Families and campaigners gathered in Leicester on 15 May to pay tribute to those that had died in custody.
At a meeting organised by the 4WardEver Campaign in association with the Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice, Habib Ullah Campaign and the Leicester Civil Rights Movement, there was no mistaking the serious issues being addressed. Banners and posters of dead loved ones adorned the walls and stage, the hall was crowded with stalls of books and DVDs and information on families and organisations campaigning on deaths in custody, films were shown and family members and campaigners gave speeches. And, in a grand finale to the evening, entertainment was provided by Yaz Alexander, Lennox Carty, Genesis Elijah and Broombusters – which went down a storm.
Priya Thamotheram, the manager of the Highfields Centre, opened proceedings by talking about the centre having a history as a base of community campaigns and how the Leicester Civil Rights Movement (LCRM), which will be celebrating its tenth birthday later this year, was established at the centre to meet the needs of vulnerable asylum seekers being dispersed to the area. Asylum seekers are still there and now, increasingly, experiencing destitution as a result of inhumane asylum laws.
The day marked what would have been the forty-fifth birthday of Mikey Powell, who died in September 2003 after being detained by police in Birmingham. Mikey, who was suffering from mental health problems, was knocked down by a police car, restrained with batons and CS spray and taken to Thornhill Road police station where he was found not to be breathing. In November 2009, an inquest jury found that Mikey died as a result of the position the police officers had placed him in the van. Tippa from the Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice and 4WardEver asked the meeting a simple question, ‘why are we here?’ He went on, ‘the people we pay are killing members of our families. They have a duty of care to people in detention.’ Jane Deighton, solicitor for the family of Mikey Powell, commended the inquest jury for having seen through the evidence presented by the police to bring in a verdict that had helped the family gain some sort of justice. The family of Mikey Powell, in turn, paid tribute to the hard work and support of their solicitor and barrister.
Deborah Coles from INQUEST, the organisation which assists the families of those who die in custody, paid tribute to the families of those that die and the anti-racist campaigns which support families in their long fights for justice. She also spoke about the history of INQUEST, which was established following the death of Blair Peach in 1979, and the long campaign by his family to find out how he died. That campaign, led by his partner Celia Stubbs, had now, thirty-one years after his death, been vindicated in the publication of an internal police investigation report which found that police officers from the Special Patrol Group were responsible for Blair’s death.
The day also marked the second anniversary of the death of Pauline Campbell. Ken Fero’s moving interview with her outside the Houses of Parliament was a fitting tribute to a mother who transformed herself into a determined and dogged campaigner on the issue of deaths of women in prison after her daughter died at Styal prison in January 2003. Pauline was arrested on fourteen occasions while protesting outside prisons where young women died. In the film, Pauline talked about her motivation for campaigning and criticised her prosecutions for public order offences as ‘political trials’, commenting, ‘shame on the establishment for seeking to criminalise a mother who has lost her only child at the hands of the state’.
A short film on the death of Ian Tomlinson by Pie ‘N’ Mash Films was shown as was a film on the campaign following the death of Habib Ullah in High Wycombe in July 2008. Zia Ullah, Habib’s cousin called on the ‘courts to recognise that that there are trained professional people committing murder’. He also called on families to ‘come together’ in solidarity over the deaths of loved ones.
Some campaigners and the public at large often find the issue of deaths in custody a difficult one to address. People who die may have been serving sentences for criminal offences, may have been under arrest on suspicion of criminal offences or may have been suffering from mental health problems or been under the influence of drugs. But what emerged so strongly from the gathering at Leicester, composed of both family members and legal fighters, was that despite whatever human frailties the deceased may have had, their human rights had not been preserved. The families felt violated on behalf of their loved ones. They carry on fighting so that others may not suffer the personal indignities that were imposed on their family members.
Watch the film Injustice: here
Read an IRR News story: ‘Family question police role in death of Asian man’
Read a Guardian obituary on Pauline Campbell: ‘Tireless crusader against prison deaths’