On Saturday I was heartened by the United Families and Friends Campaign against deaths in custody (UFFC) annual march. Last year around 100 people marched on Whitehall; this year there was a much improved number of around 300.
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. Some have admirably vowed on social media to honour Ajibola Lewis’ call to dramatically increase our number. I want to reflect on how we achieve this and build effective resistance to police and state-sponsored violence.
1. 2014 should be remembered as a year when the state flagrantly attempted to silence the bereaved and abused.
This was a year in which a jury deemed Mark Duggan’s killing as ‘lawful’ and the police officers who undoubtedly lied about Sean Rigg’s death did 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, in that they spent more resources spying on them rather than investigating the murders of their children.
A year when, in spite of the incredible efforts of eight women, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to prosecute police officers who used the stolen identities of dead children to form intimate relationships with those women, some of whom went on to father their children.
2. But cracks have appeared in the state’s shield of impunity.
This is also the year that Anthony Long, the Met Police firearms officer who shot and killed Azelle Rodney, was charged with Rodney’s murder; that the CPS announced they will be prosecuting Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Peter Fahy over the death of Anthony Grainger; that Bernard Hogan-Howe was made to apologise regarding the death of Cherry Groce; and that the Metropolitan Police paid out over £400,000 to a woman who had a child with one of its undercover officers.
3. This struggle isn’t popular.
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 pay rise’. 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 linen, 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.
4. We need a social movement.
A political march is a symbolic demonstration of an interest group’s collective strength. Bluntly, a turnout of 300 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.
These families each have been robbed of a life, and then robbed of them 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.
5. It’s going to take commitment.
Focusing on the demonstration itself, though necessary, is not sufficient. The more of us who are engaged will lead to an increase in 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. Efforts must go beyond speaking with our friends and associates.
Our ambitions must be tempered with patience. Although 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.
6. Retweeting, sharing and ‘liking’ won’t cut it.
I have little faith that this social movement will be achieved through social media. The struggle against deaths in custody is laden with too much sorrow to be summed up in 140 characters. 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 movement. Communication and retweets alone do not alter power structures.
7. We need to make links with other struggles.
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 jobs and living standards, or to end 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 up 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.
8. Justice is only the beginning.
This social movement is not limited to those who have died, though they remain foundational. Justice should be the minimum of our goals rather than the 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 hold a promise that goes beyond halting state sponsored deaths, towards a society that rejects the paternalistic ‘protection’ of the state. The Maroons of the Caribbean and the Americas, the pre-welfare state trade unionists, the Black Panthers, the Zapatistas, Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Gulabi Gang all had to provide what the state could not. It is on their foundations that our social movement is built.
This is an edited version of an original piece at The Multicultural Politic.