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I THINK a lot about purpose — what is my purpose? After lots of thought I’ve decided my purpose is to take up space, have difficult conversations, ask the painful questions and shed light on the things we keep in the dark, all with the aim to encourage people to take action.
Far too often we are made to believe we are helpless and can change nothing. For almost a year, I have been having difficult conversations about police brutality in Britain. I was stirred into action by the untimely and horrific death of Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy, Fife, on May 3 last year and started working on a film that investigates deaths at the hands of British police.
My resolve to keep talking about police brutality in Britain and working on this film was strengthened by the recent tragic death of Sarah Reed, a woman failed time and time again by every single institution she encountered in her short life, a life plagued by suffering and loss.
If the silence in the Black Lives Matter movement over black British victims of police brutality has been deafening, the silence over black British female victims specifically has been ear-shattering.
Whenever black women try to raise the very real issues they face that are specific to black womanhood, it is seen as “divisive.”
No matter how many times we ourselves have been failed by black men, by the state, by white institutions, by other black women, by everyone, we put ourselves last.
But focusing on our pain is not “divisive” but absolutely necessary. This month I have been crowdfunding to complete my documentary. How can over 1,500 people have died in or following police custody in Britain since 1991 and yet not one officer have been brought to justice? That reeks of tremendous institutional failure to me.
My documentary, 1,500 And Counting, as well as highlighting the stories of Sheku Bayoh and Sarah Reed will be investigating the part played by race, gender, class and mental health — all the things that make people vulnerable.
The silence over black British female victims of police brutality and gross police misconduct ultimately weakens any social justice movement and undermines the notion that black lives matter, for if they did, all black lives would matter in every corner of the globe and in every manifestation of black identity.
The silence runs so deep that you will struggle to find statistics about black female deaths in police custody in Britain.
This is part of a wider pattern of erasure — very few studies have been carried out on issues affecting Britain’s black female population specifically, and a lack of records, statistics and proof make it difficult to begin to change things at an institutional level.
Despite how real the consequences of police brutality are for black women and their families, lack of records makes it difficult to speak about these things at all, because sadly our personal experiences are always up for debate.
Cherry Groce was failed by the state when police raided her home in Brixton in 1985 in search of her son. Cynthia Jarrett was failed by the Metropolitan Police when they ransacked her home in Tottenham in 1985. Joy Gardner was failed by this country when in 1993 she was restrained with handcuffs and brutalised by British police attempting to deport her back to Jamaica. Sarah Reed was failed by everyone at every instance until she was found dead in her cell in Holloway Prison on January 11 2016.
In Britain, we’re accustomed to pointing the finger at everyone else and focusing on the problems of other nations, while ignoring our own.
It makes us feel better and is our attempt to justify avoiding tackling our own deep-seated issues.
The slaughter of black women at the hands of British police is a feminist issue. The killing of vulnerable people by those who should protect them is a humanitarian crisis. The fact our police forces are institutionally racist and rotten to the core is a British problem and it’s time we all held the police accountable for their deplorable actions.
I have learned that a lot of people romanticise the struggles of the past but fail to realise the baton has been handed over to this generation. I very much believe in collective action. If we all do something small it will have a great impact. 1,500 And Counting is a film that belongs to all of us because it is telling a very British story about people who could have been your loved one — people who could have been you.
- Siana Bangura is a writer, blogger, poet and freelance journalist from London. She is the founder of Intersectional Black Feminist Platform, No Fly on the WALL. She is the author of Elephant, a candid collection of poetry on black womanhood, black British identity, migration, love and loss; and she is the producer of 1,500 And Counting (www.1500andcountingfilm.com). You can follow her on Twitter (@Sianaarrgh) and find out more about the project at www.sianabangura.com.
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