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Stay Alert – It might just work after all. A personal reflection on racism and policing

Home » News » Stay Alert – It might just work after all. A personal reflection on racism and policing

Katy Rensten is a family law barrister specialising in both public and private children law cases. She has a particular interest in representing parties involved in adoption and acting in cases involving alternative families. In this personal blog, Katy explains that police brutality and systemic racism is very much alive in the UK and the fight for justice is far from over.

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds

I’m going to start with 1995.  It has no particular significance beyond that it was when I first became aware of something called ‘postural asphyxia’. During the course of that year, three black men, Alton Manning, Kenneth Severin and Dennis Stevens (all imprisoned in British jails) died whilst being restrained.[1]

My partner was then a trainee solicitor working on the Dennis Stevens’ case. From her, I learnt about what happens when someone is held in such a way that their chest muscles can neither expand nor contract, their lungs cannot function and, by gradual degrees, the oxygen leaves their body and cannot be replenished. Put simply, like George Floyd, they could not breath and they died.

Moving forward to 1999, maybe 100 yards down the road from the house where we lived, police were called to deal with a man reported to be standing in the street, naked, banging on his own front door. They took Roger Sylvester,[2] who was clearly unwell, to St Anne’s hospital, where 6 police officers restrained him. He could not breath. He fell into a coma and subsequently died. A couple of days after his death, we, along with many of our neighbours, were visited by police who provided us with a pre-written, proforma Section 9 statement which set out that we had neither seen nor heard anything untoward on the night in question. Needless to say, we did not sign it.

Roll forward to around 2015. Coming home, we could see a kerfuffle going on at the other end of the street. We walked up. There were two police cars and one police van. I can’t recall how many police, but enough. A small crowd of mostly young people, of mixed ethnicity, were nervously watching them pinning down a large man (also of obviously non-white ethnicity) to the pavement. He was on his front, face being pressed into the tarmac, hands cuffed behind his back. His trousers had been pulled down to round his ankles to further limit his ability to move. He was sweating profusely, struggling and trying to shout. It was clear he was unwell. It was also clear he was having trouble breathing. Most of the young people knew him. Ironically, I am fairly sure his name was George. We learned that he lived in supported housing nearby and that a couple of the youths had already gone to go try to find someone from the home to come to help.

We approached the officer who was holding his head down and asked if he could relax his grip on the man’s head and turn him over. My partner (I’m white, she’s black) explained that we were worried that the way in which he was being held was dangerous. Neither he nor his colleagues were at all happy about our ‘interference’ and wanted to know what business it was of ours? It took several anxious minutes and some very pointed references to the earlier death of Roger Sylvester, down the other end of the very same road, to cut though the combative ‘who the fuck do you think you are’ approach being taken. An officer who had been standing back a little, appraising us (suited, booted, professionals) then came forward and instructed his colleagues to turn the man over.  We asked them to pull his trousers back up. Once allowed to sit up and relieved from the pressure on his head, neck and back, he stopped shouting and became calmer.

The police went to put him in the van. Some of the young people began piping up, saying they should wait for his ‘worker’ to come as he would ‘freak out’ again.  When we asked if they could not wait, the officer who had intervened offered a gruff ‘well I suppose you want to get in with him then?’ I very much doubt he had expected my partner to accept that invitation. ‘Okay’, she said and got in the back of the van along with the detained man. A few minutes then elapsed while the police sorted themselves out during which George’s key worker did arrive and took over the role of safe escort.

I don’t know what happened to George afterwards, but I doubt he was beaten up or dangerously restrained again on his way to hospital.

Roll forward to now. Lockdown is still in its strictest phase. We are living in an 8th floor flat in East London. We overlook a canal and a park. The park user demographic is mainly white hipster. We are having Zoom drinks early one evening when we hear shouting. Looking over the balcony, a young black man has been handcuffed and is pinned against the railings just by the park entrance. There are three police cars and he is surrounded by at least ten police (none of whom are socially distancing at all). He is shouting ‘I haven’t done anything – let me go’; they do not let him go. Another police car pulls up. Police mill about on the pavement. The young man is, by turns, quiet and shouting to be released.  People entering and exiting the park cannot do so without passing close to the police and the detained young man. Some stop momentarily, most simply pass by. None of them are able to keep any metres (let alone two) away from the police or each other. I do not see a single officer move back, nor do anything to the passers-by about breaching distancing rules. One rule for some, not for others?

I film on my phone. Neither of us can go down as we are socially isolating. The young man is repeatedly asking why he has been stopped and to be let go. The police continue to press around him. I shout down from the balcony. ‘Officers, what is going on? What is happening?’ We know they have heard as a couple of heads turn in our direction. All we can do is ensure that the police know they are being observed. We have no idea why they stopped the young man in the first place but after a further ten minutes or so, most of the police leave and they release him.

A couple of weeks later, driving from East to North London, we pass no fewer than three scenes of roadside detention. In all three, a black man has been handcuffed and is surrounded by police. In all three, thankfully, members of the public are already watching and filming.

There is no particular science or magic to the examples given above; they are just some happenings of which I have direct knowledge.  What they do illustrate though, perhaps precisely because they are anecdotal, haphazard snapshots, is the universality of the BAME experience of law enforcement in the UK.

When we watch the footage of Rodney King being beaten, or Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down, or of George Floyd,  face squashed into the ground whilst Derek Chauvin grinds his knee into his neck, hand casually in his pocket as if to reinforce that  ‘this is normal, this is ok’, we want to put it away from ourselves, to make it an American problem. It isn’t. It is our problem. All of us. And the option to leave it to others to sort out is (if it ever has been) simply no longer tenable. Silence at this point is collusion. Speaking out cannot wait and sometimes the smallest of interventions can make a difference.

So until everyone can walk down the street, go for a jog, go into a shop or take a stroll in the park with no more thought for the consequences than those of us who have white entitlement can; until everyone is able to live subject to the rule of law, applied equally and fairly to all, the only option is to carry on stopping and checking and to continue ‘interfering’.

It’s strikingly simple. It’s up to all of us, but especially those of us who are less likely to be shot at, beaten or put on the ground and have our lives choked away, to stand up and say: ‘No more’. As Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking at George Floyd’s memorial, said, there is a time and a season for all things and that time is now.

I grew up with Pastor Niemöller’s words pinned to my dad’s office wall, so I couldn’t finish this without going back to them.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 Time to speak out people – time to speak out.

For more details see:

[1]Amnesty international external report EUR45/19/96

[2] https://www.inquest.org.uk/roger-sylvester-oct2003


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