Benjamin Zephaniah on how Colin Roach’s death inside Stoke Newington Police Station sparked a movement 35 years ago
PUBLISHED: 15:42 23 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:03 23 January 2018
© David Hoffman
The death of Rashan Charles, and its aftermath, has tragic echoes of the case of Colin Roach. The 21-year-old was shot inside Stoke Newington police station 35 years ago, with the community convinced cops had a hand. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah was at the first protest after his death, he tells the Gazette.
Events surrounding the death of Colin Roach 35 years ago remain a mystery to this day.
He died inside the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on January 12, 1983, from a single gunshot wound through the mouth.
Police officers said the 21-year-old had committed suicide. But his family and friends were suspicious because Colin was shot in the back of the head, and discrepancies emerged in police officers’ accounts.
Right from the start people believed something “fishy” was going on, and demonstrations were held outside the Stoke Newington High Street station soon after his death.
"There was a tangible feeling of: ‘Who is next? It could happen to me’"
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who was a couple of years older than Colin when he died, attended the first one.
“The mood in the community at the time wasn’t just about Colin Roach,” Benjamin told the Gazette this week. “It was about all the other cases of racial injustice taking place at the time, and he represented the extreme.
“There was a tangible feeling of: ‘Who is next? It could happen to me.’”
The informally named “sus law” allowed police to stop and arrest anyone they thought was acting suspiciously. Many in the black community felt they were being unfairly targeted. Wrongful arrests, unlawful use of force, racial abuse, raids on people’s homes and use of stop and search were highlighted as serious abuses of police power in an inquiry commissioned by the Roach Family Support Committee five years later.
“We didn’t have much money and we were walking the streets,” said Benjamin. “You would be stopped so many times in one night, and sometimes they would lock you in the station all night. It was so outrageous. I got a bit of money and I bought a white BMW off a friend, and I drove it from Ladbroke Grove to East Ham, and I got stopped four times.”
He continued: “The black community would have no business with the police – it was really sad. The National Front was rampant at the time, so you had these racist skinheads walking around the streets at night, and you would get beat up or chased by them but you couldn’t go to the police. We were really on our own.”
Benjamin regards the Colin Roach inquiry as an “important part of his life” and it is mentioned in his autobiography to be published in May, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah.
“The thing I remember was the way that the word got around quick,” he said, “and the spontaneity of it all, and how generally at the time how often we took to the streets, because we had to.
“A lot of campaigns happen online now, but then you went to the police station to picket. We stood out there and made our presence known. We wanted an inquiry, and the anger coming out of the community was just that so many other injustices were going on, and in that very same police station.”
Benjamin recorded some of the spirit of the time in a poem about the Colin Roach case.
“Somebody shouted: ‘Who killed Colin Roach? The people want to know.’ They said it a couple of times and others said it along with them, and that became the first two lines of the poem. I wanted to create a poem people could chant on a demo. It was simplistic in a sense but it was immediate.
“In a way what was just as powerful was taking that poem and doing it in performances around the country - because you had to. There was very little in the way of coverage in mainstream media and it was left to the poets and musicians to tell the story up and down the country. I would be in Birmingham and explain I was at a police station, and to get the emotion right I’d have to go back to the emotion of that day.”
"The thing I remember was the way that the word got around quick and the spontaneity of it all, and how generally at the time how often we took to the streets, because we had to."
The book Policing In Hackney: 1945-1984, which outlined the family’s inquiry’s findings, didn’t offer an “alternative explanation” of how Colin had died. But it did show he could not have died in the way the police and Colin’s inquest said he did.
Top barrister Lord Gifford, who chaired the Broadwater Farm inquiry, believed the evidence given by the police at the Colin Roach inquest was “tainted by lies and conflicting evidence”, the Gazette reported at the time.
He said: “The extraordinary failure of the police for 2.5 hours to tell Mr Roach of his son’s death raises the suspicion, which in my view is a reasonable suspicion, that time may have been needed to concoct a story.
“Then this suspicion is heightened by the lies (as the jury found them to be) told by the police about the length of this period, which the police claimed to be 15 minutes.”
He also said there was a “remarkable absence” of any forensic evidence to show any connection between Colin and the gun which killed him. Furthermore “no sensible explanation” could be given of the position of his body.
The HQ of a campaign against police brutality was named after Colin on the 10th anniversary of his death.
Hackney Community Defence Association founded the Colin Roach Centre with Hackney Trades Union Support Unit (HTUSU) on January 12, 1993, in Bradbury Street.
To this day the government has refused to hold an inquiry into Colin Roach’s death.
Photo courtesy of David Hoffman.