"My brother died in police custody": Sheku Bayoh's family say Scotland anti-racism protests must continue

by Zab Mustefa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 July 2020 11:38 GMT

Kadi Johnson, sister of Sheku Bayoh, stands outside her home in Uphall, Scotland on June 27, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zab Mustefa

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Bayoh, a Black engineer, died in police custody in Scotland in 2015. Now, global protests against racism and police brutality are giving his family hope that they will finally get answers

By Zab Mustefa

GLASGOW, July 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kadi Johnson can't bring herself to watch videos of George Floyd dying in police custody.

Images of a white officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes remind the 32-year-old Scottish nurse of her brother, Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in 2015.

"There are comparisons between George Floyd and Sheku," said Johnson from her home in the Scottish town of Uphall.

"George Floyd had one police officer on top of his neck while my brother had up to nine police officers on top of him."

Bayoh, a 31-year-old trainee gas engineer and father-of-two with no previous history of violence, died after being restrained by police officers on a street in his hometown of Kirkcaldy in Fife on Scotland's east coast.

Scotland's highest prosecutor ruled last year not to bring charges against any of the officers the family believe were involved after conducting a review of the evidence.

Police said they had been responding to reports of a man acting erratically while armed with a knife and the officers involved have always denied any wrongdoing.

But in November, the Scottish government announced a rare public inquiry into the circumstances of what has become the most high-profile death in police custody in Scotland.

With mass protests against racism and police brutality sweeping the world, Bayoh's family are - for the first time in years - allowing themselves to hope they will get answers about how he died and what role his race played.

"Through protests, George’s family got some justice," said Johnson. "I’m happy that the protests are raising awareness, but I would like to see that carry on. I want people to rally with me in that courtroom when the inquiry starts."


Floyd's death ignited a debate about racism in Britain and protesters have demanded accountability for Black people who have died in police custody like Mark Duggan who was shot dead by police in London in 2011, leading to days of riots.

Figures show that Black Britons are twice as likely to die in police custody in the UK over any other ethnicity.

In England and Wales, Black people made up 3% of the population from 2018-19, but accounted for 8% of deaths in police custody, according to government statistics.

Similar statistics are not available for Scotland where about 4% of the population comes from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Only four out of 14 deaths in Scottish police custody since 2013 have been formally investigated, according to a government watchdog.

At Black Lives Matter protests in Glasgow, Sheku Bayoh’s name has been chanted and mentioned in speeches calling for police reform.

Between hospital shifts, Johnson leads a high-profile campaign aimed at finding out what happened to her brother.

Bayoh's family were told that on May, 2015 around 7 a.m. police responded to calls of a disorientated man with a knife walking in the street.

At least nine uniformed police officers attended and some used batons and CS spray to tackle Bayoh to the ground. His hands and legs were cuffed by officers on top of him.

Bayoh fell unconscious and police attempted to resuscitate him. Ninety minutes later, he was pronounced dead in hospital. His body bore 23 separate injuries including a fractured rib and a head wound.

The family acknowledges that Bayoh had taken the drugs MDMA and flakka before he died and say that this may have explained his uncharacteristically erratic behaviour.

His family say by the time police arrived he had discarded the knife and was unarmed.


Kadi Johnson looks at photos of her brother, Sheku Bayoh, from her living room in Uphall, Scotland on June 27, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zab Mustefa


The Scottish Police Federation (SPF), the union which represents the officers involved said it rejected "any assertion that the Police Service of Scotland is institutionally racist or that race in any way played a part in the response to, or events that followed the death of Sheku Bayoh".

Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, who has been representing the family, said the family has been treated with disrespect by the Scottish justice system and with racial prejudice.

“What happens is families whose loved ones die at the hands of the police, have not only to contend with an institutionally racist criminal justice system, but their grief is compounded by the years of struggle simply to get justice and the truth,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have a very long way to go in this country. And for those who say that we don't have the same problems as the United States, why? It's more hidden (here), it's more structural, it's more systemic."

 The SPF has accused Anwar of using Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death as a “slur” against police in Scotland.

The government’s inquiry into Bayoh's death has made Scottish legal history being the first of its kind to examine events focused on one person instead of a group of individuals.

The inquiry will investigate whether Bayoh’s race played a part in the police response.

“We need to let the Scottish government know that racism is not tolerated here in Scotland,” said Johnson.

Johnson, who also has two children, hopes Scotland will be a safe place for young Black people to grow up.

“It's a beautiful place. It's a place that I love, so we want to live freely like anybody else. We shouldn't be walking in the street being afraid if the police pull us over.”

Johnson said police should start by recognising structural racism and provide training for officers on approaching Black people in a non-hostile manner.

The Scottish Police Federation declined to comment.

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Defunding the police: Does Europe offer lessons for the U.S.? 

OPINION: Britain’s baggage: The 'least racist' is still racist  

'Your home is your castle' - unless police mount a 'no-knock' raid  

(Editing by Tom Finn, (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)

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