Dr Lisa Long
If rage had no capacity for producing change, then it would not be regarded as being as threatening as it is. With so much overt and covert racialized hatred and violence against black bodies, it is a powerful distortion of rage that the group on whom the oppression is imposed is seen as the one full of uncontrollable rage (Cohan, 2017: 38).
Edir Frederico Da Costa, a young black man and father died on Wednesday 21st June, six days after his arrest by the Metropolitan Police. It is reported that the arrest involved use of force and the deployment of CS gas. Da Costa’s family claim that they had been told by a doctor at the hospital that he had severe injuries which had caused him to convulse. The official narrative, as may be expected, is different. The IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) sought to halt the spread of information regarding Da Costa’s injuries by releasing the conclusions of the preliminary coroner’s report on Friday 23rd June. The IPCC states that the coroner found no evidence to support the claim that his neck was broken on arrival at hospital and the coroner found no evidence of severe injuries (IPCC, 2017). Investigations are continuing into the cause of death. Meanwhile, the IPCC has begun an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Da Costa’s death.
It is unsurprising that the family of da Costa and the local community want answers- as we all should. On Sunday 25th June there was a planned ‘peaceful protest’ outside of Forest Gate police station in London. Later in the day, stories emerged on social media of protesters clashing with police and riot police being deployed to the area. Some commentators on social media have already condemned the protesters as ‘barbaric’, as ‘black gangsters’ and Da Costa as a criminal who is to blame for his own death. The media focus is on the six police officers who, it is claimed, sustained injuries during the clashes.
This is business as usual. The rage of families and communities following a death in custody is frequently depoliticised through the relocation of blame on the victim and the community. The perception of black and brown bodies as threat is reflected in the discourses surrounding deaths in custody- ‘State Talk’ (Pemberton, 2008). These discursive strategies legitimise the use of force and perpetuate the criminogenic image of the black male and increasingly other bodies of colour-most recently Asian men. This is not just a police problem, the media construct and reproduce images, the state and law enforcement agencies respond to them and the racialization of crime becomes a fact that the police respond to legitimizing harsher policing strategies (Hall et al., 1978).
In the midst of terrorism fears, the National Police Chief’s Council is to debate offering guns to all frontline officers (Dodd, 2017). A terrifying prospect taking into account disproportionality in restraint related deaths in custody. In 2016, Janet Hills, the President of the National Black Police Association expressed concerns over the proposal to roll out tasers to all police officers (Asthana and Grierson, 2016). She was right to do so, people of colour are disproportionately on the receiving end of a taser discharge – 40% of cases where tasers have been used since 2014 involved black or black mixed-race ‘suspects’ (CRAE, 2017). This includes children; according to the CRAE, 70% of all children tasered by the police were from ethnic minority communities. Taser is not a soft alternative to guns, it is a potentially lethal firearm linked to a number of deaths including that of retired black footballer Dalian Atkinson in August, 2016.
There were a total 510 ‘BME’ deaths in custody (police, prison and mental health detention) between 1991 and 2014. This includes 10 unlawful killing verdicts at inquest. However, there have not been any successful prosecutions in this time (Athwal and Bourne, 2015). If police accountability is ‘constructed’ in order to maintain state narratives of accountability (Baker, 2016), rather than to hold the police to account for their actions, it is inevitable that both the police and the mechanisms for investigating their mis/conduct, including the IPCC, will not be viewed as legitimate. In the absence of a trusted system for securing accountability, protest is a legitimate response. Protest is not ‘barbaric’. It is the reaction of communities in pain; communities that are subjected to systemic racist violence on a daily basis. As Cohan argues above, rage can produce change; in the face of systemic inequalities sometimes rage is the only power we have.
Dr Lisa Long is a Senior Lecturer of Criminology at Leeds Beckett University, her research addresses race, racism and policing.
This piece is her first blog post and a response to the widespread social media condemnation of Forest Gate protesters in the wake of the death of Edir Frederico Da Costa following his arrest by the Metropolitan Police.
Asthana and Grierson (2016). Leader of black police officers warns against taser rollout proposals. The Guardian. 16th August [online] www.theguardian.com
Athwal, H and Bourne, J (2015) Dying for Justice: IRR:London [online] http://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/wpmedia.outlandish.com/irr/2017/04/26155052/Dying_for_Justice_web.pdf
Baker, D (2016) Death after police contact: constructing accountability in the 21st century. Basingstoke:Macmillan-Palgrave.
Cohan, D (2017) Rage and Activism; The Promise of Black Lives Matter chapter in Weissinger, S.E, Mack, D.A and Watson, E. Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of How Black Lives Continue to Matter. London:Routledge.
Children’s Rights Alliance (2017). CRAE Press Statement on increase in Taser officers. [online] http://www.crae.org.uk/news/crae-press-statement-on-increase-in-taser-officers [accessed 23.06.17]
Dodd, V (2017) Police chiefs to discuss offering guns to all frontline officers. The Guardian. 23 June. [online] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/23/police-chiefs-to-discuss-offering-guns-to-all-frontline-officers?CMP=share_btn_tw [Accessed 23.06.17].
Hall et al (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order.
IPCC statement following the death of Edir Frederico Da Costa, IPCC, June 23rd 2017 [online] https://www.ipcc.gov.uk/news/update-ipcc-statement-following-death-edir-frederico-da-costa
Pemberton (2008) Demystifying Deaths in Police Custody: Challenging State Talk. Social and Legal Studies Vol 17(2) 237-262