Last seen: Black people missing & dying in the UK

by | 1 Jun 2021

Evidence waits. It has been nearly three weeks since we received an update from the Metropolitan police in regards to Richard Okorogheye’s death. I wonder if they have told Richard’s mother, Evidence Joel, but asked that she not share until their investigation is over. Either way, Evidence waits. It is as though Richard has gone missing again, except this time we know where he is – or rather we know where he is not, where he cannot be. There is no need to search. Just to wait – for the results of further tests and leads. What has happened to Richard? is slowly receding to Whatever happened to Richard? The corpus, the knowledge, of Richard is suspended in the procedural zone of the ongoing investigation. In what follows I discuss as how this zone secures evidence instead of caring for the lives of black people. 

When Evidence first reported her 19-year-old son missing, the police told her: “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?” Implicit in this question is the suggestion that she is a ‘bad’ African migrant mother. Implicit is the suggestion that she has failed in her duty towards her son, who had sickle cell disease. This assessment, according to the moral-paternalistic logic of the police, was an explanation of Richard’s disappearance for the officers, it estimated the chances of finding him as small. Here, responsibility and duty were disavowed by the state and assigned to Evidence, a Nigerian mother. Evidence was expected to go out and search for her son by herself; to set forth on a quest, and in effect, to conduct her own investigation. 

As a “matter of routine”, according to the Metropolitan Police, a referral has been made to the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards and to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC),  merely due to the fact Richard was reported missing before his body was found. At the time of this writing, following an initial post-mortem, the cause of death is still unknown. Apparently, the examination found no evidence of physical trauma or assault. Currently the Met Police is treating Richard’s death as ‘unexplained’ and further tests are being carried out it is claimed. Until more information is revealed from which to draw an explanation as to what happened to Richard, he is somewhere between and within both an IOPC investigation and the police’s investigation. And yet, even when the cause of death is established I believe Richard (as with Shukri AbdiMohamud Mohamed HassanErrol Graham, and Belly Mujinga) will remain in the space of inquiry. This bureaucratic tempo-spatialized archive is where the empire reserves and resolves racial violence and death. The task then is to upend the grammar and logics of these administrative and empirical programmes; to investigate the laws upon which they operate – not merely the ‘facts’ of an event or case. 

Richard is one of the many black people – young black people in particular – who disappear daily – most recently the body of Bristol student Olisa Odukwe was found after reported missing. Although this term ‘disappear’ does not have much validity for black people when it comes to the reports of their missing, because to disappear presupposes appearing, being in appearance, having appearance. But, to use another word, presence is not an ontological position blackness fully assumes in Western ethical consciousness. There are black people who if they appear, appear through a disappearance (such as with the media circulation of the images of Richard); and as Kalulé and Trafford point out, via Kaplan, “blackness is not even tractable as absence since that would require a prior or posterior possibility of presence”. Particularly for black trans and queer people, they are not given the status of disappeared or missing, for they are regarded by hetero-patriarchy as ‘intentionally lost’, who have deliberately left their ‘natural’, ‘originary’ and ‘real’ gender and sexuality, therefore inviting violence and silence. 

Her son unseen by police, was not Evidence also unseen? With the disappearance of her son (a double disappearance, in the sense that the police disappeared Evidence’s concerns of Richard’s disappearance), Joel disappeared in some way – even in her appearance as the dignified mother, a professional nurse, living up to her first name – ‘Evidence’. In television appearances, Joel was asked to put into words what she has lost. She felt the need, the pressure, to speak, to enunciate English clearly; to control her emotions without seeming disingenuous; to manage her mourning to a respectable degree, so that expressions of her loss were extended beyond a private matter and relatable to the public. 

Following the public attention of the disappearance and killing of Sarah Everard, in addition the arrest of police officer Wayne Couzens for her murder, to demyth the notion gender violence only happens to young white girls and white women, black feminist activists and journalists spoke of the number of black women who go missing yearly, notably Blessing Olusegun. Similarly, the parallel was drawn that the vigil for Everard received more public sympathy and concern of police violence than the BLM protests of the past summer.

The murders of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were also returned to, with their mother telling the media that ‘race played a part’ in the slow response from police investigating their killings. Police officers took photos with the dead bodies of Smallman and Henry, which they then shared on a WhatsApp group. The Met police were condemned and they issued an apology, leading to suspension of the officers. Police commissioner Cressida Dick in turn condemned the officers and described the act as “inappropriate”. The offence was reduced to values of respect, properness, and once again extended to trust, connecting to the broader issue of institutional racism; reframed principally as a concern that black people do not trust the police – as supposed to the police as instituting state racial violence. 

For me, the thought of the image – this image that is of a thought – does not merely ‘reflect’ that the police disregard the lives of black women, and black people in general, for Smallman and Henry had something of value for the officers. Connecting selfies to the photography of lynching, the mother of Smallman and Henry, Mina Smallman, insisted that the officers had in effect taken souvenirs from the crime scene. If we take this seriously, what appears, what becomes apparent, the thought that comes to mind, is that this is an example of black people placed as evidence, to a crime that always already is unsolved, unsolvable, and thus not a crime at all. Even when immaterial, blackness is still material (matter) for the sovereign psyche; an excess of thingliness – for white authority and imaginary.

The status of the witness is (in-)dissociable from evidence. The recognition as a witness is the nearest protection a black person, specifically an African immigrant, in this country can be afforded to by the juridical institutions when involved in the investigation of a death in state custody. Recently the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) granted the juridical review to applicant Ahmed Lawal, a ‘witness’ who had crucial information in regards to the death of fellow Nigerian Oscar Lucky Okwurime at Harmondsworth detention centre in September 2019. Shortly after Okwurime’s death, that was caused by a coronary artery disease and detention staff failing to regularly check his cell, Lawal was issued with deportation notice, to be forcibly sent to Nigeria a few days after. Judges of the Upper Tribunals found the Home Office’s policy pertaining to securing witnesses for the inquest of a death in a detention centre legally ‘deficient’ and thus unlawful. 

While this was an important ruling for further challenging the immigration regime of the Home Office, ultimately the judgment maintained the procedural obligation a state has to protect the right to life. Through the evocation of the word ‘protection’ to mean ‘investigation’, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the ‘right to life’ – implies a state is obligated to conduct an investigation where there is a death in its custody. The right to life is modelled upon empirical inquiry. When someone dies in custody, this scientific-juridical inquiry does not protect life (through its purpose of ‘prevention’) but protects the right to life, that is to say, more accurately, protects the integrity, dignity, and authority of the investigation. The humanisation of life through the articulation of it as a right, and consequently the combination of right to life with due process (e.g. the legal investigation or inquest), serves as the regulation and administration of racial violence. Life, premised on the faciticity of who, what, when, where, how, renders a black person as evidence and/or the witness; and usually are determined by legal investigations as a fact of their ‘own’ death. 

We could suggest and devise different approaches and designs for the investigations into the deaths of black people without conforming to the standards of empirical thought. Yet, I feel attention on this delimits mourning. Mourning troubles investigations. Mourning is regarded as forfeiting an investigation – accepted only when converted into a memorial. Yet, a memorial – especially when designed as an object for the ‘public realm’ – often maintains the permanence of memory (“living on”) rather than its dispersion (“living through” or “living with”). Indeed, instead of an alternative to an investigation, a memorial can come to supplant the investigation, consigning acts of love and memory to be signs of a life, signifiers of the deceased. To counter legal investigations – that are structured on standards of proof or a complaints process, securing black people as evidence, or converting them into memorials – we would have to follow a mourning that is not tempted by the promises of proof, facts, and evidence. There are other ways to remember. 

4 Comments

  1. An article which is a wonderful example of “woke” claptrap. People, black white or whatever, go missing all the time. Unless there are identifiable suspicious circumstances there is not much the police, or anyone else, can do.
    This author lives in an hypothetical, and mythic world, created from the miasma of ideas which clutters his brain. He has no conception of the real world in which most of these people live. He should endeavour to obtain a sufficient education to become a police officer for several years. Possibly, just possibly, he may have something of interest to say

    Reply
  2. An important article in a time of great grief. Richard and Blessing’s families are just like my own, and it is unbearable to see their untimely deaths fall from the headlines as if they were inevitable and unremarkable. What police and courts do and fail to do adds to the pain, harm, and devastation. Committing to the wake work of mourning, counting these deaths as true losses, is the only succor.

    Reply
  3. Today, one year ago, the two daughters of Mina Smallman were murdered. A photo shows the sisters dancing, joyful and happy celebrating a birthday; not long after they were stabbed to death.
    The police were informed that the two women had not returned home. The family were forced to arrange their own investigation. The two women’s bodies were found where they were last seen, the details of which were given to the police and not acted on thirtysix hours before.
    Unlike the murder of Sarah, the reaction and action – of the police, media, and the public was minimal.
    Put yourself in the shoes of the parents for a moment; what had they done to receive such disparity.
    The media reporting of Sarah’s murder evoked worldwide sympathy, there was protests, vigils, and the future queen attended personally to lay a bouquet of flowers.
    The beautiful girls of Mina, her eldest and youngest, killed.
    Forever grieving the family and friends.
    Please remember Black lives Matter.
    Stephen Lawrence’s murder thirty years ago brought attention to the attitude of the police towards black victims of crime.
    Black people, particularly women, throughout the world are not treated equally to their white counterparts.
    Mina’s family should have been able to access police services that was not inferior.
    Much sympathy to the family and friends of Bibaa and Nicole, my heart breaks for you.

    Reply
  4. Today, one year ago, the two daughters of Mina Smallman were murdered. A photo shows the sisters dancing, joyful and happy celebrating a birthday; not long after they were stabbed to death.
    The police were informed that the two women had not returned home. The family were forced to arrange their own investigation. The two women’s bodies were found where they were last seen, the details of which were given to the police and not acted on.
    Unlike the murder of Sarah, the reaction and action – of the police, media, and the public was minimal.
    Put yourself in the shoes of the parents for a moment; what had they done to receive such disparity.
    The media reporting of Sarah’s murder evoked worldwide sympathy, there was protests, vigils, and the future queen attended personally to lay a bouquet of flowers.
    The beautiful girls of Mina, her eldest and youngest, killed.
    Forever grieving the family and friends.
    Please remember Black lives Matter.
    Stephen Lawrence’s murder thirty years ago brought attention to the attitude of the police towards black victims of crime.
    Black people, particularly women, throughout the world are not treated equally to their white counterparts.
    Mina’s family should have been able to access police services that was not inferior.
    Much sympathy to the family and friends of Bibaa and Nicole, my heart breaks for you..

    Reply

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