Caravan for Justice

Wail Qasim

Since 1990, 1518 people have died in police custody in England and Wales. Not a single law enforcement officer has been convicted for involvement in their deaths. Last month, campaigners from England – including Shaun Hall, Kadisha Brown-Burrell, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett and Marcia Rigg, whose brothers all died in police custody – travelled to California to take part in the Caravan for Justice, a tour through eight counties where communities have been affected by law enforcement abuses.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a police officer shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back as he was being restrained face down on the platform of Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. Witnesses uploaded videos of the killing to YouTube. Following widespread protest, the officer who shot Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

The square outside Oakland City Hall is now unofficially known as Oscar Grant Plaza. Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, spoke to the Caravan for Justice rally there about his family’s campaign for justice. Johnson also spoke in support of the wider call for ‘truth and reinvestment’ being made by Patrisse Cullors and other Black Lives Matter activists. They are asking for recognition of the recent and distant history of racist violence by the state, as well as divestment from the punitive institutions that lead to black deaths: the police and prisons. Instead, they say, the funding should be diverted into the long underfunded health, social and educational resources that communities of colour need.

At a teach-in hosted by the Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, we heard that school district officers in Stockton and San Bernardino had arrested over 90,000 young people since 1991. More than 1800 of those arrested were under ten. The recent video of a student assaulted at Spring Valley High in South Carolina has raised awareness of the problem of policing in schools that has been on going for decades. It isn’t surprising that activists talk of a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.

It also makes it easier to understand how young black people like Terrance Stewart, who spoke at a Caravan for Justice rally in Riverside County, can tell stories of not just one friend killed after contact with the police, but three. He knew Jermaine Lamonte Love, Dra’Ane Desmond Jenkins and Betty Cass as friends growing up; all three died as a result of interactions with law enforcement.

The injustice in the United States is alarming, but the Americans we met were quick to point out their shock at the stories of deaths in custody in the UK. Ahead of joining the United Families and Friends annual memorial procession from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street at the end of last month, Johnson said:

Love Not Blood Campaign is coming to London to bridge the gap and unite the fight against police terrorism from Oakland to Florida to New York to Cleveland to Texas; from every State in the USA fighting against police terrorism to London and every borough of London fighting against police terrorism, because Black Lives Matter everywhere and police accountability is a human right.

Now activists on the ground are further terrorised by racist anti-black violence as five protesters were shot in Minneapolis on Monday night. Yet just as people were only emboldened when threats were made against the movement before, the need of a fight for black lives is clearer than ever.