Seventeen years of struggle – deaths in custody campaigners keep fighting for justice

The United Friends and Families Campaign fights for justice for those killed in police custody, prison, immigration centres or in psychiatric detention. Graham Campbell reports from their 17th annual remembrance demo.

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The United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) Injustice Demo on Saturday in London was an amazing and inspiring show of strength and unity among victims’ families seeking justice. Sheku Bayoh’s long banner was given pride of place just behind the lead UFFC banner. After leaving a Trafalgar Sq full of somewhat bemused Rugby World Cup fans seeking a view of the Final in the fanzone on the big screens, we stepped slowly but surely down Whitehall in silence with families of Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, and Seni Lewis. There were sadly also many new families like the family of Sheku Bayoh making links for the first time to UFFC. I heard and met the family of Thomas Orchard from Brighton killed in police custody in Exeter, Devon using a form of violent restraint very similar to what happened to Sheku.

Sheku Bayoh banner

Photo: Steve Eason

This is the 17th consecutive year that UFFC has marched to Downing Street. To chants of “No Justice, No Peace” Marcia Rigg led the crowd of about 600, letting the authorities know in no uncertain terms. Many of us wore black UFFC T-shirts with the startling statistic that there have been 1,518 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990 – and zero convictions. Theresa May has of course launch a full public inquiry into police deaths in custody – as yet we do not have a similar process in Scotland’s independent judicial system.

Several speakers including Ade Johnson referred to institutionalised racism as a reason for the violent killings of black people at police hands. Marcia Rigg said it is just as well that UK police aren’t routinely armed or the number of deaths with guns would be much higher, as it is in the US, where a police killing occurs every six hours.

Sheku Bayoh leaflet showing his injuries

Photo: Steve Eason

Black Lives Matter is now and always will be an international movement and so this year the UFFC delegation of families included Uncle Bobby Grant from Oakland California. He is the uncle of Oscar Grant III, murdered by shooting in front of hundreds of tube train witnesses by Bay Area Rapid Transit officers on New Year’s Day 2009. Uncle Bobby had met the UK families during their recent tour of the US and paid a return visit to hand in a letter to David Cameron. The night before in Brixton’s Karibu centre we had all attended the screening of the biopic about Oscar’s murder called Fruitvale, after the tube station where he was killed.The film told the story of Oscar the human being in the 48 hours before his death, a rounded, caring individual and family man. Oscar’s Uncle Bobby is very much a community figure back in Oakland and he has been taken to the hearts of the UK families to whom he was such a welcoming and inspiring presence. Bobby told the crowd that the Grant family achieved the first ever successful prosecution for murder of a black civilian by a police officer in Californian state history.

I want to say a word of thanks to the NUS Black Students Campaign, whose activists did much of the work stewarding and publicising the demo, and the events of this week of action against police deaths in custody. The Justice for Sheku Bayoh campaign returns to Scotland strengthened and uplifted by the tremendous support gained here in London.

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