Licensed to kill

I was one of only a smattering of white faces amongst the 200 family members, friends and supporters of those who have met their deaths in police custody who gathered outside Tottenham police station on the evening of Saturday January 11 to mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of Roger Sylvester, a 30-year-old black man. Roger sustained multiple injuries, dying after seven days on a life support machine, having been "restrained" on his doorstep by eight Tottenham police officers on January 11 1999. Exactly how or by whom he was killed is still hidden from view, and the unprecedented delay in holding the inquest reeks of cover-up. Deputy coroner Dr Susan Hungerford, who organised a pre-inquest hearing in January 2002, had her appointment suddenly revoked in July by coroner Dr Chan, who then resigned his own post in August. The inquest date, set for October 14, was then cancelled. Roger's union, Unison, has offered financial assistance for the inquest, but no new date has been set. The advertised "candlelit vigil" had seemed to imply a quiet, meek, memorial gathering, especially as the showing, afterwards, of the film Injustice (directors: Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood) was to be in the High Cross United Reformed Church, with a memorial service next day in the Finsbury Park Methodist Church. Candles there were, but there was nothing meek about this angry demonstration, organised by the Roger Sylvester Justice Campaign, the United Family and Friends Campaign and the Churches Commission for Racial Justice. A barrage of militant slogans sounded along Tottenham High Road from beginning to end: "Officer one - murderer! Officer two - murderer!" and so on, up to eight. "They say, stand back. We say, fight back!" "No justice - No peace!", etc. The 98-minute certificate 15 film by Migrant Media is a brilliant piece of agitational exposure of the fact that the UK police are, as Joy Gardner's campaigning mother Myrna Simpson put it, "licensed to kill". Boldly accusing named police officers where the evidence is already clear, the film demands prosecutions. It tells of the lives and deaths of people like Brian Douglas, Joy Gardner, Shiji Lapite, Ibraham Sey and Roger Sylvester, and documents five years of struggle by their families and friends for information, truth and justice. In the three decades since two police officers were found guilty of killing David Oluwale in 1969 there have been over 1,000 deaths in police custody, prisons and mental institutions, without a single conviction. The campaign's demand is that police officers must be subject to the same laws as the rest of us. When the film was launched in April 2001, the Police Federation and lawyers for some of the named police officers obstructed its screening by threatening cinemas with expensive libel actions. At the third screening, when the management of London's Conway Hall tried to submit to such harassment, the audience seized the hall and projecting equipment and showed the film on their own responsibility. Now the campaigners say they would welcome a libel action, as this would give them the opportunity they seek to test their accusations in court. But legal action is expensive, and it is estimated that taking a private action against just one of the accused police officers might cost over £250,000. So the Friends and Families Campaign is collecting. Family members on the question and answer panel after the film emphasised - in response to some comments from the floor - that the struggle for justice included whites, and that there have been many white deaths in police custody. The problem was not simply racism, nor abuse of powers by certain police officers, but extended into the highest institutions of the state. The families had been consistently treated as enemies. The police, with the ready assistance of the press, routinely vilified the individuals they had murdered. Even when an inquest jury gave a verdict of unlawful killing, as with Brian Douglas, the Crown Prosecution Service would not prosecute. Then there was the tragicomic scene of the so-called Police Complaints Authority 1998 conference on deaths in police custody, where the families of the deceased were denied entry, and had to fight their way in. Labour in opposition had sought out the Friends and Families Campaign, but in government had made itself part of the problem - Jack Straw talking vaguely about changes he might make in three years time. A number of floor speakers noted how the campaigns had been ignored when they were peaceful and gained media attention when they had been violent. Some called for civil disobedience, others for overturning "the whole system". One woman, on a different tack, wanted race awareness training for the police. Short shrift was given to Pastor Nimms of the Haringey Peace Alliance, who said he, or some other 'community representative', ought to be able to interview and influence the appointment of every police recruit in the borough. "The system is working against us, so we must infiltrate the system" was his unpopular message. The key question was correctly put, I think, by the chair of the discussion, the Reverend Arlington: the struggle must reach out to involve the mass of the population. We may well obtain some prosecutions. But injustice and oppression are endemic to capitalism, a society based on exploitation. Information on Injustice, including screenings and how to purchase the VHS video, is available on the web at www.injustice film.co.uk. Stan Keable