Will ‘Black Lives Matter’ In Britain Too?

Last Monday, around 150 protesters brought a London high street to a standstill in protest of the death of Rashan Charles. Charles, a 20-year-old father, died after being chased and apprehended by local police in the city.

CCTV footage, which has been widely circulated online, allegedly shows Charles entering a shop, then being tackled to the floor by a police officer who followed him inside. A struggle ensues, during which another officer intervenes in support of his colleague.

According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), Charles “became unwell” during this altercation. He was taken to a London hospital, where he died shortly afterwards.

This closely follows an incident where another young father, Edson Da Costa, also “fell ill” after London police officers stopped a car in which he was travelling and attempted to detain him.

A relevant fact in these cases is that both Charles and Da Costa were black men. Although investigations into both of these deaths are still ongoing, protesters argue that they form part of a pattern of police brutality against black citizens.

Furthermore, anti-black police brutality in the United States has been a major topic of mainstream media conversation since the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014. The Black Lives Matter movement has been growing from strength to strength across the pond, and the efforts of African-Americans have certainly galvanized the recent activism in the UK.

However, police brutality has long been recognized as a British problem too. A clear example of the tension it has bred in England are the riots in London that followed the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of police in 2011. The British have names of their own that they commemorate.

Even if these men did commit the petty crimes of which they were suspected, there is no death sentence for even the most egregious of offences in this country. As well, witness testimony strongly suggests that none of these three men posed imminent threats to the officers that sought to detain them. This excessive and deadly force is likely to have been used, placing in morgues those who should have been waiting, alive, in police stations to face charges.

That this is a widespread and institutional problem is evidenced by the fact that IPCC statistics show that black people disproportionately die in police custody and/or following police contact. Findings from INQUEST, a small charitable organization, support these statistics.

The implications this has for maintaining peace in Britain is clear. However, this is not because of the protests that followed these deaths (because the right to assemble and demand fairer treatment is necessary for any liberal democracy worth its salt). Rather, it creates a culture in which ethnic minorities might feel that the state has less legitimacy than it should, as they are using force in ways that are unjust. For example, one of Charles’ neighbours, who described him as a “guardian” to young people in the area, spoke to journalists saying that he and his peers now have “even less” trust towards the police following the death of his friend.

Moreover, legislative attempts to protect ethnic minorities from racist violence are surely being undermined if the state itself is complicit in violence against them. Thus, it is difficult to argue that racism on the far-right should be the sole focus of anti-racist organizers when the government seems to be failing to do enough to ensure that minority groups are not being unfairly targeted by arms of the state. Governmental efforts to tackle racism should be lauded, but should not be blind to cracks in protection that need to be fixed.

In short, there is plenty of reason for the call that Black Lives Matter to be made on British streets. In fact, it is a call we should heed.