A film called Injustice

Why has a documentary film about deaths in police custody been chased out of cinemas across the UK?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Every time we try to show this film, solicitors for the police try to stop us. And every time, I age about five years.’

Filmmaker Tariq Mehmood is ‘bloody fuming’. Having spent six years co-producing and co-directing Injustice – a documentary about deaths in police custody – he now watches as it gets chased out of cinemas across the UK. The film was a roaring success at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in April 2001, showing to packed audiences at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London – but screening it since then has been ‘next to impossible’, says Mehmood: ‘I never thought it would be so hard to get a film shown in a cinema.’

Injustice documents deaths in UK police custody over a six-year period, highlighting some pretty gruesome stories: like Shiji Lapite, who died from ‘asphyxia from compression of the neck’ after being stopped by police in December 1994; Brian Douglas, who died in May 1995 after being hit across the head by a new American-style baton; Ibrahima Sey, who died in March 1996 after being sprayed repeatedly with CS gas; and Joy Gardner, who died in 1993 after police used tape to restrain her.

What some police object to is that the film names serving officers, who it suggests were involved in the incidents that led to deaths. Solicitors representing the officers have threatened legal action if the film is shown. ‘They haven’t even seen the film’, says Mehmood. ‘They’re just going on press reports and reviews, and saying, oh you’re naming officers, you can’t do that. Yes, we do name officers – and in fact we show some of them too. But we’re not ashamed of it and we stand by it 100 percent. Our message is clear: stop bullying us, get off our backs, and let people watch the film.’

There isn’t much chance of that. On Friday 6 July 2001, the filmmakers organised a big screening at the Metro cinema in London’s Leicester Square, due to be attended by families and friends of some of the victims featured in the film, and by an ‘assortment of ambassadors and foreign embassy officials’. But the Metro pulled the plug at the last minute.

‘About 18 minutes before the screening was due to start’, says Mehmood, ‘solicitors representing the police officers threatened the manager of the cinema with legal action. Eighteen minutes! The cinema didn’t have time to seek legal advice or even to think about it, so they just pulled the film. And remember, all the families and friends are there and they’re desperate to see this film, to see their own stories, and suddenly it’s cancelled. People were crying and shouting and protesting in the cinema foyer – it was very tense.’

Next, the filmmakers tried Conway Hall run by the Ethical Society in Holborn, London – ‘believing them to be very strong supporters of freedom of speech’. But support for free speech was in short supply on Wednesday 11 July, when, once again, the screening was disrupted at the last minute.

‘The same thing happened’, says Mehmood: ‘About 15 minutes before the film was due to start, Conway Hall management started getting faxes from the solicitors representing the officers. The management came into the hall where the film was being shown and opened the windows, opened all the skylights, switched on the lights, to try and stop people from being able to see the screen. They tried to close the projector down and for a bit it ran on sound only. It was outrageous.’

But after their experience at the Metro cinema a week earlier, the audience had had enough. ‘Some of the audience went ballistic’, says Mehmood. ‘They took over the electricity room so that the power couldn’t be shut down, somebody called the police, and that’s when the audience barricaded themselves into the hall so they could continue watching the film.’

Mehmood was ‘really shocked’ by Conway Hall’s response, but he doesn’t hold them ‘ultimately responsible’: ‘They just succumbed to pressure. The big conflict is not with them, but with the Police Federation [which is supporting the individual officers].’

Then, on 24 July 2001, the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) asked for a private viewing. Mehmood agreed, because ‘we have no objections to anybody watching our film – we just wish more people could see it’. And even the MPA – not known for being a defender of free speech – criticised the Police Federation for its tactics. ‘The Police Federation have got to grow up’, said Lord Toby Harris, head of the MPA. ’There are serious issues at stake; we want to see what is on the film and to see whether there are issues that need to be examined further.’ (1) It is coming to something when New Labour Lord Toby Harris – who has suggested banning far-right groups like the National Front and warned that plastic bullets could be used against anti-capitalist protesters – criticises the police for trying to shut down debate.

Two days later, on 26 July 2001, Injustice was due to be screened at the Cornerhouse cinema in Manchester – but guess what? It was pulled at the last minute. It was slotted in for 6.05pm, but at 4pm the cinema’s press office announced that it had been ‘postponed until further notice’.

According to the Police Federation, cinemas have a choice about whether or not to show Injustice – and the solicitors representing the individual officers have merely offered the cinemas advice. ‘No injunctions have been taken out preventing the screening of the film’, says the Police Federation. ‘Solicitors acting on behalf of a number of officers have written to cinemas and halls pointing out that they may be liable to action should the film be found to be defamatory. They were informed it was a matter for them whether they chose to show the film and were invited to satisfy themselves they were justified in screening something which may defame those individuals featured.’

So where does all this leave free speech? Mehmood laughs. ‘Free speech? This is an outrage against free speech. And what a dangerous precedent – if they succeed with us, what about other journalists who want to be critical of the police? Will they have to get police permission first?’

‘People might say this is just one incident, just one film’, says Mehmood. ‘But it’s dangerous for everybody when these things happen – and we mustn’t allow it to go on.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Independent, 25 July 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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