by Daniella Maison
BA (Hons) MA – Twitter@Daniella_Maison
In 1944, mother of three, Lena Baker began working for a man named Ernest Knight. Knight was an older white man who had broken his leg but owning a gristmill he needed a helper. It wasn’t long before the abuse began, and Knight sexually assaulted Lena multiple times, keeping her imprisoned for days at a time in “near slavery.” One night an argument between the two ensued, during which Knight made one of his many threats to Baker, this time to beat her with an iron bar. As she tried desperately to escape, they struggled over his pistol, and she shot and killed him. She immediately reported the incident and said she had acted in self-defense. The police arrested her.
A few months later when it went to court, the trial lasted just four hours. Four hours was all it took to find Lena guilty. Four hours for the all-white, all-male jury to reject Lena’s plea of self-defense and convict her of capital murder on the very first day of the trial, knowing that the charge carried an automatic death sentence.
No witnesses were called in her defense.
Lena was executed by electrocution on March 5, 1945, the only woman in Georgia to ever sit on the electric chair. Lena is buried in an unmarked grave behind Mount Vernon Baptist Church, where she had once sung in the choir.
In 2005, the Parole Board granted Baker a full and unconditional pardon.
They will tell you Lena’s story was many years ago, that since then society has made serious progress, the world is different, the world is ‘woke’. As we commemorate a year since the public execution of George Floyd, there has been some acknowledgment of the physical violence that the diaspora has faced for generations at the hands of the police and the justice system.
Yet long before this ensanguined episode, ‘excessive force’ and ‘police brutality’ were terms that sent shivers down the spine of the collective. 21 years ago, the diaspora squirmed at the footage of Rodney King’s mauling, writhed at the image of his hands raised protectively over his head as he cowered beneath the thrashing batons and brutal shoe soles of the authorities.
We held our heads in our hands as we saw ourselves, our fathers, brothers, and our sons lying powerlessly on the pavement, flagellated like a scene from Mississippi Burning. The very image of a group of white Here to Serve men beating a single unarmed black man was too much of a painful reminder of savagery and lynching within our genetic memory, an emblematic twinge, the symbolism of which thumped us, moved us, changed us. It never stopped.
I use the word ‘us’. Some reading this will tell me these are things that are happening in America, ‘where they have guns’, but as Diaspora we are part of the same system, victim to and survivors of the same agenda. So, the British police may not carry guns (George Floyd was not lynched by a gun, but by an agenda) and the deaths of Sarah Reed, Roger Sylvester, Joy Gardener, Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, (and the endless list of those who lay slain, imprisoned, brutalized) tell us they are just as focused; they tow the same line; they might lynch us without guns if the opportunity is there.
Recently, Police constable Benjamin Monk was found guilty of the manslaughter of ex-professional footballer Dalian Atkinson. He was jailed for 8-years in a landmark case. The last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted in the UK concerning the death of somebody in custody was in 1969.
Violence and lynching aren’t the only method of police brutality the Black and brown community are up against. Excessive force, baton beatings, chokeholds, use of firearms, unlawful takedowns, wrist locks, ground-pinning, unwarranted use of tasers (and knees), wrongful search and seizure, denial of medical care, false arrest and wrongful imprisonment are just some of the weapons brandished for demise.
Recently, Siyanda Mngaza’s story was brought to my attention by Lee Jasper, who has been steadfastly garnering awareness for Siyanda’s story in her family’s plight for justice, one so grossly low-down and underhand, I had to join the cause in telling it loudly. I was hit with all the same emotions as I was when I sat down to write about Sarah Reed’s plight several years back. But for both being Black female victims of the system, Siyanda’s story is different though hearing its nefarious details impacted me to the core, sharply, empirically.
Siyanda was full a young woman of radiance. A promising future ahead of her, she was an HR officer, and had already worked a position for the South Wales Fire Service. 4ft 10 inches in stature, tall in spirit she had overcome adversity in her 20-years of life, including disability, and her family and friends describe her as kind, energetic, caring young woman who had stayed positive, with a zest for life and an unforgettable smile.
It was a sunny May bank holiday weekend when Siyanda made the journey to the Brecon Beacons with her boyfriend’s family and friends in an effort to get to know them. She had never met the group of 15 before and she was the only Black person among them. As the evening progressed, the group gathered around a campfire, laughing, and drinking until an argument took place between Siyanda’s boyfriend and his parents.
Taking her cue, Siyanda made her way back to their tent to prepare the bed, and eventually her boyfriend followed. Intoxicated, he fell into a deep sleep on the bed she had so lovingly prepared before she returned back out to continue to socialize with the group who she had felt she was getting along well with, sharing details of her disability openly.
Then, the mood changed, and the groups racist intentions began to seep. Siyanda was now without a single ally, and it did not take long for the verbal abuse to skyrocket, as they squared up to her, repeatedly calling her a “jungle c**n” and “black b***h.”
What had seemed like a picturesque holiday setting just hours before, had quickly became a minefield, a pitch-black campsite in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere.
Siyanda was pushed and punched by a white woman, whose tall male henchmen stood at her side, goading, joining in, one of them stamping on her head. Alone, vulnerable, outnumbered, she stepped back, telling them to leave her alone. She had recently had surgery and was more than aware of her physical limitations as she stood scared and unsteady; fearing for her life surrounded by a mob, eyes blood red with loathing and alcohol to fuel their revulsion. Her attacker fell on to her, punching, kicking, and stomping her as she fought to get away.
Bloodied, bruised and in the dark, Siyanda tried to find help and she was met by four Dyfed Powys Police officers. Now, here’s the rub. At this point, she was handcuffed and taken away in a police car. She explained to the police that she had been the victim of a racially motivated attack. Despite the distressing series of pictures that were taken during her time in custody evidencing her injuries as a victim of assault, the police charged her with gross bodily harm.
Consider for a moment the message to Siyanda.
Not every case of despotism ends with the physical cessation of life. Siyanda is alive and breathing confined to a jail cell and make no mistake about it, this is police brutality.
Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers than white. The Met Police are four times more likely to use force with black people than white people. Black people make up 3% of the population but are subject to 20% of taser use. Even COVID-19 became a thwacking tool for implicit racial bias with ethnic minorities 160% more likely to be fined over lockdown breaches than white counterparts. We remain over policed and under protected.
A serving officer, who spoke to the BBC recently said: “As far as they’re concerned black people are more aggressive. You should calm them down but instead they are keen to put hands on first because it’s flight or fight. Particularly with black men, if a black person is upset, saying ‘it’s hurting’, they say ‘it looks fine to me’.” PC Benjamin Monk claimed he killed Dalian Atkinson because he was ‘terrified’ the footballer (who was suffering with a heart condition, receiving dialysis, had no criminal record and was significantly lighter since his days of playing premiere league football for 10 clubs in 7 countries) could ‘kill him’ before he was tased for 33 seconds and kicked twice in the head by the policeman.
None of Siyanda’s attackers were arrested, charged, or taken into custody for questioning. Dyfed Powys Police admitted in court that they didn’t investigate a racial motive and ignored that it was an act of self-defense in a racially motivated physical assault. Dyfed Powys Police, where only 1.3% of its officers are BAME compared to 2% of the population. Of the 12 Black and ethnic minority police officers in a place that has a resident population of 500,000 people; only two are women (both at constable level). The work to eradicate injustice will not be attained if we the public remain concerned only with the most visually disturbing forms of police violence unravelled on social media and viral WhatsApp posts.
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.” Those were the words of Theresa May as she stood outside Downing Street in her first speech as Prime Minister.
A better Britain she did not build as there lies an even more complex layer in Siyanda’s story: The justice system also discriminates against ethnic minority people. It’s a sad state of affairs that only 5.9% judges in the U.K look like the 23% of Black and ethnic minority people prosecuted.
On the 21st of February 2020, an all-white jury sitting at Swansea Crown Court found Siyanda guilty, and sentenced her to four years and six months in prison.
There we have the colonialist echo. The criminal justice system is still shaped by a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment born on the plantation and manifested in divisive and punitive government measures and practices, as minorities are still subject to profiling and unequal treatment within our country’s justice structures. How can justice exist in the midst of such injustice?
Decades after Lena, some 5000 miles away, and yet an eerily similar tale of injustice… Siyanda.
Siyanda’s case represents a decades-long struggle against racist policing, exposing deep levels of corruption. There exists a distinct and disturbing cohesion between the colonies and racist policing. From the U.K to France, Belgium, Portugal, and the U.S.A, all draw their roots from centuries of entrenched racism; manifesting in today’s repressive techniques of harassment, profiling, capture, shooting, strangulation, all partake in a long and fanatical history of subjugation and imprisonment with the assistance of the justice system.
In the U.S.A, National Registry of Exonerations in the US shows that 63% of exonerated women were convicted in cases in which no crime in fact occurred. Today, African American’s are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. In the U.K, young black people are nine times more likely to be jailed. Conveniently, statistics on exoneration are not kept in the U.K, so I cannot tell you how many of sit wrongfully behind bars.
The broader goal of our efforts must be to widen the lens and narrow the focus of police violence to the forebears who birthed the system and its ongoing repercussions. Our young people are lured into the mythical school of thought that colonialism was necessary and gentle with the sickly doses of Lusotropicalism predominant in school curriculums. All too often learning the hard way, what they are really up against.
I’m sure there is somewhere a suited suburban Daily Mail reader who would keenly assure me that we have simply ‘moved on’, police brutality is a rarity, and we have the benefit of being able deny the very existence of white privilege because we are part of a modernised, progressive, peaceable society. And all the while Siyanda sits in a cell.
We cannot call ourselves progressive if all we can muster is a hashtag.
We are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and we must not let the opportunity to act pass us by. The tragic killings of Ibrahima Barrie, Gaye Camara, Stephan Neisius, Atatiana Jefferson, and the countless other names we should know of those who lost their lives to law enforcement brutality are testament to our urgent need for overdue and transformational change.
We need a political reckoning, a Truth and Reconciliation. And we must reckon with our broken system of policing and construct effective institutions that respect and protect our diverse communities.