Looking back through my notebooks and cuttings, I am struck forcibly not simply by the thread of deaths, protests and riots running through that period, but also by the response of police, politicians and media. Almost without fail public debate focused on the violence of the demonstrators and the possibility of outside agitators inflaming passions. The issue at the heart of the protests - the death of a black person in police custody - was sidelined.
The spark for Wednesday's violence was the death in Brixton police station of Wayne Douglas, half an hour after being detained on burglary charges. Witnesses to his arrest allege that he was beaten by the police. But there was more to the anger that erupted on Wednesday than the death of Wayne Douglas. There is within black communities a deep sense of grievance, of accumulated wrongs done by the police. "There have been too many killings," one woman said to me on Wednesday. "Too many killings for us to ignore."
The latest report from the Police Complaints Authority reveals that in the past four years a total of 79 people have died in police custody, 14 of whom were black. Two things make this an increasingly sensitive issue in the black community: first, that this seems a disproportionate number of black victims; second, that the deaths, and the public's neglect of them, seem expressive of wider attitudes towards black people.
In 1991 the Institute of Race Relations submitted a paper on black deaths in custody to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. Between 1969 and 1990 the institute logged 74 black people who had died in police care or custody, or in prison. The institute's latest unpublished figures show that in the four years since, another 43 black people have died. Fourteen of these were in police care; the rest in prison or secure hospitals. "What the figures show is that the rate of black deaths in custody is accelerating," says Jenny Bourne, author of the report.
We should not read these figures as numbers of black people killed by the police. Some were suicides, some resulted from neglect of prisoners' medical needs. Nevertheless, they represent an unacceptable toll. Since 1991, 18 per cent of all deaths in police custody and care have been of black people, suggesting that, relative to the population at large, you are four times as likely to die in custody if you are black than if you are white. It is true that black people are more likely to be arrested than white people though there are no exact figures. But, given that the proportion of blacks in the prison population is 15 per cent, this is unlikely to account wholly for the discrepancy. As Helen Shaw from the pressure group Inquest suggests, black people in police care are more likely to die violently: "In virtually every case in which we consider death to have occurred from the use of undue force, the victims are black or ethnic minority. Of the 14 black deaths in custody since 1991, half have been due to the use of undue force."
For most black people, however, what cuts most deeply is not so much such statistics as the sense that they have been abandoned by the criminal justice system. It is difficult to convey the depth of fear and dread black people feel about the policing of their communities. Conflict with, and hostility to, the police is a general feature today of most inner- city areas, whether black or white. Yet the relationship between the police and black youth continues to be particularly fraught. Figures from the Metropolitan Police, for instance, show that black people are five times as likely to be stopped and searched as whites. In areas such as Brixton and Tottenham the figures are far higher. Such discrimination feeds into the whole of the criminal justice system. A 1989 report by the Prison Reform Trust summed up the situation:
"Black people are more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped by the police. If stopped they are more likely to be arrested. If arrested they are more likely to be charged. If charged, more likely to be remanded in custody, and if convicted, more likely to receive a sentence of imprisonment."
It could have added that, if arrested, black people are more likely to die.
What has added to black resentment is the feeling that they can achieve no redress. "The Police Complaints Authority investigation into an incident is never made public," points out Helen Shaw. "Coroners can decide what evidence and which witnesses they want to call at inquests. The families of victims cannot call witnesses. All this can only add to families' perception of a cover-up even if this is not the case."
So far, inquests have been held into the deaths of only five of the 14 killed in police custody. In two of these, juries returned verdicts of "unlawful killing". Even in these the families concerned do not feel justice has been done. Oliver Pryce was arrested by police officers in Middlesbrough in July 1990. He collapsed in the police van and was taken to hospital, where he died. An independent medical examination found that he had been asphyxiated. An inquest the following year returned a verdict of unlawful killing. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that the officers involved in the arrest should not face prosecution and the Police Complaints Authority announced that none would be disciplined. Finally the Pryce family brought a civil writ against Cleveland police alleging negligence, assault and battery, eventually winning considerable damages.
The family of Leon Patterson, who died in police custody in November 1992, is still waiting for a verdict on his death. Patterson, a young black man from London, was arrested in Stockport, near Manchester. He was held at Stockport police station for six days and transferred to Denton station where he died a few hours later, naked in his cell. His body was covered in bruises. According to other prisoners he had been vomiting and shouting incoherently and, though he was unconscious for long spells, he had been refused hospital treatment. The police claimed he died from self-inflicted injuries. An inquest found that he had been unlawfully killed but the police appealed and in May 1994 the High Court overturned the verdict. More than three years after Patterson's death, a date for a new inquest has still to be set.
Such cases foster a growing belief that the authorities simply do not care about the death of another black man. Yet this increasing unease between the police and black people takes place against a background of major changes in police practice and procedure. Over the past decade the police have striven to be more sensitive to the issue of racism, and to demonstrate their sensitivity. The Metropolitan Police, for instance, has set up local consultative committees, organised race-awareness courses for its staff, and tried to recruit black officers. The appointment of Paul Condon as commissioner seemed to symbolise the new-style police force.
Yet deaths in custody have continued. In the eyes of many police officers, it seems, all young black men are potential criminals, drug dealers or Yardies, and are treated as such. As the gap between expectations of change and the experience of discrimination has widened, so there has been greater frustration among young blacks, a frustration that vented itself explosively on Wednesday night.
Wednesday's protest was neither organised, nor hijacked by extremists. Most of those present were ordinary young people, largely black, many of them women. Every one had a tale to tell about police harassment or intimidation.
We do not hear their stories. We hear of violence in the streets of Brixton again. The pattern of the last 12 years reaffirms itself. The police and media, bereft of explanations, blame the riot on individuals, such as the lawyer Rudy Narayan, or on outside agitators. Again the issue at the heart of the protest - the death of a black man in custody - is ignored, and the cycle of frustration and anger followed by violence continues.Reuse content