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‘That’s What They Do To Us’

Benjamin Zephaniah On His Experiences Of Police Racism

The poet reveals his own long history of being unjustly stopped by police and speaks about his cousin Mikey Powell’s death in custody.

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

It is striking how many different tales the poet Benjamin Zephaniah can tell about being stopped by police.

Recounted in the deft storytelling voice that has won him a remarkable literary career, the famous writer goes over a succession of incidents ranging from the bizarre to the brutally cruel.

He is speaking to HuffPost UK as the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd in the United States places renewed focus on the death of his own cousin, Mikey Powell killed 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 over the issue for decades, and Tippa set up a memorial fund in Mikey’s name to help other families in 2015.

Tragically, the dub poet says, he was not surprised when a death happened within his family – because of his own encounters with police as a young man.

“I just knew the way our communities were being policed and I knew that you could die, basically, because I’d known other families who it happened to,” he says.

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

He remembers being pulled into a shop doorway and beaten by police when he was only 15 or 16 in Selly Oak, which he describes as “kind of a slightly posh Birmingham”.

“I remember this police car just stopped at the side of me, they were marked, they were uniformed, they just got out, put me in a shop doorway and just beat me, jumped in the car and just drove off,” he says. 

“I didn’t understand what my rights were. I didn’t understand Citizens Advice Bureaux or anything like that, I just thought: ‘Well, that’s what the police do to us.’”

On another occasion, in Stoke Newington, north London, in the 1980s, Zephaniah witnessed a woman being kidnapped and dragged into a car at knifepoint. 

He went into the nearby police station to report the crime but says police instead accused him of being the perpetrator of a burglary. 

“So they said, come around the back, and as soon as I walked around the back they dragged me and said: ‘You’re under arrest,’” he says. 

Zephaniah said he wanted to speak to his solicitor, giving the name and number of the renowned human rights barrister Michael Mansfield, who is a friend. 

“And they just looked at me – ‘Michael Mansfield, is this the Michael Mansfield?’ – and I went: ‘Yeah.’

“And they wouldn’t think that a Rasta walking down Stoke Newington High Street knows Michael Mansfield, right?” says Zephaniah. “So when they saw that, I was free within like 10 minutes. If it wasn’t, that would be me probably framed up.”

Zephaniah attends the Birmingham premiere of TV show Peaky Blinders, in which he 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 “kind of slightly sad but slightly hilarious”.

In an incident he compares to what is bleakly known as “driving while Black”, the poet says he was pulled over while running.

“I got stopped jogging once, and I think that was hilarious,” he says. “It was raining and the cop said: ‘Where are you coming from,’ and I said: ‘Well, home.’ 

“He said: ‘Where are you going to,’ and I went: ‘Well, home, I’m jogging around in circles.’ 

“He went: ‘Can I search you? Have you got any keys?’ and I actually said to him: ‘Have you just joined the force? Do you need to, kind of, prove something, you know?’ I just laughed and laughed at him.”

On another occasion he was stopped in a local park while babysitting the white child of friends. There was a stand-off with police officers asking if the girl was his daughter.

“I’ve got white friends who adopted a Black child and I said: ‘Have you ever been stopped for having a Black child?’ and he went: ‘No, absolutely not,’” he says. 

“It’s just a weird one being stopped for having a white kid.”

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

But Zephaniah says he has to be cautious in what he says, or in making light of these stops, because of the treatment and racial profiling of younger Black people.

“I do think I’ve always got to be careful about this because you see those situations of being stopped,” he says.

For example, he says, “the young guys coming out of a pub or club or something like that and they’ve got no bus fare so they have to walk home – and there’s three or four of them and they’re walking home.”

But the way police see it, he adds, “especially when it comes to Black youths, if there are more than three of you it’s a gang.

“That’s how the police see it. It’s not like a group of friends as it would be with a white group. It’s a gang. And so their experience, the young people’s experiences, is so much different to mine.”

Zephaniah also believes racism played a part in his cousin’s death.

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

“There’s a time I talk about in [my autobiography] where I’m at Thornhill Road police station, which is where Mikey died, actually,” he says.

“And I’m in there and the police have given me a bit of a beating and then they take me into a room and on the wall of the room – it’s almost as if there are scalps – there are dreadlocks pinned on the wall of the room or hats. 

“And the police officer is telling me that this hat belonged to Errol, this hat belonged to Leroy, this hat belonged to Winston, this dreadlock I pulled it off this guy’s head. 

“It was just like a wall of scalps, trophies almost, and the police were bragging that they’d pulled out locks from these people and that if I don’t confess to something mine will be up there too. 

“Have you seen the TV programme Life On Mars? It was kind of like that.”

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

Zephaniah has continually campaigned, written and spoken about structural racism in society over his long career

Zephaniah says his family tried to pursue justice for his cousin Mikey through the official legal channels.

But he alleges police told him that if he spoke out he could end up prejudicing any legal case and made it clear that they would “come down” on him if he did.

“So it was really weird, because in other cases of deaths in custody I was really active, but with Mikey I had to be really careful,” he says. “They were kind of waiting for me to put a word out for place. So, for that reason, I kind of stepped back.”

But over his long career he has continually campaigned, written and spoken frankly about institutional racism in the police and wider structural racism in society.

“My Stephen Lawrence poem, there’s a line in there where I say: ‘Why are we paying for a police force that will not work for us?’” says Zephaniah. “I mean, sometimes I think if I could take away the bit of my taxes that pays for the police, because they’re useless for me.”

But the UK Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder by white police officer Derek Chauvin in the US did give him hope.

“I’ve seen these surges before and it goes away,” he says. “I really think the difference this time is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not just peopled by Black people. I think that’s one of the greatest things about this time.

Thousands gathered in Manchester to join a Black Lives Matter protest 

“I think there is something about the George Floyd video. You couldn’t watch that if you’re a mother or a parent or a student and go: ‘Well, it’s not that bad.’

“And some of the young people I’ve seen just coming up and saying: ‘Not in my name.’ I’ve seen some of the banners people are carrying, they’re quite funny, but quite telling. 

“There’s one banner that says ‘Black Lives Matter’, and then it says something like: ‘Come on dad – don’t you get it?’

“It’s young people who have got racist parents saying: ‘Come on – wake up.’ And that’s what it needs.” 

He wants to see a “cultural mindset change”.

“I kind of have more faith in those at grassroots level, the students I work with, grassroots organisations,” he says.

“What depresses me a little bit is government and they’re kind of hardened. Just thinking about the statues and stuff like that, and you’ve got people like [Boris] Johnson saying: ‘No, absolutely not, we’re not going to look at the history books, we’re not going to do anything.’

“Well, they really need looking at. You know, because some of them are telling lies, some of them are telling half-truths and some of them are just not telling you the other half the story.”

On the topic of policing reform, he says: “Let’s just say the amount of Black officers is completely representative of the amount of Black people in the country – that wouldn’t impress me because I want to know that the culture of policing has changed. So it’s not just one thing.”

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

“Well, when I walk or drive in the street, every time I pass a police officer there is a little thing that goes off inside me,” he says. “I don’t see them as a threat to me personally. But I know it’s not impossible that I could get harmed.”

END KICKER: For more information on how you can support the National Mikey Powell Memorial Family Fund, please visit its official website or donate here. Readers can also donate to the Justice for the Family of Christopher Alder crowdfunding campaign. Visit the United Families & Friends Campaign which supports those affected by deaths in custody

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