‘I can’t breathe’.
‘I’m about to die’.
‘Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.’
‘My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts’. 
‘Please, I can’t breathe’. 
‘Don’t kill me.’
‘Did they fucking kill him?’

2020: The Year That Answered

In the days following the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests take place in 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states of the USA. Protests also occur around the world, in over 60 countries, across every continent except Antarctica. In Nairobi, protesters also demonstrate against extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police. In Lagos, BLM marchers also highlight the murder of a 16-year-old girl, suspected of being killed by Lagos State Police Command officers. In Capetown they also march against the death of a local man at the hands of soldiers. In Tokyo they highlight a beating by police of a Kurdish man living in the city. In Bangkok they hold banners stating ‘I can’t breathe’ and protest the disappearances of Thai anti-regime activists. In Haifa they also march in protest at the death of an Ethiopian-Israeli shot by Israeli police in 2019. Across France BLM marchers highlight the campaign for justice for Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Malian French man asphyxiated in police custody in 2016. In Reykjavik protestors observe 8’46” of silence against racism in Icelandic society. In Madrid protesters also highlight the death of a local African street vendor after a police raid in 2018. In Kingston, Jamaica people gather outside the US embassy to demand justice for both Floyd and Jamaicans killed by law enforcement. Protests break out in towns and cities across the UK. In Bristol demonstrators pull down the statue of slaver Edward Colston and dump it in the city harbour. 

The global waves of anger throw regimes, governments, state and regional institutions, law enforcement agencies, multinational businesses, sporting, cultural and educational organisations on the defensive. ‘Virtue signalling’ –  defined as ‘a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody’ becomes all the rage across government and business, as those in positions of power scramble to appease anger at their complicity in sustaining and perpetuating racial inequalities and discrimination. As Harlem Renaissance luminary Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: ‘There are years that ask questions and years that answer.’

London 1993 – 1998. The Years of Questions (but few answers)

On 22nd April 1993 black teenager Stephen Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks were ambushed at a bus stop in Well Hall Road, Eltham, south-east London, by a group of young white racists one of whom shouted ‘What, what nigger’. Duwayne managed to escape his attackers, all of whom were local to the area, but Stephen was caught, surrounded and knifed to death. 

The failure of the police to catch the killers in the hours and days following the murder is well documented. The killers were allowed to escape to their nearby houses, construct alibis, dispose of the murder weapon (that has never been found), destroy clothing and other evidence and set about intimidating witnesses. Much later it was revealed that the killers had also quite likely colluded through family criminal connections with corrupt police officers in an effort to shield themselves from arrest.

The growing realisation that the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was heading for failure, with the fear there would be an escalation of racist attacks and killings in that part of south-east London, catalysed a campaign in support of Stephen Lawrence’s parents, Doreen and Neville, and their insistence on justice. 

The police reacted precisely as they had done in past similar circumstances – they denied any racial motive in the killing (leading to the dismissal of vital information and intelligence), they planted undercover police spies in the family campaign, and sought to paint anti-racist campaigners as criminals and the ‘real problem’. 

The scandal of the police racism and corruption that dogged the murder inquiry, would, thanks to the determination of Doreen and Neville, many years later, come back to haunt the Metropolitan Police and provoke a national reckoning on racism in British society and the institutions of the State. But in the immediate years following Stephen’s murder, his family faced an uphill, seemingly hopeless, battle for justice. 

Shortly after Stephen’s murder in 1993, I began work as a journalist on a weekly socialist newspaper. I had for a long time been an anti-racist activist, and so it was logical that one of the areas assigned to me to report on was race – covering Black history and politics, far-right and state racism and campaigns against racial attacks and injustice. 

There was plenty to do. The country had been under Tory rule for fourteen long years. During that time there had been a quickening of state racism, set in motion by Margaret Thatcher, who had promised her supporters that she would deal with ‘the enemy within’, including the trade unions and rebellious Black communities. The police were to be ‘Maggie’s boot-boys’ and let off the leash. In 1984–85 they had been used to beat the coal-mining communities into submission. The riots of 1981 and 1985 showed how the police acted as an army of occupation in the multiracial and multicultural areas of the inner cities, daily dealing brutal racism out to Black people, including indiscriminate stop and search, fitting up Black men for crimes they didn’t commit and murdering them in custody. It was the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid on her north London house that sparked the Broadwater Farm uprising in October 1985. The Tory persecution of asylum seekers also climbed through their years in office, eventually building an inhumane edifice of state racism including barbed wire-surrounded detention centres staffed by private security firms, filled by snatching whole families for deportation. (A policy enthusiastically continued by the New Labour government that came to power in 1997). 

Violent deaths of Black people and other minorities in police or prison custody were a constant during the Tory years, and very quickly I found myself reporting on one atrocity after another. A recurring feature was the thrusting into the public arena of the grieving family members whose loved ones had been killed in the most horrific circumstances. 

I can’t pretend to begin to comprehend what these family members went through. But I could (and still can) see the pain and grief, anger and incomprehension, reflected in their eyes and etched on their faces. And then the realisation that their right to know the truth, and to pursue justice, would be denied them at every step. That the British state had rendered the killers of their loved one untouchable, far out of reach of the justice which the rest of us are subject to. And finally, that those with power had decided that the life of their brother or sister, son or daughter, did not matter. 

I observed time and again this cruel, arrogant, amoral, relentless process set in motion by the police and the criminal justice system, to continually humiliate and then obliterate the families and so render them without hope. So, it was always a marvel to me, that despite all this, family members fought to preserve their personal integrity, desire for peace, dislike of violence, and conviction that the biblical command ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ was for them the very foundation of a civilised existence. 

I can vividly recall the goodness that radiated from Myrna Simpson. Her daughter was Joy Gardner (official date of death 1 August 1993) whose shocking death came as the result of an immigration raid on her north London flat by the Metropolitan Police’s Aliens Deportation Group. In the presence of her five year-old son, Joy was bound with cuffs and leather straps and gagged with 13-foot length of adhesive tape wrapped around her head. Unable to breath she collapsed, having suffered irreversible brain damage due to asphyxia. Taken to hospital, she was placed on life support but was pronounced dead after a cardiac arrest four days later. In 1995, three of the police officers involved stood trial for Gardner’s manslaughter, but all were acquitted. The authorities refused to hold an inquest into Joy’s death.

As Benjamin Zephaniah bitterly observed in his poem ‘The Death of Joy Gardner’:

Let it go down in history

The word is that officially

She died democratically

In 13 feet of tape.

Throughout the years following Joy’s death, Myrna, a small, round, big-hearted elder blessed with a Jamaican accent and loud voice, could be relied upon to arrive at every protest and public meeting following the latest death in custody. We would sometimes chat (she would chat to one and all), she would express her outrage and sympathy, talk about Joy, seek out the family involved and give her support. Typically she would have a plastic bag with whatever she needed for the day, including a 13 foot roll of material, that, when asked to speak she would have people unfurl, as a visual symbol of the mediaeval brutality the police had meted out to her daughter.  A sweet lady, Myrna had some steel in her, because after having fought and lost a prolonged legal battle for Justice for Joy, she set about raising her daughter’s son Graeme, who is now in his thirties. 

Just absorb for a second the fact that, despite the hundreds of Black deaths in custody in the UK going back to the 1950s, not one police officer has ever been brought before a British court and successfully prosecuted for manslaughter, let alone murder. This has bred a culture of impunity in the police’s ranks. 

Going right back to 1970, the two sadistic Leeds police officers who subjected David Oluwale to what has been described as ‘the physical and psychological destruction of a homeless, black man’, before chasing him towards the River Aire, where his body was found two weeks later, escaped with just minor assault convictions. The trial judge, having described Oluwale to the court as  ‘a dirty, filthy, violent vagrant’,  directed the jury to find them not guilty of the charge of manslaughter. 

During my time as a reporter through the 1990s, I came to realise that each violent death in custody, and the political and judicial events it set in motion, tended to follow a similar pattern.

As with David Oluwale, the deadly encounter with the police would tend to happen at night. The victim’s family would find out that something serious had occurred, maybe via an eyewitness at the scene, sometimes via the press, or a knock on the door by police officers. Sometimes the family, having found their loved one was missing, would set out to search for them. They would call friends, try to pinpoint where and when they had been seen last, ring hospital accident and emergencies, and finally with dread in their hearts go to the police to ask who was banged up in the cells. This search could take hours or even days. 

This was the case with the death of Brian Douglas. One afternoon I received a message from activists in south London, that there would be a demonstration outside Kennington police station in protest at the death in custody of a local African-Caribbean man. When I arrived, there was a line of police guarding the entrance to the station, facing off local people and the family of the dead man. I spotted a young Black man with a beard and green eyes. In soft spoken, and what I can only describe as respectable tones, he was attempting to liaise with the police to prevent the situation escalating. This was Brian’s brother Donald. There were a small group supporting a clearly devastated young white woman, Brian’s long-term girlfriend Rochelle. 

The police guarding the station were hard-faced, cocky and dismissive of the scenes of grief before them. This attitude began to enrage those protesting, but the appearance of a weeping older Jamaican woman on the concrete ramp leading into the police station, stopped everyone in their tracks. It was Jasmin, Brian’s mother, who had been in Jamaica when she had received a phone call from her daughter Brenda telling her that something terrible had happened, that ‘her baby’ Brian was lying in hospital, being kept alive by life support, and that she should come back to London on the next flight before the doctors switched off the equipment. Jasmin, a devout Baptist churchgoer, wholly wedded to religious peace, calmed the crowd, thereby denying the police what they clearly wanted; a punch-up on film and some more Black men in the cells they could point to as violent, dangerous and lawless – just like Brian was. 

Except Brian Douglas was the opposite of the racist stereotype thrust upon him by the police in their subsequent efforts to smear him, as a crude justification for his death at their hands. He was a well-liked and well-regarded respectable guy, from an upstanding working-class Jamaican family, who made a living as a boxing promoter. His family described how he loved dressing up, going out and having fun. On 3 May 1995, Brian, after a celebratory night out with a friend, and on his way home, was confronted by two Metropolitan Police officers armed with newly issued 22 inch US-style side-handed batons, of the type that had been used by LAPD officers to beat down Black motorist Rodney King in 1991. (The later acquittal of the LAPD officers involved, despite the incident being filmed, sparked six days of rioting  in Los Angeles during which 63 people were killed). 

One of the police, PC Mark Tuffey, later testified that he believed Brian was a threat and that he struck him with his baton in self-defence. Tuffey said he had aimed for Brian’s upper arm but the baton had (somehow) slipped upwards and hit Brain’s neck. This was disputed by eye-witnesses, themselves backed by medical experts, who testified that Tuffey had in fact delivered a downwards blow on the back of Brian’s head, fracturing his skull and damaging his brain stem. The force of the blow was later estimated as being the equivalent of Brian being dropped 11 times his height, head first, onto the ground.

Brian was arrested, taken to Kennington Police station, processed as being drunk and drugged, denied medical treatment and thrown in a cell, where he lay alone and untreated for 15 hours, as paralysis from irreversible brain damage spread through his body. Eventually someone must have realised Brian should be taken to hospital, where after drifting in and out of consciousness, and asking his siblings to take him home, he eventually succumbed to his injuries on 8 May 1995. He was 33 years old. He died before his mother Jasmin could get to his bedside. 

The police top brass, their lawyers and the Police Federation representing Tuffey and his fellow officer, embarked on a concerted strategy of denial and obstruction from the get-go. Their legal costs, running maybe into millions of pounds, were paid by the state, whereas the family had no recourse to public funds to hire lawyers to represent their interests. The police reluctantly released evidence they had to the family. They also fed disinformation and lies about Brian to friendly journalists who published it in the right-wing newspapers. This was a common technique by police spin-doctors. The aim was to murder Brian’s reputation, to soften up public opinion in order to play the law and order card. They declined to take any disciplinary action against the officers, and lined up the Crown Prosecution Service, who announced that no charges would be laid against PC Tuffey and his colleague PC Paul Harrison. The remaining hope for the family was that an inquest jury would deliver a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ and open up another path to justice for Brian. 

During this time I reported on a number of inquests at Southwark Crown Court, then presided over by the fantastical figure of Sir Montague ‘Monty’ Levine.  By the mid-1990s Monty Levine was in his 70s and in the twilight of his career. Born in Moss Side, Manchester, of poor East European Jewish parentage, he first made a career as an industrial chemist before switching to medicine, working as a General Practitioner and then becoming an eminent  surgeon specialising in anatomy. He served as coroner to the Inner South London district from 1987 until 1997, presiding over as many as 500 inquests a year in an area covering the multiracial boroughs of Lewisham, Lambeth and Greenwich. Many cases of violent police deaths in custody were placed at his door. 

Levine was known as a liberal by reputation, having once served as private physician to Labour leader Lord Callaghan. He was an eccentric, with his long wavy hair, large handlebar moustache, bushy eyebrows, and flamboyant dress sense featuring a broad-brimmed hat, a fresh flower in his lapel and succession of psychedelic patterned waistcoats. He favoured vintage Jaguar cars and was known to visit the scene of death in the small hours to deduce whatever he could Sherlock Holmes-style. He was courteous in manner, known to buck the process and ask awkward questions in cases involving the police. But what was the Douglas family to make of Levine when they arrived at the coroner’s court in August 1996? He must have seemed to be a figure from a very distant past. What would he know of the relations between the police and the local population?

The inquest is a quasi-judicial entity that has its roots in twelfth century English common law. It is convened to investigate sudden, unnatural and unexplained deaths. The coroner has a lot of leeway – for example in cases of unnatural death while in the custody of the state, he can arraign a jury to hear the evidence and help him make judgement. But an inquest is not an adversarial court that determines blame, guilt or innocence – its purpose is only to confirm the identity of the deceased, the place and time of death and how they came by their death. It is not designed to be a vehicle for justice or a democratic holding to account, although the Douglas family and their lawyers were aware that if the inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing, the Crown Prosecution Service would be forced to reopen the criminal case against the police officers. 

I remember sitting in the public area of the coroner’s court, watching Sir Monty Levine go about his business. He seemed to want to signal a number of things – that he was empathetic towards the family, that he wanted to be ‘fair’ to all parties, that he was prepared to somewhat stretch the boundaries of the inquest on occasion, but that ultimately he would rule as he saw fit. Whether he succumbed to pressure from the police, or was simply outflanked by the police lawyers, I do not know. But he made two concessions that tilted the outcome in the police’s favour. Firstly he allowed a majority of the jury to be drawn from the citizens of Eltham, the majority white area in outer south-east London known to have a high level of racism and pro-police attitudes. Stephen Lawrence had been murdered in neighbouring Welling. It was a demographic far removed from the multicultural community Brian had been a part of. Secondly, Levine allowed the police lawyers to reveal to the jury a selective account of Brian’s past encounters with the law. This was important to the police’s argument that the officers had acted purely in self-defence, faced with a ‘dangerous’ Black man. I remember Brian’s family exploding in anger at this dirty move. 

If I recall correctly, the police lawyers told the jury that Brian had a record for carrying an offensive weapon. But in a break in the proceedings I found out that not only had the offence taken place in his distant youth, it said much, much, more about the police as a racist institution than it did about Brian’s supposed character . The offence has arisen when police had stopped and searched  Brian, and found on him a metal afro-comb, popularly used by Black kids at the time as a fashion accessory. This was the ‘offensive weapon’. In other words, it demonstrated not that Brian was a criminal, but, as with many of his generation, that he had been criminalised.  

Despite the efforts of the Douglas family lawyers, the inquest jury went with the police version of events and concluded that Brian has died as a result of ‘misadventure’. The verdict meant that Brian had been legally killed by police going about their lawful business. Yes, something unexpected had gone wrong during the encounter, resulting in Brian being fatally wounded, but the officers could not be held accountable. Levine added a rider to the verdict, that the Met Police should review their baton training. The Met said they would think about it. The Douglas family then publicly demanded the release of Brian’s brain, which the Crown Prosecution had been keeping back for ‘further investigation’. 

When I first saw the video of George Floyd and heard his desperate cry, ‘I can’t breathe’, it triggered a memory in me: ‘Let me up, let me up. I can’t breathe. You win!’ 

But this was not Minneapolis 2020, this was south London 1994.

Just nine months before the Douglas inquest, I had reported on another inquiry into a violent death in police custody presided over by Montague Levine. How had Richard O’Brien, a 37-year-old market trader and father of seven, met his end? The details, as they unfolded, shocked me. It was the random, casual nature of the violence he had suffered, that stood out. 

It was the evening of Sunday 3 April 1994, and O’Brien was standing quietly outside an Irish community hall in Walworth, south London, waiting for his wife and 14-year-old son to join him, so they could all get a taxi home. A police van pulled up, and three officers, Richard Ilett, Gary Lockwood and James Barber, got out. They had been called to the premises after a report of a fight inside. But this had nothing at all to do with Richard. Yet for some reason the police zeroed in on Richard and set about arresting him. The three pulled him to the ground. They pinned him face down to the pavement, pulled his hands behind his back and cuffed him. PC Illet knelt on Richard’s back and kept it there. Richard’s son heard his father say, ‘Let me up, let me up, I can’t breathe. You win.’. One of the officers replied, ‘We always win’. Richard’s son begged them to check his father, who had gone silent. Within 10 minutes of first contact with the police Richard was dead. The police dragged his limp body to the back of the van and roughly pulled him in. ‘We can’t get the big fat paddy in’ one was heard to complain. For good measure the police then arrested Richard’s wife Alison and two of her children, including her 14-year-old son, but not before also giving him a good slapping.

I remember very well Richard’s widow Alison, a small woman with close-cut grey hair, who sat quietly, with gathered composure, through the two-week inquest. The police officers attempted to argue that Richard was drunk and disorderly, and that, despite plentiful eyewitness and forensic evidence to the contrary, that they had treated him with nothing but compassion. It seemed to me at the time a lackadaisical defence. Perhaps the police assumed that no-one in the jury would care enough about the life of a lowly Irish market trader enough to find against them. 

A special report by human rights organisation Amnesty International later summarised Richard’s injuries:

The pathologist instructed on behalf of the Coroner conducted a post-mortem and found that Richard O’Brien had 31 sites of injury to his body, including cuts and bruises to his face, a dislodged tooth, fractured ribs, and torn muscles. None of the officers involved were able to advance any explanation for the findings of physical injury. The pathologist gave the cause of death as ‘postural asphyxia following a struggle against restraint’.

The inquest jury delivered a verdict of unlawful killing. The Crown Prosecution Service then had to explain how was it that they had already decided there was insufficient evidence to bring any charges against the officers responsible for Richard’s death. Two years later Dame Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was forced to concede that her decision not to prosecute in the O’Brien case was unlawful, after she was forced to disclose an internal memorandum which revealed her judgement had been based on the police accounts alone. 

The three officers were eventually put on trial in 1999, accused of manslaughter. But they were acquitted after their defence argued that Richard had died because he had an enlarged heart, not because of what the officers had done to him. (The family of George Floyd take note). Eight years after her husband’s death, Alison and her children were awarded £340,000 in compensation from the Metropolitan Police. However, the police top brass flat out refused to apologise to her. 

In September 1998 a young black man in a jacket and tie stepped forward to address a public meeting against police racism held in south London’s Brixton that I was reporting on. The audience had already heard from Myrna Simpson and others. I had not seen this man before. He introduced himself as Kwesi Menson, and proceeded to lay out the truly shocking account of his brother Michael’s death and the seemingly unbelievable events that followed. Kwesi spoke in rather posh tones, and I later found that he, his brother Michael and his sister Essie, were the children of a Ghanaian diplomat. 

Looking in my reporters’ notebook now, I can see how my notes switched from short quotes from previous speakers to long verbatim passages covering five pages. ‘I was woken one evening beyond 2 am by some police officers’ my notes begin. 

Kwesi explained how at 2 am on the morning of the 28 January 1997 he had been woken by the police. Officers told him that his 30-year-old brother Michael, (full name Michael Tachie-Menson) a former musician with once prominent ‘80s band Double Trouble, had been found by motorists staggering along the North Circular Road, Edmonton, north London, flames leaping from his back. By the time police arrived the horribly injured Michael was almost naked, his clothes leaving a burning trail across the road as they melted and dropped off him. Michael had massive burns to his back, torso and buttocks. Kwesi then told how, when he rushed to see his brother in hospital Michael had been lucid: ‘When we saw him he was lying on his back, he was alert and the hospital staff had done a good job minimising the pain and he was able to talk to us’. Michael spoke to his brother, saying that ‘four white lads, they set my back on fire-why did they do this to me?’ Kwesi recounted how, ‘I was shocked and urged them [the police] to come and take statements’. He then explained how the family had ‘told everybody’ at the hospital what Michael had said and asked why the police had not even taken a statement. Kwesi recalled that, ‘one of the sisters said she would be contacting the police and urge them to come down directly. She was shocked and angry’. He explained how subsequently a police officer had come to the hospital, but had ‘indicated he wasn’t going to ask any questions and he left the room’. Michael slipped into a coma and two weeks later died of what a pathologist would describe at his inquest as ‘multi-organ failure as a result of severe burns’. No statement had been taken from the dying, but initially conscious, man.  

Of the police Kwesi told the shocked Brixton audience, ‘from the outset I asked for a thorough investigation and I was assured that was the case’. Kwesi’s Brixton speech came just days before the inquest into his brother’s death opened in Hornsey Coroners Court in north London. The questions that would be raised during the inquest were: had Michael Menson been failed by the police because of racist assumptions that officers had made about him from the moment of their first contact with him? Had the officers approached Michael in the same way as the officers involved in the Stephen Lawrence case had done? What if Michael Menson had been white and smartly turned out – would he have been treated differently?

The inquest opened in north London on 7 September 1998. I was there throughout. I didn’t honestly know whether Kwesi’s insistence that his brother had been set alight by racists was right, but what I did know from previous experience was that what family members said had happened, most often turned out to be the truth. On the first day the national and regional press were all there, but their interest quickly waned. Most assumed the police account was correct, so by the third day there was just me and one or two others in the press seats. 

From the outset the police strongly argued that there was no evidence of a crime and therefore no crime scene had been established, and no forensics had taken place, and that Michael Menson, in a mentally-ill state, had most likely set fire to himself in a crazed suicide attempt.

This was the view of WPC Johanna Walsh in her evidence to the inquest. She was on night duty in an unmarked car when she heard the call for an ambulance to attend Michael. When she arrived she found a Black man ‘burnt all over his shoulders, down his back, side of the body and the top of his buttocks’. Walsh said that Michael ‘behaved as if he were in a trance. When I arrived at the scene I had an open mind’ she testified, but then she began to believe he was mentally ill. ‘I came to that conclusion’, Walshe added, ‘I didn’t believe at the time he knew what he was saying’.

However, this was not the assumption of others who went to Michael’s aid. David James, an off-duty fire-fighter based in the West Midlands, was driving along the North Circular when he spotted flames. He was shocked to see that they were emanating from a man, who, by the time he saw him, was naked apart from his socks. James helped the police who arrived first and assisted the paramedics. James, under questioning from the police legal team, was firm that ‘it didn’t cross my mind that he [Michael] was mentally ill’.

Then within minutes everything changed. I sat there transfixed as a forensic scientist called to give evidence utterly destroyed the police’s chain of assumptions in the course of a few sentences. Kwesi had been right all along. He knew his brother and believed what he had been told. Why would he believe otherwise?

James Munday, a forensics science investigator specialising in fire and explosions, testified that the nature of the spread of the flames consistent with the burns found on Michael meant that ‘Michael Menson’s jacket was ignited by a naked flame while he was lying down, the fire consuming most of the coat, before walking away…While I can’t eliminate Michael Menson lit the back of his own clothes while lying down, that method would have been unique by my experience’. 

Michael had been deliberately set on fire by an attacker or attackers. The fictional police narrative, built upon racist assumptions, instantly evaporated. The inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing.  The police were forced to belatedly open a high-level murder investigation and in December 1999 three men were found guilty of murder. They had come across Michael, robbed and assaulted him, taunted him, poured an accelerant on the back of his coat and set him on fire. One of the killers, Mario Pereira, on being questioned about the murder had replied ‘So what, he was black’.

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