Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Criminal Justice,Police,Racism/Fascism
On Saturday, a little bleary eyed from a party the night before, I went and marched with the Campaign for Justice for Smiley Culture.
Smiley Culture (born David Emmanuel) was a star before I was born. Half Guyanese, half Caribbean, Smiley became an early success story from the Afro-Caribbean music scene of South London. Pick up a CD compilation of British reggae and you’ll find his name on there. His music career didn’t bring riches though, and he became a businessman – apparently inspired by the wheeler dealers of the East End. However, just after his 48th birthday, Smiley was killed. During a police raid at his house in Surrey, he suffered a stab wound to the chest, and died.
The police claim that the knife wound was self-inflicted. However, as the Pan-Afrikan Society Community Forum puts it: “Either you believe Smiley stabbed himself or that he was stabbed by one of the police officers present. Based on the testimonies of those that knew Smiley best coupled with the fact that he had everything to live for, [we] take the position that he was murdered by the police.” As do many others.
I went on the demo because I was inspired by a post at Top Soil on why those arrested at Fortnum and Mason on March 26th (which include a number of my friends) should show solidarity with the Campaign, and also because I was involved with the G20 protests in 2009, and remember well the circumstances of Ian Tomlinson’s death.
Many of the marchers on Saturday were also there to protest against other deaths in police custody or at the hands of the police directly: Kingsley Burrell Brown, Julian Webster, Sean Rigg, Jean Charles de Menezes, Brian Douglas, Shiji Lapite, Derrek Bennet, Azelle Rodney, Terry Nicholas and many others.
The crowd was predominantly Afro-Caribbean, and when speakers referred to ‘the community’, my feeling was that it was that community which was meant. I don’t have a problem with this. I think it’s fine to feel like an outsider at someone else’s demo; if I’m marching in solidarity, it’s still powerful if I say ‘your community has this problem, and I want it to stop too, because in some small way, I understand.’ My experience of the police as a political activist has meant that I have known small sporadic moments of the state’s violent intrusion: still, nothing like the systematic violent hammering which many parts of London’s black community sustains, along with many other racial communities in London.
This isn’t the same as a knee-jerk response for ‘unity’. While it was an event that was open to all, certain communities were more represented than others: it was, as I said, a mainly Afro-Caribbean demo, and not one which visibly brought in the Somalian, Ghanaian, Nigerian communities, etc. Similarly, the Africanism did not overtly extend to those most revolutionary parts of North Africa at the moment: Libya, Egypt and Tunisia still remain firmly in ‘the middle east’ it seems. This is not a critique of diversity, but a move away from the bland catch-all term of unity, and instead a recognition that certain communities are at this moment engaged in certain struggles.
The demonstration was very different from any I have been on. The mood was at times celebratory, of the show of strength and determination – around 2,500 people gathered on Wandsworth Road and marched to New Scotland Yard – and also anger and passion. The pace was quick, and the placards weren’t resting on people’s shoulders but held out in front, and high. One I kept spotting said ‘CPS: Shame on you’ and another ‘Underpoliced as victims; overpoliced as citizens.’
As well as Socialist Worker placards, a banner from the Lambeth anti-cuts group and a small swarm of obligatory paper sellers from a range of far Left groups (all of whom had been building for this demo admirabley), there were also people selling the Whirlwind newspaper, the official publication of the Alkebulan Revivalist movement, and leaflets going round for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal. The stewards wore a mixture of plain fluorescent vests, as well as a fair few with PCS, RMT and TUC logos. There were also the unwelcome bright green tabards of Liberty volunteers, there (by their own account) to both watch the police, and to make notes of any demonstrators who veered off the permitted route.
The stewards were quite shouty – several times they stopped the crowd to ensure that everyone (including journalists) was behind the bereaved family members. But this wasn’t unwelcome. There was a sense that the crowd wanted to be firm and close, to be a force that could be reckoned with. When we passed underneath a steel bridge just before Vauxhall, the noise was deafening, as people shouted, hollered, whistled and yelped, all the noises echoing back down to the ground. Through all the noise you could, of course, still here the extraordinary thumping amps booming back at you, and beneath it all a strung out, eerie remix of ‘Give Peace A Chance.’
Music, aptly, formed the atmosphere. In 1984 Smiley brought out two records which both stormed the charts. The first of these was Cockney Translation, in which Smiley recounts the story of both cockney rhyming slang and Jamaican patois, all through his thick Caribbean accent. As we turned round Westminster Abbey, I could here it being played on a tiny amp, its bass being absorbed into the crowd along with the noise of honking cars. Alternating between the two slangs, and explaining what they mean only by reference to eachother, the song is a very conscious statement of London multiculturalism as a fact of life, and also a celebration of its working class texture.
As we moved towards Victoria, I progressively bumped into more friends from various political groups and movements, most of them young and white, there to show solidarity. We were also often the youngest adults in the crowd, as well as marked aside by our colour. At New Scotland Yard, the crowd funnelled into the narrow street, and I was privileged to hear some extraordinary speeches. Merlin Emmanuel, Smiley’s nephew, truly rallied and encouraged the crowd. He listed the five demands the family have made of the Metropolitan Police, including the immediate suspension of any officer who has someone die while in their custody, and the recognition of the partiality of the ‘Independent’ Police Complaints Commission.
Beyond these demands (for which a mass petition is being organised), there was a real feeling that more had to be done. Merlin shouted that we ‘will march everyday’ if that’s what it takes to stop the police from killing. Kingsley Burrell Brown’s sister, in an incredibly emotional and fiercely angry speech shouted near the end ‘Brixton police station, I’m coming for you’. And you could tell she meant it, with us or on her own. When Merlin mentioned the Brixton riots of ten years back, he immediately compared those fires to a more important fire that burns now, ‘a spiritual fire’. At this parts of the crowd shouted and cheered in a way which reminded me of the centrality and important of Christianity in the lives of so many people there.
But, in the end, I think it isn’t the church or the petition which will be the face and future of this campaign. I wonder whether the public face of this struggle will actually come out through the music. There is also a concert being organised, announced at the rally – an announcement followed by the DJ putting on Smiley Culture’s second big hit of 1984 – Police Officer. The story of Smiley getting stopped by the police and them taking his weed – and partly letting him off for being such a great reggae musician – is as upbeat as it gets, even while masking the continuing narrative or racial harassment by the police, then and now.
It was clear that this wasn’t just a march for a murdered reggae star. It was a demonstration of strength against the continued killings by the police against our population. I sincerely hope that there will be further demonstrations, and I urge others to help build for them when they can. While the left focuses so much of its energies on resisting the cuts, it’s vital to remember that for many people there is little difference between the attitude of the state now and two years ago – or twenty years ago, or fifty years ago.
(ammended Tuesday 19th April).