Three women who have lost loved ones to state violence have described how they were able to spend years fighting for justice, while coping with the grief caused by the flawed and dangerous police, mental health and social security systems.
Anna Susianta, Imogen Day and Ajibola Lewis spoke at an event on Sunday – organised by Healing Justice Ldn – that examined the impact of state violence on bereaved families, and how they each fought for justice after the death of a relative.
Ajibola Lewis described her son Seni as an “adventurer” and a “volunteer” who had a “heart for the marginalized” and loved life and “really loved people”.
She told how Seni had his first psychotic episode after being given “something bad” on a night out.
He was admitted as a voluntary patient at Bethlem Royal Hospital, in Croydon, but when his family arrived to visit him the next day they were told there had been an “incident” and that he was receiving life support.
They later discovered he had been handcuffed by police officers and taken to a seclusion room, where he was put on his stomach, forced into two sets of handcuffs and two sets of leg restraints, struck with a baton, and restrained for nearly 45 minutes over two periods by a total of 11 officers, before he finally went “limp”.
Resuscitation wasn’t immediately attempted because the officers thought he was “faking”, and he never regained consciousness. Seni died on 4 September 2010.
Years of campaigning by his family and allies eventually led to Seni’s Law, the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act, which covers England and Wales and was introduced by their MP Steve Reed as a private members’ bill.
It took seven years for Seni’s parents to secure an inquest into his death, with a jury finding that multiple failings by police officers contributed to his death, and that the use of restraint was “unnecessary and unreasonable”.
Seni’s mother told the event on Sunday: “That’s why I don’t think police should be called to mental health incidents. They either taser you or kill you.
“I tell this story because nobody believes it. It’s online, it’s all in the inquest, and everything is online.
“People don’t realize what is happening. They don’t realize. So I tell the story. It upsets me, but it has to be said.”
She said that one of her favourite writers, James Baldwin, had said that “not everything can be changed that is faced, but nothing can be changed unless it’s faced”.
She said: “That is why I campaign. Listen, they want you to lie down and die. I am stubborn. I’m stubborn. And I’m also old, so that gives me the courage, and I keep saying ‘what are you going to do, kill me? You know, I’m 74.’
“So you cannot stop me telling the truth. And that is why I fight. I fight, I fight, I fight, because I’m so stubborn.
“It’s taken its toll on the family, on my family and me, but you can’t kill people and get away with it. I’m not having it. I’m not having it.”
Imogen Day spoke of her sister Philippa, who she said had a “really strong sense of justice” and was “the kindest soul I’ve ever known”.
Her sister died in October 2019 after multiple failings in dealing with her personal independence payment (PIP) claim by the Department for Work and Pensions and its private sector contractor Capita.
A coroner later concluded that flaws in the disability benefits system were “the predominant factor and the only acute factor” that led to Philippa taking her own life.
Imogen told the event that “state violence kills people really slowly” and that every one of the 28 mistakes made with Philippa’s PIP claim “stole a piece of her”, before the final letter that told her she would need to attend a face-to-face assessment in an assessment centre “destroyed her”.
She spoke of the support she has received in dealing with the trauma of Philippa’s death, including from Alison Burton (the daughter-in-law of Errol Graham) and Joy Dove (the mother of Jodey Whiting), who have both lost loved ones due to DWP violence.
She said: “Grief can be incredibly isolating, especially state grief.
“It’s really difficult to share with people that haven’t experienced political violence because there is an inherent understanding of the fact that the perpetrator is somebody that should protect you and it’s somebody that should keep you safe and support you throughout your life.
“Meeting these amazing women has been so healing and it’s really empowering.
“We all go on for each other, it’s not just our own loved ones that we fight for, we fight for all of them. And to do so is a great privilege.”
She later told the event that “until the DWP is dismantled from the top down, until people receive accountability for what they have done, justice is not possible”.
Anna Susianta spoke of her son Jack, who was “passionate about making things fair” and had an “enthusiasm for life”, and she read out extracts from a book put together by his friends after his death in which they described their affection for their sweet, funny and caring friend.
But she said he was also “incredibly sensitive” and hid his anxiety from those who knew him.
The 17-year-old drowned in the River Lea in east London in July 2015 after being chased by police officers from the Metropolitan police’s Territorial Support Group (TSG) following a mental health crisis.
The TSG officers had refused to enter the water and told members of the public who had gathered by the river not to do so.
Jack had earlier been discharged from hospital by East London NHS Foundation Trust just hours after being admitted to its accident and emergency department, with no advice for his family on what to do if his mental health crisis re-emerged.
Anna said she believed that “the whole system is there to protect the big state institutions, and when it comes to the police and the Met being the worst, they have so much power.
“I pity the people trying to turn it around because it just needs to be destroyed and then started again.
“The little snippets of change that have come since Jack died in the last eight years are so tiny.
“I feel that [I need] to carry on, keep going, keep campaigning, but it’s the big things like poverty and just the whole structure of our society and the way our community’s been destroyed, those are the things that are going to help people.”
Sunday’s event was part of the month-long Rehearsing Freedoms festival, hosted by Healing Justice Ldn, which has examined how to dismantle violent and oppressive structures and replace them with “community-based structures of care, health and healing”.
The event space in Brixton has been hosting extracts from the Deaths by Welfare timeline, a project led by Dr China Mills, who chaired Sunday’s discussion.
The timeline aims to “make visible the slow and bureaucratic violence of the state” and show how DWP spent years attempting to hide its role in the deaths of countless disabled benefit claimants.
*Both Ajibola Lewis and Anna Susianta are members of The United Families and Friends Campaign, a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody
Picture: (From left to right) Imogen Day, Anna Susianta, Ajibola Lewis and China Mills
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