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CONCERNED: Civil rights icon Jesse Jackson is backing call for judicial inquiry into deaths in custody

REVEREND JESSE Jackson is revered as one of the dominant voices of black America, an icon of the civil rights movement whose passionate speeches still inspire those who hear him speak today.

HE HAS marched with Martin Luther King. He’s twice been a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

He’s organised consumer boycotts against companies who have taken black customers for granted and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. And as the founder of the campaigning organisation Rainbow Push Coalition, he’s played a key role in putting race equality and social justice issues at the heart of America’s national conversation, with some US political observers saying he paved the way for President Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008.

But Reverend Jesse Jackson isn’t really one for rosy reminiscing about his many political milestones.

When we meet in the reception area of his Kensington hotel it’s his latest campaign that is exercising his mind.

He has been closely following the wave of protests in the black community following the recent deaths of Kingsley Burrell and Demetre Fraser in Birmingham, Smiley Culture and Mark Duggan in Tottenham, whose fatal shooting sparked off the recent wave of rioting seen across England in August.

All of them died in police custody or following contact with the police.

Jackson arrived in London for a press conference organised by Operation Black Vote to throw his weight behind a call for an independent judicial inquiry into deaths in police custody.

The campaign is organized jointly by pressure group Operation Black Vote, Black Mental Health UK, the charity INQUEST and United Friends and Family Campaign, which is a coalition of families whose loved ones have died in state custody.


“There’s an amazing parallel with what is happening in the States” he says.

“In the US, black people represent 12 per cent of the population but form 50 per cent of the prison population and in some states it’s even higher. A judicial review would expose in concrete terms what is happening to blacks in the criminal justice system in this country. That’s why we’re asking Keith Vaz and the whole of his committee to back it and investigate these violations.

“There must be a deterrent to racial disparity. If Manchester United are playing Chelsea in a soccer game and a player fouls a member of the opposing team, they pay a penalty. Someone must be punished.”

Standing well over six feet tall in a smart grey suit, looking at least ten younger than his actual age of 70 and surrounded by members of his entourage who scurry around him, he reels off facts and statistics with impressive recall – numbers of black people in the UK stopped and searched, parts of the UK Terrorism law that are being used to detain innocent people, facts about the numbers of black people in prison compared to the size of the UK population.

And Jackson isn’t afraid to use his command of the facts to ruffle feathers.

Last year, he caused controversy when he said that Britain’s moral authority was being lost over the Government’s failure to stop the discriminatory use of stop and search.

CLOSE: Jesse Jackson and Dr Martin Luther King

But for Jackson, these issues are just the most visible signs in an ongoing narrative of discrimination and exploitation. Equally important, as far as he’s concerned, is the disproportionate effect that the worldwide recession has had on black communities both here and in the US.

“The data clearly shows that the disparities in terms of the impact of the recession are greater on black people. Blacks have been hit the hardest, they are the least protected. Both here and in the US, middle class blacks could not get private sector jobs so they became government workers, working for the police, as teachers, in fire departments for example. Now we have a government saying they have to cut back on public sector workers.”

Jackson’s background would certainly qualify him to talk about the impact of poverty. He was born in Carolina in the segregated south in 1941.

He came to prominence in 1963 after organizing sit-ins and protests calling for the desegregation of local restaurants and theatres. Shortly afterwards he became a close aide of Dr King’s.

Obama’s election to the Presidency has seen a new generation of black politicians such as Cory Brooker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts distance themselves from the civil rights struggle and politicians like Jackson, describing themselves as ‘post racial.’
So is he worried that the legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement is gradually being forgotten?

It’s a question that meets with a short sharp rebuff.


“That’s rubbish” he says.

“We are not post racist We face three times the national average of unemployment and as a result millions are now trying to save their homes. Patterns of race disparity are still very wide and they are getting wider….in all the objective categories, things are getting worse.”

Obama is up for re-election in November 2012. But Jackson is concerned that the worldwide euphoria that greeted Obama’s poll victory may be a thing of the past.

“President Obama’s victory was a huge redemptive moment for America” he says “Given the history of it’s past sins it went beyond the history of racial division to choose an African American as President. But recently, the forces of resistance have led a backlash. The determination and mean spirited opposition from the likes of the Tea Party to defeat his programmes is the most intense in the history of our country. It’s in the spirit of the Confederacy.”


Nevertheless, he says, the vitriol of the anti Obama lobby has only strengthened his campaigning resolve.

“I’m inspired to fight back. We’ve come too far to lose so we must hold what we have and fight to achieve what we deserve. The challenges we are facing now is that we are freer but not equal and it’s that inequality gap that needs to be challenged.”

Will that day come when equality is achieved?
“It’s elusive in that you achieve it and then the rules change. You can never become stagnant in the struggle. When you become stagnant in the struggle the oppressors come back in new forms. But we can win if we keep our hope alive.”

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