Audience hijacks hall to see deaths in custody film
Thursday, 12 July 2001
An audience took over Conway Hall in central London and defied threats of legal action so they could see a controversial film which names eight police officers as being responsible for the deaths of people in custody.
Police were called when about 150 people barricaded themselves in the hall last night and took over the projector to ensure the screening of the movie, called Injustice, went ahead. Staff tried to stop the event by opening a skylight and turning on the lights to make it difficult to see the screen.
Ken Fero, co-director with Tariq Mehmood of the 98minute documentary, said the Trustees of Conway Hall had received threats of legal action. Mr Mehmood said: "When we booked the place they knew what the film was about. We got legal opinion of this to cover Conway Hall and we gave them that legal advice."
The film examines the lives and deaths of black people who died in police custody. A planned screening last week was halted when the cinema owners received a letter from solicitors representing two of the officers and decided not to go ahead.
The film identifies officers believed by relatives to be responsible for the deaths. None of the officers concerned was convicted of any crime.
Myrna Simpson, the mother of Joy Gardner ‹ who died after being restrained by Metropolitan Police officers ‹s aid after the screening: "I don't see anything wrong with the film, why would anybody want to stop it? It's just the facts that have happened and people are just speaking their mind. Since 1969 no police officer has been prosecuted for a death in custody."
Other cases highlighted in the film include Brian Douglas who died after being hit by a police baton during a stop and search in Clapham in May 1995 and Shiji Lapite, who died after being restrained by officers in Clapton in December 1994. Pathologists reported between 36 and 45 separate injuries. A coroner's jury returned a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to pursue the case.
A spokesman for Conway Hall was unavailable for comment.
The film that refuses to die
The makers of a documentary on deaths in police custody are defying threats to stop the film being shown. They believe nothing less than freedom of expression is at stake
The makers of a controversial film narrated by British actress Cathy Tyson about deaths in police custody are planning a wave of nationwide "guerrilla screenings" to defy police threats of legal action to stop the film being shown.
An unprecedented campaign by police lawyers who have targeted venues that planned to show the film has already led to two cancellations in London. A third screening at Conway Hall, a London venue that prides itself on its tradition of upholding freedom of speech, only went ahead after managers left the building and the audience seized projection facilities.
Injustice, which took seven years to make, includes calls for several Metropolitan Police officers to be prosecuted. But the Police Federation, through its solicitors Russell, Jones and Walker, has sent a series of legal warnings to cinemas planning to screen the film, often just minutes before it is due to be shown.
The film makers Migrant Media have developed a last-minute strategy of shifting the venue to defy the police ban. The Cornerhouse, an independent cinema in Manchester, was forced to cancel a screening of the film on 26 July after threats from the police, but an alternative showing was set up at a squatted café round the corner. Similar tactics were used when police stopped a screening this month at The Lux, an independent cinema in Hoxton, east London. The screening was moved to a pub.
Tyson, who starred with Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa, said she became involved because of her "deep respect" for the families of the victims. She told The Observer: "The fact that they (the police) are trying to get this film stopped is sinister. I am not anti-police, but why don't they come forward and freely admit what has gone on in these cases." Injustice director Ken Fero said: "One American civil rights activist said it reminded him of underground film screenings he's seen in the Soviet Union. It is amazing to think it has come to this in Britain. But it's the only way to get the film shown."
In the past three decades there have been 1,000 deaths in police custody, prisons and mental institutions, without a single conviction. The film concentrates on the cases of three men - Shiji Lapite, Brian Douglas and Ibrahima Sey - who all died in the mid-Nineties from injuries received while they were being arrested by Metropolitan Police officers in different parts of London. Shiji Lapite, a Nigerian asylum-seeker and father of two, was stopped by police in Hackney in December 1994 for "acting suspiciously". Officers said that they found crack cocaine at the scene. In a struggle one officer held Lapite in a headlock while a fellow officer kicked him in the head.
The coroner found more than 40 areas of injury on Lapite's body, including crushed bones at the front of his neck and severe bruising across his back. As he was being loaded into a police van, witnesses saw his head "lolling about".
According to Lapite's lawyer, Raju Bhatt, the officers at the inquest described the Nigerian as "the biggest, strongest, most violent black man they had ever seen". Despite this, the only injuries suffered by the police officers were a scratch on the tip of one man's finger and a bite mark on the shoulder of the officer using the head lock.
The jury in the inquest took 20 minutes to come to a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. However, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed against the two officers involved, Paul Wright and Andrew McCallum.
Five months after the death of Shiji Lapite, Brian Douglas was stopped by police in Clapham, south London, after a night out with a friend. Two officers, Mark Tuffy and Paul Harrison, admit using batons to restrain Douglas before bundling him into a police van and taking him to Kennington police station.
Despite serious head injuries, he was at the station for 15 hours before being taken to hospital. It later emerged he had a fractured skull and damage to his brain stem. He died almost a week later. At the inquest Tuffy said his baton had accidentally slipped when he hit Douglas on the shoulder. Evidence at the inquest said the force of the blow was equivalent to being dropped from 11 times his own height on to his head. The jury returned a verdict of misadventure, later challenged unsuccessfully by the family at the High Court.
The third case featured in Injustice involved Ibrahima Sey, a Muslim from the Gambia, who had just celebrated the birth of his daughter. In March 1996 police were called to a domestic dispute at Sey's home in Forest Gate, east London. Police later reported that there had been "a bit of a scuffle" during which CS gas had been used.
Relatives were told the next day that Ibrahima had "passed away" in the custody suite at Ilford police station. When they were shown his body they saw he was badly bruised on his forehead and stomach - the cause of death was officially recorded as "restraint asphyxia". The inquest jury was so appalled it insisted on adding manslaughter to the verdict of unlawful killing.
Correspondence seen by The Observer shows that the custody officer in the case, Stephen Highton, believes the film clearly accuses him and his colleagues of murder, a charge they deny. There are no interviews with police in the film, although a spokesman for Migrant Media said individual officers had been approached in each case for comment.
Injustice is intended as a tribute to the families of those who have died in custody who have together formed the United Friends and Families Campaign. The Police Federation claims it is only opposed to the film because it contains scenes where officers are openly and repeatedly accused by relatives and their supporters of being "murderers". In correspondence seen by The Observer, a lawyer for some of the officers told a cinema planning to show the film there was no legal basis for any of the accusations. He warned showing it could result in "very substantial" libel damages.
This is particularly problematic in the case of Douglas, where the inquest jury decided that there had been no wrongdoing. But lawyers acting for Migrant Media have advised them that the public interest in showing the film outweighs the concerns of the officers, whose version of events is clearly stated.
Eva Tarr Kirkhope, who runs the Metro Cinema in London's West End, the first venue targeted by the police campaign, added her voice to calls to allow the film a national release: "The families present at the screening were devastated. I am extremely angry about the situation and hope I will be able to show the film in the future."
The publicity surrounding the film has also raised hopes of a full public inquiry into deaths in police custody. Amnesty International and the civil rights group Liberty have raised the issue with the United Nations, which is due to report on Britain's record on human rights and racism later this year.
Brenda Weinberg, the sister of Douglas and chair of the United Friends and Families Campaign, said: "The police are clearly frightened of the families and the campaign, so they are threatening to sue the cinemas." The new Home Secretary, David Blunkett has expressed concern about the number of deaths in custody, and the United Friends and Families Campaign is preparing to raise money for private prosecutions. "This is more than just a documentary, this is a political campaign," Fero said. "This has taken seven years of my life, and I am not about to give up now."
The next screening of Injustice will take place in Liverpool this Saturday at the launch of the campaign for James Ashley, shot dead by police in 1998. For details see www.injusticefilm.co.uk
Messing with the Fed
The police trade union has thrown a virutally impregnable protective wall around its members
To date, the newish Criminal Case Review Commission has examined claims from 3,218 convicts that they were falsely imprisoned. Can you make a stab at estimating how many have been upheld? Before you speculate, remember the cynical wisdom that everyone in jail will swear on all they hold sacred that they're innocent. The cynics aren't all wrong. I've no doubt that some lags were trying it on when they attempted to persuade the commission's civil servants to raise doubts about their convictions before the Court of Appeal. You shouldn't forget either that jail cells are a fourth-rate substitute for closed mental hospitals. They hold luckless beneficiaries of 'community care' who can protest that they've been framed with genuine sincerity. Unfortunately they can also be howling mad.
You must therefore discount the chancers and the deluded, while remembering there is no fouler offence than the state jailing the innocent. Once you've made the necessarily loose calculations, you're ready to play fantasy justice and give your best guess of the percentage of complainants who have good grounds for arguing they're the victims of incompetent or malicious prosecutions.
My guess is a conservative Observer reader might imagine that the commission and appeal judges have a love of truth strong enough to push them to examine a quarter of disputed verdicts. An ultra-conservative might go as low as a tenth. Actually the commission has decided that only 136 cases should be referred to the court. Of these, the judiciary ruled that a paltry 53 convictions should be overturned. The hit rate is 1.6 per cent.
There's nothing as terrifying as a vicious policeman. He can attack with the privileges of the law as his Praetorian Guard. If you fight back, you're committing an offence. Passivity is the only safe response; safe, that is, unless your injuries are fatal. Hollywood got the unaccountable power of violent authority just right in 48 Hours when it had Eddie Murphy bellowing at a bar stuffed with rednecks: 'I'm your worst nightmare. A nigger with a badge.' Flash the badge and the swaggering opponent is transformed into powerless prey.
Between 1969 and 1999, 1,000 people died in police custody, prisons and secure psychiatric hospitals. Caveats must be made once again. Many deaths were unavoidable suicides or accidents. Nevertheless, not one death was followed by the successful prosecution of an officer of the law. The hit rate in this instance is no fraction of any per cent whatsoever. It's zero. The criminal justice system can forgive with the empathy of a doped-out aromatherapist when necessary.
The civil libel courts are just as permissive. The Police Federation combined with its solicitors Russell, Jones & Walker to form the most successful suing machine of the 1990s. Together they won 96 defamation cases in a row. Typically, Russell, Jones & Walker would not file a writ for libel until the last minute before the statutory deadline expired. Memories had faded and witnesses had vanished: resistance was all but pointless.
The typical target would be local papers or TV stations without the resources to risk hundreds of thousands in fantastically expensive court hearings. They might have thought they were on firm ground because they didn't name names in innocuous reports of an inquiry into police going over the top on a Saturday night, for instance, or an investigation into an anonymous officer. Their restraint didn't bother The Fed. All Russell, Jones & Walker had to do to get the cash flowing was to produce associates of the officers, such as wives who said that they knew the reports identified their dear husbands as suspects in some misconduct inquiry and swear that their marriages were in danger until their men's names were cleared.
It was easy money and a standing joke. Officers called them 'garage actions'. They were far too modest. The damages they sucked up as a matter of course were on a scale to buy a new conservatory or second home. The imbalance between the hit rates isn't a coincidence. There's a rough inverse proportion between the ability of police officers to intimidate and the failure to remedy false convictions and examine suspicious deaths.
To the makers of Injustice, a film about a few of the many deaths in police custody, Britain seems like a former Soviet republic. Cinemas are cancelling screenings after being hit with Russell, Jones & Walker warnings that they might be sued - delivered, as ever, at the last minute.
The documentary follows the campaign of the family of Brian Douglas, for one, who was stopped by two officers in south London. He was restrained and arrested. After 15 hours in a station he was taken to hospital to die. He had a fractured skull and brain damage. According to evidence given at the inquest into his death, his head injuries were consistent with being dropped onto his skull from a window 60 feet up. (One of the arresting officers told the court that his baton had slipped accidentally when he hit Douglas on the shoulder.)
The only way to see the documentary is to contact the director via www.injusticefilm.co.uk and, in the manner of old Soviet dissidents trying to find a samizdat , convince him it's safe to tell you about 'guerrilla' showings at a secret location in your area.
Advertised viewings in a free country are thin on the ground. Three cinemas have pulled the film. The manager of the Metro in the West End of London was cautioned that a planned screening was an 'imminent libel' of the police, and told: ' It must be a matter for you whether you see fit to go ahead with the screening of this film. Obviously our clients' position is that you should not do so. On their behalf we would suggest that it is only reasonable and responsible that you should at least not do so until you have taken proper steps to satisfy yourselves that you are justified in disseminating such devastating accusations against our clients.'
There's no 'reasonable and responsible' way for a cinema manager to investigate the terrible deaths Injustice reports, as Russell, Jones & Walker must know. Ken Fero, the director, and his crew spent seven years covering the families of the dead's fight for an explanation. He went to Channel 4 for funding, but was turned down because the station was worried about Russell, Jones & Walker. He and his colleagues didn't give up. They worked for nothing and made Injustice on a pitiful budget of £40,000 - half the cost of one episode of Home Front in the Garden.
Praise for his inspirational drive might be a back-handed compliment if it makes Fero sound like a fanatic. But note that ' it must be a matter for you... ' I spoke to the Police Federation and Russell, Jones & Walker on Friday and neither said they intended to sue him or the families, who would just love to have their day in court after all these years. The Fed and its lawyers prefer to go for the distributors who can't defend a documentary they haven't researched.
Some of Britain's greatest sleazebags - Robert Maxwell, James Goldsmith - rehearsed this tactic when they threatened newspaper distributors in the Seventies and Eighties. Neil Hamilton, who appeared last week to believe he had a reputation left to lose, tried it against small bookshops in his Cheshire constituency in 1997 when they stocked accounts of his corruption. The forces of law and order are keeping exemplary company. Unless you've been through a miscarriage of justice campaign, you can't know how hard it is to take the smallest of steps. The Court of Appeal generally doesn't want to know about claims that the prosecutors or the police suppressed or fabricated evidence.
These aren't minor fouls, like a judge misdirecting a jury, which can be punished with a yellow card before the game proceeds. They're the legal equivalent of a Malaysian betting syndicate fixing a match and making whole sport a joke. That prospect, as the late and truly cowardly Lord Denning said when he rejected the first attempt of the innocent Birmingham Six to appeal, is 'too terrible to contemplate'.
On top of judicial reluctance to admit the game isn't worth the candle is the nicely named 'chilling effect' on the media. Even if a newspaper is willing to take up what looks like a rotten conviction and campaign for years to find evidence to get it overturned - an enormous 'even if' - it will be deterred by the laws of libel.
Every case has an officer in charge. If you find he missed evidence, aren't you accusing him of negligence or worse? If he doesn't recognise that a dead man in a cell has been beaten senseless, aren't you accusing him of covering up for his colleagues? Better to forget the story and move on to how much leg this season's dresses are showing.
The Government is supposed to be preparing itself to take on the Police Federation. But New Labour is a party without a liberal cell in its tiny mind. It shows no understanding of how restrictions on free inquiry thwart justice and cannot see the connection between the licence to kill and the licence to print money.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
Same old story
What would a US audience make of a British film about deaths in police custody?
The setting is perhaps not a traditional one for a Los Angeles film premiere. There are no television news crews, no red carpets and no breathless crowds waiting for a glimpse of the stars. Instead, the venue is the bare assembly hall of a school in south LA and the audience consists mainly of black and Latino relatives and friends of people who have died in police custody in the city, political activists attached to campaigns connected to those deaths, as well as some curious locals.
The film being shown is Injustice, the British documentary about deaths in police custody, including those of Joy Gardner, Shiji Lapite, Brian Douglas and Ibrahima Sey. It was slapped with injunctions by the Police Federation when attempts were made to show it in Britain. The screening has been organised by the New Panther Vanguard Movement and the October 22nd Coalition, a group that campaigns on the issue of deaths in custody in the US. It has brought the director, Ken Fero, and relatives of those featured in the film to LA.
"Attitude is everything", says a slogan on the wall of the school auditorium, and the film is duly preceded by a blessing delivered in Yoruba and an introduction by Neelam Sharma, who moved to LA from Southall six years ago and now works for the Panthers. So what did Angelenos, perhaps more accustomed to such deaths than people in Britain, think of the film?
Miguel Mouchess, a young accountant whose friend Gonzalo Martinez was shot dead by LA police in February following a car chase, explains. "In some weird, cathartic way, guns get you away pretty quick, but in England the deaths seem a lot worse, a lot more painful. They take a lot longer. But the bottom line is, the police handle things the same way in both countries. I saw a lot of similarities in the film. It's more physical in England - here they have the freedom to use guns." Norma Martinez, who watched her son's death live on television - police chases are a staple of local news coverage - said she was also struck by some of the similarities. "They say in England that the police don't use guns and they don't have problems, but it's the same all over the world ... But I don't think it's as bad as here."
Brian Smith, whose brother died in custody in the Twin Towers jail in downtown LA, said of the film afterwards, as the audience of around 100 dispersed: "I had to walk out a couple of times. I was overcome by tears. I didn't know that was happening in Britain - all you hear about is Princess Di, you don't hear about all that other stuff. I think about my brother every day, so I identified big time with the people in the film who have gone through the same thing."
One of the members of the audience had made his own film about the police and the black community in Britain. David Koff, now a union researcher in LA, was the director of the 1978 film Blacks Britannica, an award-winning documentary about race in Britain that created a storm in the UK on release: it was condemned as inflammatory in parliament and the media. Koff said that what he liked about Injustice was that it encouraged people to be active rather than passive. "These days films are for mobilising money and awards rather than for mobilising people," he said. "The fact that a social movement has been generated by the film is evidence of the power of cinema, I would say - a capacity of film-making that is virtually ignored nowadays. I'm very impressed with what they have done with their film and it seems to be taking off. We also found that as soon as there is a whiff of censorship or suppression it brings in a whole new audience who might not otherwise have heard of the film - opponents always add fuel to the fire."
Another member of the audience, Gary Phillips - a writer working on a book about the history of black servicemen in the second world war - said he did not think that the police in LA would have sought an injunction to prevent such a film. "I don't think they would use the law so much in the States. The LAPD is different - they would just take you out and beat you." He added that he was not surprised that many of the same things happened in both countries. "It does have parallels in the States, but I suppose one question I would have is: why hasn't there been a bigger civil rights movement in the UK?"
After the screening, the British relatives of those who had died were presented with a red rose and a pledge from Brian Smith, who told them: "We want you guys to know that your loved ones will never be forgotten." Brenda Weinberg - the sister of Brian Douglas, featured in the film - was struck by the fact that the Americans who had seen the film should feel that the situation was worse in Britain because deaths in custody seemed to take longer there. "Over here [in LA], violence is much more part of society, so people are surprised that that sort of brutality goes on in the UK," she said. "They still have this image of the British bobby."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002