On the public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh
Sheku Tehjan Bayoh. His name speaks to rhythm familiar to some, but here in Scotland, not most of us. It takes a little more work for some of us to attune our ears to these vowels and consonants, which are taught here and there. Here, and there, we learn not to question a language of legislation, not to learn the languages of resistance. Some languages, though they are about us, aren’t for us.
Since the public inquiry into the death of Sheku Tehjan Bayoh began on 10 May 2022, I have been following proceedings both online and in person. Sheku Bayoh died following police contact in Kirkcaldy in 2015. The purpose of the inquiry is to examine: the immediate circumstances leading to the death of Mr Bayoh, how the police dealt with the aftermath; the subsequent investigation into his death and whether race was a factor.
Attending the public inquiry in person, I tend to attend as a member of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) General Council and STUC Black Worker’s Committee. I can do so as I am a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
Since Sheku’s death in 2015, the STUC and its affiliated trade unions have supported the Justice for Sheku Bayoh campaign. Unions are encouraged to attend the Public Inquiry, support events and donate to the campaign.
Blankets vs Suits (or the community vs the establishment)
A public inquiry offers the opportunity for all evidence regarding the case to be disclosed and it continues the focus on a case with certain aspects that Police Scotland might want to sweep under the carpet. And perhaps, more importantly, it keeps hope alive of the possibility of the whole truth coming out. However, many public inquiries are an exercise in whitewashing the actions of the police and other powerful institutions. Inquiries are about people, not just procedure, revealing all the conflicts in our society, such as government secrecy, deference, and the power of professions. Often families want to know what had happened to their relatives and why, whereas the focus of public inquiries are often on the organisational failures which allow people to exert power.
Attending the inquiry in person, I have the choice to attend as media, a member of the public or with Sheku’s family. To ensure spaces are kept for family, supporters, or the public, I often attend as media. Despite having access to a dedicated room which is made available to the media, I choose to sit with Sheku’s family on a row of seats at the front of the hearing room. The room is filled with people, the Inquiry team, legal representatives, members and representatives of Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and security staff. Some of the legal representatives include familiar faces within the Scottish Establishment.
Retired constable Alan Paton is represented by Brian McConnachie QC, who was recently reported to have sent sexist and misogynistic messages relating to the head of Rape Crisis Scotland. Representing Constable Ashley Tomlinson, Constable Kayleigh Good and Constable Alan Smith is former Labour MSP Gordon Jackson QC. Jackson was recently found guilty of professional misconduct, after he appeared to name two of the women who alleged sexual assaults by Alex Salmond, in contravention of rules that protect the anonymity of complainers. At the time, Gordon Jackson was the lead defence counsel in the trial of Alex Salmond. Representing Chief Constable Garry McEwan and Chief Superintendent Conrad Trickett is Duncan Hamilton QC. Hamilton is a former SNP MSP, and adviser to Alex Salmond. Hamilton’s brother is David Hamilton, who became Chair of the Scottish Police Federation in April 2020. The Federation do not represent the senior officers.
Though it was possible for individuals or organisations who, “have significant interest in an important aspect of the matters which the inquiry relates to’, to participate in the Inquiry as core participants – how this knowledge was made available is unclear.
The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) a Scottish strategic anti-racist organisation is amongst the organisations and institutions who are core participants to the Inquiry, and the only one which has any race related expertise or knowledge. Funded by both the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council – as well as Glasgow Community Planning Partnership (a strand of Glasgow City Council) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – how far CRER can make radical interventions to the inquiry, or indeed in their aims to “protect, enhance and promote the rights of Black/minority ethnic communities across all areas of life in Scotland and to strengthen the social, economic and political capital of Black/minority ethnic communities”, may be dependent on the reliance of such funding.
This may explain in part why there is no Black and Scottish expertise or knowledge, meaning crucial lines of Inquiry which could be explored are not.
The Sheku Bayoh Inquiry is live-streamed via the Inquiry website and YouTube channel. Videos, transcripts and evidence is published on the site as soon as possible after a hearing has ended. People can watch, read and learn about the case without mediation by the media. On the days I watched proceedings online, my heart has been filled with sadness when I’ve seen Kadi – Sheku’s sister – sitting alone, surrounded by, and facing representatives of power.
For people becoming familiar with Sheku Bayoh, their first point would be the press coverage which occurred in the days, months and years following his death. How Sheku’s story was told was not one which was objective. In much the same way the police officers who are involved in the death of Sheku Bayoh have been questioned about their own biases, I do not believe it is possible for journalists to write without bias – we all live different lives.
Journalists are expected to be objective but, this has often not been the case, and when ownership of media and super-injunctions (also known as gagging orders) are thrown into the mix, what should be reported, isn’t and what is told, can be of varying ‘truths’. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), have a code of conduct which members are expected to adhere to, and they have also developed various reporting guidelines, ranging from race, mental health and death by suicide. However, the NUJ’s Race Reporting Guidelines haven’t been updated since 2016, despite the global outcry following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Observing Scotland’s media in the summer of 2020 and the months that followed; from the mainstream to independent media, public, private to voluntary and third-sector organisations, across print, television, radio, podcasts, blogs and social media, many of the stories and debates featured Black people, sought out by journalists to speak about racism and their experience of ‘dealing with being different’. Sometimes, Scotland acknowledges its anti-blackness, though the media landscape appears to have returned to pre-2020 times.
A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) revealed 122 deaths in custody, or following contact with officers, in the past seven years — with 35 of those happening since the beginning of 2020. Sixteen of the deaths happened in custody with the rest following contact with officers, which covers a wide range of scenarios. From March 2020, Scotland – like most part of the world – was living under restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, which prevented people from leaving their homes. During this period, Police Scotland data showed people who had died in police custody or following contact with officers had more than tripled from seven in 2014 to 24 in 2020, the most recent full year available. One of these deaths was Badreddin Abadlla Adam, who was shot dead by police in Glasgow, weeks after Black Lives Matter protests, which had seen thousands of people in attendance. He had stabbed six people – after having been failed by the Home Office.
As Francesca Sobande and I highlight in our recent book, Black Oot Here: Black Lives in Scotland (Bloomsbury 2022), despite the relatively small population of Black people in Scotland, levels of incarceration – particularly within younger age groups – and detention under the Mental Health Act, are disproportionate. Mimicking the disproportionate numbers of Black people within prisons in England and Wales, where, by the end of June 2021, Black people made up 13% of the prison population, despite representing only 3% of the population as a whole. Within Police Scotland, 10 officers are facing disciplinary action for sharing crime scene photos of current investigations and messages which were ‘sexist and degrading, racist, anti-Semitic and mocking of disability. Recently, the Independent Review of Complaints Handling, Investigations and Misconduct Issues in Relation to Policing (2020) found that Black and ethnic minority officers found racism to be more prevalent within the service than in the community.
If this is what is happening at ‘home’, here in Scotland, who knows what is going on in Malawi and Zambia, where Police Scotland’s work on gender-based violence includes (allegedly), ‘improving child protection, supporting governance and protection of vulnerable groups, as part of Scotland’s Contribution to International Development.
As Kadi Johnson said at vigil held outside Capitol House when the inquiry started in May this year, “Sheku should not be remembered as man who died following a struggle with the police. We hope his name does not fade from memory, and that one day the name of Sheku Bayoh will produce a legacy his children will be proud of”.
When we speak about another Scotland being possible, lives, deaths, and violence toward people and those which have experienced harm through or by the state must be challenged and should always be brought to account.
For Sheku Bayoh, Badreddin Abadlla Adam, Allan Marshall, Katie Allan and all the people who have lost their lives to the system which creates these deadly conditions, and the institutions which uphold it.
The public inquiry into the death of Sheku Tehjan Bayoh restarts on the 22nd November 2022 at Capitol House, Edinburgh. A vigil will be held outside Capitol House from 9am. Details are available here: https://linktr.ee/justiceforsheku