I was heartened by the United Families and Friends Campaign against deaths in custody (UFFC) annual march in October 2014, even though it was still small. In 2013, around 100 people marched on Whitehall, whilst one year later there was a much improved number of around 300. The 300 came together in a year which should be remembered for when the state flagrantly attempted to silence the bereaved and abused. 2014 was the year in which a jury deemed Mark Duggan’s killing to be “lawful” and the appeal against that perverse verdict was upheld. We learned that the police officers who have undoubtedly lied about Sean Rigg’s death would not face prosecution. It was a year which revealed the contempt that the Metropolitan Police had and still has for campaigning families like those of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel, spending more resources spying on them than investigating the murders of their loved ones. Last year, in spite of the incredible efforts of eight women, the CPS refused to prosecute police officers who, using the stolen identities of dead children, formed intimate relationships with them, some of whom went on to father their children.
Encouragingly there have also been some cracks in the shield of state impunity: 2014 saw Anthony Long, the Met Police firearms officer who shot and killed Azelle Rodney, charged with Rodney’s murder. The CPS announced that they will be prosecuting Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Peter Fahy over the death of Anthony Grainger. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe was made to apologise regarding the death of Cherry Groce and the Metropolitan Police paid out over £400,000 to a woman who had a child with one of its active undercover officers.
In light of the British state’s continued violation of the bodies, rights and memories of the abused, the 300 who gathered in defiance is minimal. Yet I remain hopeful because I sensed the mood of rehearsed defeat give way to an atmosphere of restored determination and passion. Though I have felt this before – 2012’s march also left me with a sense of hope that was not fulfilled. 2014 could well be a repeat of that. Some have admirably vowed on social media to honour Ajibola Lewis’ call to dramatically increase our number, I want to reflect on how this could be achieved.
Perhaps we should reflect on why these demonstrations are small in comparison to TUC or climate marches. UFFC efforts are of a fundamentally different nature. They cannot spin their experience of physical and social death into a positive slogan like “Britain needs a payrise”. The state is not being lobbied as the provider and guarantor of a better future. This procession is about the indictment of state power. These families gather to air the government’s dirty laundry, to expose its collective failure, murder, collusion and cover-up. Attendance will not grow by asking people to attend a demonstration of grief and suffering, to stand in the chilly October air to listen to tear-filled tales of death and despair. There must be hope for something more.
The following is obvious but it needs stating: a political march is a symbolic demonstration of an interest group’s collective strength. So, bluntly, 300 people demonstrates a severe lack of strength. This was UFFC’s 16th annual march, I am reliably told in years past, 300 would be viewed as disappointing rather than encouraging. Couple this with the solemn fact that each year new families join the assembly of the grieving. In this context the marches, on average, have stagnated rather than grown. UFFC as an organisation may have some internal reasons for this but the blame cannot simply lie with them. These families each have been robbed of a life, then robbed once more by being denied any semblance of justice. Mothers, sisters, and other loved ones should not be expected to describe their loss and trauma perpetrated by the state, year after year after year. Yet some do, without fail. Their efforts need to be upheld by those of us who identify with them. I can only see a greater march being sustained by the development of a real social movement against police violence.
Focusing on the demonstration itself (though necessary) is not sufficient. The more of us engaged with considerable commitment will indicate an increase of those who will turn up for an annual event. A social movement based on greater numbers would be established. This must be developed through much more than stating a collective will. Tangible efforts must go beyond speaking with our friends and associates. Our ambitions must be tempered with patience, as though our sincerity to make each demo bigger than before is without doubt, it can be no more passionate, nor keener than the bereaved families who have waded through many bitter rivers to attend and build these demonstrations.
I have little faith that this social movement will be achieved through the wonders of social media. The struggle against deaths in custody is laden with too much sorrow to be summed up in 140 characters. The families who form its core are overburdened with grief and tragedy, sharing a hashtag or a gripping image could not do justice to laying the path ahead. I fear that relying primarily on the easy, loose connectivity that is constructed on social media reduces rather than underlines the emotional power which is the basis of this currently fledgling movement. Communication and retweets alone do not alter power structures.
Mental abstraction in this instance is our enemy. The thousands who died, to misquote Stalin, are merely a statistic, an inconvenient detail listed in a few articles dotted across the mainstream media. What has become abstract and dead, must become concrete and alive once more. There is no real achievement in asking people to attend a march, to experience a communion of anger and frustration which has no end in sight. These families demand more, those in the grave deserve more. What has been hoped for must be made flesh, what was loose must become more tightly bound together, what was vague must give way to precision. A social movement with a concrete goal, with answers to the questions that plagues all of us. How do we end their violence?
I have previously written that the struggle against police violence is closely connected to the heart of all struggles against the state, whether it is the fight for housing, to preserve livelihoods or ending violence against women. The next UFFC march will be bigger if these connections are realised. This means talking to those we usually wouldn’t, informing the uninformed, and persuading those who have given up. The work to be done isn’t mystical: finding meeting rooms to organise actions, cobbling together leaflets to distribute on stalls, holding conversations on high streets and council estates. It is taking the time to support people like Jimmy Mubenga’s family at court.
This social movement is not limited to those who have died, though they remain foundational. Justice for them, should be the prerequisite to and the minimum of our goals rather than its full extent. UFFC, 4Ward Ever, London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, Movement for Justice, Newham Monitoring Project, Northern Police Monitoring Group and countless other campaigns are modest attempts in that direction. These small efforts and much more hold a promise that goes beyond halting state sponsored deaths towards a society that rejects the paternalistic “protection” of the state, and replaces it with their own self-managed collective defence. The Maroons of the Caribbean and the Americas, the pre-welfare state trade unions, the Black Panthers, the Zapatistas, Abahlali baseMjondolo and British striking mining communities had to provide what the state could not. It is on their foundations that our social movement is built.