“We must unite globally against police brutality” Marcia Rigg on building an international coalition

UK & US Families deliver a letter to Downing St on the 17th annual march against deaths in custody. Copyright 2015 Mark Kerrison
Families deliver a letter to Downing St on the 17th annual march against deaths in custody. Image: Copyright 2015 Mark Kerrison

The whole world was watching as uprisings took place in Ferguson and across the US over the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvonn Martin, Eric Garner, and many more. In the UK, the Black Lives Matter protests and die-ins were echoed, chanting the slogan “hands up don’t shoot” in solidarity. The United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) together with Defend the Right to Protest and the NUS Black Students’ Campaign brought Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter campaign, to London in February 2015 to tour across the UK. Following on from this, we were invited at the beginning of October to California for a #CaravanForJustice tour organised by the Ella Baker Centre and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that would allow us to tell and share our stories across Southern California.

The trip was a vision that I had about 2 years ago as the chair of the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC), a coalition of UK families whose loved ones have died at the hands of the police and other government state officials, including the NHS, prison service and immigration units. I travelled with three other families: Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, the twin sister of Leon Patterson who was murdered by the police in 1992, Shaun Hall the brother of Mark Duggan who was shot by the police in broad daylight and whose death sparked uprisings in Britain in August 2011, and Kadisha Burrell-Brown whose brother Kingsley Burrell was killed by the police in a psychiatric unit. Together, we made the long journey across the Atlantic in a bid to start a global conversation on deaths in custody and state violence, as well as to bridge our struggles.

From the beginning, the most surprising aspect of our trip was the lack of awareness amongst communities and activists in the US in relation to the UK context. Throughout our tour of California, we wore t-shirts highlighting the 1518 people who have been killed in police custody since 1990, with not one single conviction of officers involved. This statistic alone shocked everyone from passersby on the street to people we spoke to at rallies and community meetings. Importantly, it contextualized the issue as an international one.

Beyond the horrifying figures, I witnessed the identical traumas and pain shared by US families who have also had their loved ones killed. Meeting at our first stop in Oakland the uncle of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old Black man shot dead by a police officer at Fruitvale BART Station on New Years Day 2009, was truly powerful. Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson inspired us with his family’s victory in having the state bring a successful prosecution against the officer that shot Oscar that night – a first in California’s history.

The introduction of the new mobile app in California was also inspiring. An app that any witness can use to record if they see something wrong when the police interact with the public it serves, and the footage can be safely secured by just pressing a button that automatically forwards the footage to the ACLU to eliminate erasure by an officer. The app also lists your legal rights as a citizen. I am pleased that the app is also now available here in the UK called the Y Stop app.   Everybody should download this app to their mobile.

My brother, Sean Rigg lived a relatively normal life, he was a talented musician who had everything to live for. He also suffered from mental health issues.  On 21st August 2008 he was extremely unwell and psychotic and was over-due his medication for two months. Erratic emergency 999 calls were made over a period of 3 hours by mental health staff at the hostel where he was living, so that he may be taken to a place of safety – a hospital. The police refused to come and eventually Sean went onto the street where members of the public could see that he was behaving bizarrely. Four police officers shortly after arrested him for theft of his own passport, public order offence and alleged assault on a police officer. Four years later, an inquest jury found that Sean was restrained in the prone position for a period of approximately 8 minutes, handcuffed in the rear stack position and transported in a deleterious position to the police station at speed. On arrival at Brixton police station he was kept in the police van for 11 minutes before being removed in a collapsed state and heavily assisted by police officers. Within seconds he is on the floor where it is captured on CCTV that he was clearly unwell. Surrounded by 5-6 officers in what was called the “caged” holding cell, Sean died at the officers’ feet within 45 minutes of him being arrested. Officers claimed he was being violent , wanted to sleep and that he was ‘faking’ fitting and unconsciousness.

The inquest jury gave a damming narrative verdict, which found that the police officers’ actions or inactions contributed to his death, together with his mental health team as they could have prevented him becoming so psychotic at least a week prior to 21 August. Police officers were found to be lying on oath. Seven years later and after numerous reviews, legal challenges by the family and further investigations, the case is currently a criminal investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the arrest, restraint and detention of Sean. A Sergeant has been charged with a single count of perjury and his trial is expected in late 2016. The question is, why should families have to fight so hard to achieve justice and accountability?

Over half the deaths in police custody in the UK are Black men with mental health issues. During the trip to the US, I heard countless stories about mental health and policing which appear almost identical to those in the UK. It was chilling to hear the similarities – smear campaigns against the families and their loved one; officers falsely claiming that our loved ones had a gun or had super human strength to justify their actions; officers being allowed to collude their statements of facts; mental health patients and the homeless targeted as criminals; the lack of disclosure of evidence and treatment to families; the repetition of the lack of duty of care, the lack of accountability and justice…and the list goes on. I do not believe this a coincidence.

It was an emotional roller coaster listening to real life stories from people in Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Salinas, Riverside, Orange County and Los Angeles. One of the families was a young man in Sacramento, who had been shot by the police multiple times. Amazingly, he lived. A bullet was still lodged in his back and I could feel it. His leg was in a brace and he had scars on his chest and arms where he had been shot. It was painful for all of us to see his mother in such turmoil who described her son drowning internally from his own blood and that each bullet was like being on fire. The trip was truly one of the most empowering experiences. There was such warmth and inspiration from all those we met. Their fight for justice is an on-going struggle, just like in the UK. Families have no choice but to continue their fight for justice for their loved one. Black lives on both sides of the Atlantic appear to mean nothing and there is a remarkable dis-proportionality of deaths. Obviously, all lives matter for we are all human no matter your colour or race. However, for Black people, the apparent war on black and brown men is nothing more than modern day lynching. It is imperative for all future generations to keep campaigning for justice and to challenge any violations of human rights wherever they manifest.

We must continue challenging against police brutality on a global level, as well as locally. Families and supporters from across the UK unite and meet annually in remembrance of their loved ones at Trafalgar Square and march to Downing Street to hand in a letter of demands. This year marked the UFFC’s 17th Remembrance Procession. Cephus Johnson, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Bobby” and his wife Beatrice, travelled to the UK and attended the UFFC remembrance procession on 31st October in solidarity with the families. Their presence was historic for UFFC. It is important for families globally to unite in solidarity, share their experiences and have conversations on how to bring awareness to the world of the injustices families receive. Collectively, we have strength and hope in trying to bring real effective change for our future generations. Until there is justice, how can there be peace?

Marcia Rigg – Sean Rigg Justice and Change Campaign and Co-Chair UFFC

#BlackLivesMatter and Deaths in Custody – Sharing strategies internationally at Defend the Right to Protest National Conference Policing the Crisis, on Sunday 15 November at SOAS, central London

Marcia Rigg, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, Kadisha Burrell Brown, Wail Qasim, Janaya Khan #BlackLivesMatter Toronto, who all took part in the #CaravanForJustice, will be discussing experiences and lessons for campaigning against UK deaths in custody. They will be joined by Natasha Dhumma from YStop.

More details about the event here: j.mp/policingthecrisis2015


We Demand Justice – A week of action

We Demand Justice strap

This week, there are events every day around the country that highlight death in police custody, from meetings at Westminster, community events, conferences in universities, film screenings and a publication launch. The week culminates in the peaceful annual remembrance procession march on 31 October fronted by the United Families and Friends Campaign from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street, where a petition will be handed in to demand justice for those who have died in state custody in suspicious and controversial circumstances.

It is the final week of Black History Month – a month of celebration. This is not the history we want to ‘celebrate.’


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Fruitvale Station Film Screening Q and A with Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson – Oscar Grant’s Uncle


Fruitvale Station is based on the events leading to the murder of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed on New Years day 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station in Oakland, California.

Thousands took to the streets in protest at Oscar’s murder – occupying the turnstiles of Fruitvale station – and a determined campaign led to the first prosecution of an officer in California’s history. During a recent UK-US justice tour across California, families in the UK met Oscar’s Uncle – Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson – who dedicated himself to fighting for justice for Oscar and is now building a network of families demanding an end to deaths and police brutality across the US.

Uncle Bobby said of his visit to London “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 USA fighting against police terrorism to London and every boroughs of London fighting against police terrorism, because Black Lives Matter everywhere and that police accountability is a Human Right. We demand justice and police accountability everywhere. Our vision is a world where no one has the right to take the life of another and be protected/ insulated from the consequences of doing so by a system of structural racism, obfuscation and propaganda.” Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson – Oscar Grant’s Uncle

Uncle Bobby will also be joining the United Families and Friends memorial procession on Sat 31st Oct, assemble 12 noon Trafalgar Square

Screening event details

Taking the struggle forward


From Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza to the LA Convention Centre, through neighbourhoods all across California, the #CaravanForJustice and its UK Justice Team developed the links and relationships necessary for international solidarity around the issue of state violence. Each stop brought the experiences of family members who have had loved ones die at the hands of police in England together with communities that have long suffered state violence in the US.

Activists working across various organisations – including #BlackLivesMatter chapters, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union – are engaging in their communities in California to mobilise justice teams that will hold law enforcement to account. Patrisse Cullors and Taina Vargas-Edmond of the Ella Baker Center are heading up a ‘truth and reinvestment’ program that encourages a collective recognition of historic and contemporary racism whilst also divesting from those state resources, such as police and prisons, which perpetuate this racism and violence institutionally.

Families and campaigners from the UK have also long made demands of the state for truth and reinvestment, specifically around the issue of deaths in custody. The United Families and Friends Campaign calls for (amongst other things):

▪   Officers involved in custody deaths to be suspended until investigations are completed

▪  That officers should not be allowed to collude in writing their statements of fact

▪   Prosecutions to automatically follow ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts

▪   Police forces to be made accountable to the communities they serve

▪   Legal Aid and full disclosure of information to be automatically made available to the relatives of victims

▪   Officers responsible for deaths should face criminal charges, even if retired

With Theresa May’s announcement today of an independent review into deaths in custody chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, those still campaigning for justice want to highlight these demands which are yet to be implemented despite decades of recommendations.

Having returned, the delegation that took part in the #CaravanForJustice tour through California is now mobilising for the annual UFFC procession on October 31st – from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street. The procession each year acts as a memorial to those who have died in custody as well as a reminder of these deaths to those empowered by the state to bring an end to them.

The uncle of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old shot dead by police in Oakland on New Years Day 2009, Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson will be flying from Oakland to London in support of the march along with Beatrice Ann ‘Aunty B’ Johnson. The UK justice team (including Kadisha Brown-Burrell, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, Marcia Rigg and Shaun Hall) met Uncle Bobby and Aunty B at the first rally of the tour in Oakland.

Marcia Rigg, co-chair of UFFC and the eldest sister of Sean Rigg said of the meeting that it “was truly powerful. Uncle Bobby inspired us with his family’s victory in having the state bring a successful prosecution against the officer that shot Oscar that night – a first in California’s history.”

Uncle Bobby noted about the prospect of joining with UFFC ‘The 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 those fighting against police terrorism there. This is because Black Lives Matter everywhere and police accountability is a human right. Our vision is a world where no one has the right to take the life of another and be protected from the consequences of doing so by a system of structural racism, obfuscation and propaganda.”

The UFFC procession will be the first in a number of opportunities to bridge this gap between the fight for justice in the US, UK and hopefully beyond.

UFFC and supporters have also organised a screening (and Q&A session with Uncle Bobby) of the film Fruitvale Station, which dramatizes the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. An evening of celebration and performance, including Akala, will also follow the UFFC march on October 31st.

Riverside update


During our trip it has become clear at each stop that everyone in marginalised communities have stories of state violence to tell. Usually at least one personal or second hand story about police abuse, but often people can list off a whole host of instances where they or others in their community faced racialist violence by law enforcement.

In Riverside, Inland Empire – a community in California divided racially and economically, including both affluent and poor neighbourhoods – a young man named Terrance Stewart told the gathered rally of instances where friends of his were subject to horrendous violent and lethal abuse at the hands of the police. While he was growing up in LA officers killed three of his close friends. He spoke of Jermaine Lamonte Love, Dra’ane Desmond Jenkins and Betty Cass. The latter had been under the influence of a drug; he jumped out of a window, injuring himself severely. Not only did police refuse to assist him because they wouldn’t risk coming into contact with his blood, but they used a Taser on him, killing him.

Terrance also noted the death of his friend Ian McCloud, a white man who was also Tasered by police on his testicles. Ian was called a ‘n****r lover’ by the police that killed him.

These are not names of people whose deaths have become infamous. They were simply murdered in their communities by law enforcement who are waging a war on them. Their cases are spoken of almost as if they were everyday because in the US such police violence really is everyday. This means people fear for their lives. Terrance admitted that he feared for his life, and how could he not? The police are out to get people like himself, and they make that known very well. For example officers stopped him and asked if he was on probation or parole, racially profiling him. When he told them he wasn’t on either their response was ‘not yet. We’ll get you and you will be.’

Yet through all this he is still able to say ‘the power is in the people. The power of the people is more powerful than the people in power.’

The local #BlackLivesMatter chapter are using that power in setting up a local justice team with the Ella Baker Centre for Human Rights. Their first action will be to rapidly respond to the very recent killing of a black man, Isaac Kelly, a nurse who had just come off a shift, who was shot dead by an armed security guard in his own apartment complex on 3rd October.

This rally emphasised the level of the task ahead, but also the willingness of the community to carry out that task. The mood and calls to action echoed the words of Assata Shakur that we have used to end each of our rallies and teach-ins. In Riverside we were able to do this around the statue of Martin Luther King in the cities eponymous square.

‘It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to loose but our chains.’

Mobile Justice California

The #CaravanForJustice isn’t just about sharing stories, exposing truths and shifting hearts; it’s about movement, and movements require engagement, action and tools.

One tool is Mobile Justice CA, a smartphone application that helps people assert their constitutional right to film law enforcement activity and keep officers accountable.  

The app has three main functions: Record, Report and Witness.

  • Record. Users can film an encounter with law enforcement. Once the recording has ended, a copy is delivered to a secure database maintained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a copy is also saved to the user’s phone.
  • Report. The report is a direct channel to the ACLU’s legal team. Users are encouraged to fill the report survey with important details like the officer’s name and badge number, location and a full description of the incident.
  • Witness. If a user enables their GPS in the phone’s settings, other app users within a 3-mile radius will be notified when and where recording is in progress. 

The app also features the ACLU’s full library of Know Your Rights information including rights of students, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and more, as well as an Alerts tab that notifies app users of timely actions, petitions and events in the region. 

Developed by the ACLU of California, Mobile Justice CA has reached over 160,000 users since its launch last May. The app is available free in English and Spanish, on iOS and Android phones. 

By Marcus Benigno, @mfbenigno

Marcus Benigno is new media strategist at the ACLU of Southern California in Los Angeles. The ACLU of California is a sponsor of the #CaravanForJustice.

Stockton and Salinas update


The #CaravanForJustice has brought UK activists into contact with those working in their communities to heal from the effects of state violence and brutality. Today included a teach-in at the Fathers and Families empowerment centre in Stockton, San Joaquin County and rally at Salinas, Monterey County.

Fathers and Families San Joaquin addresses critical problems such as institutional inequity, fatherless homes, wide spread poverty, employment disparities, inadequate access to public health services, community re-entry and youth on youth violence. Our tour was invited into their centre to share experiences from the United Kingdom whilst learning about their struggle against the detrimental effects of the punitive state.

In Stockton, where the school officer arrest policy was implemented in 1991, and San Bernardino, which implemented the policy in 1997, school officers have arrested 34,368 and 59,290 students under age 18, respectively, on criminal charges through 2013. More than 1,800 of those arrested students were under age 10-1,590 in Stockton and 247 in San Bernardino. Stockton Police Department and Stockton Unified School District officers arrest children under age 10 at levels 15 times higher than in Bakersfield, 24 times higher than in Fresno, and 38 times higher than in Sacramento.

With this sort of attack on the youngest of their loved ones, communities hIMG_0263 2ave had to organise to rebuild from the wreckage that is left in the wake of state abuses. Remembrance of those who have been lost and cherishing those still with us has become a big part of the struggle for justice.

The family of Frank Alvarados Jr, murdered by Salinas police in 2014, shared his horrific case at the second event of the day. Frank had been to prison and on release campaigned for reinvestment in his community. He was shot dead by police who claim to have confused his cell phone for a weapon.

Angelica Garza, Frank’s sister described that ‘[her] brother had a cell phone in his hands, he was shot many many times with a hand gun and about 16 times with a high powered rifle’. Her brother is one of five people killed over the last year in their town: Angel Ruiz, Osmar Hernandez, Carlos Mejia, Jaime Garcia and Frank Alvarado Jr.

Far too often the school to prison pipeline ends in tragic deaths caused by a system that fights accountability at every turn. In Salinas their mayor is a former police officer, the current chief of police killed someone and got away with it and, in a town that is 75% Latino, the DA is a white man. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.