow for a strong degree of solidarity as in many cases the struggles appear to mirror each other.
Whilst the police can and should be applauded for supporting necessary local grassroot initiatives and at times embracing community work that aids engagement, there are wider systemic issues to be addressed and much work to be done to continue the fight to improve the operational standard. Impunity has consequences that extend far beyond the black community and race shouldn't be allowed to obscure the bigger issue of police repression, state militarisation and increasing social inequality unrivalled in our post war history. The deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson and the inevitable lack of prosecution or conviction of officers are a warning not only of extensive police power to abuse their mandate but the lack of transparent, truly independent bodies that are overseeing police conduct. Its a prerequisite for a democratic state, not a utopian dream, that we have a law enforcement that is not only held truly accountable for their actions but are also to be found not replicating the behaviour of those they are mandated to protect civilians from. Criminality in the police force must be eradicated to return hope to all in the democratic principles we all hold dear. There is no justice for those who have already lost their lives. But there is hope that the perpetrators of those crimes will not be perpetually exonerated. The greatest legacy can be our continued fight to achieve it.