Eric Garner’s death is a tragedy – but it isn’t just American tragedy

In Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to be black.

In Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to be black

The man being choked by the police in the video is Eric Garner. His last words were “I can’t breathe!”. He died shortly after this video was filmed.

Astonishingly, a grand jury decided not to indict any of the police officers involved in Garner’s death. As a result, protests have erupted in New York and elsewhere demanding change as the brutal passing of yet another black man at the hands of the police looks like it will go unpunished.

There is a grim familiarity to events like this. For many of us Garner’s death once again provides an opportunity to shake our heads and tut at America’s failure to tackle one of the most glaring inequalities between white and black – the likelihood of being killed by the very people that are there to offer protection.

Some will of course describe the killing of Garner as ‘unfortunate’ or the result of a ‘few bad apples’, but the statistics tell a different story. According to FBI data, those killed by police in the US are disproportionately black.

(ht Vox).

Other forms of oppression also persist. While African-Americans make up 13.1 per cent of the US population, they constitute nearly 40 per cent of the prison population. Many are arrested for drug offences. Despite African-Americans using or selling drugs at the same rate as whites, they remain 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug offences than whites.

The mistake, however, is to interpret this as a uniquely American phenomenon. Indeed, the US may come in for the most criticism when it comes to deaths of non-white people in police custody, but in this country we have little reason to be smug: it’s a problem here too.

In Britain 827 people have died during or following police contact since 2004. According to Inquest, a charity that monitors deaths in police custody, a disproportionate number of those who have died in or shortly after being taken into police custody following the use of force were from black and minority ethnic communities (BAME).

Total BAME deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police, England & Wales 1990-date
Type Metropolitan Police Other Forces Total
Custody 76 61 137
Shooting 7 2 9
All custody and shooting deaths 83 64 147

Source: INQUEST casework and monitoring

And while it looks like no police offers will be held to account for Eric Garner’s tragic death, there hasn’t been a successful prosecution of a police officer implicated in the death of anyone in Britain since 1969, despite, since 1990, there being nine unlawful killing verdicts returned by juries at inquests into deaths involving the police and one unlawful killing verdict recorded by a public inquiry.

In other words, it’s easy to sneer at the violence and structural racism apparent in American society and write it off as some sort of American exceptionalism. America is after all vastly economically unequal, has a history of discriminating against minorities and has a tooled up police force.

All true of course, but we ought also to look closer to home before rushing to pass judgement: in Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to have the ‘wrong’ skin colour.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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