'All I could think about was Sean, because that’s exactly what they did to him.'
Marcia Rigg’s first thought when she watched that video of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while he cried out, ‘I can’t breathe’, was of her late brother Sean Rigg.
There were immediate parallels.
Firstly, both men were black, Sean was 40 and George Floyd, 46. In 2008, Sean also died after being restrained by police officers in the prone position – face down with pressure applied to the back and neck – for seven minutes. Though an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report said officers acted ‘reasonably and proportionately’, two years later, a Coroner’s court determined that they used ‘unnecessary’ and ‘unsuitable force’, which ‘more than minimally’ contributed to the curtailing of his life. Sean’s death was recorded as a cardiac arrest, with the coroners also adding in partial positional asphyxia.
In George Floyd's case, police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes. The state's original autopsy said there was no evidence of ‘traumatic asphyxia or strangulation’, but on Monday, an independent post-mortem ordered by Floyd’s family contradicted this, determining the cause of death to be homicide by asphyxia. The families, in the wake of these deaths, also share what will be an enduring trauma. A trauma enmeshed in grief, outrage and a deep mistrust for systems that are supposed to protect and serve them.
The biggest difference between the two cases is location. George Floyd died in the US and Sean Rigg in the UK.
‘I was mad as hell,' Marcia describes to me over video call. 'Mad as hell, because I saw that officer murder him in broad daylight for the world to see. Had that not been recorded by a member of the public, we would probably never have known.'
‘When I saw that [form of] restraint, all I could think about was Sean, because that’s exactly what they did to him. The officer, kneeling on his neck as if it was nothing. He watched him die. Is that what they did to Sean?'
On the evening of August 21, in 2008, Sean was arrested in Balham, South West London. Police were called after Sean - who suffered from schizophrenia and had been living at a facility for adult men suffering from mental health issues (the 2012 jury also found failings in the mental health system and the facility where he lived) - had been seen allegedly performing karate kicks on the street.
Police arrived and the 40-year-old was put in the prone position for seven minutes, even though handcuffing him took 30 seconds and Sean was ‘struggling but not violently’, according to the jury verdict. He was taken to Brixton police station, caged in a police van where more failings occurred, including the failure to take into account Sean’s mental health. The jury agreed that he was ‘not fully conscious’ when he arrived at the police station and was likely dead within 20 minutes of arriving.
‘My brother should have been taken to a hospital,' says Marcia. 'Instead, he was restrained and issued a death sentence. George apparently used forged currency, does that warrant the death sentence we saw?’
I first met Marcia five years ago, when I was a student journalist. She told me about Sean, and the fight for justice that she's been driving ever since. Even then, it had become her whole life. Gone was her legal PA career in the city, she was completely devoted to achieving justice for her brother. Since she took up Sean's case, she has approached her dispute from every level, including independent reviews, challenging CPS and IPCC decisions and confronting the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). The latest development occurred last year, when five Metropolitan Police officers were eventually cleared of misconduct over Sean’s death. Marcia says it proved the officers had a ‘license to kill.'
Now, after another black man losing his life in an incident involving the police, the anger is once again palpable in her voice. She is re-energised to continue the fight. In the wake of Floyd’s death, which follows that of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and many more, people have been quick to say that this is an example of a type of police brutality that is exclusive to the US. Marcia knows all too well that it’s not.
‘We can use the instances in the US to highlight the issue of what’s happening behind the scenes here in the UK, where families have been suffering for decades. They’ve got so complacent with killing people in this manner. I’m ready to raise this again, because the world is watching. It’s not just a US issue or a UK issue, it’s global and systemic. The bar is raised by having an international campaign, the public are outraged and they’re supporting us and that’s fantastic, but the families are about to speak.’
Just like the aforementioned list of black people dying at the hands of the police in the US, Marcia can easily reel off a list of UK-based deaths in custody too: Joy Gardner, Leon Briggs, Christopher Alder, Rashan Charles, Olaseni Lewis, to name a handful. Just last week, an inquiry was announced into the 2015 death of Sheku Bayoh.
In the last 30 years, there have been 1741 deaths in police custody in the UK, according to Inquest. The proportion of BAME deaths in custody, during which restraint is a feature (like in the case of Sean and George Floyd), is more than two times greater than other deaths in custody. BAME deaths during police custody are also nearly two times as likely to occur when mental health-related issues are a feature.
In 2015, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) analysed 509 deaths of BAME, refugee and migrant people in ‘suspicious circumstances’ with police, prison authorities or immigration detention officers and found that no-one had been convicted for their part in the loss of life, despite 12 cases having ‘unlawful killings’ rulings returned by juries.
While it has been more than 20 years since, it's also worth noting that in 1999, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent failings by those who investigated it, the Macpherson report found that the London Metropolitan police force was ‘institutionally racist’.
Undeniably, we have a problem.
The morning after speaking to Marcia, my Instagram feed is exclusively black squares, as part of the #blackouttuesday movement, with users halting all social media activity to give space for black voices. Brands and outlets which have never spoken out about race suddenly are. At the weekend, thousands defied Covid-19 lockdown restrictions to march in the US, but also here in London, Manchester and Cardiff as well as Germany, New Zealand and Canada. We’ve been here before, of course. Racism is not new. But Marcia agrees that this time it feels a bit different. And it’s all to do with the timing.
‘I’m mad as hell that during a pandemic, a global crisis, they’re still killing black people. Really? Is this going to be our never-ending lynching? Hell no. We cannot allow that to happen for our future generations. This cannot go on forever.
'Somehow this time feels slightly different. It’s not different in terms of the uprising and the anger. The difference is that we’re fed up. We’re not going to take this anymore, it’s game over. I do not condone looting, violence and the scenes of arson [in the US], because we’re burning down our own communities and that’s what they want, to label us. But it is the pain and the voice of the public.
'I hope governments are watching, that Boris Johnson, the Home Office and police are watching. I want them to be thinking: “Marcia Rigg”. I’ve been quiet for about a year, but I’m so angry and I have the ability - and people are looking to me - to turn up the heat in the UK. That’s the mode I’m in.'
There has been an outpouring of people questioning what they can do to help in the wake of Floyd’s death. Marcia questions where they’ve been during her many marches – like the annual UFFC (United Friends And Family Campaign) memorial procession in memory of the group's lost loved ones - but she wants them to channel this newfound rage and heartbreak into learning about what has happened on their own soil.
‘It’s great people are coming out, but they need to march for us. The families are crying out for the public’s support. They’re clearly outraged about the deaths in the US and what they’ve seen, so they need to be enraged about what’s happening in the UK. We need to let them know about it. If you can get on the streets for the US, then you can get on the streets for the UK too.’
George Floyd’s death followed a list of many reminders of Sean for Marcia. She’s thought of her brother often during lockdown, as she watched patients in hospital beds struggling to breathe. She’s been alarmed at the disproportionate deaths of BAME Britons due to Covid-19, compared to their white counterparts. And she’s alarmed at reports of police officers acting more punitively towards BAME people for breaking lockdown rules, compared to white people doing the same. She hopes people are paying attention to these too and, if they’re outraged about George Floyd, that they will be outraged about the persistent, systematic racism that we still see here in Britain.
‘People are not aware of these deaths in custody, so with these marches I want to raise the platform. Read up, contact your MP, contact Inquest and look at their website. Sign petitions for legal aid campaigns, donate to funds of families who have lost loved ones. People are struggling. We just want people to know about us. The more people know the more answers I can give about how people can help.’
Even though she has been going through this for 12 years, Marcia still has hope and encourages the family of Floyd to hold on to that in their battle for justice. It came to her this morning, she says, hours before we speak that ‘George Floyd could be the catalyst for real change’.
‘George Floyd’s death will not be in vain, it is unfortunate that another brother and another human being has had to die this way for the whole world to see, for the world to recognise the racism. It is the story of our lives.’
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