Around 300 people who gathered for the Sean Rigg memorial last night watched in shock and disgust as they were shown CCTV footage of his death at Brixton police station as police officers stood around him. Yesterday was also notable for the release of two YouTube videos which – in different ways – shows how far society has to go to combat racism.
In all, I watched three videos yesterday. As well as Sean Rigg dying, I saw a black man being violently restrained and a black woman ranting on a bus. Together, the videos speak volumes about the state of race relations in Britain. Particularly as it affects the forgotten and marginalised in the black community; the mentally ill and others suffering distress and trauma.
The first video I saw yesterday was footage of a black man, believed to be 51-year old Freydoon Baluch, being forcibly restrained by three police officers in Windrush Square opposite Brixton Town Hall last Sunday.
This video shows an officer putting his foot on the Mr Baluch’s face before placing his knee on the side of his head. He appears to fall unconscious during the restraint as concerned bystanders chastise the policemen.
One eyewitnesses is heard to say in the film: “That was well over the top there was no need for that.”
Another said: “Look at that, you can see the boot mark in his face… Someone call an ambulance.”
Marcia Rigg, Sean’s sister, wrote on the Brixton Blog yesterday: “This is appalling and demonstrates the need for officers to be made accountable for restraint related deaths as lessons are obviously not being learned.
“This is exactly how Sean died when he became unconscious after being restrained faced down in the prone position for approximately ‘eight minutes.’”
The incident occurred just two days before last night’s public meeting to mark the fourth anniversary since Sean Rigg died in the caged area of Brixton police station. Earlier this month an inquest jury found that officers had “more than minimally” caused Mr Rigg’s death due to asphyxiation by prolonged restraint.
I wrote on this blog that the verdict demanded officers now be charged with crimes, a call that was repeated last night by the Rigg family and many speakers and audience members, to loud applause, as Lambeth police commander Matt Bell sat impassively at Brixton town hall.
The arrest of Mr Baluch is now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but that fact is unlikely to satisfy many in the community who are angry that the IPCC have failed the Rigg family by concluding that no-one had done anything wrong leading to the death of Sean Rigg, in stark contrast to the damning findings of the inquest.
Last night I and others watched in sheer frustration as we were shown a video of interviews with key IPCC members. The attitude of Jane Furniss, the IPCC chief executive, in particular caused anger amongst the audience and several of the points she made to camera were met with curses.
When the full CCTV footage of Sean Rigg dying in the caged area of Brixton police station was screened, many of those assembled were visibly moved, shaking their heads, mumbling and in one or two cases crying.
Afterwards the short march to Brixton police station for a candle-lit vigil was notable for its’ passion which was channelled into chanting and was entirely peaceful.
As Marci Rigg-Samuel, one of Sean Rigg’s sisters noted, the video of Mr Baluch’s seemingly violent arrest showed how little had been learnt.
It was good fortune that Brixton had not witnessed a fresh death of a black man in police custody just two days before the memorial public meeting for Sean Rigg.
All of which underlines how little has changed despite a damning inquest verdict over Sean Rigg. But then again, we’ve had many equally damning verdicts before – Roger Sylvester, Mikey Powell, Christopher Alder – yet we still wait for a successful prosecution of a police officer for any crime relating to deaths in their custody.
Clearly there is a need to increase public pressure for change, both in terms of the prosecution of police officers and reform or abolition of the IPCC.
At the time of writing, the two videos of Mr Baluch being arrested have combined views of just over 13,000 people. These comparatively low hit-rates may be a result of the fact that so far coverage of this arrest has been limited to the independent and community media, and a few shares on social networking sites.
No mainstream media outlet has touched the story aside from a very brief reference in the London Evening Standard piece about the Sean Rigg memorial.
The second video I saw yesterday was of a black woman ranting on a bus which, unlike Mr Baluch’s arrest, has received mainstream attention. LBC radio highlighted the video on Julia Hartley-Brewer call-in show yesterday and it now has over 62,000 hits.
It speaks volumes that while the near death of a black man is ignored radio presenters whip up listeners into condemning a black woman for making ‘racist’ remarks on a bus.
I use ‘racist’ in inverted commas not because some of her words weren’t racially-offensive – they were – but because simply branding her as a black racist ignores two key factors.
Firstly, she is obviously not well. A damaged and distressed individual. One can only guess at the mental stresses and/or drug or alcohol influences she is under.
Unlike recent cases of white people caught on video throwing racist insults on public transport this woman is clearly not in charge of her own faculties, as her appearance and behaviour demonstrate.
She may well be vulnerable and ill, so to expose her publicly in this state strikes me as exploitative and rather shameful.
Secondly, her racist comments – unacceptable as they are – are said in a context of hitting out at the racism she and her ancestors have faced.
When I watched the video, my over-riding thought was: this woman in her sad state has suffered a lifetime of trauma and racism and it’s bubbling to the surface in a raw, sometimes unpalatable, form. But I can only feel for the sista and her pain.
The video starts with her saying “I’m so glad I’m black”. The black pride movement from the 1960s onwards was, and still is, necessary to detoxify African peoples of the negative associations fed often insidiously by the mainstream media and society.
The woman says: “I was born African. The only reason I was born in this country was because you f*****g people pulled my people here.” This is not racism, it is an historical fact. The absence of redress for centuries of enslavement and exploitation mean it is still an unresolved issue.
Blaming white passengers on the bus for the evil deeds of white enslavers may be unwise, and somewhat inaccurate, but the point still stands.
It is also worth noting that for some the true definition of racism is prejudice plus power, ergo a white professional can be racist but a black person expresses prejudices. This definition has it’s flaws but I’m 80% with that.
Some of the woman’s comments are unacceptable but, as Lee Jasper pointed out to Julia Hartley-Brewer on Twitter yesterday: “It is an intellectual absurdity that 500 years of global white racism can be equated with 5 mins of black prejudice.”
The video matters because it says that regardless of widespread racism and prejudice faced by black Britons on a daily basis – including treatment by the police – some would rather focus on the ‘irony’ of a black woman delivering a “racist rant” on a London bus.
As with the virtual absence of coverage of Mr Baluch’s arrest, so too the promotion of this bus rant video by LBC shows how far we have to go in order to understand the dynamics of race and racism in today’s society.
Some black people become mentally ill because of the accumulation of racism-related stress. And many who suffer mental conditions remain acutely aware of racism. Until Britain, as a whole, begins to grasp the relationship between suffering racism and illness we cannot hope to make progress.
Sean Rigg complained about racism on a few occasions, even changing his mental health professional because of his beliefs. He was also, by all accounts, a very conscious brother throughout his adult life, much of which was spent living a normal life as a music artist.
He died by the feet of police officers in a ‘cage’ inside Brixton police station after being pinned down in a prone position for at least eight minutes in full view of a housing estate.
An undignified and distressing end to the life of a dignified man.
All three videos I watched yesterday took away the dignity of those people who featured in it. All three showed distressed individuals surrounded by a world that is either brutalising them, mocking them or observing their trauma from afar.
The Guardian reported in 2004 that 90% of white people have few or no black friends. The figure is probably very different in multicultural London, where people of all backgrounds mix more freely, but you can bet that most of the ‘black friends’ are not those openly displaying the mental scars of suffering a lifetime of racism.
One man who attended the Sean Rigg inquest almost every day of the full six and a half weeks was a homeless brother, Anthony James. He turned up faithfully, copiously making notes of the inquest hearing, because of his desire to see justice done. I enjoyed my chats with Mr James at the coroners court.
Anthony James was himself caught on video, after a good Samaritan neighbour used a camera-phone to record 15 riot police arresting him. He told me he sustained a serious head injury as a result of having his head slammed onto the concrete pavement. He also hit his head on the way into the police van, an experience he shares with Sean Rigg.
The campaigning website Ligali describes in more detail what happened to Anthony James as he was evicted from his flat. He was being evicted because his benefits were stopped after he wrote on a claim form – in the section asking if there was anything else the claimant should tell them – that Britain was racist.
Bizarrely, the DWP stopped his benefits on grounds that this comment was in itself racist. He has been homeless ever since.
Anthony James lives in the margins of society. He is a highly intelligent man – a former university lecturer no less – however dishevelled appearance will cause many to give him a wide berth. Too often it is people like him who feel the rough side of policing.
I thought of him while watching the CCTV video of Sean Rigg’s last moments yesterday. Wishing him well and hoping his life gets back on track. But fearing that society’s attitudes to people like him – and Mr Baluch and the woman on the bus – put them in danger.
By Lester Holloway