The first two months of 2021 have seen protest return to the streets of Cardiff and Newport, as the deaths of Mohamud Hassan and Mouayed Bashir, both in circumstances entailing use of force by police, have placed the South Wales and Gwent forces at the centre of racism investigations. Many in the southeast marched in protest of police brutality and racism after George Floyd’s murder last summer, and the racialized violence of policing has reared its ugly head once again in Welsh cities. As indications suggest repercussions will evade the police involved in the deaths of Mohamud and Mouayed, as is so often the case, the need for more fundamental change – ultimately through police abolition – is more evident than ever.
On the morning of the 9th of January, 24 year-old Mohamud Hassan was released from Cardiff Bay police station without charge. Arrested the previous night on suspicion of breaching the peace, he left the station after a night in custody with a bloodied tracksuit and injuries to his body and face. Found unresponsive in his flat that evening after friends feared the worst and tried to rouse him, he was pronounced dead in the early hours of the following day. South Wales Police immediately reported ‘no evidence of excessive force or misconduct’ but as obligated referred the case to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). This of course leaves us wondering what ‘excessive force’ really is- where a man bloodied and bruised, after leaving custody for a nonviolent ‘crime’, has apparently been subject to reasonable force.
The IOPC investigation into Mohamud’s death, including of CCTV and bodycam footage, is ongoing. An initial press release by the body on the 12th of January stated that preliminary post-mortem results brought ‘no physical trauma injury to explain a cause of death’. The only scrap of accountability that has surfaced – an officer who sat in the van escorting Mohamud to the station has been handed a misconduct notice amid suggestions he failed to pass on welfare information, including that Hassan had complained of pain and a migraine en route. A misconduct notice – which simply notes that the officer’s actions are being investigated, with a maximum penalty of a written warning, if found guilty of wrongdoing. The IOPC reports that Mohamud came into contact with as many as 52 officers while in custody, and BLM Cardiff have highlighted that this minor action against just one of these officers provides no answers to his family, nor to the Black community of Cardiff and South Wales more broadly. What of the physical violence he was subject to in custody? Even without evidence to attribute Mohamud’s death to his injuries, a total failure to address their origin, never mind that no officer among 52 has raised any concerns, is disturbing. Protests organized outside Cardiff Bay police station immediately demanded greater transparency in the process, including release of bodycam footage and CCTV of Mohamud leaving the station; while over £50,000 was raised in a GoFundMe for the family to pursue a private investigation, and to fund any legal action. An inquest, due to begin on the 4th of March, is the result of the Hassan family’s efforts to go outside the institutional frameworks of police accountability that have allowed 97% of racism complaints to evade response.
While the IOPC investigation into Mohamud Hassan’s death and the post-mortem report remain incomplete, news broke in the last two weeks of another Black man’s death after an interaction with police, this time in Newport. On the 17th of February, police were called to the house of Mouayed Bashir by his family. His brother Mohamed reported to WalesOnline that Mouayed was recovering from being stabbed three weeks earlier, and was on medication that had worsened his mental health difficulties. Deciding Mouayed should return to the hospital, his family called police to help escort him as he refused to leave his room. Police placed him in leg restrains, without arrest; ‘during their interaction with Mr Bashir his condition was noted to deteriorate’ according to the IOPC, potentially aggravating the stab wound which had struck an artery in his leg. Taken away in an ambulance two hours later according to family, he was pronounced dead at Grange Hospital in Cwmbran. Days later Gwent Police released a statement, which noted that ‘nine officers had responded to the incident prior to the ambulance arriving’, and that the force ‘[had] been and will continue to co-operate fully with the investigation which the IOPC is carrying out’. Unlike the South Wales Police statement after the death of Mohamud Hassan, it did not explicitly point to a lack of wrongdoing on their part, but pointed again and again to the IOPC investigation, as a ‘thorough and transparent process to establish the facts’. But such a response gives nothing to communities that have been failed so many times by such a process.
Before Gwent police’s statement was even released, a protest march was organized to finish outside Newport police station, the day after Mouayed’s death. The opacity of Mohamud Hassan’s ongoing case remained fresh in the mind as again calls for bodycam footage to be released were raised. Fuelled by the frustrations of Mohamud’s case, BLM Gwent took a strong stance, stating that the IOPC referral ‘just allows police to cower behind their bureaucratic processes and avoid accountability’; refusing to buy into the ‘transparent process’ that has rarely yielded so much as an officer suspension. In their statement, BLM Gwent more fundamentally question policing of incidents like Mouayed’s, asking ‘Why are police responding to calls related to mental health without any mental health specialists at their side?’. The case lays bare flaws in the very idea of policing itself – in this instance, the substitution of nine force-wielding policemen with a mental health specialist might well have prevented Mouayed’s death. As it stands, no officers from either South Wales Police or Gwent Police have been suspended or disciplined pending results of investigations into the deaths, and the ability of the IOPC to deliver accountability for forces implicated in causing injury or death remains unfounded.
Mistrust in the institutional processes dealing with cases of police racism are well-founded in South Wales, most famously with the case of the Cardiff Five. In 1988, when the mutilated body of Lynette White was found in her flat in Butetown, Cardiff, five Black men served multiple years in jail and prison, with three convicted of the murder, despite eyewitnesses identifying a light-brown-haired white man leaving the flat. It was eventually revealed in a hearing that the confession given by Stephen Miller, which implicated himself and the other two originally convicted, had been abusively extracted by police after 13 hours of interrogation, and after hundreds of denials. In 1992, the convictions of the men were quashed, and in 2003, DNA identification tied Jeffrey Gafoor, a white man, to the crime, for which he was subsequently convicted and imprisoned. Despite this shocking miscarriage of justice, no officer was ever disciplined in relation to the case, and a corruption investigation was dropped in 2015. Tony Paris and Yusef Abdullahi, two of the Black men originally convicted for her murder, have since campaigned for justice, sharing their stories of how their lives were derailed by racialized policing.
Last summer’s protests which met the streets of Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and a number of Welsh towns after the murder of George Floyd brought the story of the Cardiff Five to a new generation, reinserted by activists into the public consciousness under the slogan ‘Wales is not innocent’. The deaths of two young Black men in police custody in the early months of 2021 have served as a tragic reminder of this. After decades of unaccountability for institutional racism in South Wales, and the Black Lives Matter network bringing greater organization to protest via formalised groups in BLM Gwent and BLM Cardiff, the calls for justice and reform should be louder and more persistent than ever before. As more and more have started to realise, the scope of this must go beyond charging the officers involved in these deaths. We should join BLM Cardiff, Gwent, and the whole BLM network, in calling to begin the move towards police abolition. An abolition where Mouayed’s difficulties would be responded to by a mental health expert, not violent restraint by police; and a ‘disturbance of the peace’ as in Mohamud’s case would be responded to by the community, not a night in custody resulting in serious injury. In the meantime, the bare minimum we should demand is full transparency, and public release of bodycam footage, at the discretion of the families, to ensure accountability cannot again be evaded.