Injustice: Families struggle to hold cops to account for deaths in custody

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There’s something very familiar about the images in the documentary Injustice. We see grieving families and angry protesters demanding justice and a wall of racist indifference from authorities. The stories could be from Palm Island, Redfern or Perth. But they are actually from England, where more than a thousand people died in police custody between 1969 and 1999. Not one officer has been convicted as a result.

Filmmakers Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood ask the question: “why is an accused killer in a police uniform not judged by the same standards as the rest of society?” This is a question that the Police Federation did not want asked. The film was seven years in the making and when it was released in 2001, the filmmakers had to conduct guerrilla screenings because of threats of legal action by the police.

Minutes before the film launch in London, the cinema received a fax from lawyers for the Police Federation. It read: “you should be aware that should your screening go ahead, our clients will have no hesitation in pursuing their rights against your company for the very substantial damages that will then be their only means of compensation and vindication.” The cinema cancelled the screening. Days later, when another venue received a similar fax, the audience barricaded themselves in until the documentary was shown.

Australian audiences will not have to go to such lengths. Fero and Mehmood have given exclusive rights to the Indigenous Social Justice Association to show the film in Australia so that it can raise funds for the ongoing campaign to end Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The power of Injustice comes from the voices of the loved ones — whose lives will never be the same as a result of the deaths in custody. We meet the families and friends of Joy Gardner, Shiji Lapite, Brian Douglas and Ibrahima Sey, who each met a violent death at the hands of the police. We share their grief, we hear their questions and we feel their growing determination to get the answers they need.

Injustice focuses on the survivors. It is the story of powerful women. Joy Gardner was a 40-year-old mother of two who was suffocated by the police in 1993. She died in her own front room after police and immigration officials attempted to remove her for deportation and bound and gagged her with a 13-foot tape. Her mother, Myrna Simpson, is a tenacious campaigner who holds up the tape that was used to suffocate her daughter. “My tears will catch them,” she says. With the same determination as Letty Scott, whose husband Douglas was killed more than 20 years ago in Darwin’s Berrimah prison, Myrna declares, “We have got to fight against them. I’m not giving up the fight.”

Brian Douglas was driving with a friend when the police pulled him over and ordered him out of the car. In what appears to be an unprovoked attack, Brian was hit on the head with a new U.S.-style baton. He was hospitalised and died five days later, just minutes before his mother arrived from Jamaica. Brian’s mother joins the protests and marches through the streets chanting: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The whole family is determined to get answers. Brenda Weinberg, Brian’s sister, argues that there is a complete lack of justice. She wants the police to be held to account so that families in the future do not have to go through what her family has suffered. In a powerful moment she says, “I have not stopped since the beginning and I’m not stopping now. We’ve had tremendous support because people are angry and they have no more faith in the system.” Brenda declares that five, ten or fifteen years may elapse and she will not go away. She reflects how initially she encouraged supporters to stay calm but wonders if she was right to do so. She is determined more than ever to get justice: “it can be legal justice or street justice, I really don’t care any more.”

The film opens with an angry demonstration after the death of Shiji Lapte. It was December 16, 1994 when Shiji was stopped by two police officers for “acting suspiciously.” Half an hour later he was dead. The cause of death was asphyxiation. His wife, Olamide Jones, is another strong woman who takes to the streets to demands answers. Fero and Mehmood also use the example of Shiji’s death to show how the victims end up demonised by a mainstream media which reshapes their descriptions. Initially Shiji was described as an asylum seeker and father of two. But he was soon described as a drug dealer after undercover police claimed to have found crack cocaine at the scene. One police officer told the inquest that Shiji was “the biggest, strongest, most violent black man” he’d ever seen. Shiji was just five-foot-ten.

Amy Sey tells how she called the police after her husband, Ibrahima, was behaving oddly. He was taken into custody and went with the police peacefully. But later that night, Amy was told there’s been “a bit of a scuffle” and capsicum spray had been used on her husband who had died. Like Olamide, Brenda and Myrna, Amy demands answers.

In some respects this is a bleak and harrowing documentary which is not easy to watch. It feels somewhat repetitive. But this is because the harsh reality is repetitive. The deaths in custody keep happening and no one is held accountable! But Injustice does have its hopeful high points. It is remarkable to see how people change over time. Each family starts out demanding answers to what happened to their loved one and believing in the concept of justice. But we gradually see them making connections and coming to the conclusion that the problems are systemic. The families come together to form the United Friends and Families organisation to work for the common goal of stopping deaths in custody. Injustice documents this group staging successful protests and gaining entry into a police press conference from which they’d been excluded.

The united families group is campaigning for a public inquiry into the deaths. This is certainly a good place to start. However, the Australian experience, where we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, demonstrates that inquiries are not enough to stop the deaths. The Indigenous Social Justice Association-Melbourne Supporters Group advocates the establishment of elected civilian review boards with the powers to investigate, discipline, sack and charge police.

Ken Fero says he is not interested in making objective documentaries. He knew whose side he was on right from the start. He refused to edit the documentary in response to legal demands, arguing that this would be a betrayal of the families. As a result, the film has real integrity. This is not a documentary about statistics, but about individuals who have drawn the conclusion that when injustice becomes widespread, resistance becomes duty.

If you would like to host a fundraising screening of Injustice, contact Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association on 02-9318-0947 or email isja01@bigpond.net.au

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