On March 6th Bristol Copwatch hosted an online event to explore the escalating levels of police violence and racism seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were joined by a panel of powerful speakers, including Lawrence Hoo (award-winning poet, activist and educator), Ken Hinds (Chair of Haringey’s Independent Stop and Search Monitoring Group), Siana Bangura (writer, community organiser and founder of Courageous Films) and Neal Brown (Youth and Community Engagement Coordinator for StopWatch).
Siana started us off with her story, and that of her documentary ‘1500 And Counting’ – named after the number of deaths in police custody in the UK between 1990 and 2015. Today, this number is closer to 1800, with zero convictions. Mentioning the attention that is often given to police brutality in the USA, Siana explained that she began the project to draw attention to police violence in the UK, instigated after the murder of Sheku Bayoh in Scotland. Paying homage to a number of other efforts, including the United Families and Friends Campaign, Siana highlighted for how long both racist police brutality and its resistance have existed, referring to the origin of the police as a colonial project, born out of a need to quell dissent. This is continued in the training and support the UK provide to militarised policing in other countries like Nigera, and even the USA. She also drew attention to the lack of awareness around black women’s experiences of policing, and how the effects of the pandemic have impacted those already most marginalised. She stressed how these ‘numbers’ of deaths are not just that, but lives lost, stories ended, families broken. On the topic of protest during the pandemic, Siana stated ‘for us, it’s a matter of life and death anyway’ and that the pandemic of racism has existed for generations and finished with a compelling note that police abolition is not a utopian idea, but a real possibility that should be taken seriously and actively engaged with.
Beginning with the shocking statement that he has been stopped and searched over 125 times in his life, Ken told us his story of being abused by the police and his work with young people in conflict de-escalation. Ken told us how he realised his need to step up to stop other young people being targeted like he was, and spoke to the way that the trauma from policing is internalised by those who experience violence. Ken also spoke of the impacts of intergenerational trauma from colonialism and slavery, and the way that different state processes align to form a systemic means of oppressing racialised people. Today, Ken helps young people win their cases against the police and works with young black men to heal the trauma people experience as a result of policing.
Ken left us with the acronym GO WISELY, referring to the information that police officers should (but often don’t) provide to those under a Stop and Search.
G: Grounds for the search
O: Object the officer is searching for
W: Warrant, particularly if the officer is in plain clothes
I: Identification, proof that the officer is indeed a police officer!
S: Station to which the officer is attached to
E: Entitlement, any citizen being searched by a police officer is entitled to copies of all paperwork
L: Legislation, the legal power which gives the officer the right to stop and search
Y: YOU are being detained for the search or for the purpose of…essentially informing the citizen in no uncertain terms the purpose and nature of the search
Neal began with an overview of Stopwatch, which has existed since 2010 and is a leading voice on Stop and Search tactics, research, policy and advocacy. Neal described how the police have 19 stop and search powers, and that these are often abused. He spoke to the high levels of distress in black and ethnic communities and his experience of working with people in them, mentioning the difficulties of discussing the trauma from police violence within families. Neal works to amplifying community voices and build resilience. He also delivers youth workshops, which he sees as empowering people through using knowledge as self-defence. He stressed the importance of holding the police to account through questioning their actions, and recording your experience of being stopped and searched as evidence. He also introduced us to the app ‘YStop’, created by Stopwatch and Release, which provides an accesible means of recording and reporting experiences of being stopped and searched.
Our final speaker, Lawrence, related to us his experiences of growing up in Bristol and of the Avon and Somerset Police as a racist force that continues to be so. Stating that accountability simply isn’t served, he has seen the worst of Bristol’s police force. Lawrence drew attention to the fact that the laws made to protect people from racist violence are not being recognised, how the police operate above the law and how institutional racism is still racism and should be illegal. On his own story, he spoke about how he internalised the narrative he was told while being targeted by police: that there was no place for him in the world. He related to us some local anecdotes of police brutality, including that of Ras Judah, a 64 year old elder who was tasered in the face (tasering above the shoulders is illegal), and a mother who, last December (2020), was violently arrested by six police officers and and pepper sprayed on a bus after a dispute with the driver. He also spoke about his long campaign against the bail hostel on Brigstock Road (St Paul’s) for child sex offenders, how the bail hostel was directly adjacent to a nursery, despite sex offenders prevention orders outlawing proximity to children and the crimes that were committed against local children. This, he said, was a clear example of how working class communities of colour are marginalised and violated by the establishment.
We are so grateful to all those who attended, and were bowled over by the response. Thank you to our panellists for sharing your stories, which just went to show how important community-based action against police violence is and will be in the continued struggle for justice.