‘I cannot accept that there is no accountability’

Ahead of its annual memorial event, Amy Hall speaks to Marcia Rigg of the United Families and Friends Campaign about the impact of deaths in state custody and how families in the UK have been fighting for justice.

Marcia Rigg speaks at the annual UFFC rally in 2015.
Photo: Panther Manchanda

Kevin Clarke was 35 years old when he died in police custody at Lewisham hospital in southeast London. Camera footage of his arrest shows Clarke, who was black, saying ‘I can’t breathe … I’m going to die,’ as the police officers restrain him, face on the ground of a school playing field, his arms pinned back in hand cuffs and his legs in restraints.

Police has been called over concerns about Clarke’s mental health and earlier this month an inquest found that officers’ use of restraint contributed to his death.

For Marcia Rigg, and others at the UFFC (United Families and Friends Campaign) these kinds of stories are painfully familiar. The UFFC is a coalition of people whose loved ones have died in police custody, prison, immigration detention and psychiatric custody.

For over 20 years, they have been fighting relentlessly for justice for their own family members, but also for wider change. This Saturday 31 October will be the 22nd annual UFFC memorial event in a year where police violence has made international headlines after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the subsequent uprisings across the world.

Most of our loved ones were uttering the words “I can not breathe” when they died

Deaths in police custody are not just a US problem. According to the charity INQUEST, there have been 1768 deaths in police custody or following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990.

Marcia’s brother Sean was one of these. The 40-year-old musician and producer died in August 2008 after being restrained by police officers and held with pressure applied to his back and neck for seven minutes. Sean suffered from schizophrenia and had been arrested in Balham, London while undergoing a mental health crisis.

He was taken to Brixton police station and arrived not fully conscious after being caged in a police van and his welfare neglected multiple times.

For Marcia, George Floyd’s death was another reminder. ‘Seeing that footage I think resonated with every family where there has been a restraint-related death by police because that’s how our loved ones died and most of our loved ones were uttering the words “I can not breathe” when they died.

‘Everybody knows about the deaths in the United States, so that’s been absolutely vital to show that the UK is not innocent, they are just as guilty as the officers that killed George Floyd.

‘It’s been happening since enslavement… it is an issue particularly for the black community. It’s very close to home for us because they were deaths in custody and this is basically modern day lynching. They removed the chains and replaced it with handcuffs and they removed the trees and replaced it with choke holds and excessive force so that you couldn’t breathe and they choke you to death.’

The UK is not innocent, they are just as guilty as the officers that killed George Floyd

Patterns of injustice

Marcia became involved in UFFC a few months after Sean’s death and as the campaign was about to mark its 10-year anniversary.

‘I just could not believe how many other families this had happened to. I wasn't aware of the extent of deaths in custody and I realized that there were hundreds of families like mine. I was horrified,’ she says.

She found some comfort at a time of immense pain by talking to other families who understood what she was going through and was inspired by how unshakeable they were in their fight for justice.

‘It made us feel that we were not alone and that we were not going crazy because the other families before us were confirming the same kinds of things. It inspired me because I knew what was needed was a mass campaign alongside the investigation by the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission].’

Marcia was fired up and took on the role of chair of the campaign at a time when it looked like this would be the last memorial event. Being part of a collective also strengthened Sean’s campaign, she explains.

‘I was able to raise the bar by having a mass media campaign. It was like ammunition; it made it even more pressurized, so that’s why it’s really important that families collectively come together to show the patterns.

‘The actual death – the mitigating circumstances may be different as to what happens on the day to our loved ones but there were similar occurrences like excessive force, mental health, it was somebody that was vulnerable. The families express them as being nice, loving, caring people that were not criminals and that’s exactly how we felt about Sean. The pattern is that they are often black men portrayed as violent, big, bad and dangerous.’

Black and Asian people die disproportionately as a result of use of force or restraint by the police in England and Wales. Concerns about UK policing and racism have gone as far as the United Nations with human rights experts saying, ‘The deaths reinforce the experiences of structural racism, over-policing and criminalization of people of African descent and other minorities in the UK.’

As well as race and class, other systematic patterns identified by Marcia include police officers not being interviewed directly after incidents; being allowed to be in the same room and hence given a chance to get their story straight; finding it hard to obtain evidence and documentation such as CCTV footage and delays in getting to inquest.

For families, the impact of pursuing justice is great. ‘We suffer from post-traumatic stress because we are given decomposed bodies for burial for instance, body parts being removed as well,’ says Marcia. ‘Sometimes they don't give you the body back. You don't have access to your loved one’s body from the beginning because if you die in state custody your body belongs to the state.’

As is the case of Christopher Alder, a 37-year-old former paratrooper who was choked to death at the Queen's Gardens police station in Hull, after his arrest in 1998. His family were originally given the body of a woman, 77-year-old Grace Kamara to bury in a body-switch that was heart-rending for both families.

Sometimes they don't give you the body back. You don't have access to your loved one’s body from the beginning because if you die in state custody your body belongs to the state

The search for answers

For families who lose someone in state custody, getting answers is not made easy. ‘When it’s at the hands of the state it takes on a different realm whereby you can’t get the answers. There's a cover up and conspiracies and there’s an unfair, imbalanced battlefield,’ explains Marcia.

‘What we expect is an independent investigation and the truth from the state and they're giving us the opposite. Your whole impression of the government changes – there's mistrust.

‘Families are under surveillance so then you become paranoid, you become traumatized by the whole event really from the beginning.

Next week an inquiry will begin hearing evidence into undercover policing and will scrutinize how police spied on mainly black, grieving families between 1970 and 2005.

For Marcia, the fight for justice for Sean and others has become her life. ‘Even though 12 years have elapsed since my brother’s death and I have accepted that he’s died, I can not accept that there is no accountability for any family, including myself.’

There have not been any successful prosecutions of police for killings of people in custody for over 50 years.

One of the things that angers Marcia is that families do not get enough financial help with their cases. ‘We don’t get bereavement counselling, we don’t get funding, whereas the police for instance get unlimited funding by the pubic purse to defend themselves. It costs the tax payer hundreds of thousands of pounds to get these officers off and we get nothing.’

The Mikey Powell Memorial Fund raises money to give families or their campaign groups access to small grants to provide practical domestic assistance and some families are entitled to legal aid but for many the financial burden of pursuing their cases is massive.

For Marcia, much of her campaigning is also about policy change. ‘You have to tackle the little loopholes that they use,’ she says. It was thanks to this approach that Scotland Yard Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe promised to fit Metropolitan Police vans with closed-circuit television cameras in 2012.

We have to cling onto hope otherwise they’ve won indefinitely and that cannot be right because the evidence is so compelling. Yet, they turn the truth into a lie and the lie into the truth. Literally.

She is hoping that, as the UFFC’s memorial is online this year due to Covid-19, it can make an impact internationally. ‘We do meet with other families in Europe – France, Germany – and the stories are identical. We would like to be able to do something internationally with all the families to show that this is a global issue. People are only aware of this when it comes to their doorstep. It’s vitally important that people put the pressure on to make real change. What else can we do?’

For many family members the relentlessness of campaigning and the multiple failings of the state over the years takes too big a toll and they have to stop. ‘Yes, most families move on because there is no justice. Because that’s the aim of the state – to wear you out so that you move on. But the trick is to never give up…. You have to keep it alive to put pressure on. Now that is a big ask for any family and it costs a lot. It’s your well being and your life has been put on hold.

‘We have to cling onto hope otherwise they’ve won indefinitely and that cannot be right because the evidence is so compelling. Yet, they turn the truth into a lie and the lie into the truth. Literally.

‘There are things that happen behind the scenes, behind the legal case that the public don’t see. It’s traumatizing for any family and I don’t think that ever goes away. We understand that our loved ones will never come back. What we want is for it to not happen to another family. What we want is really effective change.’

A pre-recorded video, featuring families’ telling their stories, will be available as a memorial here on the UFFC website from 1.00pm London time on Saturday 31 October 2020. The campaign would like supporters to promote the online release as part of the remembrance action.