“That’s what they do to us”: Benjamin Zephaniah about his experiences of police racism

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Illustration: Damon Dahlen / HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Benjamin Zephaniah, British dub writer and poet, UK, 2017. (Photo by Richard Ecclestone / Redferns)

The number of different stories than the poet is striking Benjamin Zephaniah can find out about police arrest.

Related to his skillful narrative voice that has earned him a remarkable literary career, the famous writer reviews a series of incidents ranging from the strange to the brutally cruel.

Talk to HuffPost UK as a condemnation of Derek Chauvin murder of George Floyd In the United States, the focus was renewed on the death of her first cousin, Mikey Powell, murdered in similar circumstances 18 years ago.

Yesterday, in a special report, we spoke to the families of four British men who died in police custody between 1998 and 2010.

Zephaniah, 63, and his brother Tippa Naphtali, 59, have been campaigning for the issue for decades and Tippa created a memorial fund on behalf of Mikey to help other families in 2015.

Tragically, says the dub poet, he was not surprised when a death occurred to his family, due to his own encounters with the police when he was young.

“I just knew how to control our communities and I knew you could die, basically, because I knew other families with whom it happened,” he says.

Provided by the family of Mikey Powell

Benjamin’s cousin Mikey Powell died after being arrested by West Midlands police during a mental health crisis on September 7, 2003

He recalls being beaten at the door of a shop by police when he was only 15 or 16 in Selly Oak, which he describes as “a kind of Birmingham a bit elegant”.

“I remember this police car stopped next to me, it was marked, it was uniformed, it came out, it put me in the door of a store and it hit me, it jumped in the car and it came out,” he says . .

“I did not understand what my rights were. I didn’t understand the citizen advice offices or anything like that, I just thought, “Well, that’s what the police are doing to us.” ”

On another occasion, in Stoke Newington, north London, in the 1980s, Zephaniah witnessed the abduction of a woman and dragged her to a car at a knife point.

He entered the nearby police station to report the crime, but says police accused him of being the perpetrator of a robbery.

“So they said,‘ Come on your back, and as soon as I walked on your back, they dragged me and said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ ”he says.

Zephaniah said he wanted to talk to his lawyer, indicating the name and number of the recognized human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield, who is a friend.

“And they just looked at me,‘ Michael Mansfield, is this Michael Mansfield? “- and I said,” Yes. “

“And you wouldn’t think a Rasta walking down Stoke Newington High Street knows Michael Mansfield, would you?” says Zephaniah. “So when they saw this, I was free in about ten minutes. If it weren’t for that, I would probably be the one to frame it. “

Eamonn M. McCormack through Getty Images

Zephaniah attends Birmingham premiere of TV show Peaky Blinders, in which she plays the character of Jeremiah Jesus, in 2017

Two more recent experiences of being stopped by police in rural Lincolnshire, where he now lives, are described by Zephaniah as “a little sad but slightly funny”.

In an incident that compares to what is sadly known as “driving while black,” the poet says he was dragged while running.

“I stopped jogging once and I think it was fun,” he says. “It was raining and the cop said,‘ Where are you from? “And I said, ‘Well, home.’

He said, “Where are you going?” And I went, “Well, at home, I’m jogging in circles.”

“He said, ‘Can I look for you? Do you have a key? And I actually said,’ You just joined the force? You have to prove something, you know? I just laughed and laughed at him. ”.

On another occasion, he was arrested in a local park while as a child the white boy of friends. There was a confrontation with police officers asking if the girl was her daughter.

“I have white friends who adopted a black child and I said,‘ Have you ever stopped having a black child? and he said, “No, absolutely not,” he says.

“It’s weird that he stops to have a white kid.”

Ken Fero-https://ultraviolencefilm.com/

Zephaniah (right) with his brothers Dave Springer (left) and Tippa Naphtali (center) campaigning for the death of his cousin Mikey Powell

But Zephaniah says he must be careful in what he says, or in heeding these stops, because of the treatment and racial profile of younger blacks.

“I think I always have to be careful about that because you see these situations stop,” he says.

For example, he says, “guys who come out of a pub or club or something and have no bus fare, so they have to walk home, and there are three or four of them and they’re already going walking home. ”

But the way the police see it, he adds, “especially when it comes to young blacks, if you’re over three, it’s a gang.

“It simply came to our notice then. It’s not like a group of friends like you would with a white group. It’s a gang. Therefore, their experience, that of young people, is very different from mine ”.

Zephaniah also believes that racism played an important role in the death of his cousin.

Mikey Powell died after being arrested by West Midlands police during a mental health crisis on September 7, 2003.

“It simply came to our notice then [my autobiography] where I am at the Thornhill Road police station, which is where Mikey died, actually, ”he says.

“And I’m in there and the police have beaten me up a bit and then they take me to a room and to the wall of the room (it’s almost like there’s a scalp), there are dreadlocks fixed to the wall of the room. room or hats.

“And the police officer tells me this hat was from Errol, this hat was from Leroy, this hat was from Winston, this trace I took from this guy’s head.

“It was like a wall of scalp, almost trophies, and the police boasted that they had removed the locks of these people and that if I did not confess something mine would be there too.

“You’ve seen the TV show Life on Mars? That was it. “

In another incident, Zephaniah says police officers stamped their toes in a hallway of the Digbeth Police Station after a beating. “I mean, they had fun with us, you know. They knew we had nowhere to go, ”he says.

David Corio via Getty Images

Zephaniah has campaigned continuously, written and talked about structural racism in society during his long career

Zephaniah says his family tried to sue his cousin Mikey through official legal channels.

But he alleges that police told him that if he spoke, he could end up harming any legal case and made it clear that if he did he would “fall” on him.

“So it was very weird, because in other cases of detained deaths he was very active, but with Mikey he had to be very careful,” he says. “They were waiting a bit to give the place a say. So for that reason, I stepped back. “

But throughout his long career, he has campaigned continuously, written, and spoken candidly about institutional racism in the police and broader structural racism in society.

“My poem by Stephen Lawrence, there’s a line where I say,‘ Why do we pay a police force that won’t work for us? “I mean, sometimes I think that if I could take out the part of my taxes that the police pay, because they don’t work for me.”

But protests by the UK Black Lives Matter following the assassination of George Floyd by whites police officer Derek Chauvin in the US yes it gave him hope.

“I’ve seen these floods before and they disappear,” he says. “I really think the difference this time is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not just populated by blacks. I think it’s one of the biggest things right now.

Danny Lawson / PA

Thousands of people gathered in Manchester to join a Black Lives Matter protest

“I think there’s something about George Floyd’s video. You couldn’t see it if you’re a mom, dad or mom or a student and you say, “Well, it’s not that bad.”

“And some of the young people I’ve seen just come in and say,‘ Not in my name. ’I’ve seen some of the banners people carry, they’re pretty funny, but very revealing.

“There’s a banner that says‘ Black lives matter ’and then it says something like,‘ Come on dad, don’t you understand? “

“It’s young people who have racist parents who say, ‘Come on, wake up.’ And that’s what you need.”

He wants to see a “change in cultural mindset.”

“I have a little bit of confidence in the grassroots, the students I work with, the grassroots organizations,” he says.

“What depresses me a little is the government and they are a little hardened. Just thinking about statues and things like that, you already have people like this [Boris] Johnson said, “No, absolutely not, we’re not going to look at history books, we’re not going to do anything.”

“Well, they really need to look at it. You know, because some of them tell lies, others tell half-truths and others just don’t tell you the other half of the story. “

On the subject of police reform, he says, “Let’s say the number of black officers is completely representative of the number of blacks in the country, that wouldn’t impress me because I want to know that the police culture has changed. So it’s not just one thing. “

While no longer feeling an active threat from police, Zephaniah says he remains aware that he may be at greater risk, like his cousin Mikey Powell, because of his race.

“Well, when I walk or drive down the street, every time I pass in front of a police officer there’s a little thing that turns me off,” he says. “I do not see them as a threat to me personally. But I know it’s not impossible that they can hurt me. “

FINAL KICKER: For more information on how you can support the Mikey Powell National Memorial Family Fund, visit official website or make a donation here. Readers can also give Justice to Christopher Alder’s family crowdfunding campaign. Visit the United Families & Friends campaign which supports those affected by detained deaths

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