The Guardian - Film Reviews, Friday September 28, 2001
Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood's documentary - downbeat in manner, polemical in effect - tells a harrowing story. This is the testimony of the families of those people, almost entirely black men from South and East London, who died in police custody in the 90s. As the film continues, a repeat- pattern modus operandi emerges. A twitchy, uncertain police presence on the street; a mysterious death in custody, then the closing of ranks. This has found its logical extension in sabre-rattling threats of legal action by the Police Federation, avowedly on the basis that individual policemen are mentioned, though this is always in the context of rehearsing the details of official inquiries and inquests.
Fero's film highlights the irony that, despite the ostentatious soul-searching that followed the Stephen Lawrence case, the violent deaths of black people while in official custody have been passed over in nervous silence. Injustice places itself deliberately outside this reticent media consensus. It is not clear whether Fero and Mehmood approached police authorities to be interviewed on camera, or if these requests were refused or ignored. At any rate, tight-lipped silence has unarguably been the police strategy the rest of the time, and Fero's film is about giving a voice to the relatives left behind, and their fight for answers, a fight in which they show enormous dignity. Last week, the Ritzy in Brixton, south London, pulled the film on "legal advice" - a piece of self-censorship which will make loyal Ritzy supporters groan. Let's hope the other venues across the UK and Ireland slated to show the film have more self-confidence. As a record of human courage, Injustice deserves to be seen.
Black Filmmaker Magazine, September 2001
Brian Douglas died from a severe blow to the head. Roger Sylvester died after being restrained on the ground by eight men. Joy Gardener died of asphyxiation after her head was bound with thirteen feet of tape. Harry Stanley died after being shot twice. Ibrahima Sey died from asphyxiation after being repeatedly restrained, and sprayed with CS gas.
All of these people were innocent civilians, killed by British police officers while in their custody, in the police stations of Stoke Newington, Forest Gate, and Brixton, among others. Although inquests into several of the deaths returned verdicts of unlawful killing, no police officers have ever been convicted. In fact, no police officer has ever been convicted after a death in custody in Britain. A new documentary, Injustice, by Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood, uncovers these cases, and goes further, detailing the aftermath of deaths in custody, and their impact upon the families of victims.
On September the tenth, 2001, several hundred people attended a sold out screening of the documentary, playing as part of the BFM film festival at the Curzon Soho. The importance of this event becomes clear when we realise that previous screenings of the movie had been unsuccessful due to threats to cinema owners from police lawyers threatening libel action. There was no legal basis to halt the screenings of the film, as Ken Fero made clear after the screening, but the weight of the police and their representatives was enough to intimidate most of the cinema owners scheduled to show the film. Watching Injustice, in a multicultural audience spanning age groups, it was easy to see why the police are so threatened by this film. At the core of Injustice is the casual indifference displayed by the police and the authorities towards human life and towards the lives of people of colour in particular. Each case reiterates the same depressing turn of events - no apology is given for the death, and instead the victim is portrayed as an easy stereotype: a drug dealer, or mentally ill and uncontrollable. The officers involved in the killing of Shiji Lapite described him as "the biggest, strongest, black man" they had ever seen. Yet Ibrahima was 5'10", of a medium build, and sustained injuries to 40 areas of his body, while the officers involved sustained only minor injuries (a bite mark and a scratched finger). The families of the victims are shown little respect in their grieving, having to fight to obtain the bodies of their loved ones for burial, their medical reports, and most of all, the truth behind their deaths.
Again and again the Crown Prosecution Service have denied the need for a trial of the police officers involved despite the verdicts given in the inquests into the deaths. It's this frustration that led to the families of many victims setting up The United Families and Friends Campaign in 1995. In the families of the victims we find some of the most inspiring human courage and determination possible, as they mobilise campaigns to search for witnesses or the murder of their loved ones, organise demonstrations, and lobby for support. As Brenda Weinberg, Brian Douglas' sister, says, it is impossible to "grieve unless the system does its job." The United Families and Friends Campaign are trying to make the system do just that.
At the Curzon Soho, it was possible to feel the audience's anger and grief. Many engaged verbally with the film. There were gasps of horror as pictures of the victims' injuries were shown, shouts of agreement as the families articulated their need for justice, and sighs of derision when the testimonials of the police did not add up to the facts. At the end of the movie, many members of the audience were crying. There was certainly a well of support as the filmmakers and several members of the United Families and Friends Campaign took to the stage. Injustice is a film that speaks to the disenfranchised, the silenced, and those denied justice and truth. It is without doubt a highly important film, and one that resonates long after the closing credits. After the screening, Fero described the film as a historical document'. On leaving the cinema, rather than a sense of despair, there was a feeling of hope. The silenced had been heard, and if this is possible, then we have to believe that so is the struggle for justice.
The police care little for the deaths of black men whose encounters with them go tragically wrong
Deborah Orr, The Independent 10 January 2003
This year, young as it is, has already been billed as the year Britain woke up to black-on-black gun violence. Tough legislation on guns has been spewing out of the Home Office this week, including a mandatory in most cases five years for possession of a firearm, a crackdown on replica weapons, and a hike in the age for the legal use of airguns.
All this may seem logical enough, but my own worry is that among the criminals which such legislation has been brought in to deter, logic went out of the window long ago. If their logic dictates that carrying a gun is brave and macho, didn't it just get more so? If their logic is that they'll make sure they won't be one of the ones to get caught, aren't they in a perfect position to ensure that they'd rather kill a police officer than go to jail for carrying a gun?
And it isn't just the gangs whose logic has become skewed. How logical was the young black man who stood on a south London street corner a couple of weeks ago, berating another young black man going about his business with the screaming cry of: "Coconut! Coconut! Black's no good in blue! Black's no good in blue!" What a nightmare it must be to be a black police officer in the inner city, hated by the very people you're there to carve out a fairer deal for.
The media has been doing much chest-beating too over its failure to get interested in black-on-black violence until young girls were killed. Yet it was a senior Metropolitan Police officer who spoke on the radio a year ago, saying that one of the problems with Operation Trident the Metropolitan Police initiative designed to target black gun violence was that the media weren't interested because the deaths of young black gang members were not news. Maybe that was one of the reasons. But while it may suit the police to accuse the media of being uninterested in the death of black gang members, it suits them rather better that it does not care much either for the deaths of perfectly amiable young black men whose encounters with the police go tragically wrong, even though the highly disproportionate number of black deaths with police involvement is undeniable.
Exactly four years ago tomorrow, Roger Sylvester was carried limp, naked and handcuffed from the doorstep of his north London home by eight police officers and driven to a local psychiatric unit for sectioning under the Mental Health Act. There, having sustained severe brain damage, heart failure, kidney failure and bruising to his body, he lapsed into a coma. His life support unit was switched off one week later.
Mr Sylvester, who was a care worker at a local mental health drop-in centre, was not under arrest. While the police claim he was restrained for his own protection, they also admit that he was at no time aggressive or violent towards them. Even so, no attempt was made at any point to dress him or cover his body. The police had Mr Sylvester's clothing with them at the hospital. The police say that they apprehended Mr Sylvester after a 999 call reported that he was banging on his front door, and rolling around on the ground, naked. None of the neighbours have publicly confirmed this, while one has confirmed that he greeted a good-spirited, fully-clothed Mr Sylvester not long before the incident. Also, a friend of Mr Sylvester's received a mobile phone call shortly before his detainment, during which Mr Sylvester claimed that the police were following him.
Beyond this scant, shocking and entirely inadequate information, little is known about the events of 11 January, 1999, and how they contributed to the death of this 30-year-old man. In the years since his loss, the family of Mr Sylvester have fought long and hard to obtain the small amount of information they do have. They still await a long-promised inquest. Hopes of a public inquiry into the death of their loved one have almost faded away.
It is quite a time too since the director of public prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith QC, ruled that there was insufficient evidence for the prosecution of any of the officers involved in the detainment of Mr Sylvester. Perhaps this lack of evidence is not surprising, as police officers questioned under the inquiry by Essex Police into the death all reserved their right to remain silent.
Three eventually after much campaigning faced internal discipline, although the disciplinary proceedings, and the nature of the punishment, were kept secret. What is known is that the proceedings centred on the officers' failure to preserve the scene of the detainment, to preserve the clothing and footwear they wore during Mr Sylvester's restraint, and a couple of pages, which were ripped from a police notebook, as evidence.
All these seem like points that ought to be taken seriously. And they are, but with a catch. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, ruled almost a year ago that the family could be given leave to appeal against the decision not to prosecute, but he stipulated that this could not be set in motion until the results of the inquest which four years on has not taken place were known. He also asked that the Metropolitan Police be "generous" in the run-up to the inquest about disclosing information to the family of Mr Sylvester. This was a significant request, because the Metropolitan Police are the owner of all information gathered with regard to Mr Sylvester's death even the findings of the inquiry into their officers, even the results of the post-mortem carried out on his own body. Yet this awesome protection, built in to the system that exists to protect the police, was not quite enough for the officers involved in this case. While the Roger Sylvester campaign struggles on with public donations and a small amount of funding from the Lord Chancellor's office, the police have unlimited access to public funds.
They have used this largesse to fight a legal battle for total anonymity, usually available only in terrorism cases or cases involving undercover officers, claiming that disclosure of their names would lead to reprisals from the family and the public. They eventually lost this battle, and the family were told the names of the officers involved. There have been no reprisals. Seven officers also brought and lost a defamation case against the BBC, while as many as 13 officers used the privilege of free legal redress in an attempt to censor Injustice, a 98-minute documentary film which investigates the experiences of the family of Roger Sylvester, and others who have lost relatives in police custody. Lawyers representing the officers repeatedly called cinemas shortly before the film was due to be screened, saying that they would be sued if the film contained "defamatory" material.
The cinemas were never given time to seek their own legal advice, and several screenings were cancelled in this way. So tiresomely anti-democratic were these interventions, that eventually the Metropolitan Police Authority intervened, told the Police Federation, which was orchestrating the campaign to censor the film, to "grow up", and organised a screening for family members, campaigners and journalists. The film will be screened tomorrow night, after a candlelit vigil outside Tottenham police station, and a memorial service for Roger Sylvester will be held at Finsbury Park Methodist Church on Sunday.
Trust between police and community is a two-way street. What Mr Sylvester's family want more than anything is to be told what happened to him, and why. Isn't it time that the police wanted disclosure too, with automatic channels of transparent, independent, investigation when things go wrong, instead of endless, obsessive, institutionalised secrecy? It's what they want from the communities they claim to serve, then wonder why they meet with such distrust and resistance.